Stubbs: Rising star Corey Heim could be face of 23XI

On March 19, 2022, a then relatively unknown driver from Marietta, Ga., led 22 laps en route to a victory in the Fr8 208 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The driver in question was a 19-year-old Corey Heim, making just his fifth career start in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.

Over two years later, Heim is one of the hottest prospects in NASCAR, having just won his fourth Craftsman Truck Series race of the season at World Wide Technology Raceway.

At Dover and Kansas, Heim made his first two starts in the NASCAR Cup Series, turning in a respectable average finish of 23.5. Back in 2023, he won three times in the Truck Series and made the championship race.

All of this culminated in an opportunity for Heim to drive for his idol, 23XI Racing co-owner Denny Hamlin, in a third 23XI car at Nashville on June 30 in a Cup Series race. Heim will drive the No. 50 Toyota in partnership with sponsor Mobil 1.

If you look deeper, however, Nashville might not be a one-off race for the rising star, but rather, a test session for a driver who has potential to become the face of 23XI.

According to Fox Sports, 23XI Racing is one of at least three teams that is likely to acquire a charter in the wake of Stewart-Haas Racing’s closure at the end of the 2024 season. While Hamlin was tight-lipped about 23XI’s charter situation at World Wide — specifically saying the team has “bigger priorities” at the moment — Heim becoming the third 23XI driver makes perfect sense.

At this point, the Truck Series seems more like a formality for Heim, who has eight top-five finishes and 10 top-10s in 12 Truck Series races in 2024. The only races where he hasn’t finished inside the top 10? Darlington, where he was a victim of a crash, and Charlotte, where he finished second before being disqualified in post-race inspection for a lug-nut issue. Heim’s racecraft and consistency have simply been unmatched since the start of 2023.

While a move up to the NASCAR Xfinity Series might make sense, few quality rides seem to be on the verge of opening up, especially in the Toyota pipeline. While the futures of Chandler Smith and Sheldon Creed — both of whom drive for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series — likely depend on whether Martin Truex Jr. calls it quits after 2024, the two drivers seem to be sticking with JGR for at least one more year.

Sam Hunt Racing, who Heim has made six Xfinity Series starts with in 2024, could be a viable option, but it would need to stick Heim in a full-time ride. With the team running only one full-time car in 2024, getting another seems unlikely.

And so, when you venture to the Cup Series, 23XI seems like the best option for Heim to further his NASCAR career. Not only will he have three Cup Series races under his belt after 2024, but it seems like Hamlin has quite the opinion of Heim.

“I certainly think he’s wise way beyond his age,” Hamlin said of Heim. “To be just 21 years old, it’s amazing when you watch him. … He certainly has a bright future in our sport in the long-term.”

Future NASCAR Hall of Famers usually don’t sing the praises of young drivers coming up the ladder without good reason. Hamlin’s comments about Heim certainly don’t guarantee a partnership between the two drivers going forward, but Hamlin seems to have enough respect for Heim both on and off the racetrack to the point where signing him wouldn’t be the most shocking move.

Putting together a new racing team over the course of one offseason would be quite the tall task, even for a team that has done so before, but if any young driver could elevate an inexperienced team, it would be Heim, who has turned TRICON Garage — formerly DGR-Crosley — from infrequent winner to championship contender.

With the talent pool that currently makes up the NASCAR Truck and Xfinity Series, there’s no doubt that the prospects in the sport are perhaps as good as they have ever been. But a certain 21-year-old from Marietta is head and shoulders above the rest — and could be primed to be the newest rookie sensation in the Cup Series.