Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: The House Is Getting (Too) Full for 2025

Any preconceived expectations for what the 2025 silly season may look like were likely thrown out the window when it was announced that Michael McDowell will leave Front Row Motorsports for Spire Motorsports after the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season.

McDowell will drive the No. 71, which is currently occupied by rookie Zane Smith. This leaves Smith without a Cup ride for 2025.

At least, if things stay the way they are now.

See also
Michael McDowell Moving to Spire in 2025

Smith signed with Trackhouse Racing beginning in 2024 after several years in the Craftsman Truck Series. However, Trackhouse’s two full-time rides were already occupied, and it did not have a third charter. So the team partnered with Spire, who had just bought the charter of Live Fast Motorsports, to field the No. 71 for Smith.

But the No. 71 is still a Spire car, just with Trackhouse assistance as long as Smith is in the car — which will only be until the end of the season.

Trackhouse still doesn’t have a third charter, so Smith is left in no man’s land at the moment. While rumors persist that Stewart-Haas Racing will sell at least one of its charters at season’s end, there’s no guarantee that Trackhouse will be the highest bidder.

But Smith isn’t the only driver Trackhouse has to deal with for 2025. Shane van Gisbergen was also signed to a development deal with Trackhouse following his breakthrough win at the Chicago street course. What was supposed to be scattered starts throughout all three of NASCAR’s premier series in 2024 turned into a full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series campaign and part-time Cup seat with Kaulig Racing.

Much like the Smith/Spire deal, Trackhouse partnered with Kaulig to put van Gisbergen in a full-time Xfinity car for 2024. Again, it’s a Kaulig car, but with Trackhouse support as long as the Kiwi is in the car.

The problem is, it’s hard to imagine van Gisbergen staying in the Xfinity Series after this season. He is getting a much-needed learning session this season as he travels to many racetracks he’s never seen before, let alone raced at. And he probably didn’t leave the Repco Supercars Championship and fly all the way to the United States just to go Xfinity racing. A Cup ride is 100% in the future for him.

It’s not far-fetched to say van Gisbergen has priority over Smith for a Cup ride. He is 35 years old; his window of opportunity for a full-time Cup seat is much smaller than that of the soon-to-be 25-year-old Smith. If you do the math, that leaves two drivers vying for … zero available Cup seats at Trackhouse.

With racing phenom Connor Zilisch also waiting in the wings in the near future, there’s a legitimate jam-up with McDowell moving to the No. 71 next season. Trackhouse signed three drivers late in 2023 with plans for each of them, but the roadmap of those plans was still unclear, and now a wrench is likely thrown in with McDowell taking up Smith’s seat.

So where does Trackhouse go from here?

Well the first thing it should look into (and likely already has) is purchasing a charter from SHR, if it is true a charter sale is in the works. Team owner Justin Marks has shown he’s willing to throw as much money as needed at somebody to get his way (see: his purchase of Chip Ganassi Racing’s NASCAR assets). With co-owner Pitbull more and more invested in the team as well, it’d be surprising if Trackhouse wasn’t one of the highest bidders for any potential charters put up for sale.

That would alleviate some of the issue, as it would put either van Gisbergen or Smith in a ride in a brand new third full-time car. While it’s easy to say that Smith would get the nod as he’s already a full-time Cup driver this season, he has struggled.

A lot.

Smith currently sits 34th in points, last of all the drivers who are competing full time in 2024. He only has two finishes inside the top 20 and has largely brought up the rear of the field, whether on pure pace or through an accident or mechanical issue.

This comes after some part-time starts in 2022 and 2023 with RFK Racing (subbing for Chris Buescher) and Front Row Motorsports that showed real promise out of Smith, even if the finishing results didn’t show it.

See also
Fire on Fridays: No Shane van Gisbergen in the All-Star Race Is Asinine

Smith has no doubt had a rookie season from hell, but van Gisbergen has proven he can win and run up front in his limited Cup starts. Yes, all his good results in Cup have been on road courses, but it’s still better than anything Smith has done this season.

