Hailie Deegan joins ThorSport Racing for pivotal NASCAR Truck Series season
Any driver who finishes worse than 20th in the truck series for two consecutive seasons would create doubt on whether that driver has what it takes to make it to the NASCAR Cup Series.
Those type of results just don't signal confidence of significant promise in a driving prospect. It doesn't mean the promise isn't there, just that it creates doubt.
For Hailie Deegan, she's getting another year in the truck series after two frustrating seasons. And if the 21-year-old wants to be taken seriously as a possible Cup driver, she likely will have to prove it this year.
She will switch teams as ThorSport Racing will change manufacturers from Toyota to Ford, filling the role of David Gilliland Racing, which switched from Ford to Toyota.
While DGR was still a growing organization — it did win races in 2022 with Ryan Precce and Todd Gilliland — ThorSport is an organization that typically puts most of its drivers in the playoffs. Its drivers run up front, as they won three races last year and had all four drivers make the postseason.
So if Deegan, who averaged a finish of 20.9 in 2021 and 22.1 in 2022, runs consistently 20th this year, there can't be any citing of possibly weaker equipment. She can't use a lack of practice as a reason as she has now raced at most of the tracks at least two times in a truck.
The time is now to show whether Deegan — who has won the series' most popular driver award the past two years — has "it" and the potential to be successful in NASCAR.
"I believe in myself," Deegan said. "I think that I have it, and I think that we were just probably missing a few pieces to the puzzle because there are so many pieces to the puzzle.
"You get to a point in your development where you have to take that next step, and I think ThorSport is a very established team and has a very established path of success. ... They've been such a good, consistent team that I feel this will be a good year for me."
Many thought after two seasons of trucks, the next step for Deegan would be the Xfinity Series. Entering the trucks two years ago, she had won races in the ARCA West Series and finished third in the ARCA national series standings.
Two years should have been enough for her to show what she could do. But she struggled, sometimes being off the pace of the top trucks and sometimes just getting mired in the middle of the pack, where bad things can happen.
"I feel like I've got a grasp on it now and understand what you need to be successful as a driver, what the team needs to do for their part, and the people you need to have around you," Deegan said.
Deegan isn't used to having to be patient. She comes from a family of strong athletes, with her father, Brian Deegan, one of the most famous and successful motorcycle action sports stars in the world.
But she is "just" 21 years old. She didn't begin a stock car career until she was a teenager. So there is reason to have hope that she could be a breakout star in 2023.
ThorSport will put a championship crew chief with Deegan as she will have crew chief Rich Lushes guiding her team. Lushes guided Ben Rhodes to the 2021 truck series title.
"We really think we can offer Hailie something that she hasn't been able to accomplish just yet," said Allison Thorson, the family spokesperson for the ThorSport Racing team owned by her parents, "and that's the same goals that we have with our other drivers."
Ford Performance, which signed Deegan to a development deal two years ago, hopes that its third year of backing Deegan's development will be one that pays dividends. It had talked to some Xfinity Series teams about her possibly running for them next season but then ended up convincing ThorSport to make the switch.
ThorSport released Christian Eckes to make room for Deegan.
"In that very first discussion, Hailie was part of it," Ford global motorsports director Mark Rushbrook said about the talks with ThorSport. "It was a question from ThorSport, ‘Can Hailie come to ThorSport?' They wanted her. They wanted to be part of her continued development."
If Deegan is disappointed that an Xfinity ride didn't come through after she finished 13th in her debut at Las Vegas in October, she didn't show any of that in her introductory news conference at ThorSport. She seemed upbeat and had a feeling that possibly just working with a new team with a strong pedigree will boost her career.
"Wherever I ended up I just wanted to be in a quality place," Deegan said. "I just wanted to be somewhere where I truly felt I was around the most quality equipment, people and quality of people who care about my racing.
"That's a huge thing that I'm already feeling here at ThorSport is just accepted. It feels like a family environment."
Deegan knows all eyes will be watching.
"I've been used to pressure my whole life," she said. "It's kind of been on me from the start, so at the end of the day there's pressure for a reason and I feel like if you can't deal with the pressure, then you probably shouldn't have that pressure on you.
"I think going out there and doing the best I possibly can, working as hard as I possibly can for it and just knowing that myself, knowing that I'm putting in the full effort and doing everything that I'm capable of and everyone else sees that, that we're bound to have more success."
Thinking Out Loud
Deegan won't be the only driver in a developmental series with something to prove next year. There will be two drivers with NASCAR Cup Series experience looking to show they deserve a return to the top level.
John Hunter Nemechek (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Cole Custer (Stewart-Haas Racing) both have full-time Xfinity Series rides at strong teams. If they win races and challenge for the championship, they will get looks from Cup teams. If they don't, their racing careers will be far from certain.
Nemechek, 25, drove as a rookie in Cup in 2020, finishing 27th in the standings at Front Row Motorsports. He left to drive for Toyota, spending the past two years primarily in the trucks, where he won seven races. Some unwise moves led to him not making the championship race this year, but he will head to full-time Xfinity racing in 2023. He had five top-5s and one win in 16 Xfinity starts in the past two years.
Custer turns 25 next month and was full time in Cup the past three years. He won as a rookie in Kentucky but had no top-5s and five top-10s in the past two years. SHR opted to replace him in Cup with Ryan Preece. Custer won seven Xfinity races in 2019 and had a win and three top-10s in five Xfinity starts last year.
Stat of the Day
They Said It
"There’s a lot of speculation out there but nothing that we’re going to comment on." —Mark Rushbrook, Ford’s global motorsports director, on speculation that Ford has interest in going into Formula 1 racing
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.