NASCAR is developing a youth ladder system for young drivers and their parents to learn how to make it to the NASCAR Cup Series. What would you like to see incorporated into this system?
Mark Kristl: NASCAR ought to incorporate the ARCA Menards Series into the ladder system. The ascent from ARCA to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series should be more closely monitored because too many drivers have jumped from ARCA to Trucks and then either caused wrecks or been way in over their heads. As I advocated last week, Shane van Gisbergen should run the ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway to acquire his superspeedway license. Yes, he is talented, but he has not been in a stock car at those speeds at a racetrack like a superspeedway before. Racing is dangerous and drivers must master various racetrack types before they are allowed to move up.
Mike Neff: How many times are we going to try this? It would be great to see drivers have to achieve a certain level of success before they move to the next level. Too many drivers are being moved up without proving they can be winners. They also need to do public speaking training: learning how to be interviewed and develop a style of their own. Finally, develop a system at the upper levels where driver talent gets you into seats that are well funded so that the drivers can focus on succeeding.
Taylor Kornhoff: Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after the recent MX-5 Cup test at Martinsville Speedway that the Generation 7 racecar is capable of giving drivers from all kinds of motorsports backgrounds a shot at racing in the NASCAR Cup Series. A ladder system that incorporates other avenues besides modifieds, late models and other stock car feeder disciplines would serve well to cater to this. I guess It would look more like tree roots than a ladder.
After a month-long slump, is William Byron peaking at the right time?
Neff: You can’t deny that he is hitting on all cylinders right now. He may be peaking a week or two early, but assuming he can keep the momentum rolling, he will be a force for the championship.
Wyatt Watson: Absolutely; William Byron is hitting his stride at the right time. With his win at Watkins Glen International and tracks he has won at such as Darlington Raceway, Martinsville and most importantly Phoenix Raceway coming up, Byron looks like he is primed to make a run for the championship. Additionally, heading into the playoffs, Byron would take the points lead by one point over Martin Truex Jr. assuming that neither of them win at Daytona, score a stage win or receive a penalty deducting them of points/playoff points. Byron will surely make it all the way to Phoenix and race compellingly for the title.
Caleb Barnes: Since the 2020 season began, Byron’s seasons seem to have one large valley rather than a few peaks. The No. 24 team always seems to start off strong and then take a summer vacation before showing back up for the playoffs. Following their performance at Watkins Glen, Byron and team are returning to playoff form. To go a step further, not only does Byron have the most wins, stage wins and laps led this season, he leads these categories in all of Next Gen competition so far. Since the start of 2022, Byron has the most wins (seven), most laps led (1,622), and is tied with Ryan Blaney and Truex for most stage wins (12). I expect Byron to continue to improve these stats in the playoffs as he contends for the championship.
Kristl: Yes, Byron has found speed at the optimum time. He has the most victories, stage wins and playoff points. While he will not win the regular season championship, Byron certainly is poised to make a deep run in the playoffs. Furthermore, in the 2022 playoffs, Byron logged one top five and six top 10s en route to a sixth-place finish. With his career high in wins in 2023, he’s undoubtedly a favorite to advance to the Championship 4.
With Austin Hill’s return to the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2024, who should drive the Kaulig Racing No. 31 in Cup next year?
Watson: There are many avenues that Kaulig can go when filling in the No. 31 for 2024. Zane Smith would be an interesting and great option to go with, and I expect that Smith and Kaulig might be talking about it right now. But there is someone within Chevrolet currently who has plenty of experience in the Cup Series and fits the bill for Kaulig: Matt DiBenedetto. He has remained consistent in his second year in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, scoring Rackley WAR its first playoff berth. He has also finished in the top 10 in seven of the last eight races.
Noah Gragson could also potentially land in the No. 31 next year. He has roots with Kaulig in the past, making part time starts in the No. 16 in 2022, and once Gragson completes NASCAR’s requirements for NASCAR’s sensitivity training, I would not be surprised if Kaulig calls him in to drive for it full time.
