Did You Notice? … How the NASCAR postseason swallows up all the air in the room?
For 20 years now, stock car racing remains one of those rare sports that allows drivers and teams who missed the playoffs to still compete.
The problem for those people, along with their sponsors, is failing to chase the championship leaves them collecting dust in the corner. In a flash, they’re an endangered species rarely caught on camera, lucky to get a few seconds of air time as invisible traffic in rush hour holding up the real title contenders.
But those drivers are still racing hard, auditioning for 2024 or perhaps laying the groundwork for a future title run. Still others are on the brink with their current teams, digging a deeper hole that could lead toward an unexpected trip to the unemployment line come November.
Let’s take a look at four of these under-the-radar storylines emerging four races into the postseason.
1. Legacy Motor Club
LMC had been through a miserable 2023 and was simply expected to race out the string this fall before switching over to Toyota beginning in 2024. Since that announcement in May, they’ve lost internal support from Chevrolet while going through an internal reorganization of their own: rookie Noah Gragson underperformed on track, then lost his job in the No. 42 after a suspension following an off-track incident on social media.
The shop is also facing distractions after a decision by co-owner Maurice Gallagher to shut down his GMS Racing Craftsman Truck Series program come November. Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, another co-owner, has been understandably focused on family after the death of his in-laws and their nephew in a summer murder-suicide.
Somehow, primary driver Erik Jones has set all that aside and rediscovered his chemistry with crew chief Dave Elenz. Together, they’ve hit on some newfound, “nothing-to-lose” type of speed that’s led to two top-10 finishes thus far in the playoffs. There should have been a third, as Jones was on track for a top-five finish at Texas Motor Speedway before a late round of cautions shuffled up pit strategy. The No. 43 car, pushed back into traffic, eventually wrecked with Jones at the wheel while trying to battle mid-pack on a restart.
Could you imagine if the former Daytona International Speedway winner somehow pulled an upset during the regular-season finale? Jones would have advanced into the Round of 12 and had a real chance at going further considering the unpredictability of the next two races (Talladega Superspeedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL).
Even more impressive is rookie Carson Hocevar, moonlighting in the No. 42 before John Hunter Nemechek takes over next year. Tagged for the job despite one previous career Cup start, Hocevar’s on a streak of four top-20 finishes, including an 11th in the Bristol Motor Speedway night race. That’s one more than this car had during the entire regular season with four other drivers combining to take the wheel. That includes Gragson, one of the sport’s most highly-touted rookies who failed to meet expectations from the start.
Looking ahead, Hocevar won’t get this ride, no matter how well he performs; JHN is the No. 1 Toyota prospect and in position to win a NASCAR Xfinity Series title. But with Hocevar linked to Spire Motorsports on the Cup level, he’s proving more than ready to make the jump from Trucks at age 20.
2. Chase Elliott
Technically, Chase Elliott is still fighting for a title, battling for the owner’s championship with his No. 9 Chevrolet. But the Hendrick Motorsports phenom missing the driver playoffs was rock bottom for the 2020 Cup champion and perennial Most Popular Driver.
What Elliott lacked, after missing seven races, was consistent speed week-to-week needed to build back his confidence. Now with the pressure off and cameras focused elsewhere, that’s quietly happening as he relearns how to finish near the front without crew chief Alan Gustafson needing to get overaggressive on pit strategy.
The results have been promising: an 11th at Texas ended a streak of four straight top-10 finishes for Elliott. It’s the longest top-10 run he’s had since the summer of 2022, the last time the No. 9 team flexed superstar muscle with a 1-2-1-2-1 stretch over five races. Although Elliott hasn’t quite shown winning speed, you need to walk before you can run, and he did pace the field at Kansas Speedway for 47 laps, a season high.
Elliott’s quietly moved to 17th in points now, the “best of the rest” outside the playoffs, and would be 15th without a reset. That’s impressive considering he’s missed nearly 25% of the season to date. The No. 9 team remains competitive in the owner’s race, sitting two points below the cut line entering Talladega, and advancing to the Round of 8 there isn’t out of the question.
As the rebuild continues, Elliott should look to Joey Logano for inspiration; he went from missing the playoffs in 2017 to winning his first Cup title the following year. There’s no reason Chase can’t do the same considering the overall speed and structure within HMS.
3. Austin Cindric & Harrison Burton
The disastrous playoff for Team Penske has centered around the elimination of Logano, the sport’s reigning champ, along with some disappointing runs from Ryan Blaney. It’s easy to forget there’s a third driver on this team, Austin Cindric, who’s gone the entire season to date without a top-five finish.
