Race Weekend Central

Holding A Pretty Wheel: 5 NASCAR Cup Drivers Poised for Breakout 2024

Everyone loves a first win, an underdog in victory lane and a driver carrying his equipment further than it should rightfully go.

What makes racing so much fun is that there’s a real possibility of those things happening. We also get to see drivers grow up before our eyes, learning how to race to win and then winning…and then winning it all. 

We’ve seen the usual suspects pick up where they left off so far in 2024, but we’ve also seen some others give notice that they’re here, too. 

And that it just might be their year.

For different drivers, a breakout year might mean different things. For one, a win would be a major step. For another, going rounds deep in the playoffs would be a career leap.

Here are five drivers who could make 2024 their best year yet, what that would entail, and just what we should realistically expect.

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1. Daniel Suarez

Daniel Suarez is an example of how getting rushed to the NASCAR Cup Series too quickly can hurt a driver’s career.

He’s far from the only one, but here’s a recap: At 24, Suarez won the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity title for owner Joe Gibbs. It was only his second full season in a NASCAR national series, and Suarez looked like with another year under his belt, he’d be ready for a move to a Cup ride.

But the abrupt retirement of Carl Edwards put Suarez in the driver’s seat – and the hot seat in 2017. And he didn’t have a bad rookie season, scoring 12 top 10s and finishing 20th in points. 

But when he didn’t improve in his sophomore season, he was out of a ride at Joe Gibbs Racing in favor of Martin Truex Jr.

A year at Stewart-Haas Racing produced similar decent-but-not-playoff-contending results. Suarez wasn’t far off the mark; he finished 17th in points. But with Cole Custer looking for a break, Suarez was out after just a year. He went to a bottom-basement Gaunt Brothers Racing before landing at a brand-new single-car organization: Justin Marks’ startup Trackhouse Racing.

The team had growing pains in its 2021 season, with just four top 10s. But then came 2022.

The organization expanded to two teams and put both of them in victory lane and the playoffs. For the first time in his career, Suarez found stability, and while he didn’t win in 2023 and missed the postseason, he’s come out swinging in 2024.

Suarez was in contention late in the Daytona 500 but got caught in a late crash. A week later, he took Cup champions Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch three wide coming to the checkers and made it stick.

Already a winner and in the playoffs, Suarez and his team experimented a little at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday (March 3). Suarez had a solid 11th-place finish despite falling back mid-race and both he and teammate Ross Chastain looked strong during the race.

Suarez is off to the best start of his career. He’s excellent on superspeedways and road courses. What’s been missing is consistency on other tracks. But after his start to this year, Suarez looks like he might just be putting that piece in the puzzle. You can’t call him a title favorite yet, but he could win multiple races and force his way into that conversation. Realistically, he looks like he could easily win a couple more before the year is out.

2. Ty Gibbs

Sure, Ty Gibbs shares a last name with his team owner, his grandfather Joe Gibbs. But he has the talent to go with his name. He’s an ARCA Menards Series and Xfinity Series champion already. Yes, he’s had great equipment. So has any other title contender in NASCAR in recent years.

Gibbs’ rookie year last year was underwhelming with just four top fives, but he did score 10 top 10s. Also, he was just 20 when the season started and had also lost his father, Coy Gibbs, very suddenly the night he won the Xfinity title just a couple of months before. And despite his success in both ARCA and NXS, Gibbs is still relatively inexperienced in national competition.

But he’s started 2024 strong.

After finishing 17th at Daytona International Speedway, he grabbed his first top 10 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and his first top five at Las Vegas. He’s currently ninth in points, ahead of teammates Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell. His average finish is six places ahead of Hamlin’s. Gibbs is behind teammate Martin Truex Jr. in points, but Truex has yet to score a top five and Gibbs’ two top 10s tops Truex’s one as well. Gibbs’ average also slightly beats Truex’s. Obviously, it’s early, but Gibbs has been rock solid.

If he can keep up the consistency, his first win will come. 

