By Logan Morris
NASCAR Silly season had its latest surprise this past week when it was announced that Austin Hill would return to Richard Childress Racing and continue to compete full-time in the Xfinity Series next season. In his statement confirming the news, Hill talked about the fact he had multiple offers he was considering but ultimately chose to stay at RCR for the foreseeable future. While that creates a lot of long-term questions for RCR, it also creates immediate questions for Kaulig Racing. Hill was the heavily-rumoured favourite for Kaulig’s 31 Car next season. Team President Chris Rice seemingly validated the speculation by being caught off guard by Hill’s announcement on social media. Options appear to be dwindling, but there are still a few names out there that deserve consideration
With that in mind, let’s take a look at three potential candidates for the 31 Car:
Chandler Smith First, the front-runner for the ride - Chandler Smith. At first glance, there's a strong argument to be made that Smith needs further development in the Xfinity Series. After all, he's in his first full year in the Xfinity Series. However, in the world of racing, circumstances can often shape opportunities. While Smith's talent is still raw and undeveloped, the 31 car could be an ideal platform for him to learn on the job.
Kaulig Racing fosters a family-like atmosphere that allowed someone like Justin Haley to learn and grow when they took a similar chance on him in 2021. Admittedly, Haley had more experience to rely on, but when considering age, there are parallels. Kaulig has already hinted at their belief in Smith. He made an unsuccessful attempt to qualify for this year's Daytona 500 in a third Kaulig car. He also made his Cup Series debut this season at Richmond, finishing 17th. Additionally, he's set to compete in this weekend's Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona.
In the Xfinity Series, Smith secured his first career win at Richmond in the spring. He boasts five top 5 finishes and nine top 10 finishes. Again, it's reasonable to suggest that he would benefit from another year in the Xfinity Series. However, Kaulig might need to take a chance on their young prospect.
Another potential candidate for taking over the 31 car next season is Daniel Hemric. The 2021 Xfinity Series Champion seems to have slipped from our attention at this point in his career. However, it's important to acknowledge that this might have less to do with Hemric and more to do with the influx of young talent that NASCAR has witnessed in recent years.
Hemric has evolved into a steady journeyman who has returned to Kaulig Racing for the past two seasons. Undoubtedly, the most significant criticism against Hemric is his inability to secure wins. As of now, his Xfinity Series Championship-clinching win at Phoenix remains the sole triumph in his career. While this critique holds validity, he has transformed himself into a seasoned driver who comprehends how to preserve and manage his equipment—a trait strikingly similar to Justin Haley.
Hemric also has one year of experience in the Cup Series to draw from. It's easy to forget that he earned the title of 2019 Cup Series Rookie of The Year. In the current Xfinity Series season, he is once again silently assembling a solid campaign. Presently, he occupies the 8th spot in the championship standings, accumulating four top-5 finishes and eleven top-10s.
A compelling argument can be made that he deserves another opportunity in the Cup Series, even if the concept for 2024 is that he serves as a placeholder until a more promising option arises. As the old adage goes, you'll never know what someone can do with the ball if you never let them carry it. Perhaps Hemric isn't the definitive long-term solution, but taking a chance on him might be worthwhile.
Lastly, an additional option that Kaulig could consider is Noah Gragson. This is not to say that Gragson’s recent actions were acceptable or that he shouldn’t have been suspended. But in the same way that there was a path to redemption for Kyle Larson, there should also be one for Gragson. Kaulig Racing might provide the ideal environment for Gragson to rebuild his image while flying somewhat under the radar. It's possible that Kaulig might not want any association with him, and that would be understandable. Nevertheless, if any team were to welcome Gragson back to the Cup Series, it's likely to be Kaulig.
As mentioned above, Kaulig Racing nurtures a family atmosphere within their team, and Noah has a history with them. He made several starts for them in 2022, achieving his best finish of 18th at Kansas, twice. This season, with Legacy Motor Club, he faced significant struggles before his suspension. He found himself at the very bottom of the standings when he and the team decided to part ways. While some might interpret this as a reason to believe he should face a long wait before being granted another opportunity, it's important to remember that it was just last season when he won an impressive eight races in the Xfinity Series, including an astonishing streak of four consecutive victories.
Additionally, it's worth noting that he is still in the process of working through NASCAR's reinstatement procedure. The duration of this process remains uncertain. To assert that he no longer possesses considerable potential is a narrow viewpoint. It's plausible that Gragson might desire and require a step back to NASCAR's lower tiers.
Irrespective of differing opinions regarding how this season concluded for him he navigated one of the most challenging rookie seasons in recent memory. While piloting the 31 car for Kaulig would entail less pressure compared to driving Legacy MC's iconic No. 42, it's a car that would still likely encounter difficulties in consistently running up front.
Even if Kaulig or another team contemplated taking a leap of faith with Gragson, he might need to start anew in NASCAR's lower divisions and rediscover the joy of racing. For Kaulig, there could be financial advantages in bringing him on board. The truth is that a dissenting faction of NASCAR's fanbase is inclined to support Noah because they perceive him as being wronged by Legacy Motor Club. If Noah Gragson ever returns to compete in the Cup Series, it's a safe bet that he'll emerge as a top merchandise seller. However, if sponsors don’t support his immediate return it’s important to remember Kaulig doesn't have the deep pockets of a team like Hendrick Motorsports - they need sponsorship help. Regardless of Kaulig’s decision on who drives for the team next season, it appears that they are no longer getting their first pick. But, that doesn’t mean they’re aren’t some intriguing names still out there.