Did You Notice? … The list of potential NASCAR Cup Series first-time winners is dwindling? The sport has tied a record with five so far in the Cup Series this season: Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain, Austin Cindric, Daniel Suarez and now Tyler Reddick after his victory at Road America.
It’s an impressive list, creating the type of parity we’ve never seen in the sport’s playoff era. Every driver currently inside the top 25 in Cup points now has one career Cup victory to their credit. You have to go all the way back to 2003, the pre-Chase era, to find the last time that happened (Dave Blaney, who finished 28th in the standings, was the highest-placing driver without a career win).
NASCAR’s Next Gen era has created so many Cinderella stories there aren’t all that many left to produce. Indeed, just five current full-time Cup drivers remain 0-for-their-career, and two of them are rookies: Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland. Cody Ware drives for his perennially underfunded, family-owned operation; this trio is still searching for their first top 10 in 110 combined Cup starts.
That leaves Ty Dillon and Corey LaJoie as the only realistic possibilities left. Both have their eyes set on this weekend’s event at Atlanta Motor Speedway, one of two pack races left in the regular season (Daytona International Speedway hosts the finale).
But if it doesn’t happen there? Neither Dillon nor LaJoie has finished better than 10th on any other track type. You can’t expect them to suddenly rise up and steal one at a road course or an intermediate track.
It means we may experience a seesaw of sorts, going from a flurry of first-time winners to a potential drought depending on how Silly Season shakes out. The next first-time Cup winner is likely someone who isn’t even entered in this weekend’s 36-driver Atlanta field.
Daniel Hemric and Noah Gragson are hoping for a full-time shot in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16; both have the skill set and experience to win. Ryan Preece could take over playoff-caliber equipment if he replaces Aric Almirola in the No. 10 next year. And Ty Gibbs, whenever his promotion from the NASCAR Xfinity Series happens, could be sitting in victory lane within 10 Cup starts.
Until then? Just sit back and enjoy an unprecedented number of drivers who could rise up and reach victory lane each week.
Did You Notice? … The pit crew roster changes between Christopher Bell and Bubba Wallace? Wallace’s front tire changer and tire carrier have been moved to Bell’s No. 20. Joe Gibbs Racing also replaced the rear tire changer on Bell’s car while sending his front tire changer and tire carrier to Wallace in an even swap (JGR has a deal with 23XI Racing to provide it weekly pit crew personnel).
On the surface, this move looks like Toyota trying to position Wallace with the best possible chance to make the playoffs. The No. 23 Toyota has had speed over the past 6-8 weeks only to become the victim of continual bad luck. It isn’t all on the crew — Wallace has four DNFs during this stretch — but many of those were caused by pit road mistakes that left a potential front-running car stuck in traffic.
It’s also left the driver increasingly despondent behind the wheel, peaking at Nashville Superspeedway where tire issues left Wallace unwilling to speak with crew chief Bootie Barker on the radio. It’s clear something needed to be done to bring confidence back to a team that’s win-or-bust to make the postseason from here on out.
Here’s my question: how are you supposed to feel if you’re Bell? The No. 20 isn’t exactly locked into the postseason, either, sitting on the final bubble position with eight races remaining. One more win by a driver below Bell knocks him out; Kevin Harvick has three straight top-10 finishes and sits 20 points behind Bell for the 16th spot. It makes Bell the weakest link at JGR, leading a team-low 158 laps this season.
So JGR’s response to that is … give Bell two guys from a pit crew that’s been tripping all over itself? And by pumping up Wallace, it’s strengthening a No. 23 operation that could respond with the very win that knocks Bell out of this year’s playoff field.
JGR President Dave Alpern continues to make clear Kyle Busch will return to the No. 18 Toyota next season. Alpern is also insistent Ty Gibbs will remain in NXS full-time next year, seemingly making it clear Bell has nothing to worry about. But these are the types of decisions that make you go, “hm.” Why wouldn’t it just out-and-out replace the guys on the 23XI team who are struggling? Is the pit crew staffing shortage that extreme?
It’s a curious decision.
Did You Notice? … The Road America race was the latest example of how far behind the Next Gen car is on certain track types? There were just eight lead changes in the Kwip Trip 250 this past weekend (July 3), bringing the average on road courses to nine through three races this year.
On short tracks, this Next Gen car has averaged just eight lead changes in three races. Compare that to intermediates, where the fewest lead changes for any event has been 18. Two races (Auto Club Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway) had over 30 lead changes, while the pack races are averaging over 40.
No wonder why Cup doesn’t mind dropping a road course in favor of a potential Chicago street race next year. It’s easier to limit exposure while you work on fixing the problem, right? At least five of the 10 playoff races are at intermediate tracks.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …
- The first race this year at Atlanta Motor Speedway had a season-high 46 lead changes. That’s more than either race held at Daytona or Talladega Superspeedway earlier this year. If the Cup Series pulls off a similar thriller this weekend, why would it ever change the handling package there? That’s six pack-style races, six road courses and six short-track races (including Bristol Motor Speedway’s dirt track). Sounds like a pretty balanced schedule to me.
- Count me as someone who thinks the Gragson penalty came too little, too late in a situation that could have gotten drivers seriously hurt. Dale Earnhardt Jr. can say the actions were “crossing the line,” but don’t actions speak louder than words? No one (owner or NASCAR officials) was willing to risk the potential of losing a NXS championship contender by sitting Gragson a week. Every time we’ve gotten here with this guy, the raw talent has outweighed any potential serious consequences and it’s setting a dangerous precedent going forward. Let’s hope it doesn’t prove costly to Gragson or anyone else involved.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.