Wednesday, 06 December 2023

Part two of my reflections on the year that was, and what’s to come in 2024, for Cup series teams:

Joe Gibbs Racing
Results; Christopher Bell (4th in points); Denny Hamlin (5th in points); Martin Truex Jr. (11th in points); Ty Gibbs (18th in points) 
Grade: A-

Despite only one driver making the Final Four, this was a very strong overall year for Joe Gibbs Racing, with 8 wins between the trio of Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell. Ty Gibbs did not win, but he did run very well as a rookie and had the second-best finish in the points among non-playoff drivers. With all four drivers returning in 2024, I expect all four, including young Ty, to make the playoffs and several to make deep runs. 

Denny Hamlin’s continued struggles with completing a title run will once again be at the forefront of conversation next season, but I wouldn’t put it out of the realm of possibility that Hamlin does win it all in 2024, and Truex and Bell could be right there beside him battling for the title.

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With the racing wrapped up for 2023, and the teams already looking forward to getting back to it next February starting with the Clash at the Coliseum, this is a time for Cup teams to reflect on what went right (or wrong) in 2023. And more importantly, what the future might hold in next year’s battle.

Below is part one of my reflections on the year that was, and what’s to come in 2024.

Team Penske
Results: Ryan Blaney (champion); Joey Logano (12th in points); Austin Cindric (24th in points)
Grade: A-

Team Penske was not the championship favorite all season, but the great thing about a playoff system is that sometimes a competitor will rise above expectations. 

Just as the New York Giants beat a previously undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, the formerly young Ryan Blaney won his way into the Final Four and then rose above the stiff Hendrick competition in the final race of the season to become the 2023 Cup Champion. That gave Roger Penske a second straight Cup title, following Joey Logano’s title in 2022. Blaney will be an excellent champion for the sport, and his win shows you can never count out the Captain.

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I remember the first time I had a hint of what was to come from young Ryan Blaney, in the media center at Michigan International Speedway in 2013.

It was back when he was quite young, still a teenager in fact, and I had just watched him finish second in an ARCA race at the track.

He was very fresh in the sport at that point, having competed in some Xfinity and Truck series races as an 18-year-old in 2012.

When Blaney showed up in the media room to take questions, he was agitated, almost pissed off the entire time. Why, you ask? He hadn’t won the race (coincidentally, the race was won by Brennan Poole and Grant Enfinger finished 5th that day.)

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As we often hear late in a race broadcast, the pay window is now open. And not just for one race, but for the whole shebang.

It’s that time of year where it’s all on the line, and the sport will crown its champions out in Phoenix before heading off into the sunset until February. Whether you like the format or not, we have four drivers who have risen above the rest and have their shot at glory out in the Soronan desert.

Here’s my take on how things will shake out this weekend, as these gladiators take to their chariots for the final time in 2023.

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DEARBORN, MI — Ford Performance has unveiled the new Mustang for the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series based on the Mustang Dark Horse. After a busy year of Mustang racing news, this 2024 NASCAR Cup Series Mustang is the icing on the cake for the full family of performance Mustang cars.

Based on the seventh-generation Mustang, this Dark Horse version adds to the impressive lineup of racing Mustangs, and means that starting in 2024, Mustang will be eligible to race on six continents.

“What a crazy year it has been revealing our new global Mustangs for racing. The positive response from our fans around the world has been amazing, and we’re confident that this Mustang Dark Horse Cup car will be no different and that NASCAR fans will be excited to cheer us on next year,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports. “Our Ford Performance staff, together with our NASCAR race teams, have worked tirelessly in the wind tunnel developing this car, and I can’t wait to finally see it race on the track next season.”

Ford unveiled the all-new Mustang Dark Horse just over a year ago, marking the first new performance nameplate for Mustang since 2001. It is the most track-capable 5.0-liter V8 street-legal Mustang ever and has inspired the current roster of Mustang cars that started racing this year in the Repco Supercars Championship in Australia and Formula Drift series.

