Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Kyle Busch won his third NASCAR Cup Series race of the season Sunday (June 4) at World Wide Technology Raceway, holding off the field on an overtime restart to put a cap on a race that ended five and half hours after it began.
Busch started on the pole and won stage one of the Enjoy Illinois 300, finishing second in stage two to just miss a clean sweep of the event. He now joins William Byron as the only Cup drivers who have won three times in 2023.
Busch stayed patient, prevailing in a race that never found its rhythm. After half a lap of competition, a caution came out, and shortly after, lightning struck, resulting in a delay of over 90 minutes. A second red flag came out after Noah Gragson crashed, and then a third came out to repair the turn 1 wall, worn down after catching cars losing brake rotors and slamming into it throughout the day.
A week after the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, this race felt like the real 600-miler. But Busch and his No. 8 team survived the endurance, and in doing so, have propelled Richard Childress Racing back into championship contention – perhaps their best shot since Ryan Newman’s near miracle run to the title in 2014.
And don’t forget Michael McDowell. After taking two tires early in the race to gain track position, McDowell was immediately spun out in turn 1 by Ross Chastain. McDowell and the No. 34 crew then played the same strategy again late in the race, vaulting them into the top 10 for good. He wound up ninth, a nice payoff for a gutsy call. This track has been kind to McDowell, who led 34 laps last year with his Front Row Motorsports Ford before finishing 18th.
What… is the big question leaving this race in the rear view?
Of all the issues the Next Gen has had in 2023, and all the issues that have been resolved, it was a bit of a surprise brake rotors have never become a huge topic. Well, Sunday’s race should change that for good.
Four different drivers were left a bit shaken, crashing hard after suffering brake rotor failures on the straightaway. Carson Hocevar was the first victim on lap 91, a shame for the 20-year-old, who was making his Cup debut and running 16th at the time of the accident. Tyler Reddick was next on lap 175, followed by Gragson on lap 198. Bubba Wallace then suffered the same fate on lap 236, setting up an overtime finish.
Gragson’s hit was the hardest, as it took him a minute to collect himself once he got out of the car before heading to the care center.
So where did these failures come from? We haven’t seen this level of brake problems, let alone rotor failure, this much at any track with the Next Gen car. What’s all the more surprising is the inaugural race at WWT in 2022 had no such failures. Aside from both 23XI Racing teammates, there was no connection between them, all happening at different times during the race.
Technically, there was one connection: the explosions all happened entering turn 1. It’s a longshot to say there was something in that portion of the track contributing to the problem, but one of many things NASCAR will be looking into.
As it should.
Any failure within the brakes can result in some of the scariest crashes, and we got a glimpse of that with Gragson’s incident. Expect an in-depth look at all of it, because any type of recurring issue will bring safety for this car and for the drivers back to the forefront after offseason adjustments seemed to clear up those concerns.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
The driver who thwarted Busch’s perfect day was Ryan Blaney, fresh off snapping his winless streak at Charlotte. Blaney won stage two for just his second stage victory of the season. However, Blaney’s car could not take off in traffic, and he couldn’t get back to the front. It was still a solid day for YRB, as he finished sixth.
Last year’s winner Joey Logano never really had a chance to defend, as his car also struggled in traffic. But somehow, some way, he was suddenly running top five at the end, finishing a very solid third — just short of getting the 101st win for his sponsor, Shell, and giving Team Penske two cars within the top six.
In his second and final race at WWT Raceway, Kevin Harvick wanted to give his sponsor, Busch, a great finish in its home race. He did just that, staying out of trouble all day and finishing 10th. Don’t look now, but Harvick is currently third in regular season points. Could he win the regular season title in his final try?
When… was the moment of truth?
Mother Nature tried her hardest to give this race the Charlotte treatment, and in a way, she succeeded.
Teams entered St. Louis under the impression the race would start and end in broad daylight. Nope.
Instead, the 90-plus-minute lightning delay to start, plus numerous red flags, left the sun setting as the race hit the checkered flag. Running late in the day meant track conditions changed, leaving teams unprepared.
Busch’s team kept pace, making the right adjustments while maintaining track position out front. However, other teams probably couldn’t say the same. Perhaps Blaney’s car didn’t like the temperature changes, which is why he couldn’t find his way forward late in the race. Maybe that twilight condition is what helped Logano surge to third out of nowhere.
