Race Weekend Central

Friday Faceoff: What Are the Expectations for Spire?

Spire Motorsports expanded its NASCAR operations for 2024. What do you expect from the organization this year?

Phil Allaway: It will be fairly successful in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Having Rajah Caruth in the fold, along with Hendrick Motorsports support, should help. In the NASCAR Cup Series, things will be relatively similar to 2023, but the X-factor is the relationship between Spire and Trackhouse Racing. What will that ultimately entail for the operation? Is it just going to benefit Zane Smith, or will the rest of the team profit as well? Carson Hocevar is a better driver than the collection of teammates that Corey LaJoie had last year and will likely be able to contribute more to the team’s overall effort. The No. 77 will be better this year, but LaJoie and the No. 7 team may be only incrementally better.

Josh Calloni: It’s hard to tell. The Cup operation has a lot of growing to do, and even with the money it spent, the highly competitive nature of the series makes it hard to gauge where it’ll stand in 2024. It has a talented group of drivers, but the equipment will tell the story of its season. As for its Truck team, there should be a lot of optimism. It has expanded rapidly in that series, having three full-time trucks, but anything less than at least one playoff appearance from that team should be considered a letdown.

Andrew Stoddard: With three full-time Cup rides as well as expanded operations in the lower series and a new race shop, Spire has certainly made a big investment towards becoming more competitive. Perhaps it was too much too soon. Has Spire spread itself too thin? Time will tell, but for now, I predict marginal improvement from Spire in 2024, with LaJoie being on the fringes of making the playoffs on points or a superspeedway win.

Luken Glover: There certainly has to be caution in setting expectations, but I’m very optimistic about the present and future of Spire. Since July 2023, Spire has landed Gainbridge’s sponsorship. Additionally, it signed potential stars Smith and Hocevar and bought Kyle Busch Motorsports. This team has made it clear it doesn’t plan on settling for mid-pack, rather competing for wins and championships. This season, I would not be shocked to see LaJoie pull off an upset win or at least compete inside the top 20 in points. Smith and Hocevar need to run as many laps as possible, but it is reasonable to see them both competing inside the top 25 in points and potentially seeing one take home Rookie of the Year honors.

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Which of the three reigning NASCAR series champions is best poised to repeat?

Glover: The last back-to-back Cup champion was Jimmie Johnson in 2010. Since then, the points system has completely changed and competition is different now. There are legitimately 20 drivers — at least — who can win a race, and approximately 12 can be looked at as title contenders. And while both Cole Custer and Ben Rhodes are capable of going for two in a row, I like the chances of Ryan Blaney the most. The Blaney we saw in the last six races of the season was a driver who finally fulfilled lofty expectations. He closed races, didn’t let frustration get in the way and he got hot at the right time. He now has the champion patch on his firesuit, and with it, he carries confidence and a rare status in the garage. And while teams will certainly try everything to dethrone Team Penske at tracks like Martinsville Speedway and Phoenix Raceway, those tracks are Blaney’s niche. If he can get back to the Championship 4, we could very well see our first consecutive champion under the current playoff format.

Calloni: Rhodes. The Truck Series has a weaker field, and Rhodes is typically one of the most consistent drivers in the series. The likelihood of him going back-to-back as opposed to Custer and Blaney is way more significant, especially given the highly competitive nature the Cup and NASCAR Xfinity series are expected to have this season. However, consecutive champions are rare, so even if he’s the favorite to do so, it’s fair to say that he’s not the favorite overall heading into the season.

Andrew Stoddard: Custer has found his niche in the Xfinity Series, winning at least one race in each of his four full-time seasons at that level. That includes a three-victory championship season in 2023, and Custer is back in the No. 00 Ford with crew chief Johnathan Toney to run it back. The Xfinity Series field will be deep, with familiar faces like Justin Allgaier, the return of AJ Allmendinger, among many others. Nonetheless, expect Custer to be squarely in the championship mix.

Austin Bass: The odds of any champion repeating in today’s NASCAR are low, but Rhodes has the best chance to do it. All three champions will make the playoffs, but there are too many powerhouse teams and excellent drivers that will find golden horseshoes in the Cup and Xfinity series for Blaney or Custer to realistically defend their titles or make it to the final round. Rhodes, on the other hand, will have fewer contenders to fend off in a series that lacks the depth of talent and bona fides compared to the top two series. Rhodes and Co. are among the most established and accomplished in the Truck Series when measured against the teams that played musical chairs during the winter months and have young drivers surrounding them in the garage. Their experience, consistency and pedigree will again carry them through the first two rounds of the playoffs and into the championship race at Phoenix Raceway, where anything can happen.

Of the driver changes in the offseason, which one will exceed expectations?

Bass: Justin Haley, because of how low the bar is for his Rick Ware Racing team, based on past performance. I expect a substantial improvement from the No. 51 bunch in 2024. RWR seemed to be trending in the right direction at the end of last season. Kaulig Racing was in a lame-duck situation with Haley in the No. 31 and won’t have AJ Allmendinger or anyone else back full time in the No. 16 to be the veteran voice that this organization desperately needs. And the second car at Legacy Motor Club has had only one memorable performance in team history. Meanwhile, RWR found speed toward the end of the season with Ryan Newman behind the wheel and earned a pair of top 10s along the way with drivers Riley Herbst and JJ Yeley. With stronger ties being forged with partners at resurgent RFK Racing and Ford, I expect Haley, who has a history of punching above his weight, to surprise a lot of people and contend for top-20 finishes frequently.