Performance, combined with age, will likely favor the Kiwi in any third Trackhouse car in the future. Smith is kind of an enigma in terms of where he could go. He could easily slot into van Gisbergen’s Xfinity ride next season, letting Trackhouse continue its partnership with Kaulig. That could also give him some more time to develop while earning some Cup starts here and there, much like what van Gisbergen has done this season.

Another option could be through the form of replacement.

Going into the season, it was largely thought that Daniel Suarez needed a good season in 2024 or else he’d likely lose his seat. Entering 2024, he had just one win in his three seasons at Trackhouse.

Suarez quieted the doubters after his thrilling win at Atlanta Motor Speedway, winning by just 0.003 seconds over Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch. However, since then, Suarez has largely reverted back to his usual performance — not bad by any means, but not to the standard of where teammate Ross Chastain usually runs.

If Suarez doesn’t make any noise the rest of the regular season and is a first-round exit from the playoffs, it might be worth it for Trackhouse to put Smith in the No. 99 and see how he could do. While Smith’s rookie season has been nothing short of a disaster, working with another team while signed to a different team is likely not beneficial to either party for several different reasons (which also could be why Spire signed McDowell to compete for itself, not another team).

However, if Suarez and company turn it on over the summer and make a respectable run at the championship, the safer bet would be to send Smith back to the Xfinity Series to help him gain some confidence back. He has the talent; he’s run four races in the Truck Series this year in a fourth truck for McAnally-Hilgemann Racing and hasn’t finished worse than eighth. He just likely needs more development.

While Smith and Trackhouse have not confirmed whether or not they were aware of Spire’s move to sign McDowell prior to public announcement, it’s still a tough situation to be in to have several drivers signed with no solid plan for them beyond the end of this season.

It seems like it should be a good problem to have, but we’ve seen in the past how clogged pipelines have completely changed the landscape of programs. Toyota as a whole has such a clogged pipeline of talent that there are probably more drivers in the Cup field that have left Toyota than there are currently driving for it.

Most drivers have had the talent to move up, but with no rides available, they end up moving elsewhere or get promoted at the expense of an incumbent driver. It’s partly how Suarez moved to Trackhouse. Toyota’s problem has seemed to die down, but Ford’s pipeline has had the same issue arise; that’s how Smith ended up at Trackhouse this season as well.

See also
2-Headed Monster: Did Michael McDowell Make the Right Decision Leaving Front Row for Spire?

All that is to say having too much talent in the Trackhouse shop sounds like a good thing, but with no roadmap for really anyone except Chastain (who is likely locked in at Trackhouse for the foreseeable future), someone is likely to have hurt feelings come 2025.

And then it won’t be too long before the team has to think about Zilisch, who is winning almost everything and could easily find himself in a Cup car by the end of the 2026 season.

Trackhouse is one of the fastest growing Cup teams, with a lot of talent in its system between its five combined drivers. But Smith’s impending departure from Spire after this season could likely throw the whole team into disarray.

And just as it always is, it will be exciting to see how the team overcomes the chaos.

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 now a grad student. 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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Jeff H

One solution for Trackhouse is to run a car (gasp!) without a charter. Just show up and out qualify any other non chartered teams.

Bill B

If making the race was the only reason to need a charter, it wouldn’t be a problem. Non-chartered teams don’t get the same money as chartered teams. It’s already hard to start a new team and turn a profit, being economically handicapped by the governing body itself makes it damn near impossible. I can’t tell you exactly what chartered teams get compared to non-chartered teams, but I do know it’s very significant.

Jeremy

That’s one reason I’ve never been a huge fan of the charter system. In my mind, it stifles competition by eliminating any realistic opportunity for a hungry, scrappy new team to come in and make waves. There can never be a “David” for fans to cheer on when essentially only “Goliath” is allowed in the ring.

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