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Analysis

What next for NASCAR's popular female hope?

OPINION: NASCAR’s leading full-time female driver has lost her ride in the Xfinity Series. Now Hailie Deegan must find a new path to achieve her career goals

Hailie Deegan, AM Racing, AirBox Ford Mustang

Hailie Deegan is probably more important to NASCAR racing than it realises. Since Danica Patrick retired from competition, Deegan has emerged as the most likely successor to her standing as the leading lady of stock car competition in America. But this week Deegan’s hype train hit the buffers, as at the age of 24, her Xfinity Series team pulled her from its No. 15 Ford Mustang and left her at a career crossroads. 

It’s quite a contrast to Patrick, who finished 10th in the Xfinity Series standings in 2012 with Jr Motorsports as she transitioned from a reasonably successful IndyCar career – which included that ground-breaking win at Motegi in 2008. Yet despite access to strong equipment with Stewart-Haas Racing and becoming the first woman to start on pole for a NASCAR Cup race – at the 2013 Daytona 500, no less – Patrick’s promise fizzled out without a win and she quit the sport completely in 2018.

She did eclipse Janet Guthrie’s record for the most top-10s in Cup (with seven over her seven years of competition). But it left you wondering if the next female to come along would really break some boundaries in terms of race-winning results.

Hopes were high for Deegan to be that woman. In 2018, with Toyota backing, she became the first female in 30 years to win a NASCAR Touring Series event, when she triumphed in the K&N Pro Series West at Meridian Speedway’s quarter-mile track in Idaho and went on to score another two victories in that series. She progressed to the national ARCA Menards Series and took Rookie of the Year honours on her way to third in points in 2020 - having switched allegiance to Ford.

Deegan has a strong motorsports background, as her 16-times X Games medalist father Brian was the first man to land a 360 in freestyle motorcross competition. Her teenage brother Haiden is now starring in AMA Motorcross and Supercross with Monster Energy Yamaha Star Racing. She grew up in off-road dirt racing, in Trophy Karts, in her native southern California and scored 10 wins with two championships along the way.

Hailie was fast-tracked through the ARCA level following her stellar rookie season, graduating to NASCAR's third-tier Truck Series full-time in 2021 while still a teenager. She holds the women’s record for most top-10 finishes in Truck Series history and her popularity is massive; twice named its most popular driver during her three seasons in Trucks, she also boasts over 1.6 million followers on Instagram, almost twice as many as Patrick…

Deegan came through the ranks with backing from Toyota before becoming aligned with Ford and spending three years in the Truck Series

Deegan came through the ranks with backing from Toyota before becoming aligned with Ford and spending three years in the Truck Series

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

Deegan's move to Ford coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that lengthy practice sessions became a thing of the past. But her Xfinity debut at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2022 was impressive. She finished 13th, the best result by a female driver in a first attempt.

For 2024, she signed a full-time Xfinity deal with AM Racing, to drive a Ford Mustang with technical allegiance with Stewart-Haas. But her maiden season has ended after 17 races, with a best result of 12th at Talledega, with eight finishes outside of the top-30.

Deegan stated: “Beginning this season, I had a lot of excitement and hope in taking my next step in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. It's something I've been working towards for years and always dreamt about.

Deegan felt that the scrutiny that was on her was heightened when it comes to the all-important relationship with her crew chiefs, and she feels she’s never gelled with one yet

“I worked hard to prepare for this season after the team pursued me to drive their car. Unfortunately, it has not turned out the way that I expected. There are always several reasons within a race team as to why things do or do not work, but sadly our goals no longer align. With that being said, myself and AM Racing will be parting ways.

“The only thing I am focused on is getting back to being competitive. That is ALL that matters to me. I'm working as quick as possible to find the best opportunities to get back to the track. I'm thankful for the following that I have and everyone who supports me.

“It's truly only me that knows the whole story and what I need to succeed. See you at the track, soon.”

A desire to make it work

Just a few weeks ago, speaking with Deegan about her career to date, I was struck by her passion and drive to succeed at this – despite her recent run of poor results.

When she did make that breakthrough K&N Pro Series win, she was only 16. And that early rush through the ARCA and Truck ranks probably didn’t give her quite the schooling or experience that was needed – especially given her roots on the other side of the country.

Deegan finds herself out of a ride after splitting with AM Racing following a difficult run of results in the Xfinity Series

Deegan finds herself out of a ride after splitting with AM Racing following a difficult run of results in the Xfinity Series

Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images

“I was very new to the east coast side of things; I hadn't made like a lot of friends or had people to ask advice from,” she explained. “I was just sent out there, kind of blind, and I relied on my team to give me what information they could.”

Having stepped up again to Xfinity this year, Deegan harbours regrets that she didn’t get better Truck finishes, beyond a pair of sixth places at Talladega and Texas, with decent teams in DGR and ThorSport.

“I wish I could have accomplished a little bit more and I feel like we were in so many positions to do so,” she said. “I’d be running the top five or 10 and end up getting wrecked or they’d wreck right in front of me.”

Deegan also felt that the scrutiny that was on her was heightened when it comes to the all-important relationship with her crew chiefs, and she feels she’s never gelled with one yet.

“I've really lucked out, to be honest, with crew chiefs,” she admitted, after a revolving cast in her NASCAR career to date. “Every crew chief that I've ever had has always spoke really highly of me after we parted ways.

“Something that I really take a lot of pride in is relationships on the team and stuff like that. Just being close with everyone and having open lines of communication and making them feel like family.”

NASCAR really needs a high-performing female at its highest levels and it must be mentioned that it brought Deegan into the sport via its ‘Drive For Diversity’ programme in 2016. So it’s not for the lack of trying to bring more females into the sport.

The next career move for Deegan will likely be crucial

The next career move for Deegan will likely be crucial

Photo by: John Harrelson / NKP / Motorsport Images

Obviously, Deegan has her father for support, who knows just what it takes to be successful, but what she lacks is a stock car veteran mentor – like a Rick Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr or even Kevin Harvick – who could really take her under their wing.

Hendrick is certainly doing that with Truck Series race-winner Rajah Caruth, for example, who also has Bubba Wallace to lean on. And having someone who could help from the financial side of the business would also help her cause.

It feels like there is a trail to be blazed here. You feel that Deegan’s next step will be the most important yet, and if she fails due to a lack of guidance and support, or finding a crew chief that truly understands her, then it would be a huge missed opportunity. If not, we’ll likely be waiting for Gracie Trotter or Toni Breidinger to take that role, which will likely be a few years away yet.

Deegan concludes: “It is cool to see other girls in racing making their way through, because it is very challenging and there's not many girls that do make it through multiple levels of ranks. It's so difficult because it costs so much money for that car to go to the track.”

Toni Breidinger (left) and Deegan are NASCAR's brightest female hopes, but what the future holds for Deegan is unclear

Toni Breidinger (left) and Deegan are NASCAR's brightest female hopes, but what the future holds for Deegan is unclear

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

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