Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Is Running Fewer Races for a Better Team Worth the Gamble?

As an aside, I whiffed on last week’s predictions about the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series playoff battle and the winner of the NASCAR Cup Series event at Richmond Raceway. Happens to all of us.

1. Is it better for drivers to bet on themselves with just a handful of races for a good team?

Matt Mills made his Truck debut at the age of 20, and he has competed in a total of 143 races between the Cup Series, NASCAR Xfinity Series and Truck Series in the seven years since.

The majority of his races came with BJ McLeod Motorsports in Xfinity, but he is no longer with the team for 2023.

With select Xfinity and Truck races on plate this season, it was announced this summer that Mills would get the opportunity of a lifetime: two races with Truck powerhouse Kyle Busch Motorsports.

Longtime sponsor JF Electric followed Mills to KBM, and his first start of the season came at Richmond on July 29.

After scoring points in both stages, Mills came home fifth in a caution-free final stage. The finish marked his first top five in NASCAR and just his second top 10 (a 10th-place finish in a Xfinity race at Daytona International Speedway was the other).

Fresh off of that career-best result, Mills’ second race in the No. 51 truck will come at The Milwaukee Mile on Aug. 27.

While it sounds counterintuitive to not race every week, that one race has arguably brought more attention to Mills than his prior exploits in Xfinity. And if his second start nets another solid finish, Mills may have more options to choose from for 2024.

The risk, however, is that there are only so many chances that a driver can get. The best teams charge top notch for sponsorship, and just a handful of races for them may be worth as much as a full-time season elsewhere. And that is exactly why Mills needs to hit it out of the park in Milwaukee.

There are other drivers that have taken this path. After competing full time in Xfinity with JD Motorsports in 2016, Ryan Preece elected to forgo another season with the team for four Xfinity races with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2017. The result? A dominant win at Iowa Speedway and a top-five finish in all four races.

That success catapulted Preece to a larger schedule with JGR in 2018 and a full-time Cup ride with JTG Daugherty Racing in 2019; the four races with JGR put him on the map.

Speaking of Preece …

See also
Bringing the Heat: Cole Custer On His Return to the Xfinity Series

2. Did Ryan Preece earn himself another year at SHR?

To say that it has not been Preece’s year would be an understatement.

Preece was hired to driver the No. 41 car for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2023, and after 21 races, Preece sat 27th in points with zero top 10s and an average finish north of 21st.

Frustration boiled over for Preece at Pocono Raceway, as he was spun by Corey LaJoie with two laps to go and finished 31st.

Richmond was a completely different story. Preece qualified 11th, and steadily worked his way into the top 10 and ultimately the top five as the race progressed. Prior to a caution with 10 laps to go, Preece was running third and had a chance at passing Denny Hamlin for second.

Preece crossed the line in fifth after a three-lap shootout as the highest-finishing SHR car in day when all four cars finished inside the top 11. It was a much-needed boost for the No. 41 team, and it was the most speed it had shown since Martinsville Speedway, where Preece won the pole and led the first 135 laps until a speeding penalty.

With Kevin Harvick retiring and Aric Almirola potentially retiring, there are a lot of moving pieces for SHR in what has been a nightmare of a season. With the exception of Harvick (who is sixth), all the other SHR cars are outside the top 20 in points. The No. 14 team and Chase Briscoe — who scored his first Cup win at Phoenix Raceway last year — have had a brutal summer stretch, and all of SHR has been lacking speed on the intermediate tracks this season.

The speed that Preece has shown at Martinsville and Richmond will earn him another year, and when considering that Tony Stewart handpicked him to drive the car, it would be foolish for 2023 to be a one-and-done.

3. Paul Tracy is out for the rest of the SRX season. Was it the right move? And what about his replacements?

After a brutal wreck at Pulaski County Motorsports Park in week three, Ken Schrader had had enough of Paul Tracy.

The Camping World SRX Series had evidently had enough of him too, and Tracy was suspended for the final three races of the SRX season.

Tracy has worn the black hat for SRX since its inaugural season, and the big crash at Pulaski County Motorsports Park July 27 not only totaled his own car but also the cars of Schrader and Josef Newgarden.

He also didn’t take any responsibility after the race.

While a suspension sounds harsh, the reality is that SRX only has so many backup cars available. And with constant repair work on the plate of the crews, SRX felt it had to take action.

As for his replacement, Johnny Benson was added to the field for the fourth race at Berlin Raceway, which is just down the road from his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. A substitute is needed for the final two races, and who would fit the bill?

See also
SRX Preview: No Wall at This Berlin

In its first two seasons, SRX had a local ringer who had to qualify in outside races to make the show as a guest star. That was scrapped for year three, and while it’s too late to resurrect the old process, it would be beneficial for SRX to go after local fan favorites at the remaining tracks.

4. John Hunter Nemechek, Austin Hill or someone else for the Xfinity regular season title?

After a dominant win at New Hampshire on July 15, it looked like John Hunter Nemechek would cruise to the regular season title. But after back-to-back finishes outside the top 30 and a lawnmowing session at Road America, Nemechek now finds himself trailing Austin Hill by 14 points with six races remaining in the regular season.

Nemechek has led laps and gathered a plethora of stage points, but Hill has remained consistent with four wins and an average finish of 7.5 to Nemchek’s 10th. Hill only has one finish worse than 18th, and he has scored a top 10 in 10 of the last 11 races. Even if Nemechek has the advantage on pure speed, Hill has spent time out front and has a found a way to bring his car home toward the front week in and week out.

The other in range beyond those two is Justin Allgaier, who is 40 points back of the lead. But he trails in speed and consistency to the front two, and he would likely need a stretch of bad luck for both Hill and Nemechek to join race.

Despite having a significant number of inconsistent finishes, Nemechek is just over a dozen points out of the lead. And in the end, raw speed (and Nemechek) will win out come September.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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Mike

Imo the drivers are not the problem at shr. If the equipment is not competitive, it really doesn’t matter who is driving the car. I admit a great driver can take a lousy handling car and get a top 10 with it but it would be almost impossible for a great driver to win in a car that just is not competitive with the rest of the field

DoninAjax

I have said this for years that a good driver in a good car can win races, a bad driver in a good car can finish higher than the car deserves and a bad driver in a good car is still a bad driver.

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