What does the NASCAR Cup Series lineup of Richard Childress Racing have in common the last four seasons?
Well, mostly. Some drivers followed paths that took them to other teams at one point or another. But each of RCR’s full-time drivers since 2019 competed for the organization’s NASCAR Xfinity Series teams prior to their Cup promotions.
Austin Dillon, RCR’s elder statesman? Multiple NASCAR Camping World Truck Series seasons with the team, followed by a pair of Xfinity conquests (2012 and 2013) prior to his move to Cup in 2014 in the No. 3. Daniel Hemric, prior to his one-year RCR showcase in the Cup No. 8 in 2019, ran the preceding two Xfinity seasons for the team. His replacement from 2020 to now, Tyler Reddick, drove one championship-winning season for RCR in Xfinity in 2019.
The RCR Xfinity program has soldiered on since Reddick’s promotion. In 2022, the team fields two full-time cars for Sheldon Creed and Austin Hill, both rookies who moved up this year from the Truck Series.
And beginning in 2024, there’s room at the inn on the Cup side, after Reddick announced earlier this week his departure from RCR after 2023 to drive for 23XI Racing.
Obvious choice is for RCR to keep doing what it’s been doing, right? Pick from its talent pool in the development series to partner with, one assumes, Dillon starting in 2024?
Probably. But that’s not what should happen.
And maybe that’s silly to say. Why have a team in a feeder series like Xfinity if you’re not trying to develop someone to the next level? What’s the point of fielding rides for up-and-comers like Creed and Hill if you have no intention of seeing that transition from budding potential star to actual star happen within the confines of your own organization?
Let me be clear: I’m actually not opposed to one or both of those guys running in the Cup Series for RCR sometime down the line. Hell, maybe it’ll even happen in 2024, assuming both stick with the team after 2022 (neither’s situation past this year is currently known) and seem worthy of the promotion (two wins for Hill this season indicate there might be something there; jury’s out on a top-five-less Creed).
But that should only occur if RCR opts to move to a three-car operation, something the team last did in 2017 when it fielded entries for Dillon, Ryan Newman and Paul Menard. Or if, in what seems to be a fairly unlikely scenario, Dillon decides to drive for someone else (or if he retires, which … also seems unlikely, right? In his early 30s? Not that it’s unheard of).
Basically, RCR needs to get back into the free-agent market.
The last few years, RCR’s signings to its Cup team have lacked … a certain amount of pizazz. Reddick was certainly a highly touted prospect, and Hemric less so but definitely considered someone with talent. But neither promotion turned many heads — because they were just that, promotions, something you expect when a Cup team has either its own Xfinity organization or a satellite a la JR Motorsports with Hendrick Motorsports.
Pre-2019, you have to go back to 2014 as the last time RCR signed a free agent at all. That’s the year Newman joined from Stewart-Haas Racing, establishing a three-car tandem of Newman, Dillon and Menard that persisted until 2017 alongside the occasional extra part-time effort.
It’s a signing that nearly won RCR a Cup title. In 2014, Newman rode a strong playoffs to an eventual runner-up finish in points. Not a particularly flashy season otherwise on paper (five top fives and 16 top 10s), but the move kept RCR in the playoff conversation following Kevin Harvick‘s departure post-2013, something neither Dillon (in his rookie Cup season) nor Menard (21st in points) were able to accomplish.
Newman’s tenure with the team ended up its flashiest that year, as he never finished in the top 10 in points again and only ever scored one win for RCR, coming in 2017. But it kept RCR in the conversation as a team that could contend for a championship, something that never seemed to be much of a prospect with Dillon or Menard, even in seasons when the former won during the regular season to make the playoffs.
For Reddick’s replacement, RCR needs another Newman-esque signing. Except better.
Better here meaning … I guess younger? Newman came on board at 36 years old, well over a decade into his Cup career. He retained flashes of greatness during the second half of said career, but looking back, he was clearly on the decline. His move to RCR at the time had potential and was largely celebrated as one of the more high-profile moves of silly season, it just wasn’t, in retrospect, one that did much for the organization outside of that near-title right off the bat.