And Gibbs could go a couple of rounds in the playoffs. He’s got the equipment and the backing. He still lacks the experience in racing for a title that his teammates and most of his competition do, and that could hold him back…for now. But the first win is coming.

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3. Noah Gragson

Noah Gragson has been a loose cannon throughout his career, both on and off the track.

Even before a behavioral suspension by NASCAR last year, Gragson had shown a decided lack of maturity when it came to his off-track, but still public life. On track, he was fast in everything he drove but angered other drivers with his driving and his attitude.

After missing most of 2023 due to suspension, though, Gragson has come back strong. Picked up by Stewart-Haas in the offseason to replace the departing Aric Almirola, he’s come out swinging in 2024, but not, so far at least, swinging blindly. He’s chosen his punches carefully, finishing ninth at Daytona and sixth at Vegas.

Gragson had a rough go at Atlanta, crashing and finishing 36, but he didn’t let it affect him the following week and quietly and efficiently drove through the field, the lone SHR driver to finish in the top 15.

Cup veterans won’t let Gragson pull some of the moves he got away with in Xfinity and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, but that’s to his benefit, as he’ll learn to be a better driver. He’s showing that already, and he’ll need to uphold that maturity on his own as there’s not really a veteran teammate to mentor him at SHR.

That’s a lot to ask, but Gragson has a lot of talent; he’s finished runner-up in both the Truck and Xfinity Series and probably should have won the Xfinity title in 2022; he had a slightly better season than Gibbs and won eight races. But he also had a lot of people angry with him.

If he can tone down the aggression and not drive over his head, Gragson is good enough to win in Cup. It might not happen this year (and that’s as much on SHR as it is on Gragson), but if he keeps running the way he has, he could be a dark horse candidate to make the playoffs even without one. He’s worth watching.

4. Erik Jones

Erik Jones has three Cup wins and two playoff appearances on his resume.

He finished fourth in the Xfinity standings in his only full-time season in 2016, after winning the Truck Series title the year before at just 19. Despite his experience, Jones is just 27. He’s posted a win for Petty GMS Motorsports (now Legacy Motor Club) in the 2022 Southern 500, missing the playoffs by a week.

But Jones’ promise has gone largely unfulfilled. He had a couple of wins at JGR, only to be replaced by a shinier model in Bell. Jones was just 24 at the time and that’s still young to have veteran’s experience. He’s matured as a driver at LMC but hasn’t had the equipment. 

But the team’s switch from a lower-tier Chevrolet organization to a second-tier Toyota program should put the team in a better spot, and that will benefit both Jones and young teammate John Hunter Nemechek. They won’t get much from the other Toyota teams (JGR still owns the sandbox) but they will get support from the manufacturer and that could lead to better days for Jones.

He has a top 10 at Daytona this year and finished a respectable 14th in Vegas Sunday. Jones has shown that he can carry his equipment. Now he has better equipment to carry, and that should lead to more results. Having veteran Matt Kenseth on board to work with the LMC youngsters is also a bonus. Jones could put his team on the map this year.

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5. Todd Gilliland

Todd Gilliland is another driver who’s showing that equipment makes a difference. After teammate Michael McDowell’s playoff bid last year, Ford has finally taken notice of Front Row Motorsports and upped its support, with more reported to come next year.

The finishes have not been there for Gilliland in 2024 and neither has the luck. But his finishes don’t tell the whole story.

He’s already led a career-high 74 laps, including 16 at Daytona and 58 at Atlanta, also a career best for a single race. He was in position for at least a top 10 in the Daytona 500 before getting caught in a late crash that wasn’t his fault.

Leading laps should give Gilliland confidence. He’s a winner in the Truck Series and has three top 10-point finishes. 

2024 could be a good year for the 23-year-old. A win still seems like a stretch, though it wouldn’t be a huge shock if he took a superspeedway trophy. But he can learn to race with better drivers, and that experience will make it seem easier and easier. For Gilliland, five top fives and 10 top 10s seem like a reachable goal, and the experience he gets from that will prepare him for more next year and beyond.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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The crap shoots of Daytona and Atlanta are over , now let’s see where your 5 start finishing.

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