Since the rise of multi-car organizations in the NASCAR Cup Series, there has always been one driver at each team who I like to label as the alpha driver.
Other racing series, and sometimes even in NASCAR, this driver can be referred to as a team’s primary driver. But most of the time in Cup, teammates are advertised as equals. These days especially, each car at a team basically has equal equipment and crews. The organizations works as a whole for the whole team to thrive, not just one car.
But still, one superior driver will always rise above the rest at their stable. No matter how hard the team owner works to keep things equal, there will always be one who performs better than the rest. NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip never liked the idea of having a teammate, and I’m sure it’s because they understood this.
The alpha driver becomes just that because they typically win more races, perform more consistently, have more experience, command more respect and are more loved or hated by the fans. Take Hendrick Motorsports of the late 1990s for example: The alpha driver was clearly Jeff Gordon, while Terry Labonte (I’m fully aware Labonte beat Gordon for the championship once) and the rotating drivers in the No. 25 car were secondary.
So here’s a breakdown of who the alpha drivers are with each multi-car chartered Cup team today and who they could be in the future. I’m not including single-car teams for obvious reasons. But I’m also not including Spire Motorsports, Kaulig Racing and Rick Ware Racing because they each only have one full-time driver, which makes that driver the primary driver by definition.
Hendrick Motorsports: Kyle Larson
HMS is the whole reason this topic has even been brough up after the recent feud between teammates Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. For the first five years of his career, Elliott did everything right to take over the mantle at Hendrick from Jimmie Johnson as his Cup career came to a close.
But as soon as Elliott became the alpha driver at HMS, the team brought in Larson, and all he’s done is win ever since. Tom Bowles did a great job comparing Elliott and Larson over the past year, so check that out for the full breakdown.
But what I’ll add onto Bowles’ points is this: Which driver at HMS has Rick Hendrick’s own companies on his car as the sponsors and rocks a throwback scheme to Hendrick’s late son Ricky? That sounds like Larson was groomed to be the alpha driver from the start.
Joe Gibbs Racing: Kyle Busch
JGR is a little tricky because it currently has three future Hall of Famers in Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. But it’s pretty easy to go with Busch given that he’s the only one of the three to provide the organization with a championship, which he did twice.
Truex hasn’t been at JGR as long as the other two, so he really hasn’t had the impact. Hamlin’s done a lot for the team, but with him now being the co-owner of 23XI Racing, it’s hard to say his full allegiance is to JGR.
Remember though that I’m talking about who is the alpha driver for the team at this moment in time. Ty Gibbs is being groomed to be the team’s next alpha driver. If he’s as successful in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this year as he was last year, then I totally expect him to supplant one of the current JGR drivers and start his path to becoming the team’s alpha.
Team Penske: Joey Logano
For a while, this one was difficult because it was Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano going back and forth on who the alpha was. But with Keselowski gone, this one becomes pretty simple for now. Logano has been around a lot longer and seen a lot more success than Ryan Blaney and rookie Austin Cindric.
Last year was the first time Blaney showed glimpses that he could overtake Logano as Penske’s top dog. But Blaney might not ever get the alpha title, because now he and Logano have Cindric nipping at their heels.
Cindric is the son of Penske president Tim Cindric, he’s already won the Daytona 500 and he’s driving the team’s most famous and successful car. That sounds like the perfect foundation for the team’s next alpha.
If Blaney is skipped over like that, then it wouldn’t surprise me if he went looking to drive elsewhere, for a team that would make him their alpha driver. He signed a multi-year extension in March 2020, so his contract probably doesn’t have too much left on it.
Stewart-Haas Racing: Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick has been SHR’s alpha driver since the day he signed with the team. He essentially is SHR at this point.
The team won 10 races two years ago, and nine of those were by Harvick. Last year, the team struggled and Aric Almirola was the lone SHR driver to win a race. But that didn’t matter. Harvick still managed to finish fifth in points, 10 spots above Almirola, and he had more top fives and top 10s than his three teammates added together and doubled.
The problem is Harvick is 46 years old and eventually Father Time will start to do his work. Harvick said himself on the Dale Jr. Download his contract goes through 2023 and that’s when he plans to retire.
Almirola is retiring at the end of this season, and Cole Custer just hasn’t showed enough to indicate he’s alpha driver material, even if he has a similar situation to Cindric. That leaves Chase Briscoe as the team’s lone driver who has shown potential to take up where Harvick leaves off. Briscoe has shown a lot of speed to start this season, so maybe this season could be where we see him start to take over as the alpha driver.
Otherwise, it could be whoever SHR hires to drive the No. 10 in 2023.
23XI Racing: Kurt Busch
However, this could be Kurt Busch’s final year in Cup. Even if it’s not, he won’t be around much longer. Wallace is the team’s future and needs to step up and take the alpha title by the horns. Winning Talladega Superspeedway last year and the amount of public attention he has received are great first steps. Now he just needs to perform consistently.
If Wallace doesn’t take over as the team’s alpha, then whoever is hired to replace Kurt Busch could fill that void.
Richard Childress Racing: Tyler Reddick
Reddick is spewing with potential, and it just seems that once he finally gets that first career Cup win, a ton will follow. That first one should’ve happened this past weekend at Auto Club Speedway.
RFK Racing: Brad Keselowski
Not only does Keselowski have over 30 more wins and a Cup championship more than Chris Buescher, but he’s also the team’s co-owner. Need I say any more?
Trackhouse Racing Team: Daniel Suarez
This one is very much up for grabs as Trackhouse just started last year and this is its first year with two cars. But I’m giving the nod for now to Daniel Suarez because he’s the guy the team started with. Plus he has more Cup experience and more top fives and top 10s than Ross Chastain.
Not to mention Suarez nearly won this past weekend at Auto Club. But if Chastain goes out and wins this coming week, then I’m going to completely flip-flop.
Front Row Motorsports: Michael McDowell
Michael McDowell is in his 15th year at the Cup level, is in his fifth year at FRM and won the team a Daytona 500. Todd Gilliland has two career starts. This was the easiest one yet to determine who the alpha driver is.
Gilliland has the potential to take over, but it’s going to take a lot for that to happen.
Petty GMS Motorsports: Erik Jones
Ty Dillon wasn’t full time in any series last year, so really he’s playing catchup at this point.
The biggest thing with Jones though is he’s already the team’s top drivers, but he has the potential to be even greater. He could wind up being the next Logano: a huge prospect JGR gives up on too quickly who goes onto have great success elsewhere.
He’s already off to a solid start with this new-ish team. Jones ran in the top five all day this past weekend at Auto Club, and he seems fully capable of getting the No. 43 its first win since 2014.
About the author
Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.
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