Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: 5 Cup Drivers on the Hot Seat for 2024

NASCAR fans, it’s finally here.

Racing is back, and with that came a couple new changes in the driver’s seat in the NASCAR Cup Series ahead of the Busch Light Clash on Sunday, Feb. 4.

However, for all the drivers that remained in their rides, five of them stand out as drivers that really need to step it up for 2024. There are several drivers waiting in the wings who could be more than ready to race on Sundays in 2025 in place of drivers who underperform in 2024.

Some might be more far-fetched than others, but we’ve seen crazier things happen in NASCAR (After all, who could have predicted Spire Motorsports buying Kyle Busch Motorsports’ truck team?).

5. Austin Cindric

Let’s address the elephant in the room: The likelihood of Austin Cindric losing his ride is slim to none. His father Tim is the president of Team Penske, and he likely won’t be out of a ride come 2025. However, Cindric could get the Cole Custer treatment and get sent back down to the Xfinity Series to “redevelop” if he continues on the path that he has since joining the Cup Series.

The 2020 Xfinity Series champion was promoted to the Cup Series full-time in 2022. Originally supposed to drive the famed Wood Brothers Racing No. 21, the departure of Brad Keselowski allowed Cindric to take over Penske’s flagship No. 2.

The promotion started off as good as it could have gotten, as Cindric won the 2022 Daytona 500, locking himself into the playoffs and locking up Rookie of the Year by virtue of no other rookies qualifying for the playoffs. He followed that up with a pole at Auto Club Speedway. In all, his 2022 campaign ended with five top fives and nine top 10s en route to a 12th-place points finish. Not quite a flashy stat line, but it was a solid outing for a rookie.

2023, however, saw a regression for the team. No wins or poles, just one top five and five top 10s for a dismal 24th-place finish in points. Meanwhile, teammates Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano both made the playoffs, with the former winning the title.

Last year, I called out Blaney as someone in danger of losing his ride from underperformance. So what did he do? He said, ‘watch this,’ and won the 2023 championship. Now it’s clear that both Blaney and Logano will be with Penske long-term — likely the rest of their careers. And while Cindric will likely be the same thanks to his dad’s ties, his place within the organization — not Blaney’s — is up in the air.

Team Penske shut down its Xfinity Series operations when Cindric was promoted to the Cup Series, but one would imagine the resources are there to reopen it and demote Cindric if he doesn’t make a big splash in 2024.

4. Todd Gilliland

Front Row Motorsports opted to bring Todd Gilliland straight to the Cup Series in 2022 from its Truck Series program. With no Cup experience and zero Xfinity Series starts, his 2022 campaign went about as good as one could imagine. Gilliland finished 28th in a season highlighted by a fourth-place finish at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and a seventh at Talladega Superspeedway.

2023 saw an improvement in which Gilliland finished 28th again, but he doubled his top-10 total with four. That’s not even mentioning that he bounced around between his No. 38 car, FRM’s part-time No. 36 car and Rick Ware Racing’s Nos. 15 and 51 cars. To bounce between four different teams and still finish where he did last year is somewhat impressive.

However, FRM brought both Gilliland and teammate Michael McDowell back for 2024 on exercised contract options mid-2023. While both drivers are secure for 2024, there doesn’t appear to be any security for 2025 for either driver. But McDowell has brought FRM to new heights since his Daytona 500 triumph in 2021, and his second career win came at Indianapolis last year. If FRM had to choose between the two drivers, McDowell would likely be the guy to keep his ride.

Gilliland has already been shown by FRM that he is replaceable when they dropped him for several races in 2023 in favor of Zane Smith. Not to mention that the history of the No. 38 since David Ragan semi-retired has been rife with rookies on short leashes, such as Anthony Alfredo and John Hunter Nemechek.

If Gilliland doesn’t show significant improvement in 2023 to keep pace with McDowell, he could easily be shown the door in 2025.

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3. Harrison Burton

When Cindric took over the No. 2 at Penske instead of the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 as planned, it was Harrison Burton who was promoted from the Xfinity Series to drive for the famed team. However, entering year three, success has yet to be found.

The son of Jeff Burton has only one top five and four top 10s across both full-time seasons in 2022 and 2023. Not that Wood Brothers Racing has had stellar equipment in recent years, but the alliance with Penske along with drivers such as Blaney and Paul Menard helped elevate the Wood Brothers from mid-pack to a solid top-ten team.

