Any even remotely impartial observer will admit that the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season will be a struggle for at least three drivers who entered the year with reasonably high expectations.
That trio of drivers, Harrison Burton, Alex Bowman, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., all fell short of expectations, raising questions about their futures with their respective organizations.
While all three will remain in place for 2023, the future beyond that is bleak at best. Let’s see what Burton, Bowman, and Stenhouse must do next season to further their plans for 2024 and beyond.
Harrison Burton can’t afford a sequel to his tough rookie season
Harrison Burton took the iconic No. 21 Ford of the Wood Brothers after the two most successful seasons in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. He has legitimate reasons to feel optimistic about 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 in Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend. It hasn’t gotten any easier since then with the second generation driver.
Burton posted 25 finishesth28th25thand 22n.d before finally claiming his first top-10 finish: a 10th-place result at Atlanta in the first race of the second half of the 36-race season. Three races later, Burton earned his first top-five finish.
He celebrated an impressive third-place showing on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. But the struggle continued as he failed to finish in the top 10 even once in the last 14 events.
Burton may 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 long-standing partnership between the two Ford organizations.
Given Team Penske’s success in 2022 — all three drivers making the playoffs, a total of five career wins across the three teams, and Joey Logano’s championship — it’s reasonable to expect more from Burton. And that will be the case especially next season when he can no longer blame his rookie status.
If Harrison, the son of 21-time Cup race winner Jeff Burton, can’t even find a way to finish in the top 10 more regularly, there’s a good chance he’ll be looking for work come 2024.
The pressure is on Alex Bowman to increase it to 2023
The 2022 season proved to be a rollercoaster ride for Alex Bowman. The Tucson, Arizona, native needed just three starts to score the playoff-clinching win in Las Vegas.
Three weeks later, Bowman nearly won again on the road course at the Circuit of The Americas. Afterwards, he managed just two top-fives and finished no better than fourth the rest of the season.
Of course, Bowman’s low point in 2022 will no doubt be his five-career absence. This follows 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 crash 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 has never finished better than sixth in the standings, and he is 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 is on him to take it up a notch or two if he wants a contract extension with the most successful organization in NASCAR history.
Expect some growing pains for Bowman next season as he transitions from veteran crew chief Greg Ives to a new pit boss. However, he will still need to step up his game significantly to be confident of sticking around for 2024 and beyond.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. can’t count. that his team and sponsors will tolerate forever
If there’s one driver who looks like he can ride and keep his sponsors happy despite the pattern of mediocrity, it’s newlywed Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
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Despite being shut out of Victory Lane since his magical two-win season with Roush Fenway Racing in 2017, Stenhouse has somehow managed to stay employed by a Cup Series team.
The 2023 season will be Stenhouse’s fourth year with JTG Daugherty Racing. The team inexplicably offered the now 35-year-old Mississippi native a multi-year contract extension amid a difficult 2022 campaign. Stenhouse collected just five top-10 finishes , including just one top-five, and finished 26th in the standings — his worst points result since 2014.
Although Stenhouse appears to have a way to Kroger’s heart, his anchor sponsor at No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevy, you have to imagine that, at some point, the grocery chain’s patience will wear thin. Will that happen if Stenhouse stumbles through another winless season in 2023?
It is certainly possible. Multi-year contracts can be broken. It’s hard to fathom both team and sponsor wanting to keep Stenhouse on board until 2024 if he doesn’t show at least marginal improvement in 2023 when he’ll be reunited with crew chief Mike Kelley, who calls the shots for him in his NASCAR Xfinity Series championship seasons of 2011 and 2012.