By: Max Corcoran
As the 2022 NASCAR season wraps up, Silly Season still presses on. Although most seats have been filled for 2023, a big one remains open; the Joe Gibbs Racing #18 Toyota. Driven by Kyle Busch since 2008, his departure for Richard Childress Racing has opened up one of the most coveted seats in the Cup Series garage. In my debut piece for TheSlowRestart, I keep true with my roots and present to you NASCAR Silly Season 23: Hunting for Victory.
Kyle Busch is arguably the most polarizing figure in NASCAR today. His on-track antics and his presence on social media has made him well known among fans and outsiders. Paired together with the iconic yellow M&Ms Toyota since 2008, he’s easily one of the most well-known drivers on the circuit.
However, in December 2021, everything would change as Mars Incorporated, the parent company of M&Ms, Skittles, Snickers, and other sweets that appeared on Busch’s cars throughout the years announced they would be leaving the NASCAR scene following 2022. Worse yet for the Rowdy faithful, 2022 was also a contract year for the Las Vegas driver.
After months of speculation and rumors, Kyle Busch was officially announced to drive the Richard Childress Racing #8 Chevrolet on September 13, 2022, replacing Tyler Reddick as he soon departed a year early for 23XI Racing in 2023. With no immediate replacement for the #18 announced, fans were left to speculate. Just about everyone turned their heads toward Ty Gibbs, a rookie sensation in the Xfinity Series and grandson of team owner Joe Gibbs.
The NASCAR world immediately took notice of Ty Gibbs after he won the Daytona Road Course in 2021, his first ever start in the Xfinity Series. He ran 18 of 33 races in 2021 and collected 4 wins, 9 top 5’s and 10 top 10 finishes. When he was announced to the #54 Xfinity car full-time in 2022, many fans and media personalities had him circled as a title contender.
Gibbs picked up where he left off, scoring his first win of the season just three races in, and he stayed hot winning 2 of the next 5 races and scoring three consecutive poles. By the halfway mark at Road America, Gibbs had 3 wins, 7 top 5’s, and 9 top 10’s. He captured win #4 of the year that weekend, beating out defending NASCAR Cup champion Kyle Larson in a tough battle at the Wisconsin road course.
With the future looking bright for Gibbs, many began to wonder: when will he move up to the Cup Series? Many people originally speculated Gibbs to take over the JGR #19 in 2024 following the anticipated retirement of 2017 Cup champ Martin Truex, Jr. But after Kurt Busch, driver of the #45 Toyota for 23XI suffered a season-ending and ultimately a full time career-ending concussion during a wreck in qualifying for the Cup Series event at Pocono, Ty was tabbed to drive for the team.
Gibbs impressed in his Cup debut, staying out of trouble and finishing 16th on the lead lap with nearly no notice beforehand. He scored his first top 10 just two weeks later at Michigan. All the while, JGR and Kyle Busch still hadn’t come to contract terms, and Gibbs was continuing to impress. By the time the Xfinity Series playoffs started, Gibbs had gathered an additional victory, but had begun to cool down.
Gibbs stayed consistent throughout the playoffs and advanced through to the final round. It was about this point that the lack of overall experience began catching up to him. Having yet to complete a full season, Gibbs was naturally less experienced than the rest of the field and as a result, sometimes made rather poor choices. Several fans held dislike for the young standout. During the playoff elimination race at Martinsville for the Xfinity Series, Gibbs spun and wrecked teammate Brandon Jones for the win, which ultimately eliminated Jones. Gibbs won the championship the following week at Phoenix.
When Kyle Busch’s departure from JGR was confirmed, many thought Ty was destined to move up, especially considering he was chosen to drive the #45 as a replacement for Kurt Busch. It makes sense that his name was thrown around, too. He’s proven he has talent and he is the grandson of the team’s owner. However, Joe Gibbs has stated that he wants Ty to drive another season in the Xfinity Series before moving up.
This is where the mixed speculation comes into play. For the ones, like myself, who don’t believe Gibbs will be in the #18, other drivers need to be considered. For me, I see Joe Gibbs signing John Hunter Nemechek to the ride for the 2023 season. Nemechek has one full season in the Cup Series (2020). After leaving his ride at Front Row Motorsports, he moved to the then-JGR affiliate team in the Truck Series, Kyle Busch Motorsports (KBM). In his first season at KBM, Nemechek shot out of a cannon, scoring 5 wins, 12 top 5’s, and 16 top 10’s. He ultimately finished third in the standings despite being viewed by many as a serious threat for the title.
For 2022, JHN stayed at KBM. His sophomore campaign with the team was slightly less explosive than the previous year, but he still posted a pair of wins, 10 top 5’s, and 15 top 10’s, along with a 5th place finish in the final season standings. Additionally, he was brought on to drive the #45 for 23XI at the Homestead-Miami race following the suspension of Bubba Wallace after an incident the previous week.
In my opinion, the main reason why Nemechek wasn’t selected as the initial substitute for Kurt Busch is due to the timing of the incident. Kurt Busch crashed during qualifying on Saturday and wasn’t officially ruled out until Sunday morning. Nemechek had been at the track for the truck race on Saturday. Nemechek likely left the track and traveled back to North Carolina following the race. Ty Gibbs also raced on Saturday, but at a later time and thus, would have left the track later. Around that time is likely when Kurt was diagnosed, or at least when the teams learned he wouldn’t race, and that’s why Ty Gibbs was put in the 23XI ride.
Both Nemechek and Gibbs are extremely talented and no doubt will be successful in the Cup Series. In terms of 2023, though, I have John Hunter taking the 18. Many rumors are floating around that Martin Truex Jr is set to retire following the 2023 season which would open the #19 up for Ty Gibbs in 2024. Yet, Ty won’t be absent from the Cup scene in 2023. Kurt Busch announced his retirement from full-time competition, but hinted at running some select races. I think 23XI will have a third part-time car split between Busch and Gibbs.
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