After the 2019 season came to a close, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnosn announced 2020 would be his last year racing full time. Since 2002 he has dominated competition, tying legends Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty with seven championships. Although this year has been rough for him, underperforming and contracting COVID-19, he’s a guaranteed Hall of Famer and maybe the greatest driver ever.
This leaves the question, who’ll drive his 48 car next year?
To many racing fans, Jones seems the most likely candidate to move to the 48 next year. Just a few days ago it was announced he won’t be returning to Joe Gibbs Racing next year, as they are bringing in Christopher Bell to pilot the 20 car after his old team, Leavine Family Racing, was sold.
Jones only has two career wins as of now, but is still very young and talented. A change of scenery will be good for him next year. Being named the replacement in the iconic 48 car may be the confidence boost he needs to start getting consistent top 20 or even top 10 finishes. Although there will be lots of pressure along with that title, it’s unlikely Jones could have a worse year than Jimmie is having right now.
Recent reports suggest Wallace is leaning towards a multi-year extension with Richard Petty Motorsports, but crazier things have happened. Wallace also has an offer from Chip Ganassi, so why wouldn’t Hendrick be in on him as well? With all the media attention lately, bringing Bubba in could do wonders for teams as they’d have sponsorships coming left and right. Just yesterday, Columbia Sportswear announced they are partnering with him for the next few years. While it looks unlikely he’s switching teams, he’d be a great fit to take on the role of driver in the 48 car if Hendrick can make a sweet enough offer to draw him away from RPM.
Noah Gragson / Justin Allgaier
Gragson and Allgaier are both currently driving in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports, a team aligned with Hendrick. Both are consistently running top 10 cars, but only have two wins between them, both belonging to Gragson.
These two have about the same chance to drive the 48 next year, but there’s one huge difference. Age. If Hendrick is looking for a younger guy, Gragson is a great choice as he’s only 22 and has a very bright future ahead of him in the Cup Series, no matter what ride he gets and when. Allgaier ran the Cup Series full time in 2014-15, and he actually ran his first race in the Cup Series since 2016 last month during the Brickyard 400, filling in for Johnson while he had COVID. At 34, Allgaier would be by far the oldest driver at Hendrick and an obvious choice as he’s the only one that’s driven the 48 besides the seven-time champ, but if Gragson puts together a nice string of races to end the season, maybe we’ll see him in the 48 next year.
Yes, Alex Bowman already drives the 88 for Hendrick Motorsports. If he’d move to the 48, one of two things will happen. The team moves Bowman to the 48 and signs someone else for the 88, or they’d downsize, stop running the 88 and become a three car team. Hopefully the later doesn’t happen, and honestly it probably won’t. Yesterday Acronis announced they’ve become a primary sponsor of the 88 and an associate sponsor for the other three cars, similar to the partnership Valvoline has with them now. It seems unlikely they’d sign a multi-year agreement if they knew the car won’t be run after this season.
The other possibility isn’t terrible though. Bowman has been with Hendrick for a few years now and it would make sense for him to move to the 48 with his experience and have someone else drive the 88, with less eyes on them.
Along with Bowman, Chase Elliott and William Byron also have their rides at Hendrick locked in for a couple more years. Rick Hendrick has a very tough decision ahead of him, and it’ll be interesting to see who fills in for Jimmie Johnson in the Ally 48.
Photo credit: Ally Racing