Wednesday, 21 February 2024

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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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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Saturday’s race at Daytona was an exciting conclusion to a season where we’ve seen everything under the sun, as we finished our second regular season with the Next Gen car.

The three-wide racing for much of the night was downright thrilling and the best of what plate racing has to offer. On the flip side, no pun intended, Ryan Preece went on a terrifying ride when he barrel rolled at least a dozen times before finally landing right-side up. Thankfully he did not sustain any serious injuries, nor did any of the drivers involved in a “big one” at the end of the second stage.

While the extreme tumbling is cause for investigation by NASCAR (and they are examining the Preece car for data on why that happened), the fact that Preece could walk away shows that the Next Gen car has the goods to keep drivers safe even in extreme wreck situations like the one Preece experienced on Saturday.

The big news, of course was Bubba Wallace’s strong run that locked him into the final playoffs spot. Making the playoffs is a big burden off Bubba’s shoulders. And now he just has to perform and try to get as far along in the playoffs as possible. This will be a tough task to execute, with so many strong drivers ahead of him. But if he makes it to at least the round of 12, I would consider that a successful year and a launch pad for further playoff marches in the future.

Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman both missed the playoffs, and it’s been a rough year for Hendrick, which has only 2 cars in the playoffs. William Byron and Kyle Larson qualified and should both be contenders. But to put that in perspective, the Hendrick team only qualified as many cars as RFK Racing and 23XI racing, and one less than Joe Gibbs Racing.

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — Beyond RFK Racing stealing the show at Michigan Speedway on Monday, there were a lot of other story lines to talk about, including some that impacted the playoff battle.

Martin Truex Jr. continues hot streak

Truex was the fastest overall car at Michigan on Sunday/Monday, but in the end he fell one position short in second.

But he has no reason to hang his head. Truex has 3 wins, 9 top-5s, 13 top-10s, only 1 DNF and 5 stage wins this season. He has a dominating lead in the Cup series point standings, leading his closest competitor by 57 points. Unless he collapses or wrecks out at the upcoming road courses and Daytona, he should be our regular season Cup champion and get some extra bonus points for the playoffs.

“We are excited. Every week we feel like we have a shot to win, that is all I can ask for,” Truex said. “It’s exciting to come to the track every weekend knowing what these guys are going to bring me. Hopefully, we can keep it up.”

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How does NASCAR follow up a historic weekend at Talladega?


With a weekend full of drama at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite tracks in all of NASCAR (The track’s been so much fun since it’s arrival, I honestly feel like sending Marcus Smith a thank-you card for coming up with the idea in the first place).

It was a very newsworthy weekend, both on the track and off. Here are my initial reactions to some of the big news that we got to take in this weekend.

Harvick vs. Elliott

Well, this rivalry certainly came to a head this weekend. After several weeks of openly holding a grudge against Elliott for the way Elliott raced him at Bristol, Harvick acted on those feelings at the Roval, punting Elliott during Sunday’s race. Unfortunately for Happy Harvick, Elliott was able to continue on (despite a flapping bumper cover that should have gotten him black-flagged), eventually securing a place in the next round of the playoffs while Harvick ultimately did not. Harvick’s day, perhaps in a bit of karma, ended when he wrecked himself while Chase was lurking in the background and no doubt ready to give payback. Before he could get there, Harvick froze up and did the job himself. 

After the race, Harvick basically confirmed he had spun Elliott on purpose, but Elliott had the ultimate last wor, saying he wished Harvick a “Merry Offseason and Happy Christmas”. My first thought after hearing the comment was the “Y’all wanna see a dead body?” meme, as Harvick’s got nothing he can say in response.

As a fan, it was great drama, and I’m pretty sure that puts an end to their on-track battles for this year. I don’t expect any more shunts between the two, but you can bet Harvick will do his best to hold up Chase and prevent him from winning the title, if they are ever near each other in the final races.

Either way, whether you like Chase or Harvick or neither one of them, the fans are the ones who are coming out on top here, as we’re seeing genuine rivalries play out in a sport where those are mostly a thing of the past.

