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Analysis: Intriguing fits for five open Cup Series seats prior to 2022

Aric Almirola, who entered Sunday's Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 winless and 27th in points, won in New Hampshire to earn a place in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

Top Cup Series rides at Team Penske, Wood Brothers Racing and Roush Fenway Racing are now accounted for, but there are still rides available for the 2022 season. With a slew of interesting free agent options on the open market, let’s take a look at the most likely choices to fill vacant seats and, in a bit of matchmaking, identify intriguing fits between drivers and organizations with a Cup Series presence this season.

Stewart-Haas Racing (No. 10 car)

Organizational Profile: Speed skewing towards 750-horsepower tracks; no emphasis between short runs and long runs; conventional pit strategy with good positional output

Most Likely Choice: Aric Almirola — It’d be surprising if the New Hampshire winner (and sponsor Smithfield Foods) didn’t return to SHR at this juncture. The No. 10 car has qualified for the playoffs in each of the four seasons since Almirola replaced Danica Patrick in 2018. Still, Almirola’s ceiling is limited per his statistical profile and SHR is a perennial contender with deep resources, in need of blue-sky talent to optimize equipment.

The Intriguing Fit: Ryan Preece

The 30-year-old Preece supplemented his full Cup Series slate with races elsewhere, helping enhance the perception of his driving ability in a contract year. He triumphed in the Truck Series race at Nashville and claimed three wins this season on various modified tours, including a victory last week in New Hampshire.

While we haven’t seen that winning output from him in Cup for JTG Daugherty Racing — his No. 37 car ranks 25th in average median lap time and his pit crew ranked as the second slowest among top 30 teams in median four-tire box time through the first half of 2021 — he’s acquitted himself well within his running whereabouts, turning in positive surplus pass differentials across all track types, ranked sixth overall. This surprisingly includes road courses, on which he ranks as the second-most efficient passer among series regulars, trailing only Martin Truex Jr.

SHR’s recent pivot to 750-horsepower tracks, visible in recent races at Nashville and New Hampshire, suits Preece, who ranked 15th in Production in Equal Equipment Rating last season on tracks utilizing the rules package, ahead of Almirola, who ranked 20th.

23XI Racing (Second car, yet to be announced)

Organizational Profile: Technically aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing; speed skewing towards 550-horsepower tracks; no emphasis between short runs and long runs; unconventional pit strategy with adequate positional output

Most Likely Choice: Kurt Busch — 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin indicated he wants someone with experience as his next driver, and Busch, a 22-year Cup Series veteran and 2004 champion, has it in spades. Furthermore, he brings sponsor Monster Energy with him, which would help the young organization stretch its dollars further in NASCAR’s Next Gen era.

The Intriguing Fit: Busch

Despite going into his age-43 season, there’s still enough reason to buy into the idea of Busch moving to an upstart JGR-affiliated program, just as long as it’s on a short-term deal.

He turned in a winning performance two weeks ago at Atlanta, a 550-horsepower track, for an organization in Chip Ganassi Racing that’s best suited for tracks utilizing this rules package. A shift to 23XI, which ranks faster with Bubba Wallace on 550-horsepower tracks, would represent more of the same for Busch.

But Busch’s more herculean efforts in totality this year have come on 750-horsepower ovals, the only track type on which he has a positive surplus pass differential, and in road races, where he scored finishes of fourth (on the Daytona road course), fourth (at Road America) and sixth (at Sonoma). His knack for individual performance on the smaller tracks and road courses with heavier horsepower would give 23XI a hedge on its current 550-horsepower bet and diminish its need for what is often unconventional pit strategy.

Trackhouse Racing (Second car)

Organizational Profile: Technically aligned with Richard Childress Racing; speed skewing towards 550-horsepower tracks; slight emphasis on short runs; unconventional pit strategy with adequate positional output

Most Likely Choice: Ross Chastain — He’s established himself as one of the most efficient passers in the series, a constant for a team with disjointed speed across the entire season. His experience in coaxing speed out of back-marker or merely average equipment — like Premium Motorsports in Cup, JD Motorsports in Xfinity and Niece Motorsports in Trucks — prepared him for doing the same at the Cup Series level. With Trackhouse ranked outside the top 20 in average median lap time, it’s a skill of his that could translate.

