1. Could we see a Larson vs. Elliott championship fight?
If there is one thing that the postseason format has brought into NASCAR, it’s that the first 10 to 15 races do not matter as much as those just before the postseason. Like any other sport, it’s key to be at your best going into the postseason. Take baseball’s Atlanta Braves last year. As this Braves fans will admit, Atlanta was not baseball’s best team during the year, but it played its best when it counted the most.
It’s why Chase Elliott fans should not be celebrating right now. Other than the 15 bonus points it brings, a regular-season title has about as much use as a roll of toilet paper. Sure, it’s a nice feather in the cap, and diehard fans of the No. 9 driver will buy postseason merch that Chase’s digital team wisely put on sale within 24 hours after Elliott clinched the regular-season title, but it matters little if 2022 does not end with Elliott winning the championship.
Elliott has proven that he can run well at most any track, and despite Sunday’s near-miss, he’ll be a formidable driver to deal with in the postseason. That’s where Sunday’s winner, Kyle Larson, comes in. Nothing quite uplifts a team that can win like doing so going into a key stretch of the season. Getting back to victory lane, as we saw with Kevin Harvick, does a lot to give a team an extra jolt. And for a team that covered the field for a good part of last year, Sunday’s Watkins Glen win may very well make them a larger contender to win a second title in a row.
2. Is it time for Larson and Elliott to share milk and cookies with Mr. H?
Speaking of Larson and Elliott, is it time for one of Rick Hendrick’s kumbaya sessions made famous by the Chad Knaus/Jimmie Johnson “milk and cookies” story?
Hendrick Motorsports is hardly the first team to have two drivers that want to be the “alpha dogs” of the pack. Both are winners of one of the last two championships, and you would not expect either to willingly play second fiddle to anyone.
Twice this year, Larson has gone door-to-door with Elliott late en route to a win. Sure, it’s hard racing and going for the win as opposed to just filing in single-file and being content to finish second. That’s what everyone wants … well, except the driver in second.
If there is any ill will between the two, it probably needs to be mended soon, either by this week at Daytona International Speedway or by Bristol Motor Speedway, which hopefully someone has informed the driver of the No. 9 car is actually in September … not that we can blame him for being a creature of habit since Bristol’s night race for so long was in late August.
3. The most anticipated summer Daytona race ever?
Every racetrack has a challenge when it comes to making its second race in a season seem as prestigious as its marquee event.
For years, Charlotte Motor Speedway had the Coca-Cola 600 … and the 500-mile race in the fall that was a 500-mile race at Charlotte. Bristol, as exciting as the March race was through the years, always dealt with that event playing second fiddle to the night race. For a spell, you had to buy tickets to both races to get night race tickets, but that’s a nostalgic look for another time.
So here’s Daytona. I get the tradition thing of it running around July 4. As a race fan growing up in South Georgia, I knew many who’d go to that race instead of Atlanta Motor Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway thanks in large part to the fact that until the late 1990s that it was run in late morning hours.
(Running a race to avoid late-afternoon showers in Florida: There’s an idea!)
You could get up early, make it to the race and be home just past dinner. My first race, in fact, was the 1996 Pepsi 400, so I have fond memories of those times.
But over time, as much as Daytona tried to make it a big event by running the midsummer classic at night, it didn’t stand out. Did it being one of the multiple night races on the circuit dilute things? Probably.
That’s why moving to late summer may be the best thing for this event. Minus the lead-up to the 2001 Pepsi 400 or maybe the 1984 Firecracker 400, I can’t remember this much anticipation for the 400-miler on Daytona’s high banks, and it comes as a result of its schedule placement and a possible 400-mile last chance qualifier for a playoff spot.
4. Should teams put all their eggs in the road-course basket, instead?
With a win likely locking up a playoff spot, the school of thought for a time was to put focus onsuperspeedways due to the crapshoot that comes with it. Sure, a wrong push in the draft could turn a race winner into a 17th-place result. The other aspect? Play the odds right and have a little luck, and you are in the postseason — like Austin Cindric this year and Michael McDowell last year.
The other edge of that sword, however, is that you can have a great car capable of winning but end up being shuffled back or worse, being wadded up and your sheet metal being part of a charity auction.
The fact is this: If you include Atlanta, there are six superspeedway races on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule while there are also six road courses. Why pour money and effort into a speedway car that may not win even if its one of the best cars out there and stands a good chance of being mangled when you can more easily run at the front with a good car and in theory, avoid being hung up in a wreck on the road course?
Daytona, Talladega, and Atlanta may be highly entertaining, but the best car winning is hardly a given, and the fates are in the hands of luck and not drivers. On the road course? It’s more in the hands of drivers and teams.
5. Is this the ceiling for 23X1 Racing?
Let’s get this out of the way first: Bubba Wallace has signed a contract extension with 23X1 Racing, so he’ll be racing the No. 23 car for the foreseeable future, no matter how much some keyboard warriors may dislike that fact.
The future of the No. 45 car? Who knows who’ll be in it next year? But we do know that Kurt Busch hopes to be back for the postseason after missing several races due to a concussion suffered at Pocono Raceway last month, so for the first time, 23X1 will be in the playoffs, a huge step for any organization.
But has this season been a success regardless of whether or not a Daytona win on Saturday gets the No. 23 into the postseason? With Kurt Busch’s Kansas win, it showed that the team has people and racecars capable of winning, and Wallace’s recent streak of top-10 runs is a good step forward.
But is it enough to show this season as a success?
Wallace was done zero favors with last year’s Michael Jordan interview that set the level of expectation last year to win multiple races. It honestly was the worst thing for Wallace going into 23X1 Racing to be putting expectations in place that any logical follower of racing knows would not be met.
This year? The goal of being in the postseason was a considerable task, and had the No. 23 run the whole year like it was since July 1, Wallace would be in decent shape to get into the postseason on points. Thanks to Busch’s win, he will be in the postseason if he is able to race.
Right now, 23X1 Racing is on the level of Richard Childress Racing or RFK Racing: good enough to have a driver maybe or maybe not get into the postseason, but not much else come playoff time.
That’s a good step ahead as Kurt Busch is likely in the postseason. But Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan partnered for this venture to do more than be fringe postseason participants, and at some point, the expectations will be raised. It’s up to the drivers to do that.
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