Is any NASCAR Cup Series playoff driver in a must-win situation at Homestead-Miami Speedway?
Vito Pugliese: Yeah, anyone not named Kyle Larson. With the No. 5 team already locked into Championship 4, there’s nothing stopping them from running roughshod over the field on Sunday (Oct. 22). Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell will be among the favorites this weekend, but Larson is as good here as anyone. There’s no motivation for them to lay over for three weeks; if anything it’s better to stay in kill mode and not let complacency set in. If you stumble at Martinsville Speedway, there’s no time to make it up, and Denny Hamlin is pretty good there. At this point, they’re all must wins.
Mark Kristl: Chris Buescher is right on the edge, 23 points below the cut line. He therefore must accrue stage points to narrow his deficit. The other driver who absolutely must perform well at Homestead is Reddick. He has a fourth and second-place finish in his three Cup starts there but he has only led three laps. All eight playoff drivers have at least one victory and one stage win in their 2023 seasons. As a result, Reddick, who enters 16 points below the cut line, cannot run in sixth-10th during the stages and finish there. It just will not be enough, especially when he only has one top 10 in seven Cup starts at Martinsville.
Andrew Stoddard: With another Round of 8 race next week at Martinsville, technically no one is a must-win situation. With that said, given their points standings and prior performance at Martinsville, Homestead is a critical race for Reddick and Buescher. Buescher’s history at Homestead is bad, with only one top 15 in seven starts. Reddick, on the other hand, has two top-five finishes in three Cup starts at Homestead, and he is a two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series winner there. Look for the No. 45 to be near the front on Sunday.
Taylor Kornhoff: Buescher is pretty close to a must-win situation at minus 23, and if he lets it slide any further he will be there. But right now it’s so close that with one bad day, William Byron could find himself in the jaws of elimination. So really no one is in a must-win situation, but no one is safe either.
Mike Neff: Technically no, but there are a couple of drivers who are not good at Martinsville so they would be well served to win. Byron and Reddick are both poor at Martinsville and could use a strong showing at Homestead.
On a 45-race Cup winless streak, what could be done to return Stewart-Haas Racing to contention?
Stoddard: If I knew the answer to that, I could probably get a high-level position with a Cup Series race team. A good place for SHR to start would be consulting with its fellow Ford teams, particularly RFK Racing and Team Penske. With both teams making the playoffs and the No. 17 team in the Round of 8, RFK has clearly found something this season, and SHR would do well to inquire with it about what has worked. I also think SHR is spread a little too thin. If Aric Almirola chooses to retire at the end of this season, instead of finding a new driver, SHR could simply reduce its Cup Series operation to three teams and focus on making all of them more competitive.
Kornhoff: Behind the scenes, I can’t say what exactly it’s doing wrong, but from a glance it looks to me like it could use fewer cars. Cut out the No. 41 team, and maybe the No. 10 as well. Dump Almirola and Ryan Preece and focus on Josh Berry and Chase Briscoe. We’ve seen what Kevin Harvick and Briscoe can do in SHR equipment, now prioritize them. Unfortunately, money is king and that won’t happen. SHR obviously would rather ride around and break even with that Smithfield check than actually win races, but I don’t see it getting the results it wants with anything else.
Kristl: Pray? If the organization knows what’s causing its struggles, it certainly would be working overtime to resolve them. At least it’ll get a fresh face in Berry in 2024. And if Almirola does in fact retire or depart, that would be two new drivers to the team. But other than outsiders bringing in new ideas, I do not know what the fix is to make SHR a contender again. It’s definitely looking forward to the offseason.
Neff: The organization has got to get a hold of this new car. The brains of its organization are all old-school racers, and they have struggled to get speed out of this new car. The whole Ford camp should be buttering up RFK Racing to try and get faster.
Pugliese: Pry Tony Stewart away from the drag strip. His burgeoning teams are leading the way with his wife Leah Pruett and Matt Hagan, but there needs to be some sense of stability and leadership at SHR. It would be a shame if this organization went the way of Evernham Motorsports in the late 2000s.
Which three drivers will join Corey Heim in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Championship 4?
Kristl: Carson Hocevar has only one start at Homestead, but he did gain 10 spots from his starting spot to his finishing result. Add in his 23-point lead above the cut line and he’s a safe bet to advance. In the last three Truck races in Miami, Eckes has started all inside the top five and scored one top five and two top 10s. Eckes only has a nine-point advantage, but I think he’ll point his way to the Championship 4. The last driver to make it in will be the winner of the race, as well as the defending race winner there, Ty Majeski. Majeski has the win and a 10th-place showing there, but the number that stands out to me is the number of positions he’s gained there: 11 in the 2020 event and 17 in 2022. So if Majeski qualifies well, he’s even more of a threat to win because he excels in racing at Homestead.
Stoddard: Hocevar enjoys a healthy 23-point gap on the cut line going into Homestead. With his 2024 plans secure, Hocevar can really hone in on competing for the championship, and he should get through to Phoenix Raceway with relative ease, barring bad luck. Eckes is arguably the hottest driver in the series, and he has finished in the top 10 in all three of his previous Truck starts at Homestead, so he will get through. As for the last spot, I will go with the veteran poise of Enfinger to get past the rookie Nick Sanchez to vie for a championship in the desert.
Pugliese: I’m going with Hocevar, Eckes and defending champion Zane Smith with the walk-off win at Homestead to make the cut. He finished a distant second to Majeski last year at Homestead, but given the recent fines and suspensions for tire tampering, the No. 98 is suddenly mid-pack with Joe Shear Jr. on the shelf.
Kornhoff: Joining Corey Heim will be Hocevar, Eckes and Smith. Smith is very far back but I see him winning at Homestead, especially considering he was runner-up last year. The motivation will be there and I can see him getting it done out of nowhere.
Back with TRICON Garage in 2024, how does Corey Heim fit into Toyota’s future plans?
Kristl: Honestly, I don’t know. Even with LEGACY Motor Club joining Toyota in 2024, there are few available upcoming openings in the Toyota camp. Martin Truex Jr. probably will retire soon, but based on the rumor mill, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity Series program could land Sheldon Creed and/or Chandler Smith. Both of those drivers already have a Cup start on their resumes, and they are closer to being Cup-ready than Heim. What other Toyota Cup rides might have upcoming openings? Thanks to Hamlin re-signing with JGR, none. Therefore, Heim’s best bet long term is probably to jump to another manufacturer.
Kornhoff: It’s hard to say with how finicky Toyota can be. Heim is Toyota’s most promising Truck Series prospect, and running another Truck Series season can help to develop his skills even more. I see this move as very unlike Toyota because it has been known to either move drivers up very quickly with the expectation of results or turn them loose when they don’t perform. This could be an indication that Heim is part of a bigger-picture partnership, or Toyota has a very particular vision for who it wants to drive the No. 20 Xfinity car.
Neff: If it is smart he will figure prominently. Heim has shown that he is very talented and quickly adaptable to various tracks. He has the potential to be a star for years to come. Toyota needs to secure him long term.
Stoddard: Toyota Racing does not have a good track record of growing and maintaining its driver prospects. It would do well to hang on to Heim, who has established himself as the clear championship favorite in the Truck Series. Stability from 2023 to 2024 will be a good thing for Heim, and with openings in JGR’s Xfinity Series staple, I see him running part-time in Xfinity in 2024, with a move to a full-time JGR Xfinity ride in 2025.
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