Since we’re talking about a season still a year-and-a-half away, however, it’s less clear who’d even fit that bill in that the list of possibilities is more wide open now but may not be once it comes time to actually find a replacement. Chase Elliott, William Byron and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. appear totally locked up, and there are others such as Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney whose multi-year deals could mean they’re out of their car come the end of 2023 but could also conceivably not be, because the precise details of their contracts weren’t shared.
But you have to be realistic, too. Kyle Larson‘s signed through 2023 at Hendrick Motorsports, but would RCR have any leverage to lure him away? Nah; he’d be moving down rather than up or laterally, and really for no reason whatsoever, unless there was some sort of ownership stake offered a la Brad Keselowski with RFK Racing, something that does not yet seem to be on the horizon for RCR. See also: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Alex Bowman. What would they get out of it?
Here’s a thought instead: let’s say Blaney’s multi-year contract with Team Penske ends before 2024. Where’s he going?
Would he stay with Penske? Sure, maybe. But while Logano’s around, it doesn’t seem like Blaney’s ever going to rise to top dog at the organization; one gets the impression he already would have by now if it was ever going to happen. There’s always the chance Logano elsewhere (again, RCR unlikely), but he seems to have a good thing set up in the No. 22, so is anyone really expecting him to move anytime soon?
Blaney’s been Penske affiliated since he started coming up through the NASCAR ranks (and as such, since his Cup career started, ride-or-die Ford), but it does seem like his career could be at a crossroads — one of those situations where, yeah, you can pretty much always expect him to find victory lane at some point, but whether or not he seals the deal at season’s end is ambiguous. A chance of scenery has done wonders for drivers like Logano, perhaps Blaney could benefit as well.
On the other hand, can RCR really give him the horsepower he currently has at Penske? And what about the sponsor situation? Someone like Menards, for instance, feels inextricably tied to Penske or Penske-affiliated organizations.
And that’s been a complaint about RCR that’s been levied a few times in the past decade: it’s more likely to take someone’s money and sponsorship following than build a program and sponsorship around a hired driver (John Wes Townley is, of course, the most notable debacle, but remember that Brian Scott ran three seasons in an RCR Xfinity car and never won). Even if RCR could afford Blaney, does he bring with him the built-in funding it might need to really offer him the resources to challenge for wins, let alone a title?
Perhaps the play is elsewhere, then. And there are still other younger drivers whose plans come 2024 don’t seem set in stone. Does Bubba Wallace remain at 23XI, or does RCR offer him an opportunity that ends up altogether more beneficial in the long run? Where’s Chris Buescher, who’s become a strong road-course racer and has punched his RFK No. 17 above its weight quite a few times this year, going, if anywhere? Does Chase Briscoe have all his eggs in the Stewart-Haas Racing basket, or might the Cup sophomore be willing to entertain offers somewhere where he might receive a more personalized focus he can’t get at a four-car team?
Or does RCR just go with Noah Gragson?
(This is probably the answer, by the way. I’m sorry or you’re welcome.)
Gragson at least doesn’t come directly from the RCR farm system. He’s begun to get his feet wet in Cup with Kaulig Racing and Beard Motorsports, both RCR affiliates. A Gragson-to-Hendrick scenario seems less likely to play out now that its four full-timers are both winning regularly and seem happy in their situations. Gragson’s got to go somewhere, and while Kaulig might be the right fit if its second full-time car is ever available for just one driver instead of a collection (assuming Justin Haley sticks around for a while), RCR is a step above.
And again, RCR needs a free agent, but it also needs to be someone younger and with more promise or raw potential — not a Newman-like signing from 2014 wherein a superstar (past or present) is on the decline. Gragson fits the bill. Jury’s out on what he’ll do in Cup once there, but based on his Xfinity results, he at least deserves a shot.
That’s the direction in which RCR should go — either a proven winner who’ll make the leap of faith like Blaney or a younger, rawer asset whose upside could end up being explosive like Gragson.
Not the farm system. Look, Hill and/or Creed might work out — perhaps even in a third charter situation for the team, if it decided to expand (or leased out to a place like Kaulig). But for the first time in years, RCR needs to look outward rather than inward to maintain the momentum it’s garnered with Reddick once he’s gone.
About the author
Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.