Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: Living in An Era of Substitutions

Move over, Watermelon Man. There is about to be a new fruit ninja in NASCAR: the Berry.

All signs indicate that Josh Berry will be a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver in 2024.

For Berry, who currently races full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, the supposed upcoming promotion is much deserved. He has already racked up five NXS wins in two-and-a-half full-time seasons.

But more importantly, the Tennessee driver has completed two successful stints this season as a substitute in Cup, filling the seats of Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman as they were sidelined with injuries. Berry’s run as a substitute driver may have been the catalyst to being named as a Stewart-Haas Racing driver in 2024.

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It is widely believed that the retiring Kevin Harvick hand-picked Berry to replace him, luring him away from the Chevrolet camp to drive the No. 4 Ford.

Like Harvick in his own right, Berry would become the latest driver to earn a full-time seat after beginning his Cup career as a substitute. The most notable would be Harvick, whose career was jumpstarted after the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001.

Harvick is among one-quarter of the current full-time Cup drivers who got their first taste of the big leagues while filling in for a full-timer who could not race.

Future Daytona 500s champions Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon either first reached Cup or had early experience in the series while competing in place of an ill Trevor Bayne in 2011 and an injured Tony Stewart in 2013, respectively. Stenhouse went on to claim Rookie of the Year honors in 2013, while Dillon did so a year later.

Bubba Wallace‘s career looked to be over in 2017 as sponsorship funding dried up, but when Richard Petty Motorsports called needing a substitute following Aric Almirola‘s injury at Kansas Speedway, Wallace’s future was solidified after a consistent stint in Richard Petty‘s car.

When David Ragan left Front Row Motorsports to go substitute for Kyle Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015, FRM tabbed Chris Buescher to fill in for select races. When Ragan’s time was up at JGR, Erik Jones was named as the reliever until the Busch was cleared to return from injury.

Most recently, it was the career of Ty Gibbs that was propelled by this phenomenon, as he replaced an injured Kurt Busch last season.

Why is it that so many substitutes end up as regular Cup drivers?

Well, it is generally a recent phenomenon. For years, veteran drivers such as Regan Smith, Terry Labonte and Kenny Wallace made a living as substitutes well after their full-time careers were over. It was common for driver-needy team owners to choose veteran drivers like these as an insurance policy to ensure that their race cars came home in one piece, citing the less-experienced drivers as a potential risk.

Today, team owners with driver needs have a much wider pool of developmental drivers compared to the pool of available veterans. It is no different than Major League Baseball: a star player goes down with an injury and thus a prospect from the minor leagues is called up to bat in his place, and then subsequently proves his worth, and thus veterans are not as sought after as they used to be.

Take the case of Ryan Newman.

Newman, who coincidentally is currently in a substitution role for the suspended Cody Ware, was a free agent following his 2021 release from RFK Racing. However, the grizzled veteran refuses to compete on tracks larger than one mile, citing safety concerns.

Another angle is that developmental drivers have more potential than veterans, which brings up another case: Matt Kenseth.

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In 2020, Kenseth was called as a substitute after a year and a half of retirement, filling in for the suspended Kyle Larson. Kenseth floundered as a substitute, and the much younger, less experienced Ross Chastain was picked as the new full-time driver.

However, the best answer may be in scouting.

When a team owner loses a driver to injury, suspension or another calamity, the team will likely be out of the driver championship chase. Snagging a prospect will not only give the new driver experience but will also serve as a measuring stick for the team owner to determine if they have the caliber to solidify their place in the big leagues.

Sometimes, as in this most recent case, it backfires. Hendrick is set to lose its star development driver to another team.

But when a quarter of the current Cup stars come from the same substitutionary path as Berry, it is easy to see why these temporary drivers are hot commodities.

About the author

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Never at a loss for words, Zach Gillispie is a young, talented marketing professional from North Carolina who talks and writes on the side about his first love: racing! Since joining Frontstretch in 2018, Zach has served in numerous roles where he currently pens the NASCAR 101 column, a weekly piece delving into the basic nuts and bolts of the sport. Additionally, his unabashedly bold takes meshed with that trademarked dry wit of his have made Zach a fan favorite on the weekly Friday Faceoff panel. In his free time, he can be found in the great outdoors, actively involved in his church, cheering on his beloved Atlanta Braves or ruthlessly pestering his colleagues with completely useless statistics about Delma Cowart.

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WJW Motorsports

Don’t do it Josh. Going to Ford is the kiss of death.

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