Kornhoff: The answer as to who should drive the No. 31 car for Kaulig is undoubtedly Gragson. There is simply no one else. Gragson messed up, there is no way around it, but we are not looking at a Kyle Larson situation. He will be back, and what better place to restart than helping build up Kaulig? The scrappy underdog energy of Gragson fits Kaulig better than the clean-cut Legacy Motor Club cars, and Kaulig has been on the rise in recent years, with some solid runs with Justin Haley and AJ Allmendinger.
Besides, if Gragson is reinstated, the only driver realistically available for Kaulig would be him, and the team would be his only realistic landing spot. The only thing that would prevent this is the sponsors. I don’t know how many of Gragson’s own sponsors, such as Wendy’s and Black Rifle Coffee Company, stuck around. But unlike Larson and given Kaulig’s position in the sport, his acceptance on the team will depend entirely on whether he can bring in money or not.
Neff: There are several drivers who would do well in the spot. It seems like Parker Kligerman has paid the dues to deserve a shot. His last time in Cup did not end well. He should be able to do better if the folks at Kaulig give him a shot.
Barnes: When a new seat opens amid the silly season musical chairs, most people look to the Xfinity Series as the next-best pool of talent to take a Cup ride. But in Kaulig’s case, it should turn its eyes to a Truck star who made his Cup debut earlier this year. Earlier this year, rumors swirled that Carson Hocever could be in the mix for a Cup seat. I know Kaulig has Daniel Hemric and Chandler Smith in its Xfinity cars, but I don’t see either doing anything extraordinary in a Kaulig Cup car. In its search to fill the seat, I could see Kaulig pursuing Hocevar, who impressed in a Spire Motorsports car in his debut until his brake rotor failure.
Did her latest season in the Camping World SRX Series hurt or help Hailie Deegan’s career?
Kornhoff: Helped. As you can hear from Hailie Deegan in interviews and podcasts, her confidence has been rejuvenated by her time in SRX. Is she running as well as her equipment should? No, certainly not. But good mental is half the battle in life, and sports are no exception. Take Bubba Wallace, for example, with how badly he was running in the early portion of the year when he said he needed to be replaced, compared to his runs in the fall. While Deegan has not had the greatest performances this year or the last, she demonstrated in SRX that she can drive a racecar and put together a full race. She’s really a good dirt racer in particular, as she demonstrated at times during the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt Truck race this year. Unfortunately, not all of that translated to pavement, but her time in SRX has demonstrated that the talent is there. She just needs the people and the atmosphere to bring it out.
Barnes: The summer stretch for the Truck Series is an odd one, averaging just over two races per month. By running SRX, Deegan has been able to work on her race craft weekly. The opening weeks did not seem beneficial, as the SRX races almost seemed like an extension of the Truck Series with guys running each other over every lap. However, Deegan found something that seemed to help on the short tracks. At Richmond, Deegan had speed comparable race speed of her ThorSport teammates who dominated. The race speed carried over to Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, but involvement in a couple of accidents ended her chances of being competitive.
The SRX races helped Deegan improve her race craft, but her biggest issue of late is qualifying. In her early career, Deegan could qualify well but would drop when the race started. Now she shows more race speed but starts each week in the hornet’s nest and has difficulty getting out. I have my eyes on Kansas Speedway, Bristol and Homestead-Miami Speedway to serve as a final evaluation to see if Deegan has improved or not over the course of the year.
Watson: SRX didn’t do much to change the trajectory of Deegan’s career. She has underperformed mightily for ThorSport. All three of her teammates made the playoffs while she sits 19th in the standings. Finishing second in an SRX race at Eldora Speedway, a track the Truck Series hasn’t raced on since 2019, after a good chunk of the field was taken out in multiple wrecks is not going to help her much at all. In fact, I really have no idea what will help her. She races for one of the best teams in the garage and has one top 10 to show for this year. The only thing that will help Deegan’s career is to start getting results in the Truck Series now, and 17 races into the season, she hasn’t done that and hasn’t shown that she has improved even slightly compared to her previous two seasons.
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