Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: The Battle for the Final Phoenix Spot Is Actually Compelling

1. It’s Almost Guaranteed That Something Interesting Will Happen at Martinsville Speedway

Insert your joke about how the Next Gen car has ruined short track racing here. It’s possible, perhaps likely, that next weekend won’t feature the most exciting race ever seen at Martinsville Speedway.

That’s OK, because with two spots in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 spoken for, one pretty safe and one very much up for grabs, the ingredients are there for some wild drama in the penultimate race of 2023.

Consider:

  • Ryan Blaney is on the verge of proving he’s exorcised his bad break demons and needs to simply avoid early trouble and stay ahead of …
  • Tyler Reddick, who is still very much in the hunt on points, and would make a big statement if he can squeeze in ahead of …
  • Denny Hamlin, one of his bosses, who confidently declared 2023 as his year but now might need a win to make good on his bravado, just like …
  • Martin Truex Jr., the regular season champion who has mustered just one top-10 result in the playoffs, but could still turn things around with a clutch victory.

Four drivers, one spot (and really five if you believe Chris Buescher can pull out a win). Hamlin and Truex have won at Martinsville in the past. Blaney has historically run very well there too. Reddick not so much, but who knows?

This is the kind of scenario that NASCAR probably dreamt of when it came up with the playoff system in the first place. Buckle up.

See also
The Big 6: Questions Answered After Christopher Bell Punches His Title Ticket in Miami

2. The Cup Series Championship Could Be a Referendum on Patience vs. Aggression

Look, Kyle Larson is one of the best racers on Earth, and to suggest otherwise is silly. We’ve made an argument in this space that he could be the best.

That makes stuff like what happened to him at Homestead-Miami Speedway all the more surprising.

Larson explained later he was “maximizing all I could.” And yes, with a win already in his pocket, he knew he was headed to Phoenix Raceway so it doesn’t matter all that much in the grand scheme of things.

But my dude, there’s no reason to be even attempting stuff like that in a few weeks. Not when Bell is the master of calculated moves and your own teammate, William Byron, is also the definition of steady.

Then again, Larson knows more about racing than I ever will. Perhaps an extra dose of aggression will be exactly what it takes to vanquish a field of Bell, Byron and Blaney (should he make it).

Just one more thing to file away for championship weekend.

3. It’s Pretty Wild That We Still Don’t Know Where We’ll Be Watching NASCAR Beyond Next Season

The wait for the 2024 NASCAR schedule was one thing. Waiting to see where races will actually be broadcast in 2025 is something else entirely.

To be fair, no seismic changes are expected. Most people in the know expect that FOX and NBC will both recommit to stock car racing, keeping the players in the Cup Series picture the same as they’ve been for years.

Meanwhile, it has already been announced that the Xfinity Series is already off to new pastures, as it will air on the new-look version of The CW.

So if FOX and NBC are both returning, what’s the drama? On the business side, it’s dollars and cents. NASCAR’s audience is aging and shrinking, but it’s still reliable. Prior to the NFL season, a Cup Series race is generally one of the top two sporting events of any given week.

Yet the days of large rights fees increases for every new TV deal are over — not just for NASCAR, but for just about every sports league. And beyond that, there’s a question of where to put the races in an era where streaming is still in the middle of its inflection point.

The big question is how many different places fans will need to tune into in order to watch every Cup Series race. Right now it’s basically four: FOX, FOX Sports 1, NBC and USA Network. But it’s quite possible that there could be as many as six come 2025 if NBC is able to negotiate some Peacock-specific races and NASCAR finds a streaming partner (like Amazon or Max) for some summer events.

Are you ready to channel-hop between six different outlets? Because that doesn’t sound like much fun to yours truly.

4. The Kevin Harvick Farewell Tour Really Hasn’t Been Much Fun

It’s pretty clear now that if there really were racing gods, they would have blessed Kevin Harvick with a victory in his final Cup Series season. It’s become just as obvious that unless something truly surprising happens over the next two weeks, he’s going to ride into the sunset on a 45-plus race winless streak.

For goodness sake, the race at Homestead was even renamed for him and there was no storybook victory.

This is no indictment of Harvick, mind you. It’s not easy to tell when you might suddenly go from contender to just top-10 threat, as Jimmie Johnson would surely attest.

And it’s not like the rest of Stewart-Haas Racing has been out there visiting victory lane on a regular basis while Harvick rides around behind them. The whole organization has lost its touch over the last few campaigns, and Harvick finally proved unable to keep outrunning those issues.

It’s all understandable. It just isn’t much fun, and I’d imagine even less so for Harvick himself.

See also
Only Yesterday: Kevin Harvick Vs. Ryan Newman for a Championship

5. Fan Controlled Racing is a Fun Gimmick Even if It Doesn’t Last

A couple of years ago, my pre-teen son went through a brief but intense phase where he was obsessed with Fan Controlled Football. It was an indoor football league where fans could contribute to the product on the fly, voting on playcalls using a mobile app. It was truly an idea of its time, even if it was unsurprising when it didn’t make it past a second season (as all indoor football leagues have had issues withstanding the test of time).

This is relevant to a racing column because the same company behind that league is going to introduce the world to Fan Controlled Racing during the Xfinity Series race at Phoenix. The company claims fans will be able to help pick the driver and the paint scheme, and eventually, even things like when to pit and what lane to choose on restarts.

On Oct. 23, it was announced that JJ Yeley was chosen as the driver of the No. 08, and he will sport a “Yellow Jacket” paint scheme.

Is it a gimmick? Very much so. But sports are always looking for ways to increase fan engagement and interactivity, and this feels like a more natural fit than football ever was. I’m anxious to see how it plays out, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my son does too.

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DoninAjax

Elliott can still get the 9 car eligible for the owner title with a win.

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