Hailie Deegan's future among five offseason NASCAR storylines
The checkered flag dropped on the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season more than a week ago.
Joey Logano celebrated. The rest of the field left disappointed, frustrated or inspired as the drivers await the next green flag in 12 weeks (for the Clash).
Here are five storylines to watch over the next 12 weeks.
1. Preece or Custer in the 41?
Most of the "silly season" storylines were completed weeks ago. And some, such as Ty Gibbs expected to drive the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 car in place of Kyle Busch, are in the question of when will the announcement happen rather than whether it will happen.
But the biggest question that still seems fluid is the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 car. Cole Custer, who won at Kentucky to make the playoffs as a rookie in 2020, finished 25th in the standings this year, just one spot better than his finish in 2021.
Team owner Gene Haas, who jettisoned Daniel Suárez in favor of Custer three years ago after Custer had an eight-win Xfinity Series season, wants to give him another year. The fact that his average finish was just three spots below of veteran Aric Almirola's shows that Custer wasn't really that far off his teammates.
But Haas said last month that team co-owner Tony Stewart wants to put Ryan Preece in that ride. Preece, who is represented by Kevin Harvick's KHI Management, has apparently put together enough sponsorship to make SHR consider putting him in that car.
It appears that SHR is leaning toward Preece, although these situations tend to be fluid. Custer's father is an executive at SHR, and it is expected he would have somewhere to race in 2023 even if it is not in the No. 41 car.
"I'd like to see Cole back in it for another year at least," Haas said last month. "But Tony has some other ideas. It's pretty hard to argue with Tony because he's picked so many good drivers over the years."
Preece had talks with Xfinity and truck teams but opted to bypass those opportunities in hopes that the No. 41 would be his seat for 2023. He wouldn't have let those opportunities go if he didn't have at least some confidence or faith it would happen.
2. Rick Ware Racing and Live Fast Motorsport lineups
If Preece ends up in the No. 41 car, there was speculation that Custer could move to the Rick Ware Racing No. 15 with an expansion of the existing alliance between the two organizations.
But Rick Ware said last week that SHR appears to be leaning toward another option — and, again, these things tend to be on-again, off-again — and that he might not have his lineup set until sometime in December. Cody Ware improved his average finish by more than three spots to 27.8 this season and would be expected to return to his father's team in the No. 51 car.
If Custer doesn't go to the No. 15 car, SHR has had a relationship with Live Fast Motorsports owner B.J. McLeod on the Xfinity side. But it appears that Live Fast, if it does do an alliance, is more apt to do it with Richard Childress Racing, which was talking to the team when it was working on a third car for Tyler Reddick.
One additional option for Custer is the Xfinity Series, where SHR already has one car for Riley Herbst.
3. Hailie Deegan's 2023 plans
Adding a second car to its Xfinity stable is something SHR has considered with Ford Performance looking for an Xfinity ride for Hailie Deegan next season. So far, one hasn't developed.
There are a few other teams (such as SS Green Light Racing, RSS Racing) that run Fords in that series.
Ford executives have said that Deegan will be in a Ford next year but where is still to be determined. The 21-year-old Deegan had an underwhelming year as her average finish in trucks at 22.1 was worse than her rookie season average of 20.9.
But just last month she finished 13th in her one Xfinity race for SS Green Light Racing, again showing the potential she demonstrated in finishing third in the ARCA standings in 2020.
The question is whether another year in trucks would be beneficial or whether going to Xfinity might fit her better. If she stayed in trucks, she would have to find another team as David Gilliland Racing has switched to Toyota.
"There's a lot of different factors," Deegan said. "There's the way people race you. It could be more so maybe the equipment.
"There are so many pieces to the puzzle. ... Sometimes when you get different pieces to the puzzle to work together, sometimes things work out better."
There are certainly prospects who have performed better. But Deegan, the daughter of action sports star Brian Deegan, has been the most notable female prospect the past few years and has generated a significant social media following — making her journey the most visible (and most scrutinized) among aspiring Cup drivers.
4. Daytona 500 entries
In addition to the 36 charter teams, there already are three drivers who have committed to the Daytona 500: Austin Hill for Beard Motorsports, Zane Smith for Front Row Motorsports and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson for Petty GMS.
IndyCar veteran Helio Castroneves is supposed to get a Daytona 500 ride through a victory in an SRX Series race. The team he will drive for is still to be determined.
Team Hezeberg, which made the 2022 Daytona 500 with former Formula 1 champion Jacques Villeneuve, likely will field a car (or could field two, as it did for some races in its part-time 2021 schedule).
The Money Team and NY Racing, which both made the Daytona 500 last year, could field cars for the race.
Whether Trackhouse Racing uses its Project91 program that gives opportunities to internationally known drivers opts to enter the Daytona 500 is still to be determined.
There also have been other potential team owners, including 3F Racing from Germany, that hope to have programs put together.
5. Tweaks to Next Gen car
NASCAR will make tweaks to the rear and center clips of the Next Gen car to help the car absorb more energy during a crash (and lessen the impact on the driver).
Because NASCAR added many tweaks to the car in the months prior to the 2022 season (a windshield duct, slits in the rear windshield, changes to the exhaust, etc.), it impacted the wind tunnel numbers for each manufacturer.
So NASCAR allowed each manufacturer to submit new noses and hood designs. They won't be too much different but enough to impact how they handle. They all have been tested in the wind tunnel for parity.
What will be the impact? Teams might not know until they get to the Clash and then Daytona. NASCAR, at the moment, has no organizational tests — where every organization can bring one or two cars – scheduled for the offseason.
There are Goodyear tire tests — and some chatter of a potential test with a few cars to test some aero packages for short tracks and road courses — scheduled for the offseason but nothing that would have every team at the track at the same time.
While teams would like to know the impact of the changes, they are still getting chassis re-done with the tweaks and are awaiting the new body pieces, so it is still to be determined when they actually would have cars ready.
Thinking Out Loud
Joey Logano solidified himself as a NASCAR Hall of Famer with his second Cup title.
Did any other drivers make substantial additions to their Hall of Fame cases?
That puts Larson tied for 43rd on the all-time career list and Elliott tied for 48th.
Every former Cup champion eligible for the NASCAR Hall of Fame except Bill Rexford (1950 champ with one victory) is in the Hall of Fame.
Bobby Labonte is in with one championship and 21 victories. Alan Kulwicki, who died the year after winning his title, is in with five career victories.
So would 18 or 19 wins be enough? Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne have 18 wins apiece, and Greg Biffle is among those with 19. Most likely, none of them will get into the Hall (Newman, with a Daytona 500 win, might have the best chance).
Larson and Elliott likely still have plenty of potential wins left in their careers so this could be a moot point. Neither has a Daytona 500 win, which could also add to the argument for either of them.
Like Logano, though, another championship would make it extremely difficult to ignore their résumés when voting.
Stat of the Day
The stage 1 winner won six times in 2022. The stage 2 winner won four times.
They Said It
"I felt like I got position on him, to the left side, the dogleg, and he turned left." —Ross Chastain on the contact with Chase Elliott during the championship race
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.