With the unpredictability of Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, will a poor result at Texas Motor Speedway be too much to recover from?
Taylor Kornhoff: With Texas as the only intermediate track in this round, it will be very important for drivers to do well there and it will be very uncomfortable to head into Talladega without a good result, but it’s not a done deal. Kyle Busch won on a superspeedway this year, Bubba Wallace kept his points position at Watkins Glen International and Kyle Larson won at Martinsville Speedway. And remember how well Michael McDowell ran at Bristol Motor Speedway? With the new car, a lot of drivers are getting more well-versed in the different track types, so I think we could see some drivers run badly at Texas and be OK. Let’s just hope the Goodyear tires hold up at Texas this time.
Mark Kristl: No, precisely because of the question. If one of the playoff drivers has a poor run at TMS, then their path is clear: Run up front and win. Plus, given the unpredictability of Talladega, it’s a good wager that another playoff driver will suffer a poor result too. Depending on stage points, those two drivers are essentially matched going into the ROVAL. Then it is like any other playoff race. Focusing on qualifying well to start up front, then continuously working to ensure you stay up there. Remember, the ROVAL will have stage break cautions, so there will be at least two more chances to improve upon the racecar after the drop of the green flag.
Andrew Stoddard: Texas is not a make-or-break race. For proof, look no further than Christopher Bell’s Round of 12 last season. Bell had a nightmare day in the Lone Star State, finishing 34th after wrecking early and not meeting the damaged vehicle policy. Talladega did not fare much better for him, settling for 17th in the final running order. Then, lo and behold, Bell walked it off to the Round of 8 with a win at the ROVAL and then did it again at Martinsville to make the Championship 4. As long as the win-and-advance rule is in place for the playoffs, there will be no such thing as a race that drivers and teams cannot bounce back from to continue their playoff run.
Steve Leffew: It depends on who you are. Nobody has more riding on Texas than Wallace. We know he’s a very good plate racer, but it’s going to be a dice roll to get through the Talladega race without getting caught up in the big ones. Wallace is starting 14 points below the cut line. Texas is the race where he has the best chance to make gains within his own control.
Zach Gillispie: Not at all. We’ve seen massive points swings at the ROVAL and Talladega, so even if you are sitting last by a mile after Texas, you are still very much alive because of the Round of 12 lottery.
With Zane Smith’s departure, who is Ford’s best prospect in 2024?
Leffew: When you look through the standings of all three series, you begin to see that Ford has a major lack of prospects in the pipeline. Austin Cindric, Cole Custer, Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton are probably its three best hopes now. Despite their experience, they as a group had an average age below 24 years old. Beyond that, you are looking at 26-year-old Ben Rhodes, 29-year-old Ty Majeski and 22-year-old Hailie Deegan. Yes, Deegan has struggled driving for Thorsport Racing while her teammates have done well, but all of her teammates have much more experience. Deegan is 12 points behind Daniel Dye for 18th in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, and she has already had one more lead lap finish this season than in each of her last two seasons. Her only NASCAR Xfinity Series start yielded a 13th-place finish. She is also more marketable than most, so don’t write her off. Another interesting name is Frankie Muniz. Ford has been supportive of his efforts in the ARCA Menards Series, and he has an established fan base already. Despite his age, he could be a potential prospect for the Blue Oval.
Kristl: Obviously, Custer bombed in his NASCAR Cup Series stint, but by no means is he a washed-up driver. He is still only 25 years old with 12 career Xfinity Series wins and top-five points finishes in all full-time Xfinity seasons. He’s also younger than soon-to-be Ford driver Josh Berry. Custer also has 42 Cup starts in the Next Gen car, so he is familiar with those racecars too. Also, Stewart-Haas Racing is struggling mightily as its lone playoff driver was just eliminated. So Custer’s talent was probably hindered by SHR Fords.
Kornhoff: Ford’s best prospect now is probably Rhodes. Rhodes has the experience, he just hasn’t been properly given his shot. I don’t know if Custer can be considered a prospect anymore since he’s been in and out of Cup, but he’s probably tied with Rhodes because as far as pay drivers go he’s a cut above the rest.
