Sunday marked the end of an era when Jimmie Johnson finished fifth in his final race as a full-time NASCAR driver. Although 2021 marks a new beginning for the seven-time champ in IndyCar, he hasn’t ruled out the occasional one-off NASCAR race. If his IndyCar plans reflect a potential part-time Cup slate, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume he’d be interested in running the Cup Series’ road course races, especially with the addition of new tracks like Road America, Circuit of the Americas, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road course for next year.
Of course, should he make a one-off start regardless of track, it won’t be in his famed #48 or with Hendrick Motorsports as Alex Bowman is taking over the number and the team is maxed out with four teams. Instead, he’ll have to look toward other teams for a potential stock car return, making whomever he races for just his second different Cup team since his premier series career began in 2001. Chip Ganassi Racing is the obvious answer as they have just two cars and will field Johnson’s IndyCar entry. But what if there was another option?
Enter Spire Motorsports.
Since their debut in 2019, Spire has been the butt of jokes from fans for supposedly only existing to make money from their charter and not having any interest in building a competitive team. Sure, they won the Daytona July race in their first season due to weather, but it’s hard to convince the fans of one’s true motives if they’re not showing much success otherwise.
However, things seem to be looking fairly good for the team in 2021. Spire acquired a second charter from the now-defunct Leavine Family Racing, allowing them to field two cars for the upcoming season. Earlier today, it was reported that Corey LaJoie—who parted ways with Go Fas Racing at season’s end—is a favorite to take over one of Spire’s cars on a full-time basis, which would make him the team’s first permanent driver after having a carousel of names in the cockpit for the last two years.
“.@CoreyLaJoie is a favorite for a ride with @SpireMotorsport in 2021, per sources,” wrote a tweet from The Sports Business Journal‘s Adam Stern.
With LaJoie taking over the team’s #77, what are their plans for the other car?
Although the team hopes to field a second full-time driver, it would be understandable if they walk back on that for now. While the free agent market still features a variety of names, it’s quite a jump (though certainly not impossible) to go from one car with many drivers to two cars for two drivers in just one offseason. Therefore, the second car will be filled with multiple drivers who bring one-off funding or want more experience at the Cup level. An example of the latter would be Justin Haley, who won Daytona 2019 with the team but is running a full Xfinity schedule for Kaulig Racing in 2021.
So where does Johnson fit into this and why would he go to Spire?
Spire has an alliance with Ganassi, receiving support on various occasions like major races. Jamie McMurray ran his final NASCAR race in Spire’s debut event in the 2019 Daytona 500, while Ross Chastain—Haley’s Xfinity teammate this past season—has sporadically raced for Spire in addition to his lower series obligations; Chastain is also taking over CGR’s #42 in 2021. While CGR can simply field a third car for Johnson, it’s not completely unreasonable for the team to consider deferring the responsibility to Spire, providing support for the smaller team while focusing primary efforts on the #42 and #1.
The plot thickens even more when one considers the postscript of Stern’s LaJoie report, which mentions that “Spire has also had talks with @TeamHendrick about possibly buying parts/equipment from the powerhouse organization.”
Hendrick Motorsports already supplies Chevrolet engines to CGR and Spire, and an expanded partnership to include further support would be a massive boost for the fledgling team. With Johnson having raced for HMS for his entire Cup career, it’s not unreasonable to assume they would throw even more aid at Spire should he race for them.
Although Kaulig Racing has expressed interest in expanding their Cup program and debuted at this year’s Daytona 500, it’s possible that they continue their friendly relations with Spire by sticking Haley and possibly A.J. Allmendinger in the second Spire car for superspeedways and road courses until they’re ready to fully move up. While Johnson is doing a road course schedule in IndyCar and Allmendinger is a road course ace in NASCAR, a Cup one-off for the former could also come at a short track or another oval that he’s enjoyed success at.
So why #88?
Simple, Hendrick will no longer use it. With the addition of Kyle Larson and Bowman moving to the #48, the team is switching the #88 to #5. While the #88 has been in the Hendrick stable since Dale Earnhardt Jr. started using it in 2008, the #5 carries a lot of history for HMS.
Spire has not announced the number of their second car, which leaves it up to guessing in the meantime. Although the team ran a #74 at Michigan, that was for Kevin James’ Netflix show so it will probably not be in the discussion. Teams generally have a pattern when choosing their numbers, so assuming Spire does the same, we’ll have to look at the #77.
Furniture Row Racing, the team that won the 2017 title and whose assets were purchased by Spire a year later, fielded the #78 for all of their history. Obviously, anyone can notice that Spire simply decreased that number by one to get 77. FRR’s #78 also uses a certain font style that was carried over to the #77 (just double it).
In short, Spire already set their precedent by using a number with repeating digits, which #88 obviously is. If #77 was intended to be a callback to FRR as a similar number, then it’d be easy to just duplicate the second digit in the dead team’s number, as done with 7.
For Johnson, #88 also has some “history” beyond it being his teammate’s number, though not necessarily in that form. Before stock cars, Johnson competed in off-road and stadium truck racing, and one of his trucks was a #888 Chevrolet. Sheldon Creed, the newly-crowned Truck Series champion who also began his career in off-road, had paid tribute to that particular vehicle with a throwback scheme at Darlington in September. Triple-digit numbers are not legal in NASCAR today (unless you’re Travis Pastrana and sneakily integrated the third digit into your paint scheme), so just remove one of the three 8s and what do you get?
While it would be odd to picture Johnson in a Cup car that isn’t #48, look at it this way: all you’re changing is the first digit.
Of course, Ganassi/Spire could also just field the #40 as done with McMurray. All you have to do is remove the line in the 8 and you’ve got a 0.