Has Christopher Bell become Joe Gibbs Racing’s top Driver?
Andrew Stoddard: In the albeit brief Next Gen era, Christopher Bell has been the best driver at Joe Gibbs Racing. Since the start of the 2022 season, Bell is tied for the team lead in wins (5) with Denny Hamlin and leads all JGR drivers in top 10s with 38. Bell has also displayed a propensity for clutch performances in the playoffs, something the rest of the JGR stable is lacking. Crew chief Adam Stevens is a big reason for Bell and the No. 20’s team rise to the top of the JGR pecking order, bringing championship experience atop the pit box after winning it all in 2015 and 2019 with Kyle Busch. In Bell and Stevens, JGR has a driver/crew chief tandem that could be a championship contender for years to come.
Mark Kristl: No, and that’s a good thing for JGR. Martin Truex Jr. has a NASCAR Cup Series champion’s ring and Hamlin has 51 wins, albeit without a title. Meanwhile, Bell has six victories and no Cup title. Granted he’s had fewer Cup seasons than Hamlin or Truex, but their accomplishments trump Bell’s current successes.
Taylor Kornhoff: Bell is currently from the points perspective, but Hamlin is still firing off week to week at the highest level.
Luken Glover: Bell could very well be the only driver in the JGR camp in the Championship 4. Either way, however, he isn’t the top driver yet. Hamlin continues to consistently win every year, and Truex is a former champion who also returned to his winning ways this year. There is potential for Bell to climb up the ladder if Truex’s miserable playoffs carry over into 2024, but he needs to become a more consistent winner and weekly threat to become the top driver.
Will anyone below the cut line win their way into the Cup Championship 4?
Kristl: Yes, Hamlin. In the Next Gen era at the Paperclip, Hamlin is tied for the most laps led (239). He has two top fives and two top 10s en route to amassing the sixth-most points. With his 16-point deficit, he can still point his way to Phoenix Raceway, but he’s very good at Martinsville Speedway. He’ll win, automatically clinching his berth and knocking Ryan Blaney out of the playoffs.
Stoddard: I doubt it. Kyle Larson and Bell are locked in with wins, William Byron has a rather comfortable 30-point gap on the cut line, and Blaney is strong at Martinsville, recording seven top-five finishes while riding a streak of nine straight top-11 finishes there. Hamlin and Truex both possess a bevy of checkered flags at Martinsville, but both are going into the weekend with negative momentum. Tyler Reddick and Chris Buescher both struggle mightily at Martinsville, combining for just two top 10s across 23 starts. Expect the top four coming into Martinsville to be the Championship 4 at Phoenix.
Glover: Three of them have the potential to do so. Hamlin has five wins at his home state track, while Truex has earned three since 2019. Buescher is quietly becoming better there, and given his impressive rise in the second half of the season matched with RFK Racing’s ability to perform on short tracks, he could be a dark horse. While Reddick has also improved in many ways in 2023, success at Martinsville still passes over him, with only one top 10 in seven starts. It’s a tall order for him to break that trend and win. Hamlin and Truex have the best shot. Yet, there is a solid amount of hesitancy that they will get the job done.
Kornhoff: Speaking of Hamlin, it’s very likely that he will. He always runs well at Martinsville and he’s been denied the position to win a championship so many times that I think he will find a way to go for it this time around.
Chandler Smith will reportedly move to JGR’s NASCAR Xfinity Series team in 2024. Is this a good move for Smith’s career?
Glover: It could go either way. I would like to know more of the specifics on what happened between Chandler Smith and Kaulig Racing behind closed doors, but this has the potential to be a good move. Several drivers have been linked to JGR’s Xfinity program or have expressed interest in those seats because of the opportunity for a Cup ride. With Truex potentially retiring as soon as next year, plus the aging of Hamlin, young prospects feel it is their best shot to get to a Cup ride quicker. Sheldon Creed has also been linked to a second JGR Xfinity ride, and Corey Heim is a driver TRD could be looking to promote following 2024. Smith has impressed at Kaulig, but what if he loses out in the Cup sweepstakes down the road at JGR? That’s where my concern lies, especially if his departure from Kaulig is due in part to a lack of a Cup promotion.
Kornhoff: This could be a very good move for Smith. You look at Legacy Motor Club joining Toyota and the potential retirement of Truex looming, opening up potential landing positions. Plus, who knows what its plans are for Erik Jones? The only problem is that Toyota is in no rush to develop drivers and its driver development has been disastrous to several drivers’ careers in the past. If he’s OK with dealing with that stress and pressure, then it’s a great move.
Stoddard: This is a great move for Smith. While Kaulig has made significant gains since its first seasons, JGR remains one of the elite programs in the Xfinity Series garage. Driving for JGR is a stepping stone to the Cup Series, even if those Cup rides are not always with JGR or Toyota. Time will tell, but this seems like a leap forward for Smith.
Kristl: Maybe. That answer depends on how much longer Truex keeps racing. If Truex retires within the next year or two, Smith is the favorite to succeed him. If Truex races beyond that, switching teams and manufacturers could come back to haunt Smith. In the short term, yes, it is a wise move. Smith has three Cup starts and he still needs at least one more year of seasoning in Xfinity. Long term, though? It remains to be seen.
Marco Andretti said, “This 10-minute practice thing is for the birds.” What is the ideal amount of practice time for races in 2024?
Kornhoff: An ideal amount of practice time for races should be sessions of an hour or two. Not only for the drivers’ sake but also for the teams being able to flesh out potential issues with their cars. Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the Dale Jr. Download recently bashed the realism of the simulators that teams use, so it’s not like that can ever be a be all, end all that makes up for reduced physical practice. Plus, it’s a great experience for those attending the races to get to watch cars running on the track ahead of the race and for those at home tuning into the broadcast in hearty anticipation for it. It’s like an appetizer that a couple of minute-long practice sessions and qualifying cannot deliver.
Glover: I have mixed opinions on it. First off, all three series absolutely deserve more on-track time than what they’re getting. There have been races where Cup drivers have gone into the race without turning a single lap during the weekend. As talented as they are, that’s a risky task without knowing the track conditions. On the contrary, that talent also plays a factor as well. As many challenges as 2020 brought with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was impressive to see drivers go into the race without turning a single lap and being able to gain a grasp for the most part. However, that could overshadow who actually has the best car, and it causes a lot of issues for rookie drivers who have never visited some of these tracks. Ultimately, each series should get a 45-minute practice, and if there is a new track or a return to an old one, it needs to be an hour.
Kristl: Fifty minutes. Fifty minutes of practice, followed by one round of single-car qualifying at all tracks sans superspeedways and road courses, is sufficient for teams to adjust their racecars without spending too much time at the racetrack, thereby away from home, while still rewarding those teams with good pre-race setups. It also allows there to become race weekend storylines, other than merely storylines entering the race weekend from the previous race and the whole season. From a TV network’s perspective, a 50-minute practice means the network could have an hour segment, with five minutes before practice for the announcers, followed by a quick wrap-up afterward.
Stoddard: I agree wholeheartedly with Marco Andretti. The current format of reduced practice times traces its origins back to the COVID-19 pandemic, where practices were taken away and then limited in order to cut down on the time people were at the track. Now that the worst of COVID is in the rearview mirror, it’s time to incorporate more practice. Thirty minutes should be fine for Cup Series drivers and teams with more experience and resources, but practices in the Xfinity and NASCAR Craftsman Truck series should be an hour at the very least. This allows for the young prospects in those series to get much-needed track time to improve their craft.
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