Gillispie: It’s a tie between Keelan Harvick and Deegan because they are really the only people that Ford is throwing money at nowadays.
Stoddard: I am going to throw out a name that is not yet part of the Ford staple but will be in 2024: Justin Haley. While not a playoff contender, Haley has proven that he can elevate mid-pack equipment at times, take care of his car, and drive with respect. Those are traits that will serve him well at Rick Ware Racing in 2024. RWR appears to be making more of an effort to become competitive, developing a partnership with the resurgent RFK Racing. If Haley can boost RWR’s performance or even sneak it into the playoffs, then there might be an RFK Ford with his name above the driver’s window 2-4 years from now.
What are your expectations for Smith’s Cup rookie season in 2024?
Stoddard: Smith’s 2024 season should be all about one thing: gaining experience. He just needs to log the laps and bring the car home in one piece. Considering he is in Spire Motorsports equipment, that is about all anyone can ask of him. Then, with a full Cup Series year under his belt, Smith will put himself in a better position to contend with Trackhouse Racing in 2025.
Leffew: I expect Smith to struggle as rookies usually do. It’s still a bit murky how competitive the revamped Spire team will be with the new sponsorship and alliance. You can throw money at something, but that doesn’t mean it will succeed. Trackhouse has struggled ever since Ross Chastain‘s wreck with Larson at Darlington Raceway in May, aside from its win at Nashville Superspeedway. Spire has occasionally run inside the top 15, but don’t expect a new team with a rookie driver to be competing for top 15s right away. If Smith can avoid becoming a meme or looking like a wreckless rookie, he will do fine. His stand-in effort for RFK at World Wide Technology Raceway suggests he’s capable of exactly that. Good measuring sticks for Smith will be Corey LaJoie, Gilliland and Burton. If he can beat two of those three in the final standings, that’s a successful rookie year.
Kornhoff: Spire, primarily with LaJoie, has shown lots of improvement lately, and with the influx of new support, Smith will run like LaJoie has this season, with flashes of greatness, while LaJoie runs even better. I expect consistent top-20 finishes, the occasional top 15 and maybe two top 10s on the year.
Gillispie: Midpack, 21st in points. And he’ll beat Berry for Rookie of the Year honors.
Kristl: A top-20 points result would be a solid rookie season. As we have seen with rookies in the Next Gen era — Cindric’s Daytona 500 win notwithstanding — it is difficult to be successful in Cup right out of the gate. Furthermore, Spire is quite far away from contention. The Trackhouse alliance is key. Trackhouse has been stout in the Next Gen era, even though Daniel Suarez barely missed the playoffs this year. Suarez currently sits 19th in points, and that points position serves as a benchmark for Smith’s rookie season expectations.
Justin Allgaier will return to JR Motorsports in 2024 for his 14th full-time Xfinity season. Where does he rank all time?
Kristl: Justin Allgaier has the 12th-most career victories and is serving as this generation’s Jason Keller, a longtime Xfinity veteran. Allgaier has been more successful than Keller, though. Another way to quantify Allgaier is podium finishes, because depending on late-race restarts, varying pit strategies, etc., the best driver in a race might not always be the winning driver. Allgaier has the eighth-most podiums. I think Allgaier has been one of the best top 10 drivers in series history, albeit on the edge of it. If he wins a championship, then he arguably could be in the conversation for the top five greatest, but he hasn’t captured one yet.
Gillispie: Considering Allgaier’s career is an anomaly, it is hard to paint an accurate picture. He’s really been the only competitive driver who has spent decades on the secondary level, much of which has been voluntary. So because of the nearly impossible gauge, it is hard to even rank him.
Kornhoff: Allgaier ranks somewhere in the low part of the top 10 for me, mainly because the Xfinity Series is his home. Unlike lots of the other top drivers, he isn’t a Cup Series star and he is definitively a Xfinity Series lifer. The only thing that holds him back is the fact he hasn’t won a championship in all that time. If he hangs around in the second-tier series, of course he’ll have all those wins, and he slides even lower because he isn’t double-dipping like so many of the top Xfinity drivers on the wins list did in the past. Really, without a championship to show for it, it’s hard to place him any higher, but this season he’s looking pretty strong amidst a struggling JRM.
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