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NASCAR mailbag: Silly season, Zane Smith, Stewart-Haas Racing in 2023

Answering NASCAR questions about Zane Smith's future, the driver of the No. 10 car for SHR, Noah Gragson's future, Jimmie Johnson's return to NASCAR, and more.

Austin Konenski
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Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The calendar has turned over to June and that means NASCAR’s silly season is on the minds of fans around social media. Let’s dive into the questions being answered in this week’s NASCAR mailbag.

NASCAR silly season: Zane Smith’s future in the sport

Zane Smith’s future in NASCAR has always been a topic of conversation due to its fluidity. Smith moved over from GMS Racing to Front Row Motorsports in the Truck Series and is having a breakout year.

The 22-year-old driver signed a multi-year contract with Front Row last year, so he is set for the time being unlike in years past. However, that doesn’t mean he won’t move up.

Smith was going to be the driver of the No. 1 car for Chip Ganassi Racing if they stayed in NASCAR but they did not and sold their operations to Trackhouse Racing.

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There is a very strong possibility Smith stays with Ford and people within the manufacturer view him very highly. High enough that the driver of the No. 38 truck will make his Cup Series debut in place of Chris Buescher at Gateway.

Smith might not need another year in the Truck Series. In fact, the idea of him moving to the No. 10 car for Stewart-Haas Racing is not too far-fetched. It will be interesting to watch, but Smith will be in a quality ride in 2023.

Who will drive the No. 10 car in 2023?

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Speaking of Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 10 car, it brings us straight into the next question. There have been many names linked to the ride, such as Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Preece, and John Hunter Nemechek.

It seems very likely that Busch and Stenhouse retain their respective rides for the 2023 season and Preece seems to be the frontrunner to grab the seat.

However, it’s hard to discount Nemechek and Zane Smith. Toyota Racing loves Nemechek but they need to find a spot for him in the future as he grows out of his Kyle Busch Motorsports ride.

If his team doesn’t think there’s another path, a switch over to Ford or even Chevrolet shouldn’t be out of the question. Smithfield’s future is going to determine much about the driver of the No. 10 car.

They have to decide on whether they stay or return as the sponsor and if they do not, Stewart-Haas Racing might need to grab someone with sponsorship. It is safe to assume that Preece is the favorite but things are far from over.

Which manufacturer has the best development program in NASCAR?

The best NASCAR development program among manufacturers is an interesting question. There are reasons for all of them but let’s dive into the top one.

Toyota is definitely the top development program. Initially, Kyle Larson was in the Toyota program. William Byron, Erik Jones, Christopher Bell, and many other young talents were developed by Toyota.

That doesn’t even include the talent that is still sitting below. Ty Gibbs, Chandler Smith, Corey Heim, Sammy Smith, Buddy Kofoid, and more are highly rated prospects that are more than likely in the Cup Series one day.

Noah Gragson was brought up by Toyota and he’ll be in the Cup Series next season too. They know how to develop drivers and it has created more drivers than available seats.

While Chevrolet and Ford have brought up their fair share of talent, Toyota-developed drivers have started to take over NASCAR and it’s not going to slow down any time soon.

Noah Gragson’s future in the NASCAR Cup Series

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Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Noah Gragson is most likely the top driver in NASCAR’s lower series’ that should be in consideration for a ride. Gragson has two wins, nine top-5 finishes, and nine top-10 finishes in the Xfinity Series.

Gragson is running full-time Xfinity Series with JR Motorsports and part-time Cup Series with Kaulig Racing this season. Gragson has attempted two “normal” tracks with finishes of 18th and 24th place.

The 23-year-old driver has matured as a person and driver which is why he is in a prime position to make the jump to full-time Cup Series racing in 2023.

The easiest option remains a full-time opportunity for Kaulig Racing in the No. 16 car. Gragson will finish out the year in the car during the last four events and it will allow him to gain a rhythm.

JR Motorsports could move to the Cup Series but it doesn’t seem very likely. However, as The Athletic’s Jordan Bianchi reported, the No. 8 car for Richard Childress Racing could be possible if Tyler Reddick is bought out.

It will take a lot for that to fall into place, but it’s possible. The No. 19 car for Joe Gibbs Racing also makes sense due to sponsorship. Ty Gibbs will, most likely, stay in the Xfinity Series in 2023 and if Martin Truex Jr. retires, the ride is open.

If Joe Gibbs Racing can’t bring in Reddick and Gibbs stays in Xfinity, Gragson is the best driver on the market so it would make sense if they want to poach him from Chevrolet.

Gragson’s future is going to be very interesting to watch and something that will play out in the coming months.

Will Jimmie Johnson return to NASCAR?

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Jimmie Johnson retired from full-time NASCAR Cup Series racing at the conclusion of the 2020 season and instantly made his transition to the NTT IndyCar Series where he runs full-time today.

The question of whether Johnson returns to NASCAR on a part-time basis is certainly one to think about as he is one of the greatest drivers the sport has ever seen.

The 46-year-old driver has been on record saying he would like to run the “double” in 2023 which is the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. However, it would need to be a competitive ride.

Enter Justin Marks, owner of Trackhouse Racing. Marks was asked by a Reddit user if he would allow Johnson to run the No. 91 international car in a double-duty effort and his answer was “absolutely.”

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Trackhouse Racing has equipment capable of winning and if Johnson is sincere in his statement, the opportunity will be presented to him. However, that is a lot to ask for a single.

If that would be too much, Johnson has also stated he would be interested in running the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval again, but NASCAR currently uses the road course.

Don’t be surprised if NASCAR eventually moves back to the oval as early as next season. The NextGen car presents the opportunity due to the quality of racing.

Johnson is a NASCAR legend and if he wants to return to the sport, it will absolutely happen. As for now, things need to fall into place to make it happen.