Any even remotely unbiased observer would admit that the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season was a struggle for at least three drivers who entered the year with justifiably high hopes.
That trio of drivers, Harrison Burton, Alex Bowman, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., all fell short of expectations, raising questions about their future with their respective organizations.
Although all three will stay put for 2023, the future beyond that is murky at best. Let’s look at what Burton, Bowman, and Stenhouse must do next season to shore up their plans for 2024 and beyond.
Harrison Burton can’t afford a sequel to his tough rookie season
Harrison Burton took over the Wood Brothers’ iconic No. 21 Ford after two mostly successful seasons in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. He had legitimate reasons to feel optimistic heading into his rookie season at NASCAR’s highest level.
Burton sputtered from the get-go, however, needing 14 starts to record his first top-15 finish: an 11th-place result in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend. It didn’t get any easier from there on the second-generation driver.
Burton posted finishes of 25th, 28th, 25th, and 22nd before finally claiming his first top-10 finish: a 10th-place outcome at Atlanta in the first race of the 36-race season’s second half. Three races after that, Burton picked up his first top-five finish.
He celebrated an impressive third-place showing on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. But the struggles resumed as he failed to finish in the top 10 even once over the final 14 events.
Burton might not have the best equipment in the garage. But the Wood Brothers’ cars are prepared out of the Team Penske shop in Mooresville, North Carolina as part of a longstanding partnership between the two Ford organizations.
Given the success of Team Penske in 2022 — all three drivers making the playoffs, a total of five race wins among the three teams, and Joey Logano’s championship — it’s reasonable to expect more from Burton. And that will be especially the case next season when he’ll no longer have his rookie status to blame.
If Harrison, the son of 21-time Cup race winner Jeff Burton, can’t at least find a way to finish in the top 10 with more regularity, there’s a strong possibility he’ll be looking for work come 2024.
The pressure is on Alex Bowman to take it up a notch in 2023
The 2022 season proved to be quite a rollercoaster ride for Alex Bowman. The Tucson, Arizona, native needed just three starts to score a playoff-clinching win at Las Vegas.
Three weeks later, Bowman nearly won again on the road course at Circuit of The Americas. Then, he earned just two top-fives and finished no better than fourth the rest of the season.
Of course, Bowman’s low point of 2022 was unquestionably his five-race absence. This followed the concussion he suffered in an accident at Texas Motor Speedway on September 25.
Bowman received medical clearance to return for the season finale in his home state of Arizona. But his comeback ended with a literal thud when he hit the wall after a bump from Michael McDowell.
Since becoming a full-time Hendrick Motorsports driver in 2018, Bowman has won seven races — four of them in 2021. But he’s never finished better than sixth in the standings, and he’s ranked No. 12 or worse in four of his five seasons.
Entering 2023, Bowman will be the only Hendrick driver in a contract year. So the onus will be on him to take it up a notch or two if he wants a contract extension with the most successful organization in NASCAR history.
Some growing pains are expected for Bowman next season as he transitions from veteran crew chief Greg Ives to a new pit boss. However, he’ll still need to elevate his game considerably to feel confident about being retained for 2024 and beyond.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. can’t expect his team and sponsors to tolerate mediocrity forever
If there’s one driver who seems to be able to keep a ride and his sponsors happy despite a pattern of mediocrity, it’s newlywed Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Despite being shut out of Victory Lane since his magical two-win season at Roush Fenway Racing in 2017, Stenhouse has somehow managed to stay employed with a Cup Series team.
The 2023 season will be Stenhouse’s fourth year at JTG Daugherty Racing. This team inexplicably offered the now-35-year-old Mississippi native a multi-year contract extension amid a difficult 2022 campaign. Stenhouse collected only five top-10 finishes, including just one top-five, and finished 26th in the standings — his worst points outcome since 2014.
Although Stenhouse seems to have a way to the heart of Kroger, his anchor sponsor on the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevy, you have to figure that, at some point, the grocery chain’s patience will wear thin. Will that happen if Stenhouse stumbles his way through another winless season in 2023?
It’s certainly possible. Multi-year contracts can be broken. It’s hard to fathom both the team and sponsor wanting to keep Stenhouse on board through 2024 if he doesn’t display at least marginal improvement in 2023 when he’ll reunite with crew chief Mike Kelley, who called the shots for him in his NASCAR Xfinity Series championship seasons of 2011 and 2012.