While NASCAR’s most popular driver, Chase Elliott, is sidelined with a broken Tibia, the seat for Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 is open for different drivers to get a taste at the Cup Series level in premier equipment.
Josh Berry was the first to get a shot at the ride in Las Vegas. Does he get to remain in the seat or will this be a revolving door for Team Chevy to give their development drivers some time behind the wheel at the pinnacle of the sport?
Who are the five drivers that could get an opportunity in the No. 9? And one name that fans probably won’t see in the NAPA Camaro.
5: Josh Berry
We start with the obvious. Josh Berry was the man to get the call for Hendrick. With JRM’s obvious HMS connections, many expected one of JRM’s drivers to be the call.
Some were surprised it was Berry as he wasn’t the most veteran of the options. Berry has had two chances in the Cup Series driving for Spire Motorsports in 2021. He raced in Dover and Michigan. In Dover, Josh crashed on lap 388 and finished 30th. At Michigan, he started 24th and finished 26th.
With that experience, HMS opted to see throw Berry in on short notice. His qualifying effort was underwhelming while his Hendrick teammates qualified 2nd, 6th, and 11th. In fact, Josh only outqualified Ty Dillon as three others didn’t even post qualifying runs.
The Hendersonville native started 32nd and finished 29th. Fans had mixed reactions to the finish as TDD’s Cody Williams reported.
Should Berry get to continue in the No. 9? Given his lack of experience in the NextGen car coupled with his short track prowess, the expectation is for Josh to be in the 9 again this weekend at Phoenix.
4: Justin Allgaier
Many fans were surprised to see Berry get the get the nod over the long-tenured Justin Allgaier. Allgaier has 81 Cup level races including full seasons in 2014 and 2015 and two races each in 2021 and 2022. In 2022, Justin crashed out of Bristol Dirt (along with 4 others) and finished 30th in Talladega after starting 31st.
While Allgaier’s cup experience is not much to speak of, his average finish across 14 years of Xfinity racing is 11.6. His average finish for 2020 to present is 8.8. He has finished in the top 5 in the Xfinity points championship 10 of 13 seasons, arguably the most successful and consistent result of any of his competitors.
Did HMS make the Berry call based on body type since they didn’t have time to construct a new seat? Was there some sponsorship money that affected the choice? Allgaier’s Brandt sponsorship deal seems to be one of the more loyal relationships in NASCAR’s recent memory, but they don’t put the money together for a Cup level chance.
There is a burning question around Allgaier that could be answered at some point over the next few weeks in Elliott’s absence – what could Justin Allgaier do with a legitimate Cup Series opportunity?
3: Chandler Smith
Next on the list is a little less obvious choice. Chandler Smith. Smith is on a fast trajectory through the NASCAR ranks. In the truck series, Smith won 2 races in his first full effort in 2021. In 2022, Chandler amassed 16 top-10s including 3 wins.
In 2023, he is running a full schedule for Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series. Thus far, he has finished 12th at Daytona, 4th in Fontana, and 3rd in Vegas (after starting on the pole last weekend).
While Smith is under contract with Kaulig Racing which has an alliance with Richard Childress, he is one of Chevy’s top development drivers. Chevrolet could consider putting their preference behind the young driver to give him some seat time at the Cup level. It may not equate to the most immediate success for the number 9 team, it could be of great long term benefit for the rising star.
2: Austin Hill
Another less than obvious option would be Austin Hill. Again, the Richard Childress tie makes the path more difficult but the man is on a tear. Another Chevy development driver, Hill won the Xfinity races in Daytona and Las Vegas. He also sat on pole at Auto Club Speedway in between those two, finishing 6th.
In 2022, Hill only raced one Cup race in Michigan. He finished 18th after starting 33rd. So far in 2023, he attempted to qualify for the Daytona 500, but was wiped out in his Duel race while running toward the front of that short race.
Hill has shown he has the chops in a car to be competitive. He has shown the mental acumen to withstand pressure at the highest level and rise to the occasion. Despite some contractual hurdles, Hill could see himself in the 9 ride as arguably one of the most qualified developmental drivers for Chevy to try out.
1: Corey LaJoie
Maybe the longest shot from a contractual standpoint, Corey LaJoie has said before that he turned down a potential part time schedule in better equipment in order to build something with Spire Motorsports.
With Spire on the rise, that investment and sacrifice could be paying off. But, could the chance to drive one of the best cars in the Cup garage give him more experience racing at the front to help Spire take the next step? On the other side of that coin, would Hendrick want to risk any information being funneled out of their stable and into the Childress camp? Not likely. LaJoie is another driver that is popular among fans and peers like Elliott so if there was a chance for NAPA to see a return on their sponsorship investment, he might be the highest on that list.
Popularity aside, LaJoie has proven he could give the 9 car a chance at the front. After all, it was that car that put LaJoie out of contention for the win at Atlanta in 2022 when Corey was racing Chase Elliott for the checkered flag.
LaJoie also has the most Cup experience on the list. He has raced full time at the highest level since 2019. So far in 2023, Corey’s average finish is 16.7 after starting 12th in the first two races and 19th in Las Vegas.
The Stacking Pennies host is contractually unlikely to see his chance at filling in for Elliott, but it’s hard to argue that he isn’t the most deserving at the shot. The imagination runs wild to see the what could happen for him at Atlanta in the car that cost him his first NASCAR win. That’s right, LaJoie hasn’t won a race in a single NASCAR national event but if Hendrick, Childress, and Spire could all come together, it would be quite the show to watch.
Bonus: Jimmie Johnson
It’s easy to say, “bring back Jimmie,” since he is Hendrick’s most prolific driver and he isn’t running a full schedule for anyone else. Jimmie retired from full-time Cup racing to try his hand at IndyCar, but after spinning out a dizzying amount of times in open wheel, “7-Time” came back to NASCAR as an owner, buying into Petty GMS as they rebranded to Legacy Motor Club.
So why not bring back the best driver for the job? Because Jimmie has an investment to protect and grow. While he has the most recent Cup Series experience of semi-retired drivers that could come in for Elliott and put Hendrick towards the front, Johnson is actively mentoring his young stable of drivers in Erik Jones and Noah Gragson. Unlike Denny Hamlin’s situation with 23XI and their more experienced drivers, Johnson is even more hands-on for Legacy as evidenced by the drama from Richard Petty a few weeks ago.
It seems that JJ’s mentality on his team would preclude him from taking the wheel again for Mr. H. Jimmie has said he wants to run COTA as part of a part-time schedule for his own team and that would be a date that conflicts with Elliott’s absences. Out of the other potentially open races, Johnson is best at Phoenix with an average finish of 10th in 35 races. The following week at Atlanta features higher speed racing which, historically, semi-retired drivers shy away from due to the harder hits.
Fans likely won’t see a Hendrick – Johnson reunion as Jimmie focuses on his next chapter, but options abound for the NAPA Camaro. Will Hendrick stick with Berry for the balance of Chase’s recovery or will Chevy spread the developmental opportunity around?