Let’s just sit and think about that a second. Cindric, in the best Ford equipment money can buy, couldn’t even grab one fifth-place result during his second full season on tour. Neither has Harrison Burton, suffering through a similar sophomore slump running Penske’s virtual satellite team, the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford.
Penske looked to rectify the problem by switching crew chiefs between the two teams. Brian Wilson, who won 13 career NXS races with Cindric, moved over to the No. 2 Ford for the playoffs while Burton got the experience of nine-time Cup winner Jeremy Bullins at the No. 21. Bullins had led Brad Keselowski to second in the 2020 championship to Elliott and worked with a variety of veteran personalities.
One month in, the move’s been a disaster. Burton’s crashed out twice, posting the best finish of the duo in 20th while Cindric has run no better than 27th. During the playoffs, Cindric has scored fewer points than any full-time driver in the series: less than Ty Dillon, Todd Gilliland and Justin Haley, among others.
As for Burton? With 30 total points, he’s scored the second-fewest, despite the Wood Brothers finally confirming he’ll return to the car in 2024. It all feels strange and unacceptable for a Penske program whose definition of success is fighting for multiple wins and placing at least one car inside the Championship 4.
It’s a difficult scenario if Cindric continues to struggle; he’s the son of the heir of the Penske empire, Tim Cindric, while Burton is the son of one of the sport’s big-time drivers-turned-media personalities (Jeff Burton). It’s still a little early to judge but if the crew chiefs aren’t the problem, well … what do you do if you’re not going to fire the driver?
4. Daniel Suarez
Missing the playoffs this year with Trackhouse Racing, Daniel Suarez has been involved in two notable wrecks during the past month. After venting his frustration following a Southern 500 block-gone-wrong with Alex Bowman, his spin during green-flag pit stops at Texas changed the entire course of the race in the final stage (It also unintentionally saved teammate Ross Chastain from a finish in the 20s; the No. 1 car wound up rebounding all the way up to second place).
It’s not exactly a top-tier performance from a No. 99 team that looked like it took a step backward this year. Owner Justin Marks feels differently, signing Suarez to a long-term contract extension earlier in 2023. But Marks also signed two more drivers over the past month: Zane Smith to a full-time Cup deal, putting him in a chartered car with Spire Motorsports next year, and Shane van Gisbergen to a development deal. Assuming SVG does well in 2024 across a variety of NASCAR series, he could be Cup-ready as soon as 2025.
That’s four very talented drivers and only two in-house charters for Trackhouse. Marks has been very hesitant in the past to expand to a four-car team, telling me at Daytona that three seemed “right” and four appeared to deliver diminishing returns.
So does that mean Suarez is on a one-year job audition? Is this fall the beginning of some sort of lame-duck year for him? It’s not like the Mexico native isn’t used to it; four years in 2024 will be the longest a team has committed to him in his Cup career. He had spent the previous four years driving for three different organizations in Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Gaunt Brothers Racing.
It’s hard to say this early in the game; we saw Todd Gilliland work himself back into a job at Front Row Motorsports after losing some Cup starts to Smith, of all people, early in the year. But Suarez over the past few weeks has driven like someone who knows the pressure is on. Can he turn that stress into success?
Toyota. What is going on over there with the departure of young Sammy Smith to JR Motorsports? JGR now has their entire NXS program open, no one with full-time sponsorship and a dearth of up-and-coming prospects with potentially one driver potentially retiring at the Cup level after 2024.
Aric Almirola. If you believe social media, the No. 10 team is getting ready to have a going-away-party-slash-fire-sale once the checkered flag falls at Phoenix in November. But Almirola, tied to the money Smithfield brings, still hasn’t announced his retirement, and no Stewart-Haas Racing charters have actually been sold. Could the veteran be convinced to eke out one more year? The team has run marginally better as of late, which isn’t saying much.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …
- ThorSport Racing hasn’t missed a Championship 4 since the format came to the Truck Series in 2016. The last time the team finished outside the top five in points was over a decade ago (2012). But there’s real risk it’ll miss out altogether heading to Talladega this upcoming weekend. Ben Rhodes is the closest of the two drivers left standing, sitting 19 points behind the cut line. Ty Majeski is even further back (-22) and has struggled since winning this year’s first postseason race at the Milwaukee Mile.
- If Bubba Wallace misses the cut for the Round of 8, you wonder if it’s Martin Truex Jr. who will need to send out a thank-you card. Truex’s stumble through the playoffs is eerily reminiscent of what Elliott went through last year; but then, like now, a couple of lucky breaks and regular season playoff points did just enough to send Elliott all the way through into the Championship 4.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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