Top five long term replacements for Kyle Busch
After breaking his right leg and left foot in a late-race accident at Daytona, Kyle Busch will be out of the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for the immediate future. Matt Crafton fills the seat at Daytona, the team is still considering its options for a long-term replacement. The veteran Camping World Truck series driver is a close friend of Busch but is considered a long shot to drive the car past Daytona. Who might JGR tab to pilot the car until Busch returns?
The question has several possible answers and in many ways depends on just how long the doctors predict Kyle will be out. Busch is a fiery competitor and will likely want to get behind the wheel as quickly as possible. If his absence is going to be only a few weeks, then it makes sense for JGR to rotate drivers in based on the track being driven. If his recovery time is measured in months as opposed to weeks, a single driver would be better suited to bringing consistency to the team. With that in mind, lets take a look at the top five possible replacements.
Video of Busch's head on collision with the infield wall
1. Mark Martin
Martin has served as super-sub extraordinaire over the past two years. He subbed in for Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart in 2013 after injuries pulled both drivers from the cockpit. And while the results in both cases were not championship-level, Martin kept the sponsors happy and brought the steering wheel home. His physical fitness regimen is legendary so there is little question that Mark would be capable of driving the car. If Busch's absence is set to be a short one, Martin makes a lot of sense.
Of course, there is considerable doubt that Martin would be interested in picking up his helmet once again. At 56 years of age, he outwardly appears to have moved past the need to drive. He's done some driver development and coaching work at both Roush Fenway and Stewart Haas but has maintained a low profile in terms of racing. He has nothing left to prove and little to gain by stepping into yet another part time ride. The results at Stewart Haas (where he had only one top 10 finish in 12 races) were far off of his career average as well. Could he fill in for Kyle? Absolutely. But does he want to?
Classic Mark Martin diecast from Amazon
2. Parker Kligerman
Kligerman's 2014 didn't go as anticipated but it wasn't entirely Parker's fault. Instead of running the full slate of Sprint Cup races, Swan Racing closed down the #30 team and ultimately sold their assets to Xxxtreme Motorsports who chose not to field the car. At that point it was impossible for Kligerman to find a competitive ride at any level of NASCAR and he spent the season on the shelf.
Yet there was a reason that Swan initially tapped him to drive the car in 2014. Kligerman is a talented driver who has flashed signs of being able to compete at the highest level. Put into the car on relatively short notice, he drove the #30 to an 18th place finish at Texas Motor Speedway in his first Sprint Cup start. He's also a known commodity to both JGR and Busch himself, having driven for Kyle Busch Motorsports for the entire 2013 Xfinity series schedule.
3. Matt Crafton
Crafton has spent the last 14 years driving full time in the Trucks series. He's never finished lower than 8th in season points over the past eight years and comes into 2015 the two-time defending series champion. While he has limited experience at either the Xfinity (four races) or Cup (one attempted, did not qualify) levels, he is a steady hand in a turbulent time. Crafton was also Kyle Busch's best man at his wedding; the two are close and having a friend in the car might make a difference in Kyle's recovery.
Despite his success at the Truck level, Crafton has never garnered a sniff from Cup teams. Before 2013, he'd never even attempted to qualify a Cup or Xfinity car. You have to think that at some point he would have taken a shot, even if the only offers available came from underfunded teams with limited odds of success. He appears to be content being a bigger fish in a smaller pond. While there's nothing wrong with that, it doesn't make him an ideal candidate to step into a ride at JGR and handle the attention that comes with replacing Kyle Busch.
4. Erik Jones
Initial reports out of Daytona indicated that JGR initially wanted to put Jones in the #18 for the Daytona 500, only to have NASCAR rule against the team due to his relative inexperience. At only 18 years of age, Jones has been on the fast track for the past two years. He was NASCAR's youngest race winner when he took the checkered flag at the 2013 Truck series race in Phoenix. He's won five out of the 18 events he's competed in at that level and is a rising star with the organization. Age and experience are clear issues for Jones but Gibbs has put drivers of similar background in a car before.
The major obstacle to Jones in the #18 appears to be NASCAR itself. The last thing NASCAR wants right now is for a green driver to take out the field because they were not ready for the moment. The danger of that happening is greater at Daytona (and Talladega) than it is anywhere else. Gibbs might have a better chance of convincing the sanctioning body that Jones is ready for the challenge with Daytona in the rear-view mirror.
5. Bubba Wallace Jr.
No, Wallace is not a part of the Toyota family anymore. And yes, manufacturers usually have little interest in seeing their drivers go out under a competing nameplate. There's also the fact that JGR probably wouldn't want to send Wallace back to RFR with any ideas on what the Gibbs cars are doing at the Cup level. So this is the longest of long shots.
Yet it also makes a certain amount of sense. Bubba spent the last three years at JGR, competing full time in the Trucks series and part time in the Xfinity series since 2012. He's someone familiar with the personnel and the equipment. It's also worth noting that his success in the Truck series last year (four wins and 14 top 10 finishes in 22 races) earned him a full time ride at RFR. He's a future Sprint Cup star who will get every opportunity to prove himself at that level. If Gibbs is willing to take him aboard, RFR would be crazy to block it; they keep Wallace under contract while he gains seat time and technical know-how on someone else's budget.