Currently 30th in points, should Harrison Burton be on the hot seat at Wood Brothers Racing, or is it too early to tell?
Wyatt Watson: Harrison Burton has been abysmal in the No. 21. The three drivers who preceded him were so much better in that car. Ryan Blaney, the last driver to win with WBR, deserves the ride he has at Team Penske. Paul Menard would be consistent and bring the car home while running top 15 and 20 most of the time. Matt DiBenedetto was a step up from Menard, competing for multiple wins during his tenure and actually making the playoffs. Burton is most definitely on the hot seat. His performance in the iconic ride is a far cry from the past five years before he took over, and WBR should be looking hard into who should replace the driver. Zane Smith would be my pick, but since he’s under contract with Front Row Motorsports, I would either give Riley Herbst the nod or bring back DiBenedetto.
Steve Leffew: Burton finished the 2022 season with three consecutive top 20s. It looked like he might be starting to come around at the end of his rookie year. Fast forward to today, when Burton has just one top-20 finish. His seat is warming up by the week. NASCAR Cup Series rookies often need 100 races to hit their stride, but there should be signs of improvement along the way. Sponsorship will play a role in determining the future of the No. 21, but performance has to be a factor too. Smith is the elephant in the room; he is primed for promotion, and Burton could be the odd man out if he doesn’t take measurable steps forward during the regular season before Silly Season gets into full swing.
Chris Skala: It’s hard to argue no to this. Burton has one top five and two top 10s in 37 career starts. His lone top five was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, which saw multiple late restarts and wrecks. His other top 10 was at Atlanta Motor Speedway in July 2022, which saw a big wreck on the last lap. Here’s the best part: Burton is only 17 points ahead of Chase Elliott in points after the race at Circuit of the Americas, and Elliott has only started two races this season. Smith is sitting there ready to go, and there is no question that he has outperformed Burton if you compare stats in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. The worst part of this is Kyle Busch Motorsports, for whom Burton drove, had the best equipment in the series when Burton competed for it.
Luken Glover: Burton should definitely be on the hot seat, and that is no disrespect to him. Had he been given another year or two in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, then he would have been put in a better position. Since Blaney was put in the No. 12 car at Team Penske, the decision-making on the No. 21 seat has been questionable. What this ride needs is experience and longevity. No one has lasted more than two years in the ride, and that has affected the team. In order to be competitive, they need consistency, not bringing someone who will only pay the bills and not compete for wins. I would take a hard look at Corey LaJoie. He fits the heritage of the Wood Brothers and has outperformed his equipment at Spire Motorsports so far.
Mike Neff: It is the Wood Brothers. It hasn’t been a force in the series in 30 years. Burton is learning from talented drivers and personnel at Penske. Let him fill up the notebook and he will get there.
With Denny Hamlin not re-signed yet with Joe Gibbs Racing, are you worried about his status there for 2024 and beyond?
Skala: I’m 95% sure Denny Hamlin is good to go. John Hunter Nemechek will likely replace Martin Truex Jr. in the next two years, Christopher Bell is there for the long term and Ty Gibbs isn’t going anywhere. So it’s between Hamlin and Sammy Smith. Smith will not be ready for the Cup Series by 2024, and that is not to take away what he is doing at JGR in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. What is the 5% uncertainty? FedEx has been Hamlin’s sponsor since his rookie season in 2006, but I have seen some mentions of FedEx potentially not returning in the near future.
Andrew Stoddard: I feel like we’ve seen this movie before. That’s because we did, just last year with Kyle Busch. With a heavy-hitting sponsor like FedEx reducing its involvement and perhaps even considering leaving NASCAR altogether after this season, Hamlin’s future at JGR is looking awfully murky. It would not be the end of the world for Hamlin, though. He could just go drive for his own team at 23XI Racing, an organization that is starting to close the gap in performance between itself and JGR.
Neff: No, not really. If he doesn’t get signed then he moves to 23XI. The greater worry is that if Gibbs loses a superstar driver for the second year in a row, what is it going to do? Toyota won’t be thrilled about its flagship team losing two of its best drivers
Leffew: JGR is in a precarious position. Hamlin and his long-standing major sponsor are not yet signed for next season. Truex’s future is unknown. With 23XI being co-owned by Hamlin, it seems he could move there in the future. He has become increasingly outspoken in recent years, and driving for his own team would allow him even more latitude to speak his mind and go his own way. But 23XI is partnered with JGR, which could complicate matters.
