1. Has William Byron dethroned Kyle Larson as the new Hendrick Motorsports top dog?
The statistics don’t lie.
After 13 races in 2023, the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has three wins and six top-five finishes in the NASCAR Cup Series. That’s already more than what the 25-year-old had earned in both of those categories in the entirety of last season.
On the other hand, the No. 5 of Larson has two wins and five top-five finishes so far this year, and while that’s not far behind the No. 24, it’s certainly a deficit.
Okay, but seriously. Let’s stop kidding ourselves.
Clearly, anybody can take a look at a number of stats for certain drivers and make a massively general assumption about who’s better than who. Yes, Byron has certainly finished better than Larson so far in 2023, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s performed better.
If you take a look at the last three races for Larson, there is a legitimate argument he could have won all of them. At Dover Motor Speedway, the Californian dirt racer was caught up in a tangle involving Ross Chastain and Brennan Poole on lap 81. At the time, Larson was running through the field at breakneck speed and was a real contender for the win.
At Kansas Speedway, Larson led the field at the white flag. The only problem was Denny Hamlin, who ran down the HMS driver and, after a backstretch scuffle, took the lead from Larson with less than a mile to go. Larson finished second.
Finally, there’s Darlington Raceway this past weekend. On a late restart, Larson was involved in more Chastain shenanigans while racing for the lead with only seven laps to go. Larson was effectively out of contention.
The incident between the two parted the seas for Byron, who went on to win. It was the No. 24’s third victory of the year, yet it still wasn’t the only one that easily could have (and maybe should have) gone to Larson.
At Phoenix Raceway, Larson led a gargantuan 201 out of 317 laps by himself. He was also on track to win there had it not been for a late restart that saw Byron get the better of him with only two laps of racing.
There is certainly an argument that Byron has improved heavily over the course of the winter break and has become a top Cup Series driver — maybe even a championship contender.
However, there is a real luck factor to look at when it comes to Larson’s results so far in 2023. The numbers simply don’t tell the whole story. He may only have two wins, but really, he should probably have many more.
2. Should Josh Berry be allowed in the All-Star race in Alex Bowman’s absence?
There is more to a winning racecar than its driver.
This weekend at North Wilkesboro Speedway will see the annual pit crew challenge take place for a prize money purse of $100,000.
Woof! That’s a lot of money for those pit crew members. NASCAR must really care about putting some spotlight on them.
So, shouldn’t they do the same for the All-Star race?
This weekend will see Josh Berry return for his usual role of Hendrick Motorsports’ relief driver as he will climb into the No. 48 in lieu of Alex Bowman‘s absence. Bowman sustained a back injury during a dirt race in late April. Since then, Berry put up a top 10 at Kansas and has finished 25th and 30th afterward. That’s not necessarily All-Star material. At least it isn’t yet, that is.
What is All-Star material are those crew members that gave their usual driver, Bowman, a win last year at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. However, despite the trip they took to victory lane one year ago, they will have to compete with the rest of the All-Star Open field of non-winning drivers for a berth in Sunday night’s feature.
That doesn’t sound very fair, does it?
Yes, there is an argument that the drivers are the ones being celebrated this weekend for their victories coming in 2022 or 2023. That’s what makes them All-Stars. However, what is a driver without his team? One could argue that there have been a few races where a pit crew has determined a win or loss for a driver.
With HMS power under the hood and a plethora of short track experience behind the wheel, it’s doubtful that Berry will struggle in competing for a spot during the All-Star Open. That said, it doesn’t feel justified that the crew that worked hard to earn a win in 2022 should have to worry about it in the first place.
Even if it’s only a little bit.
3. Should the All-Star race stay at North Wilkesboro permanently?
It’s here. It’s finally here.
North Wilkesboro weekend. It’s one of the most anticipated track schedule returns in, well, maybe ever.
In 2023, it’s the NASCAR All-Star race that will take place at the historic short track, but is this the new home for the exhibition event? For the last three years, the All-Star race has changed venues twice with it being held at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2020 and then Texas Motor Speedway in 2021 and 2022.
With the event having now four different venues in the last five years, at what point does NASCAR make the decision to either continue its rotation or finally settle down in one spot?
Because it feels like if this race were to finally come to its rotation end, North Wilkesboro should be the place to do it.
The North Carolina short track hasn’t been quite proven enough yet to show that it has the capability to host a point-paying Cup race. Additionally, with traffic congestion and attendance expected to be overcrowded for this weekend, perhaps it’s best to wait a couple of years before finally putting a points race there for fans to travel to and see. With that, an exhibition race is the perfect way to test the waters of the reinvigorated circuit.
But more than that, North Wilkesboro has become a fan favorite. The 0.625-mile oval is a testament to the revitalization of American short track racing. With CARS Tour and ASA STARS National Tour races being held alongside the Cup Series feature, there is no event that connects the local short track race fan to the stars of NASCAR more than this weekend.
Finally, there’s the track itself. It’s old and that’s fantastic.
With such a worn-out racing surface, tires this weekend are likely going to be shredded quickly over a short period of time, putting more power in the drivers’ hands on how their cars perform over a long run. In other words, Sunday shouldn’t be a race of track position, but rather who is legitimately faster than who.
Texas Motor Speedway hosting the All-Star race has raised questions about whether or not such an event should even exist. However, with it now hosted by such an unpredictable and fan-favorite circuit such as North Wilkesboro, it feels right at home.
4. Are Cole Custer and Ford about to return to victory lane?
Have you been paying attention to that No. 00 car in the NASCAR Xfinity Series?
Because lately, it’s been pretty fast.
Starting at Richmond Raceway, Cole Custer and the Stewart-Haas Racing team have finished in the top 10 in each of the last five races, with four of them being top-five finishes. It’s Custer’s best series of consecutive finishes since 2019 in not only the Xfinity Series but in every series.
And that’s great news for Ford.
Since Team Penske’s departure from the second-tier series after the 2021 season, Ford has struggled to return to victory lane. Really, the manufacturer’s biggest hope has been the entries of SHR, who had only fielded Riley Herbst full time in 2021 and 2022 along with a limited amount of supporting starts for other teams.
However, 2023 saw the full-time return of Custer, who earned Ford’s last win in the Xfinity Series coming all the way back to Auto Club Speedway in 2022. He also finished runner-up in the series back-to-back in 2018 and 2019. He appeared to be Ford’s savior.
But earlier this year, he fell flat.
The first six races of 2023 for the reborn SHR team were a collection of disappointment. In that span, Custer earned only one top 10 coming at Daytona International Speedway. Afterward, his best finish was 12th thrice until Richmond. That’s not very impressive coming from a driver that won seven races in his last full-time season in the series.
But with the recent string of good finishes, it appears Custer is getting back into his groove of handling the Xfinity car, and perhaps it’s only a matter of time until both he and Ford are back in victory lane.
About the author
Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.
Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT
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