1. Is Kyle Larson the Homestead favorite despite not having to worry about points?
Kyle Larson doesn’t need an introduction to many tracks, and Homestead-Miami Speedway is no exception. He finally scored his first Cup win at the track in 2022 in a rout that saw him lead 199 of the 267 laps and consistently fly out to 10-second leads.
Larson was eliminated from the drivers’ playoffs in the Round of 12 last year, but the win did lock him into the owners’ Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway.
This time, however, Larson has already advanced to the Championship 4 after a dominant win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. If they wanted to, Larson and the No. 5 team could mail it in for the next two races in order to put all their eggs in the basket for Phoenix.
Will they? Perhaps. But they absolutely will not putz around the next two weeks. Larson dominated at Texas Motor Speedway to clinch his spot in the 2021 Championship 4, and he followed that up with another dominant win at Kansas Speedway a week later.
With that and Larson’s statement win last season, he’ll still be the odds-on favorite this Sunday (Oct. 22).
He’ll still have competition. Teammate William Byron won at Homestead in 2021, and in 2022, he was a top-five car on speed and won the pole. The best of the rest behind the No. 5 car last year was Martin Truex Jr. He potentially had a chance at beating Larson if not for a late pit road spin, charging from 20th to sixth in the final 17 laps after the mishap.
Ross Chastain finished second behind Larson last year, and the No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Team has its mojo back after an impressive fifth-place run at Las Vegas. Also finishing top five last year at Homestead was Brad Keselowski, and he too was a top-five car last week.
Truex and Byron will be among the drivers battling for a guaranteed spot in the Championship 4, and so will Tyler Reddick, the one driver that rides around the top of the wall as much as Larson.
This week’s race will not be a walk in the park for anyone.
2. What in the world happened between Joe Graf Jr. and RSS Racing?
It hasn’t been a good season by any stretch of the imagination for Joe Graf Jr. Graf scored a seventh-place finish for RSS Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series season-opening event at Daytona International Speedway in February, but it’s been a struggle from there, as Graf has recorded only four top-20 finishes in 25 starts with the team.
He didn’t fare any better last Saturday (Oct. 14) at Las Vegas, as his race came to an end after just 12 laps around the 1.5-mile oval.
RSS’ Twitter/X account was evidently frustrated with Graf, as it posted the following message following the conclusion of the Alsco Uniforms 302.
The post isn’t a good look on RSS’ part. Yes, they are not the first (nor last) team to be unhappy with a driver’s performance, and I’m sure both parties have frustration with how the season has gone. But for prospective drivers, what message does it send when that frustration is put out in public?
Graf won’t be with the team for Saturday’s (Oct. 21) Xfinity race at Homestead, as he is entered in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 car for the sixth time in 2023; he should be back with RSS for the following week at Martinsville Speedway. If he isn’t, then something else happened behind closed doors.
3. Marco Andretti will make his first NASCAR start on an oval. How will he fare?
Saturday’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Homestead won’t be Marco Andretti‘s first NASCAR rodeo, but it will mark his debut on an oval, as he has made one Truck start at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and one Xfinity start at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL.
Spire Motorsports’ No. 7 truck has seen nine different drivers in 10 different entries up to this point of the season, and Andretti — who will run the final two races of the season at Homestead and Phoenix — will join Corey LaJoie as the only driver to drive the No. 7 truck for multiple races.
Andretti finished a respectable 19th at Mid-Ohio in July, and that race marked the first time he took a NASCAR checkered flag, as he DNF’d the Xfinity car at Charlotte last October.
With the hodge podge of drivers and Andretti’s inexperience on ovals, the expectations shouldn’t be through the roof; a top-20 finish at the end of the day would be a solid result.
After that, it’s a matter of building off the Homestead debut and applying to experience to Phoenix. And for all we know, Homestead and Phoenix may be an audition for 2024 now that Spire has purchased all the assets of Kyle Busch Motorsports.
4. Is laying back on the restart being policed the right way?
After a summer of stack-up collisions on restarts after the leaders intentionally laid back to launch, NASCAR released a memo to the teams in mid-July about cleaning up the process of restarts.
That memo dealt with leaders who waited to launch in order to catch their fellow drivers sleeping, but last Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas saw AJ Allmendinger and Chase Elliott penalized for restart violations in the middle of the pack.
In both cases, the drivers laid back to acquire a car length or two of space as the field went through the gears to take the green flag. The extra space allowed them to accelerate quicker, and Allmendinger, in particular, had enough momentum against the cars ahead of him to go three-wide before crossing the start/finish line.
To the surprise of no one, he was not happy with the ruling.
Las Vegas appeared to be the first time that NASCAR cracked down on drivers gaining an advantage in the middle of the pack, and in an era of NASCAR where restarts can easily turn into multi-car pileups, the penalties were a welcome change.
But Allmendinger has a point. If other drivers laid back without penalty, how effective will the penalty be if it’s a judgement call that gets used inconsistently? If it’s only enforced in certain cases, the drivers will cry foul and cite times when a driver acquired no penalty at all.
And if that’s the case, the laying back on restarts penalty would be about as effective as the no locking bumpers rule at superspeedways in Xfinity, which everyone does anyway because NASCAR never enforces it.
If NASCAR is going to pursue penalties for laying back in the middle of the pack, it will have to be consistent with its usage. And with the high-stakes nature of the playoffs, the last thing anyone wants to see is the championship or a race win be decided by an iffy judgment call.
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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