Zach Gillispie: There are some uncertain times ahead for Hamlin’s ride as sponsorship has seemingly become an issue. Hamlin’s 23XI is on pace to surpass JGR as Toyota’s top team. But should we worry about Hamlin? Not at all. He’s Toyota’s top driver and he’ll have a seat somewhere, whether it’s at JGR or 23XI.
Should COTA return to the Cup schedule in 2024?
Gillispie: Yes. In fact, let’s replace every event at Texas Motor Speedway with an event at COTA.
Skala: No. COTA was not made for a stock car to drive on. I understand that other tracks weren’t made for stock cars either, but COTA was built to bring Formula 1 to the U.S. It has done a lot more than that, which is phenomenal. Austin has been a great host. NASCAR has a car now that is more road course friendly and it has made for some great racing. The Austin area is a great market for NASCAR, I just can’t picture this track in the future of the sport.
Watson: 100%. The marquee road course in North America (and, frankly, the Western Hemisphere), it should for sure stay on the schedule. Hell, replace Texas with COTA while it’s torn down in the future and made into something better. COTA might have had a chaotic finish last weekend, but overall, the racing product with the new package was a good show.
Glover: I have mixed feelings on this one. Texas has had some debacles over the past few years, and there has been more criticism than praise for the track. At the same time, road courses have more issues than what is being portrayed. We can talk about how the racing may be good for the first part, but a consistent theme of demolition derby has broken out near the end of the races. Plus, while a diverse schedule is good, NASCAR needs to limit how many ovals are replaced with road courses.
Stoddard: A thousand times yes. COTA is a unique test of driver skill, and it puts on a good show for the fans. In its three years on the Cup schedule, the only thing that has kept COTA from producing an entertainment racing product was Mother Nature in 2021. Was the ending last weekend sloppy? Yes. But NASCAR needs to tap into the Texas market, and I will take COTA over another race at TMS any day of the week.
Neff: Absolutely. If you want road courses on the schedule, it is one of the best in the country. The course is excellent for stock cars because it has room, high speed and technical sections. If you want to lose something next year, dump the Chicago street course.
Has the second-in-points Riley Herbst finally emerged as a serious Xfinity championship contender?
Leffew: Riley Herbst is a championship contender. Those words seemed unimaginable a year or two ago. His consistency has been a weakness throughout the early years of his career and it’s now becoming a strength. He still needs to show more pace, lead more laps and win races. But when a bad day is 10th, you are putting yourself into the mix. Herbst has beaten his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Cole Custer every race this season. He is firmly in the top eight and could get into the Championship 4 if he breaks through for a win or more. As Daniel Hemric proved in 2021, you don’t need to win a bunch of races to become a champion. Herbst has a great team behind him and the years of experience are starting to pay off.
Gillispie: When this question was asked, I actually had to go check the points to make sure it was correct. How in the world is Herbst in second? 2023 has seemingly been a repeat of every other year Herbst has spent in the series: no wins, not a ton of drama and quiet performance. When he’s in victory lane, let’s readdress this question. For now, I’ll be enjoying the taste of my leather shoe over here following my previous comments earlier in the season about Austin Hill‘s championship chances.
Stoddard: There is no debate that Herbst has steadily improved over three-plus seasons running full time in the Xfinity Series. He went from eight DNFs in 2020 to just five last year. His average finish went from 17.1 in 2021 to 13th last year and now a staggering 6.7 so far this season. Herbst is taking care of his equipment and racking up consistent finishes, but he is missing one key ingredient of championship contenders. Herbst needs a race win — probably multiple — before he can enter the Xfinity championship conversation.
Watson: Herbst has finally shown some consistency in the Xfinity Series, but I won’t believe he’s a contender to win the title until he wins a race. Again, Herbst has been surprisingly consistent to start the year, but for the life of him and SHR, they just can’t find victory lane. He’s a lock for the playoffs for now, which is better than he’s ever been, but Herbst has to put that No. 98 back into the winner’s circle first and foremost.
Glover: Herbst is on the right track to being a title contender. He has been consistent and is avoiding trouble. The only hump he needs to get over is competing for wins. He needs to lead more laps and finally break through for some wins. If he can do that or have leading speed on a consistent basis that carries him to Phoenix Raceway, he will definitely have a shot.
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