Burton has not shown the same level of success, and in fact was one of two drivers who ran all 36 races and finished outside the top 30 in points. Burton needs to see 2024 as a make-or-break year, or there may not be a fourth year.

2. Alex Bowman

Yes, I would have put Alex Bowman high on the list of hot seat drivers in 2024 even if he didn’t break his back. Bowman was a lot like Blaney was prior to his 2023 championship season. He had the equipment available to him, but ran far behind his teammates’ pace. Bowman has just seven wins to his name in six (almost) full-time seasons at Hendrick Motorsports.

Yes, he missed several races in 2022 with a concussion. Yes, he broke his back in 2023 and missed more races. However, aside from a sixth-place run in 2020, he has not finished above 12th in the point standings, and that includes a four-win 2021 season.

Bowman is, for all intents and purposes, the ‘weak link’ in the Hendrick stable right now. He’ll have some grace to begin with, because recovering from a broken back is hard (just ask Denny Hamlin). And he should. And while Bowman did sign a contract extension with Hendrick that is supposed to keep him in the No. 48 through 2026, he should still feel the pressure of the success his teammates are having and strive for that if he wants to stay at HMS.

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1. Daniel Suarez

Trackhouse Racing didn’t suddenly expand for no reason. Smith is under contract with Trackhouse, but he’s only driving for Spire because it bought another charter, not Trackhouse. The team also has Shane van Gisbergen and Connor Zilisch in development deals that will span years, no doubt.

That’s why Daniel Suarez should be feeling very nervous about his seat in 2025.

Entering year four with Trackhouse, Suarez has just one win, at Sonoma Raceway in 2022. That season currently marks his lone playoff appearance. Last year saw a regression, finishing 19th in the overall standings. He had chances to win but ultimately couldn’t capitalize.

His teammate Ross Chastain won at Nashville and Phoenix in 2023, and he solidified his job by pulling one of the greatest moves in the history of NASCAR with the Hail Melon in 2022. Suarez has not shown such aggression, and his one win certainly cannot be good enough for team owner Justin Marks, or Pitbull, for that matter.

Suarez needs to work with Chastain and maybe even van Gisbergen to have a breakout year for Trackhouse in 2024 to keep his ride. Smith and Zilisch are waiting in the wings to be brought fully into the fold, and Suarez will be the odd man out if that happens with no performance improvement.

About the author

Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022. Currently, he is an editor and co-authors Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he is also the primary Truck Series reporter/writer. A proud West Virginia Wesleyan College alum from Akron, Ohio, Anthony is currently pursuing a master's degree. He is a theatre actor and fight choreographer-in-training in his free time. He is a loyal fan of the Cincinnati Reds and Carolina Panthers, still hopeful for a championship at some point in his lifetime.

You can keep up with Anthony by following @AnthonyDamcott on Twitter.

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Joshua Farmer

Who is Zilisch? He hasn’t done anything that Suarez has. I guess he has Daddy’s money.

gbvette

Who is Zilisch, he’s a kid who looks like the real deal.

I have no clue who Zilisch’s father is, but the kid can race! He’s won in just about everything he’s driven. He’s won in FIA Karts, Mazda Cup, Pro Late Models, he took the pole in his first TA2 race and would have won his only ever ARCA start if he hadn’t been “moved” on the last lap. Last week he won his class in his first start in the Daytona 24 Hour (9th overall). And he’s done all that before his 18th birthday!

Suarez has been in NASCAR 9 or 10 years (in top tier equipment) and has only managed 2 or 3 Xfinity wins, a truck win and a Cup win. Suarez should be worried.

janice

You forgot Austin Dillon

DoninAjax

He’s very forgettable! The sooner he becomes invisible the sooner Gramps can keep more of his retirement fund.

Dawg

When everything shakes out,I see Cindric back in IMSA, & I think that’s a good move for him. He should be much more comfortable there & it would fit his skillset better than NASCAR.

kb

Blaney lucked into the Championship, it is what it is. His stats at Penske are not mind blowing, and he caught a break. He blamed everyone else for his screw ups and his team at times did let him down in the past. Ultimately it is he who drives and he who gets the praise or scorn.

I believe sadly the Cindric will still have a job because of Daddy. He should have been gone a while ago.

Last edited 22 days ago by kb
Pool Medic

Why the hate for the 12?

TiminPayson

Cindric, Burton, Gilliland. The Ford development program needs work. Imagine all you got to bring up is Haley Deagan.

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