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2020 has been the busiest NASCAR Silly Season in years — Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer wrapping up their Cup careers; the surprise return of Matt Kenseth as a fill-in; Matt DiBenedetto holding on to the Wood Brothers ride by the skin of his teeth for one more year with Austin Cindric taking over in 2022; and much more.

Here’s my breakdown of who gets high marks on their new ride transition, and who has a rockier road ahead.

CUP SERIES:

Grade: A
Driver: Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing
The biggest announcement of 2020 was a home run move for Bubba Wallace. Bubba did what he could to improve the 43 team, and they had a great relationship with him, but in the end it’s all about getting to the next level. Teaming up with the new 23XI Racing team owned by Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan is the perfect scenario for Bubba to succeed and reach new heights in his career. He’ll no doubt have a bevy of sponsors and funding to help boost the competitive nature of the 23 car, and the Toyota team will be affiliated with Joe Gibbs Racing. With everything he’s done to push forward the social justice movement within NASCAR, Bubba is arguably the sport’s most recognizable name outside the core fan base. And if he can be successful in his new ride and run up front regularly and contend for wins, it will be huge boost to the sport as a whole and draw in new fans. He’ll have a lot of people rooting for him to succeed, both inside and outside the sport. 

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Let’s have a little history lesson, folks.

The year is 2003. Matt Kenseth wins the Winston Cup championship, with a grand total of 1 win. 2nd place points finisher Jimmie Johnson had 3 wins and ended up 90 points behind Kenseth in the standings. Meanwhile, Ryan Newman won a stunning 8 races that year (by far the most wins in his career in one season), but finished just 6th in points. Kurt Busch had 4 wins, and he came in 11th in points.

Matt Kenseth showed us in 2003 that consistency will win you a title, even moreso than wins. In addition to his 1 win, he had 11 top 5 finishes, and 25 top 10 finishes in 36 races. His average finish was 10.2, with only 2 DNFs. Newman, meanwhile, had an average finish of 13.9, and 7 DNFs. Stay out of the wall and finish well every week, and you’ll be champ without a showroom full of trophies.

The outcry was, of course, plentiful (yes, even before social media, people complained about everything in NASCAR). “How can you have a champion with only one win?” was the refrain often heard. 

And so we got (drumroll, please): The Chase. Yes, starting in 2004, NASCAR launched its own version of the playoffs, in large part a reaction to how Kenseth won in 2003. Winning through consistency was boring, and they wanted drama. And drama they got that first year.

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I’ve never liked the ‘what about?’ crowd.

You know the type. Any time somebody says or does something so wrong that everybody knows they shouldn't do it, this group is quick to jump online and defend, saying, “What about _______ ?” (fill in the blank for a completely unrelated matter that in no way excuses what was said or done).

If a politician says or does something inexcusable, the retort from this crowd is, “What about that unrelated thing their opponent did 10 years ago?”

If a person says something clearly offensive, they say, “What about if so-and-so said that? Would it still be offensive?”

This stupidity literally never ends. It’s one of the worst parts of being on the Internet. Everybody thinks they are correct, and there are always ‘two sides to every issue’.

The reality is, of course, that on many issues, there is only one side.

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With so much focus on the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas and Penske Fords so far this year, Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway was refreshing for fans to see. 

New faces up front, struggles from the usual leaders, and some hope that maybe the battle for the Cup will not be a runaway for Joe Gibbs Racing and the killer duo of Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.

Alex Bowman, it seems has different thoughts about this season. So does Hendrick Motorsports. And Chevy isn’t dead yet.

A few thoughts on the day’s action:

* A big congratulations to Alex Bowman. He has been constantly questioned by many who follow the sport since taking over the 88 car from Dale Earnhardt Jr. But he is finally living up to his potential in this 2019 season and has emerged as a team leader in terms of performance. After a long string of 2ndplace finishes, he finally climbed up that one final spot to the summit, and it was not easy. Passing Kyle Larson back after being passed with a few laps remaining was a tough chore, but Bowman came through.
 

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