Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2023 Pala Casino 400

Who … should you be talking about after the race?

It might be a little early to crown Kyle Busch as the savior for Richard Childress Racing, but he’s certainly been strong to kick off 2023. After coming tantalizingly close to a Daytona 500 win, Busch handily took the checkers in the Pala Casino 400 Sunday (Feb. 26) at Auto Club Speedway. It’s the 61st Cup Series win of Busch’s career, giving him sole possession of the most wins among active, full-time drivers over Kevin Harvick.

Busch had a strong car, but in the first half of the race couldn’t quite hang with a dominant Ross Chastain on long runs (Chastain won each of the first two stages). An early pit-road speeding penalty also hobbled Busch, keeping him from grabbing stage points in the first stage.

But by the end of stage two, Busch was right on Chastain’s tail. In the final stage, he got by him just before the last round of pit stops, where Busch’s crew kept the No. 8 Chevrolet solidly in front. From there, he sailed to the win, taking the lead from Michael McDowell for the final time with 20 laps to go after McDowell stayed on track longer than the rest of the field in the final pit cycle. 

It was a solid win for Busch, but whether he can bring RCR back to full title form in his first year remains to be seen. Overall, it’s likely that he’ll play a similar role to the one Kevin Harvick played at RCR for many years: close, competitive, just not quite championship-caliber.

Busch may win several races in 2023, but it may be a stretch to say the team will go from a good mid-tier one to a top-tier contender in just one season.

And don’t forget Corey LaJoie. Thanks to the qualifying rainout on Saturday, LaJoie started his Spire Motorsports Chevrolet in 12th position. And it wasn’t just a serendipitous start for him; the No. 7 car stayed at or near the top 15 all day long, overcoming an early slide through the grass and two other incidents.

In fact, LaJoie grabbed 10th-place stage points in stage two and wound up 14th, ahead of some much better-funded teams and drivers. If the season ended today, he would be in the playoffs over well-funded peers like 2021 Cup champion Kyle Larson.

See also
The Underdog House: No Daytona Aftereffects for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

What … is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?

It’s early in the season and teams will come and go as weekly favorites. But is 2023 the year RFK Racing finds their stride?

Despite some bad luck in the Daytona 500 and a little more at Auto Club Speedway, Chris Buescher sits sixth in points early while teammate and team owner Brad Keselowski is 10th. The only other teammates inside the top 10 are the Chastain-Daniel Suarez duo from a red hot Trackhouse Racing organization.

It’s too early to proclaim RFK as a title contender, and it’s probably a bit unrealistic; the team’s struggles in recent years have been significant enough that they aren’t going to fully rebound overnight.

Still, the team is off to a promising start, even with a Keselowski spin that brought out the day’s first caution for cause. Buescher, with five top-15 runs in his last seven starts, is starting to show some of the consistency that his equipment didn’t quite allow for previously. Keselowski alongside him offers a veteran presence and a hunger to prove himself in the final few chapters of his career. There’s a lot to like in the RFK camp and plenty of reason for optimism going forward.

Where … did the other key players wind up? 

Polesitter Christopher Bell got the top starting spot based on NASCAR’s special metric system after qualifying was rained out. Unfortunately for him, a multi-car crash ended his day midway through the second stage. Bell finished 32nd.

Defending race winner Kyle Larson’s hopes of a repeat were quickly dashed. Power troubles plagued him almost from the drop of the green flag and he lost multiple laps trying to diagnose what turned out to be an electrical problem. Larson got back on track and up to speed, but the damage was done; the No. 5 Chevrolet driver finished 16 laps down in 31st.

Reigning Cup champion Joey Logano had a fast car, spending his share of time inside the top five, leading laps and ultimately finishing 10th. He leaves Auto Club just one point behind Chastain for the overall series lead.

When … was the moment of truth?

Busch’s win, Chastain’s early dominance and Chase Elliott’s late charge all got plenty of airtime, but the star of the show Sunday was clean air. The aerodynamic advantage the leader has was on full display all day long and certainly captured the interest of the broadcast booth. At times, it seemed as though aero dependence dominated the conversation both on and off the track.

In 2022, the Next Gen car seemed to perform better than its predecessor on the aero-dependent tracks, producing some better races on the intermediate ovals than recent history had taught fans to expect. Sunday’s race, however, had little in the way of compelling action. It looked more like the early years at ACS, where the leader set sail and left the field in his (air) wake.

Why … should you be paying attention this week?

NASCAR’s annual West Coast tour pulls into Sin City for the first of two races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The spring race last year featured a duel to the finish between teammates Alex Bowman and Larson, with Bowman ultimately taking the win by just .178 seconds.

The fall race wasn’t quite as exciting, even with its playoff designation, but the spring show demonstrated the kind of competition the 1.5-mile track can put on.

In general, the first trip to tracks in NASCAR’s playoff era gives fans a bigger bang for their buck. Since everyone is racing for a win that will secure them a playoff berth, it’s not about racing for a title or staying out of the way of the drivers who are. Instead, the entire field gets aggressive in going for the victory — and that’s usually a better recipe for on-track competition.

How … likely is it that racing will return to Auto Club?

Reconfiguration plans have been in the works for a couple of years, but just before Sunday’s race, news dropped that most of the land currently occupied by ACS has been sold to a local developer.

NASCAR’s plan is to build a short track on the remaining acreage and lease parking lots from the developer for race events. Still, some critics were vocal this weekend the sale is a precursor to permanently closing ACS going forward.

I don’t buy it. If NASCAR had no plans to build a new short track, then why keep the 90 acres or so they retained after the sale? The land is clearly valuable and NASCAR could have sold the entire parcel to this developer.

Instead, the reported $544,000,000 from the sale can certainly fund the rebuild and a new short track is something the sport needs. It hasn’t added a new track of less than a mile to the schedule in decades.

The big question is whether the developer is going to turn enough of the land into parking lots to accommodate fans, because surely that land could become more profitable building actual properties on it. There could be a provision in the sale about keeping enough space for parking, but it seems unlikely.

For now, it seems as though NASCAR will return to a new and hopefully improved Fontana-area track in 2025 or 2026. It appears the sport certainly wants to keep a piece of southern California’s fanbase, the second-largest media market in the country. All we know for sure is a continuation on the 2-mile layout is now impossible with the pending real estate deal.

“Right now, this will be our last race with the 2-mile track,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps confirmed this past week on SIRIUS XM Radio. “It’s going to take a couple of years to build the new track. It’s something right now that we’re interested in doing. What that timeline looks like, we’re not sure.”

Indeed, time will tell if ACS will be reborn or go belly-up like nearby Riverside Raceway and Ontario Motor Speedway.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Carl D.

I complained elsewhere about LaJoie this morning… I’ll let it go; nobody wants to hear an old man whine.

Jeremy

Come on, Carl, there’s plenty of room on the LaJoie bandwagon!

Kicks

You say “and a new short track is something the sport needs”. If that is true, why do we waste a short track date by dumping dirt on Bristol? It seems the drivers have enjoyed running at Auto Club because it provides so many opportunities to run whatever line you need. I’ve yet to see a short track that can go 3,4 and sometimes 5 wide

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