The Intriguing Fit: Chastain, along with current crew chief Phil Surgen

Surgen is an interesting strategist, one who’s mostly effective at retaining Chastain’s running position (currently at an above-average 75% clip), but he can also mix in some legitimate Hail-Mary shots at race wins. If the speed still isn’t there in 2022 for this young team, these kinds of calls will materialize in gambits for wins (and playoff spots), but whereas Travis Mack and Daniel Suárez make heavy use of them, Surgen’s restraint would be a welcomed sight, one necessary for padding points in the stage-racing era.

Chastain seems like someone who can evolve into a winning Cup Series driver and with Trackhouse on the same growth timeline, the two parties appear equally aligned, a shared trajectory independent of one another that, if combined, could yield a lot of success in the years to come.

JTG Daugherty Racing (No. 47 car)

Organizational Profile: Balanced speed across both rules packages; no emphasis between short runs and long runs; unconventional pit strategy with adequate positional output

Most Likely Choice: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse and crew chief Brian Pattie have a relationship pre-dating their time with JTG Daugherty and on their best day — their sixth-place finish at Nashville comes to mind — they really click. Stenhouse wants to return, and in the odd chance the organization consolidates from two teams to one, it’d benefit a driver who, despite high crash rates over the course of his career, is an efficient passer who tends to get a lot out of the speed he’s given.

The Intriguing Fit: John Hunter Nemechek

With five wins in 14 starts and a sky-high 5.750 PEER that tops all Truck Series regulars, Nemechek is doing everything he set out to do when he willingly dropped from the Cup Series to NASCAR’s third tier. The shame of it is that he’s not actively becoming a better Cup driver, mostly beating up on younger, inferior competition.

He needs a stepping-stone ride against more credible competition and this particular JTG Daugherty car provides it. In his lone Cup Series season, Nemechek was a top-10 passer with a high crash rate — the highest, in fact, among all Cup regulars dating back to David Stremme in 2009 — a younger version, you might say, of the driver presently occupying the ride. This means Nemechek brings with him more upside at age 24 than what Stenhouse offers at 33.

He’d also offer a tangible benefit to JTG Daugherty, an organization lacking straightforward, playoff-worthy speed. For Front Row Motorsports, Nemechek recorded 15 races in which he spent at least 20% of his completed laps inside the top 15 despite having the 27th-fastest car. In eight of those 15 races, he crashed at least once, removing the possibility of good finishes. If a willing team stands by him as he curbs the crash rate, Nemechek’s star would surely ascend.

Front Row Motorsports (No. 38 car)

Organizational Profile: Speed skewing towards 550-horsepower tracks; no emphasis between short runs and long runs; unconventional pit strategy with excellent positional output

Most Likely Choice: Anthony Alfredo — The 22-year-old rookie holds a negative PEER, the fulcrum of a frustrating season for the Seth Barbour-led No. 38 team. He does, however, provide a source of funding for Front Row, an organization needing every bit of it in order to compete with deeper-pocketed competition.

The Intriguing Fit: Matt DiBenedetto

If the need for a funded driver wasn’t there, DiBenedetto would make for a gettable option, someone who’d stamp an interesting new identity on top of what Front Row already does well.

He’d fit seamlessly into Front Row’s focus on 550-horsepower tracks and benefit from having a productive strategist, in Barbour (39 positions earned through green-flag pit cycles this year on behalf of Alfredo), for the first time since he was paired with Randy Cox at GoFas Racing. His short-run prowess — he’s a top-five restarter from the preferred groove and ranks fourth in PEER in races ending with at least one late restart — could help mold Front Row into a program able to make better use out of heady, potentially risky pit strategy, something it lacks in both Alfredo and Michael McDowell.

For DiBenedetto, Front Row would represent a competitive step down from Wood Brothers Racing, but it’s a potential destination that perfectly suits his strength as a driver.