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — To say that Noah Gragson’s debut season for Legacy Motor Club in the No. 42 Cup car has been a struggle would be the understatement of the year.

In 21 races this season, he has only achieved two top-20 finishes (a 12th at Atlanta, and a 20th place at COTA), and he missed one race with concussion symptoms.

But things just got a whole lot worse for Noah, as he has been indefinitely suspended by both Legacy Motor Club and NASCAR for liking a social media post featuring a meme that belittled and made fun of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. (NOTE: I won’t repeat what it says or share it out of decency, but I’ll say the meme is of the same despicable type that got NASCAR’s Mike Wallace suspended a few years back)

Gragson will be replaced in the 42 car at Michigan by Chevy’s super-sub Josh Berry, who got word of his new assignment for the weekend less then two hours before practice.

"We have made the decision to suspend Noah Gragson effective immediately regarding his actions that do not represent the values of our team," Legacy Motor Club said.

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Now that we’ve reached the seven-race mark, and competed at a variety of different track types, it’s fair to start looking at this year’s winners and losers in the Cup series, to this point. Good fortunes can fade and bad fortunes can disappear, but it’s clear that some in the garage are in better shape than others right now. Here’s a few takes on the current landscape of the competition.

Biggest 2023 success stories


Hendrick Motorsports: 
Not really a surprise that the team that has more wins than anyone ever in NASCAR is leading the series this year, but the consistency this year is hard to ignore. 

William Byron is having a breakout year, and could win a lot of races (he’s already got two in the bag). Alex Bowman has six top-10s (more than anyone else in the Cup series) and leads the points. 

Kyle Larson just pulled out his first win (likely the first of many) this past weekend at Richmond. And while Chase Elliott will have a battle to make the playoffs once he returns from injury, fill-in driver Josh Berry was the runner-up at Richmond. Not too shabby of a start, and the future looks just as bright for HMS. In year two of the Next Gen car, they seemed to have things figured out better than anyone.

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R-E-S-P-E-C-T. 

Many talk about it, but few give it. 

It’s the reality of racing today. Even those who preach respect often go and wreck people themselves (see: Denny Hamlin punting JJ Yeley at Richmond)

Kyle Busch says no one races with respect anymore, but he’s been known to punt his competition when necessary. Ditto for Kevin Harvick, another veteran.

The young drivers may be a big more brash than the veterans at times, but let’s be honest, nobody is innocent in this regard. It’s a byproduct of the way the sport is set up today.

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Hendrick Motorsports caught a break this week when its L2-level penalties related to illegal modifications made to hood louvers on its four cars were lessened by an appeals panel.

The National Motorsports Appeals Panel ruled to amend the penalty. Monetary fines totaling $400,000 and four-race suspensions to each Hendrick crew chief remain, but the panel overturned all the points penalties, restoring championship and playoff points that had been docked in the initial penalty.

My take is simple. If rules were broken and the monetary fines remain, the appeals panel shouldn’t have lowered the penalties by returning the points. It’s an irrational move, and it’s odd to me how the biggest teams seek to be the only ones who ever catch a break in the appeals process. 

NASCAR was clearly unhappy with the appeal board ruling, as they should be, and I’m curious to see if the appeal for Justin Haley’s #31 team gets the same treatment as Hendrick, as he was tagged with the same penalty.

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — In a sport like NASCAR, where it generally takes many years to establish yourself as a competitive team, it’s rare to see a new team break through as a serious contender for race wins and championships. That’s especially true at the Cup level, but also at the Xfinity level, where a few teams have dominated wins for years (Joe Gibbs Racing, Jr. Motorsports, Team Penske, etc.).

That’s what makes the rise of Kaulig Racing over the past few years a truly inspiring story that fans should embrace. It reminds me of how Furniture Row Racing grew from a small, upstart team based in Denver to winning a title with Martin Truex Jr., before eventually shutting down.

Hopefully, Kaulig doesn’t follow the last part of that blueprint, as they’re a team on the rise (entering Cup full-time in 2022, in addition to maintaining its Xfinity teams) that would be a strong addition to the garage for decades to come.

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