Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Hendrick Champ Over Cup Series Champ

1. Forget Ford vs. Ferrari, more like Chevrolet vs. everyone

So much about NASCAR changes so quickly that it’s difficult sometimes to tell which aspects of the “Good Old Days” are still in effect in 2023. One relevant example: Is manufacturer loyalty still a thing? Because if so, Chevrolet fans have a lot to crow about so far.

One is obvious. There have been four points-paying races so far, and Chevy drivers have won them all. One superspeedway, two intermediates and one whatever Phoenix Raceway is considered. No matter. A bowtie was in victory lane.

The current points leader, Alex Bowman, drives a Chevy. So does the guy who’s led the most laps, Kyle Larson. And the only repeat winner so far this year, William Byron.

“So what?” says you, possibly a Ford or Toyota aficionado. That’s just one really strong team, and possibly one that’s cheating with its louvers. Ah, but Kyle Busch has already won after moving from a stronger-on-paper Toyota organization, so … yeah.

In days gone by, this is about the time when teams from the other manufacturers would start bellyaching to NASCAR about things being unfair, and changes would be made. Whether fans still wear their car company loyalty on their sleeves or not, that part is probably still a thing. And if this keeps up, it’s going to happen soon.

See also
Up to Speed: Will William Byron’s Fast Start Fizzle Again?

2. Determining Hendrick’s top dog might be more entertaining than finding out who’s NASCAR Cup Series champion

Who do you suppose is walking with the most swagger into Hendrick Motorsports HQ right now?

Byron is the flavor of the month, winner of back-to-back races. Larson is a former Cup Series champion who has been bad fast to start the season, so much so that he seemed extremely ticked off at Phoenix when he finished … fourth.

Maybe Bowman isn’t strutting in, but he’s certainly carrying his head high as the only Cup driver to be a perfect 4-for-4 in top-10 finishes.

Chase Elliott is probably Zooming in for the meetings since he’s recovering from his snowboarding injury. But you know the drill: most popular driver every year, former champ, etc.

This is the kind of lineup one can only dream of when fielding a four-car team. Everyone is either winning, leading tons of laps or at least running up front. All four drivers feel like championship contenders, assuming Elliott gets the waiver everyone expects he will. Even some of the powerhouse Hendrick lineups of years past couldn’t say that.

But let’s be real. It’s got to be fun to see all of them thinking they’re all “The Man” right now. Someone needs to shoot a reality show based on just this team at this particular moment because there’s a good chance it would be more compelling than the actual title race coming up this fall.

3. Will Stewart-Haas Racing even be considered a top team when Kevin Harvick retires?

Sometimes questions can be a little mean but still valid. This is one of those.

Kevin Harvick very nearly cruised to victory in his last regular season race at Phoenix with the type of performance that gets the “NASCAR is fixed” crowd riled up until it remembers that, oh yeah, Harvick has always been really good there. Only some untimely late cautions and a four-tire pit stop that lost him too much track position spoiled the script.

Harvick still came home fifth and is second in points after four races. To find his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates, you need to look way down the standings as they’re clustered together from 25th to 27th. That is, in a word, suboptimal.

It’s enough to make one wonder where SHR heads next for 2024. Filling Harvick’s seat isn’t really an issue. Filling his shoes seems like it may be a big one.

It’s almost like the anti-Hendrick. If Larson decided tomorrow this was going to be his last Cup Series season so he could race dirt full-time, HMS would be sad but wish him well and soldier on. SHR needs an alpha dog and doesn’t have one waiting in the wings.

Could it import one? Sure. But when it looks like a necessity to keep the whole team from turning into a mid-pack outfit, that’s a lot of pressure. Smoke may have a tense Silly Season coming up if the rest of his drivers’ results don’t start improving fast.

4. On the other hand, Chase Briscoe is already becoming an ace pitchman

One of the best parts of a new NASCAR season is seeing Cup Series drivers in new ads for their sponsors’ brands. There are some you can depend on annually, but every now and then someone becomes a breakout star you wouldn’t expect.

Friends, I present the comedy stylings of Chase Briscoe. He’s turned out to have great on-screen chemistry with team owner Tony Stewart, and all of their Mahindra ads have been great.

This “Mail Run” spot is quality:

But there’s a newer ad with Stewart demanding that Briscoe move a gazebo around his property that’s even better.

With all due respect to Briscoe, he’s not one of the newer crop of Cup Series drivers that seemed destined to become a TV pitchman extraordinaire, but here we are. That should at least mean Stewart doesn’t have to work quite as hard to keep the No. 14 car fully sponsored going forward.

See also
Kevin Harvick Falls Just Short of No. 10 at Phoenix

5. Will Josh Berry or JR Motorsports make it to the Cup Series first?

Elliott’s misfortune was always going to be someone else’s opportunity, and the driver to seize it has been Josh Berry. His rise from grinding it out in late models for years to NASCAR Xfinity Series regular to Cup Series substitute has been inspiring, the stuff of future movies.

Speaking of the future, his Xfinity team, JR Motorsports, has been rumored to be (finally) pondering the move up to Cup. So that means a set for Berry, right? Especially now that he’s getting top-level reps?

Maybe not. Dale Earnhardt Jr. recently NBC Sports that he’d be hesitant to turn a JRM Cup seat over to Berry because he deserves an even better one.

“My hope is that by the end of this year he’s got a deal for next year at the Cup level with someone,” Earnhardt said. “That would be the best-case scenario.

“JR Motorsports, even if we were going Cup racing, I would be hesitant to make Josh have to deal with that growth and building that program. He’s 32 years old. He’s Cup ready.”

So who gets to that level first, the driver or the team? We might learn the answer sooner than anyone would have thought just a few short years ago.

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Christopher

Agree that the Stewart-Briscoe Mahindra ads are really good. Very funny.

WJW Motorsports

It all comes down to which of the four Chad is giving the good stuff to in any particular week. 24 seems to get it first every year, which makes sense with Jeff G and all, but then he spreads it around a bit.. can’t play favorites. They all redesigned front-ends for this year, no? I recall during D500 it was remarked how Ford/Toyota chose a flat front vs. Chevy with more of a blade shape. Perhaps Ford/Toyota decided to optimize for pushing/drafting a plate tracks which probably hurts them elsewhere.. They should all be required to continue to run what they brung, but you are right about the way these things go…. The remarks to the media by other drivers about funky stuff going on with the comp, the quiet calls from the CEOs and team bosses down to Daytona….The Chevys will either get pulled back through some new found “things” during inspection, or you’ll see a quiet re-design on the front-ends of the others.

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