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3 best candidates to become Joe Gibbs Racing’s next driver in the No. 18 car

Joe Gibbs Racing will not field the No. 18 car in the NASCAR Cup Series this season. Let's dive into the three best candidates to run the number if it returns.

Joe Gibbs Racing
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Gibbs Racing will not field the No. 18 car in the NASCAR Cup Series for the first time in the organization’s history this year. This comes after Ty Gibbs replaced Kyle Busch but was declared the driver of the No. 54 car.

Let’s dive into the three best candidates to drive the No. 18 car in its possible return for the 2024 season.

John Hunter Nemechek, Joe Gibbs Racing

John Hunter Nemechek, Joe Gibbs Racing
Nov 4, 2022; Avondale, Arizona, USA; Camping World Truck Series driver John Hunter Nemechek during the Lucas Oil 150 Truck Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

John Hunter Nemechek is the most obvious candidate to drive the No. 18 car if the dominos fall right for the 2024 season. Nemechek, 25, will drive full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2023.

The new driver of the No. 20 Xfinity car has previously competed at NASCAR’s top level during the 2020 season with Front Row Motorsports. However, Nemechek decided to go a different route and went to Kyle Busch Motorsports for the 2021 season.

Nemechek did not earn a NASCAR Truck Series championship but did claim seven victories in his two years with the organization. The 25-year-old driver bet on himself and it has started to pay off really well.

If Martin Truex Jr. retires or Denny Hamlin departs the organization at the conclusion of the 2023 season, there will be an opening for someone like Nemechek and an opportunity to bring back the team’s flagship No. 18 car.

Nemechek has won with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series before and there is no doubt that he will be a Championship 4 contender this season. If so, expect the former full-time Cup Series driver to be on the short-list of replacements.

Related: Jimmie Johnson could drive for Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2023

Sammy Smith, Joe Gibbs Racing

Sammy Smith, Joe Gibbs Racing
Nov 5, 2022; Avondale, Arizona, USA; NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Sammy Smith during the Xfinity Championship race at Phoenix Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sammy Smith is one of the best young prospects in NASCAR and that was evident after securing his second straight ARCA Menards East Series championship. Smith, 18, will drive full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

Coincidentally, the Iowa native drove the No. 18 car across the board last year, including the No. 18 car in the Xfinity Series. Smith will continue that tradition into the 2023 season as he will run the same number.

Smith was hands down the best driver in the ARCA Menards Series during the 2022 season and ran well in his select starts in the Xfinity Series. If he wants a chance at the No. 18 car in the Cup Series, it may require another stellar season.

The 18-year-old driver is Toyota’s best prospect so it would not be a surprise to see him move up next year. However, there would certainly be growing pains much like Ty Gibbs’ experience for 23XI Racing in 2022.

Smith has a bright future whether or not he receives the honor to drive the No. 18 car during the 2024 season. Smith’s development is the most important part of the entire process moving forward.

Related: Denny Hamlin provides big update on future at Joe Gibbs Racing

Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports

Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports
Nov 6, 2022; Avondale, Arizona, USA; NASCAR Cup Series driver Michael McDowell during the Cup Championship race at Phoenix Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This would certainly be an out-of-the-box signing but Michael McDowell would represent another veteran presence who has earned the right to an opportunity in good equipment moving forward.

McDowell, 38, is currently in his prime while coming off a career-year in 2022. The Arizona native completed the season with two top-5 finishes, 12 top-10 finishes, and a 16.7 average finishing position.

It would not need to be a long-term contract if he landed the No. 18 car. Perhaps, McDowell could sign a one-year deal and if he performs really well, he could stay in the car longer than one season.

If not, Smith would likely be ready to take over the entry for the 2025 season. This entire situation relies on McDowell backing up his 2022 performance and having a very strong start to the new season.

Plus, McDowell has driven the No. 18 car for Joe Gibbs Racing on one occasion after Kyle Busch was parked at Texas Motor Speedway. It would not be a first-time thing for the 2021 Daytona 500 winner.