1. After a career race at Bristol, will Ty Gibbs win in his rookie season?
Bristol Motor Speedway was dominated by Joe Gibbs Racing, but that doesn’t make Ty Gibbs‘ fifth-place finish anything to scoff at.
After leading 12 laps in his first 43 NASCAR Cup Series starts, Gibbs spent 102 laps out front before bowing out to teammate and eventual race winner Denny Hamlin in the middle of the final stage. It was Gibbs’ third top-five finish of the season, and he had an average running position of fourth on the night.
He’s already a lock for Rookie of the Year, but could Gibbs close out his first full-time Cup season with a win?
The Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Martinsville are probably his best chances. He won at Las Vegas and Martinsville in his 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship season, and although he did not win at the ROVAL, Gibbs has won at four different road courses in his Xfinity tenure.
He finished fifth in the Cup race at Watkins Glen International in August, and he was a top 5 car at Kansas Speedway — a similar track to Las Vegas — until a mid-race crash in May. And if Joe Gibbs Racing can nail the Martinsville setup like it did last October, Gibbs will be another driver to keep an eye on.
2. Who gets eliminated in the Cup Series’ Round of 12?
The Round of 12 is the Cup playoffs’ wild card round. Winning at Talladega Superspeedway might as well be the equivalent of winning Powerball, and the ROVAL can be either be tame or completely full of chaos.
That’s why it’s important for teams to get off on the right foot at Texas Motor Speedway, as a bad race there will lead to stress for the next two weeks. But with all the tire issues that plagued Texas last season, Sunday’s (Sept. 24) 400-miler might turn into a race of attrition and chance as well.
Regardless of how calm and chaotic the next three races will be, here are my picks for elimination at Charlotte:
Bubba Wallace: Wallace and the No. 23 team were the surprises of opening round by advancing to the Round of 12, and he became just the third driver (joining Alex Bowman in 2018 and Clint Bowyer in 2019) to advance past the first round with zero playoff points.
That said, the team hasn’t been consistent enough to go much further. Wallace has shown top 5 and winning speed on 1.5-mile tracks all year, yes, but Texas hasn’t raced like an intermediate since the repave; it will be a race of track position on a one-groove track, which presents its own set of challenges.
Wallace will certainly be a factor at Talladega (almost won in the spring until a last-lap crash), but that’s only if he has a running car by the end. The variability of the first two races and his poor road racing record will have him on the outside looking in.
Ross Chastain: It’s surreal to see how much Chastain and the No. 1 team have fallen off ever since his dust-up with Kyle Larson at Darlington Raceway in May. Chastain did dominate Nashville Superspeedway to win from the pole, but Michigan International Speedway in August was about the only other time that he made noise out front in the summer.
The playoffs saw Chastain claw his way from 25th to fifth at Darlington, but he made little noise in the following races at Kansas Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway. Each round is a tighter squeeze, and Chastain hasn’t shown enough pace to make me think he will move on.
Kyle Busch: After three wins in the first 15 races, it been a rough couple of months for Busch and the No. 8 team. They’ve had only three top 10s and seven laps led in the last 10 races to go along with five finishes of 20th or worse.
Some of it was bad luck and DNFs, but like Chastain, Busch has lacked in the speed department in the last third of the year after being a frequent fixture out front in the first two. Unless the team hits on something at Texas or Charlotte, he will bow out in the second round as well.
Ryan Blaney: Blaney is a curious case. He dominated the Coca-Cola 600 in May and was one of the fastest cars at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway the following week, but since then, Blaney and the No. 12 team have faded to the background outside of superspeedways.
Just 29 laps led in the last 14 races for Blaney and the No. 12 team (20 of which came at Atlanta Motor Speedway), and they’ve have been off on speed for the last three months, just like Penske teammate Joey Logano.
Blaney has the greatest potential to prove me wrong at Talladega, a racetrack he’s won at twice. After all, he led the most laps and finished runner-up in May. But if he is unable to win Talladega, will he enough points from the other two races to move on?
3. Does the Truck Series need a scheduling overhaul to better align the playoffs?
Explaining the NASCAR playoffs to unsuspecting friends and family is hard enough. Having all three series at different points of the playoffs makes the job even harder.
Corey Heim scored his third NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series win of the season at Bristol on Sept. 14, and he became the first driver to claim his spot in the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway.
The night after the Truck race was the Xfinity Series, which had just concluded the regular season a week prior at Kansas.
Xfinity and Cup have schedules that at least make sense. The Cup playoffs start two weeks earlier because of the extra Round of 16, and once Xfinity exits its bye week at Talladega Superspeedway, the Cup and Xfinity playoffs are aligned by track, by round and by race for the rest of the season.
The same cannot be said for the Truck Series. While the Cup Series’ regular season concluded on Aug. 26, the Truck Series – despite having one less round – concluded its regular season on July 29.
The Truck Series playoffs are awkwardly pieced together, as there are seven races and seven off weeks in the 14 weeks between the regular season finale on July 29 and the season finale at Phoenix on Nov. 3. It’s difficult for casual fans and observers to follow, and the vast amount of time off kills momentum and disjoints the entire postseason.
Of course, the easy answer would be adding more races to the Truck Series schedule. It has 23 races to Xfinity’s 33 and Cup’s 36, but it won’t magically jump to 30 overnight, either.
With the weekend the series currently has, it would be better to backload the schedule. The races would be more spread out in the spring and summer, but it would allow the Truck Series playoffs to align with Cup and Xfinity in the fall.
Speaking of schedules,
4. What’s the holdup over the Cup schedule?
The 2021 Cup schedule — the biggest single-season change in well over two decades — was released in late September of 2020. The 2022 and 2023 schedules were released earlier or around that same time.
So why is there such a holdup for 2024? After it appeared that the schedules would be revealed this week, it now looks as if any schedule announcement won’t come until mid-October at the earliest.
Like 2021, the 2024 schedule will once again be a matter of moving parts. There are rumors of Circuit Gilles Villenueve in Montreal making its Cup debut, and it now sounds like Sonoma Raceway and Texas will be shifted to the spring, with the latter’s IndyCar date in jeopardy depending on the weekend it’s scheduled.
There is also the expected return of the Brickyard 400, a potential Richmond Raceway doubleheader and a potential points-paying race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, among other things. What isn’t helping the matter either is that NBC will have to navigate and figure out a solution for a two-week Olympic break in late July and early August.
The schedule, however, isn’t the only thing that the NASCAR world is waiting on. While Xfinity Series will move to The CW for 2025 and beyond, the Cup Series has yet to sign or announce a deal for a post-2024 broadcasting lineup.
The other elephant in the room is the charter situation, as NASCAR and the owners are at an impasse over keeping the charter system beyond 2024. That’s another variable that could be a culprit for the current delays.
Everyone wants the schedule to be out, of course, but there are so many moving parts that the delay is understandable. But for the sake of fans looking to buy tickets and plan travel, the schedule needs to come out sooner rather than later.
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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