Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Don’t Know What Fontana’s Got ‘Til It’s Gone?

1. NASCAR probably just lost the wrong intermediate track

During many discussions about how to make NASCAR better, oversimplification is one of the biggest specters to continuously raise its head.

Case in point: The consensus opinion was that the sport had too many similar intermediate tracks, which made things dull. Short tracks, on the other hand, were much more popular, thanks to the one-two punch of excitement and nostalgia.

The solution seemed pretty straightforward. Just get rid of some intermediates and build more short tracks, right?

This past weekend suggests the answer is probably more nuanced. The racing at Auto Club Speedway, one of those maligned intermediate circuits, was truly compelling. Jeff Gluck’s poll backs up that sentiment, with more than 90% of the respondents saying the Pala Casino 400 was a good race at the time of this column.

Alas, as someone once said in a context that was not about racing, the die is cast. After some uncertainty about the future of the facility over the past year, it appears it’s full speed ahead for the two-mile track to be reborn as a half-mile short track by 2025.

There’s no guarantee the racing will be better, and considering how boring some of the 2022 short track races were with the Next Gen car, there’s a chance it could be much worse. It’s quite possible that getting rid of Fontana was a simple way to approach a dilemma that everyone agreed was an issue ā€“ but not the right way.

See also
Thinkin' Out Loud: NASCAR, Is It Too Late to Reconsider About Auto Club?

2. Kyle Busch is simply better than everyone else who’s been driving RCR’s cars

A trade involving two talented athletes that need a change of scenery is a thing that happens semi-regularly in stick and ball sports. Not so much in NASCAR, where there aren’t driver trades, per se.

Still, that’s pretty close to what happened this offseason when Kyle Busch went from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing and Tyler Reddick going from RCR to JGR-allied Toyota team 23XI Racing. It even felt like a trade from another sport with a younger talent whose best seasons are potentially still ahead of him being swapped for a proven champion entering his post-prime years.

Except Busch has so far looked like he’s very much still as good as he’s ever been. Despite winning only one of his final 50+ NASCAR Cup Series starts with JGR, it took him just two races to find victory lane in his new ride.

Along with wondering if Rowdy just needed something to restoke his competitive juices a bit, this raises some questions about whether it’s been the cars or the drivers that have made RCR something less than a top-tier team for so long.

It may be a bit of both, but one thing’s already clear. RCR getting Busch represents a massive upgrade in terms of pure driving ability, giving it a threat to win races and championships it hasn’t had since Kevin Harvick left a decade ago.

3. Busch is also the best driver of his own generation

With his Auto Club triumph, Busch moved ahead of Harvick to ninth all-time in Cup Series wins with 61. He also set a very impressive record all his own, becoming the first driver ever to win at least one race in 19 consecutive seasons. Not even Richard Petty managed that.

There’s no debate over Busch’s status as an all-time great, especially since he’s still on the right side of 40. He’s almost certain to add more statistical milestones to his resume before he calls it a career.

The more interesting thing to discuss when it comes to Rowdy is where he stacks up against his contemporaries. And that’s tricky because it’s so hard to figure out exactly who they are.

He raced plenty against two drivers most fans would probably agree are still above him in the pantheon of NASCAR icons, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. But both men are retired (mostly, in Johnson’s case), and their glory days are long past, so Busch isn’t really part of their generation.

Harvick is closer. They started racing full-time in the Cup Series just four years apart. That said, they are 10 years apart in age, and if Busch races even five more seasons, their careers will start to match up even less.

That leaves the likes of Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. as possibilities. Keselowski is closest in age and has won a Cup Series championship. Hamlin, famously, has not. Busch has accomplished more overall than any of them.

In any case, four drivers don’t make a generation. The way we separate drivers in this manner is largely arbitrary, but Busch is hard to place wherever you draw the lines. He’s not part of the 40-something crowd and he’s definitely no young gun at this point. He’s one of a kind, truly competing mostly against himself when it comes to his place in stock car racing history.

See also
Up to Speed: Can Trackhouse Racing Avoid Regression in 2023?

4. Trackhouse Racing already looks like it was no one-hit wonder

It’s something that co-owner Pitbull should appreciate. Trackhouse Racing turned heads in 2022 when no one saw it coming. One of the big questions entering this season was whether it could keep up the level of performance that saw both Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez make the playoffs, with Chastain racing for the championship and ending up the season runner-up.

So far, so very good. Chastain leads the Cup Series points standings two weeks in and was very much in contention at Fontana. Suarez is fifth, just 15 points back and with two top-10 results under his belt.

It’s very early, and NASCAR history is full of examples of teams who lose the beat as the season grinds on.

But these cars have speed, their crews have proven themselves and the organization as a whole has an undeniable swagger. It’s hard to imagine they won’t be factors all season long and well into the postseason ā€“ again.

5. One Cup Series driver has had a more miserable start to 2023 than any other

Misery comes on many levels. Plenty of Cup Series drivers found themselves in wrecks at Daytona International Speedway because that’s just what happens there. Some of them bounced back at Fontana. Others didn’t.

But there’s getting off to a slow start, and that’s what Reddick has gone through so far. In his first two races for 23XI, he finished 39th at Daytona, last of all cars taken out because of on-track incidents (Ty Dillon finished behind him thanks to engine trouble).

At Fontana, Reddick was once again caught up in an accident, coming home 34th of 36 entrants. He hasn’t even completed half the laps run so far this year, and currently has four points. That’s right. Four.

Surely, better days are coming for Reddick and his No. 45 team. Partly because he’s got too much talent not to rebound, but also because they almost literally can’t get any worse.

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