With the 24 Hours of Le Mans next week, Mother Nature and the brake rotors decided to conspire to give NASCAR fans a little taste of what an endurance race is like.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
The Cup Series heads to wine country for its annual visit to Sonoma Raceway on Sunday, June 11. Last season, Daniel Suarez finally broke through for his first career win, widely celebrated among Daniel’s Amigos.
As he returns to the track in 2023, Suarez hasn’t won yet this season. In fact, Sonoma remains his only win to date and the last for two-car Trackhouse Racing. With road courses likely circled on his calendar, a playoff berth on the line, and a season that needs momentum for the No. 99 team, Suarez will likely look to be ultra-aggressive.
Sonoma also marks the return of Chase Elliott after his one-race suspension for intentionally wrecking Denny Hamlin at Charlotte. Hamlin said in St. Louis that the drivers had talked but deferred to Elliott in regards to what the conversation was about.
While it seems like their feud is over, Elliott’s playoff chase was set back by another race. Look for driver No. 9 to make a splash at the road course, a track type he’s struggled to retain his dominance at in recent years.
How… much did Carson Hocevar raise his stock?
After exiting his wrecked racecar Sunday, Hocevar dropped the news to FOX Sports 1 that he does not have a secured ride for next year. By rejecting his Craftsman Truck Series ride with Al Niece, chances are high that Hocevar will move up in 2024.
Spire Motorsports seems to be the place for him to land.
If two top 10s in his first two Xfinity Series starts weren’t enough to prove his talent, Hocevar exceeded expectations in his Cup debut as a stand-in for a stand-in, driving in place of Corey LaJoie. Lajoie was disappointing, running just 21st in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 9 in place of Elliott.
Looking back, this race might be a turning point in both Hocevar’s and LaJoie’s careers. LaJoie ran where he normally would with Spire in a Hendrick car. To make things worse, he was getting straight-up outrun by his own No. 7 with Hocevar behind the wheel before his brake rotor failure.
While Hocevar doesn’t have a ride yet for next season, his most recent runs with Spire in both series probably means Chevrolet doesn’t want to get rid of him. In fact, he might be the new face of their driver development; 20 years old with plenty of upside.
But where would he go? Spire could make its Xfinity car a full-time ride in 2024, although funding might be an issue. Hocevar could also find himself driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and JR Motorsports.
Rumors have swirled Josh Berry will replace Harvick in the No. 4 Ford in 2024, leaving his No. 8 Xfinity ride with JRM open for the taking. It makes sense, as Hocevar is a former member of Earnhardt Jr.’s development team, Drivers Edge Development.
Then the question becomes, will Hocevar eventually be in a position to take a ride at Spire? Despite spending sim time at Trackhouse, he’s grown increasingly closer to Spire with the Xfinity deal, and now the Cup debut.
It’s easy to say that the team will kick Ty Dillon to the curb and put Hocevar in the No. 77, but he drove the wheels off Spire’s flagship car, something LaJoie has struggled to do.
Now, sure, one bad race isn’t the end of the world. Berry’s debut in the No. 9 when Elliott was injured resulted in a 29th-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But an opportunity like this one for someone like LaJoie is pretty much once-in-a-lifetime. The racing business is a cutthroat world. Sometimes, you only get one shot, and if you don’t deliver, it could result in no more chances. Given that LaJoie didn’t really improve his running position, despite having better equipment than Hocevar, the 31-year-old might have just put himself on the hot seat.
When a driver struggles in less-than-stellar equipment, people always ask if it’s the driver or the car. This weekend may have proved that it’s the driver. And Hocevar may have just accidentally opened a door that might eventually see him race on Sundays at LaJoie’s expense.
About the author
Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022. He co-authors Only Yesterday (Wednesdays) and Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he is also the site's primary Truck Series reporter and writer, and contributes to SRX coverage, too. A proud West Virginia Wesleyan College alum from Akron, Ohio, Anthony is currently pursuing his master of journalism at Temple University. He is a theatre actor and fight choreographer-in-training outside of Frontstretch. He is a loyal fan of the Cincinnati Reds and Carolina Panthers, still hopeful for a championship at some point in his lifetime.
You can keep up with Anthony by following @AnthonyDamcott on Twitter.
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