Glover: While the turnover in the Cup was relatively thin, there is one change in the Xfinity Series to keep an eye on: the pairing of Sammy Smith and JR Motorsports. Smith’s rookie season with Joe Gibbs Racing last year was solid. He got to victory lane, stayed out of trouble and learned a lot. Somewhat of a summer slump kept Smith under the radar in the playoffs, when he had five top 10s. Had it not been for lost track position at Martinsville, Smith may very well have competed for the title at Phoenix. While many expect him to be a frontrunner this season, he is someone who is a strong breakout candidate to dominate races and the season in general.

Mark Kristl: Ty Dillon driving for Rackley WAR will turn some heads. Rackley made the playoffs in 2023 and won a race in 2022. Dillon himself has also run well in Trucks, with two top-five point finishes in both of his full-time seasons. I expect Dillon to win at least one race this season, make the playoffs and show he’s a force to be reckoned with all season.

Allaway: Likely John Hunter Nemechek at Legacy Motor Club. The team was horrible for most of last season when Noah Gragson was driving the car. Hocevar showed some improvement late in the year, but having Nemechek for the full season should revitalize it. Also, Nemechek’s back in Cup after three full years away. He’s got a chip on his shoulder.

Who will win Rookie of the Year in each NASCAR national series?

Stoddard: While Stewart-Haas Racing has been down on its luck the past couple of years, Josh Berry will bring home Rookie of the Year more or less by default, going up against Spire entries and Kaz Grala, who is splitting the schedule between two teams. It will be more or less the same story in the Truck Series, as Layne Riggs is in a more established championship ride in the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford compared to his competition. The Xfinity rookie race is the most intriguing, with big names like Shane van Gisbergen, Hailie Deegan and Jesse Love putting their hats in the ring. In the end, I give the edge to van Gisbergen with his talent and championship experience in Australian Supercars. There will be a learning curve to overcome early in the season, but van Gisbergen will make the playoffs and stand out from the rest of the rookie class.

Allaway: For the Cup Series, Zane Smith. The team has access to a lot of information from Trackhouse, which will only benefit him. Plus, he brings a lot of natural talent to the table. In the Xfinity Series, Love. He’s got a strong team and he’s coming off of an excellent season in the ARCA Menards Series. He should be very strong almost right away. The Truck rookie is going to be Riggs. This might be the least competitive of the three as Riggs is with a top team. ThorSport Racing might be spread too thin for Conner Jones to do all that much, and Faction46 with Thad Moffitt is a general unknown.

Kristl: The easy one is for Riggs to win the Truck ROTY. He’s a young talented driver climbing into stout equipment. In Xfinity, it will come down to Love and van Gisbergen. While Love has more oval experience, van Gisbergen is driving for Kaulig. He has veteran driver Allmendinger as his teammate, and his road course skills will garner him ROTY honors. In Cup, although Berry is driving for SHR, its struggles in 2023 combined with Spire’s growth should make for an intriguing storyline. In the end, SHR’s proven record along with Berry’s Cup experience will make the difference as he will capture the ROTY title.

Bass: Riggs, Love and Berry will earn Rookie of the Year honors in 2024. Consistency will be key for Berry and Riggs because no rookies in Cup or Trucks will win a race this year. It will be an old-fashioned points battle, and these two rookies tend to bring their rides home in one piece more often than the other rookies, based on the small sample size we’ve seen and past performances in other series. They will also have the most organizational speed of their rookie classmates weekly. Love will win in Xfinity, but it will be a battle with van Gisbergen for the title. Both drivers are expected to contend for wins based on the history of their teams and both should find victory lane at some point this year. Van Gisbergen will be a betting favorite at every non-oval race but the return of teammate Allmendinger as a full-time Xfinity driver will pose a significant threat to his chances of winning those events.

About the author

Mark Kristl joined Frontstretch at the beginning of the 2019 NASCAR season. He is the site's ARCA Menards Series editor. Kristl is also an Eagle Scout and a proud University of Dayton alum.

Austin Bass joined Frontstretch in 2024 as a contributor to combine his passion for racing and writing. Born in Wilson, NC, he developed a passion for racing at an early age while attending local short tracks on Saturday nights with his dad and watching the stars of the sport from their living room on Sunday afternoons.

Bass is a graduate of UNC-Wilmington with a degree in Communication Studies where he developed a deep understanding, appreciation, and love for the Oxford comma. He is an industrial degreaser salesman for Cox Industries whenever he is not writing or talking about racing.

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

Josh joined Frontstretch in 2023 and currently covers the ARCA Menards Series. Born and raised in Missouri, Josh has been watching motorsports since 2005. He currently is studying for a Mass Communication degree at Lindenwood University

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

Andrew Stoddard joined Frontstretch in May of 2022 as an iRacing contributor. He is a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College, the University of Richmond, and VCU. He has a new day job as an athletic communications specialist at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.

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