NASCAR has seen many changes throughout the years, everything from cars, drivers, and tracks have changed throughout the years. One thing that has dramatically changed in the last decade especially is how long new drivers stay on teams. In the older days of NASCAR it always seemed like the drivers would sign to a team and stay with that team for a considerable amount of time before they got cut loose for not driving as well as they should. These days it seems like there are many more drivers joining teams, driving for a year or two, then getting cut loose to a new team or going to a different series. Most teams have their established drivers and have 1 car that rotates between drivers every few years where a new driver comes in and cannot meet expectations before being sent away. One team that does this frequently is Joe Gibbs Racing. Gibbs has had their “big 3” drivers of MTJ, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch for quite some time now with the only open seat, the #20 cars, rotating drivers every few years. It always seems like the last Gibbs driver does not get enough time to establish themselves before being cut for another new young gun driver with high expectations. There are many examples of this happening in the last decade of racing and there are many reasons for this happening, let’s take a look at some of the big reasons.
Driver turnover has picked up vastly, especially in the last few years. In the last 2 years a big change in the sport was the elimination of qualifying and practice due to Covid-19 restrictions now allowing as many people at the race track therefore NASCAR switched to mainly 1 day shows. A 1 day show means the car gets set up at the shop and rolls off the hauler, through inspection, and right onto the racetrack all in one day. This means that new drivers do not get the luxury of running laps on a new track they have never been to and cannot get their setup dialed the way they want if it does not come off the hauler with a perfect setup. In 2022 there will be practice but it will still not be enough compared to the old days where they got a few hours of track time instead of just 20 minutes and then a quick qualifying session that lasted a few laps. This makes it even harder for drivers to master the tracks and hone their skills to run a decent race and grow as a driver.
There are many examples of this but I would say the most recent example is John Hunter Nemecheck at Front Row Motorsports. Nemecheck is a legacy driver in the sport and in the Cup Series was regarded as one of the 3 worst drivers in the series and was known mainly for crashing and having bad races. He decided that at the end of 2020 he would go to a different team in 2021 and ran for Kyle Busch Motorsports where he was a flat tire away from winning a championship and was far and away the best driver in the series and proved that given equipment that is not backmarker material he can actually compete. Nemecheck was running very middle or back of the pack week in and week out but when you really look at it he was running the best his car would let him go. Front Row Motorsports cars are not very good and it takes a lot to even get them inside the top 20 unless they are at a plate track where the field is dead even and everyone is level. This is no way to really judge a talent due to them not being able to even run top 20 when they are pushing the car to the absolute limit and is really unfair to the drivers that have to work their way up using backmarker teams. Sure you can use the argument that a truly good driver can win in anything but there are very few drivers that can actually take a backmarker team and drive the car to the front week in and week out.
While there are drivers that get judged too quickly and it can really affect their careers there are also drivers that are well overdue to get shipped out and have their team replace them, the most glaring in all of NASCAR right now is Riley Herbst. Herbst has shown little to no growth in the last couple years in the NASCAR xFinity Series and has never shown any promise, he does bring something a lot of drivers do not bring, a full Monster Energy sponsorship. This is a huge reason why many drivers call Herbst a pay driver and the fact that he has had top level equipment his whole career and cannot seem to be a consistent top 10 car makes him the driver that has long overstayed his welcome. The expectations were very high for Herbst his whole career and year after year it seems that he lands a top level ride and year after year he under performs and runs worse than he should be given his equipment. This is a top ride that Herbst is “hogging” in a sense and wasting the ride on his very average talent.
There are drivers that overstay their visits, there are drivers that get let go too soon, there are drivers that do not ever reach their potential they showed in the lower series of stock car racing. There is only 1 real way to accurately judge a driver’s talent and ensure that the best drivers should get top rides and have the Cup Series be filled with only the top drivers. The solution is a license and class system that other motorsports use around the world to allow drivers into their series. The licence system would be some form of testing and accomplishments that show how good a driver is and depending on how high their license is shows how high up the motorsport ladder they can race. This would require drivers to pass a test before getting into any NASCAR national series and ensure that only the best drivers get in. This would also make judging talent easier because the pool is smaller and there is a solid baseline for all drivers to meet meaning everyone starts off on a more even field and there would be less busts. Thai would improve the talent pool and therefore improve the racing greatly which would help NASCAR on all levels.