Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Has Ryan Blaney Finally Arrived?

With two wins in the past five races and a shot at the championship, has Ryan Blaney taken the next step many expected from him?

If you missed it back in March, NBC Sports analyst Kyle Petty made some controversial comments regarding Ryan Blaney and his ability to close out NASCAR Cup Series races.

Frontstretch talked to Petty in September, when he elaborated on this. And despite the conversations that it triggered across the internet, Petty made a good point.

“Ryan can lead races, he can run up front, he can lead laps, but they just don’t close a lot of times,” Petty said. “He won at Charlotte and everybody thought the monkey was going to be off his back. It’s not. Until you win like William Byron wins, until you win like Kyle Larson wins, these are guys who have potential and capitalize on it.”

Indeed, Blaney endured somewhat of a summer slump, and many crossed his name out from the playoff hunt in the Round of 16. My, my, how things have changed.

The 29-year-old’s win at Martinsville Speedway was his first at the track where he had done everything but win. It was also his second straight win in a race where he led 100-plus laps after previously going 0-11 in such cases.

Blaney has been nothing short of spectacular in the playoffs, and he finally cashed in by making the Championship 4 in his fifth Round of 8 appearance. The mistakes that we saw him make at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway last year? Gone. The pit stops that have put him in a deep hole? Nada.

No matter if he’s holding the Bill France Cup or not after Phoenix Raceway, we have seen a different Blaney, one who is full of confidence and seemingly ready to meet the moment.

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Can the new Mustang point NASCAR in the right direction of car innovation?

On Nov. 1, Ford revealed the seventh-generation Mustang, the Ford Mustang Dark Horse, which will be the body type used by the Blue Oval in Cup competition beginning in 2024.

Since the inception of NASCAR’s Next Gen car, the Mustang has arguably resembled its street model the closest. That doesn’t take away from the fact that most of the similarities between a street car and stock car are nonexistent.

While NASCAR has mostly stabilized its ratings drops that it suffered during the 2010s, they are still far away from being what they once were. Arguments have been made that there are too many gimmicks, the playoffs ruined NASCAR or NASCAR’s lack of marketing has eliminated household names.

All are valid debates. However, the one factor that is one of, if not the biggest effect was when NASCAR moved away from car innovation. Sure, the Gen 4 cars during NASCAR’s peak didn’t look like your Taurus, Monte Carlo or Charger, but they had creativity (plus, driver marketing was much better then).

Now the only resemblances between the Cup car and the car at the dealership are the bumpers and body lines. Gone are the days of win on Sunday, sell on Monday, and different designs concerning the interior components.

However, look at the Next Gen Dark Horse and the street Dark Horse, and the body certainly has some similarities. No, it’s definitely not a car you can drive to the store, but if NASCAR made the right decision, it would continue to build off it.

Does momentum in the Next Gen era matter more than statistics when determining the favorite?

While 2023 has not seen as much parity at the Cup level compared to its inaugural season in 2022, the competition is still very broad. Just like when it seems one driver will take off and dominate or one team will find that advantage that no one else can, momentum changes hands quickly.

When the season started, Larson looked like he was the favorite, seemingly having the most speed week after week no matter the result. Byron also made an argument during the early stretch, winning back-to-back races in the first month of the season. Then Kyle Busch looked reinvigorated, going on a streak of seven straight top 10s in the summer.

Martin Truex Jr.‘s return to victory lane at Dover Motor Speedway sparked a stretch of eight top fives and 12 top 10s in 16 races en route to the regular season title. Chris Buescher won three of five races to close the regular season, and Denny Hamlin had four straight top fives from Kansas Speedway to Talladega Superspeedway in the playoffs. Now, Blaney heads into the championship race with two wins and no finish worse than 12th in the past five races.

Last season, Chase Elliott entered Phoenix leading the series in wins, laps led and average finish. Yet Joey Logano, fresh off a win and sixth-place finish in the Round of 8, stormed in to win the championship in a season when there was no clear favorite.

As Cup drivers head to Arizona to wrap up the 2023 season, Byron is the statistical favorite with a series-leading six wins, 20 top 10s and an 11.2 average finish. Yet the argument could be made he has the least momentum, as he is the only driver who made the Championship 4 on points and had a couple of off-races in the Round of 8.

Will momentum or statistics prove who the favorite really is?

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Is Cole Custer returning to the NASCAR Xfinity Series the right play?

Stewart-Haas Racing announced Nov. 2 that Cole Custer will return to the No. 00 in the NASCAR Xfinity Series next season, which will be his fifth full-time Xfinity season and second consecutive this time around. Custer was demoted to the series after three full-time seasons at the Cup level.

While Custer didn’t visit victory lane as much as his seven-win 2019 season with two in 2023, he has a third opportunity to score his first Xfinity title at Phoenix. Custer joins John Hunter Nemechek, Justin Allgaier and Sam Mayer in the Championship 4.

With Aric Almirola announcing that he will not return to SHR’s Cup team in 2024, the speculation had been around much of the season that Custer would get a second chance at Cup. However, that will not happen.

The decision could absolutely benefit Custer down the road. At only 25 years old, he is younger than all but five full-time Cup drivers. It also allows him to continue to develop and potentially rack up more wins at the Xfinity level. And with Custer spending the large majority of his career sponsored by Haas Automation, it allows SHR to look for someone with outside sponsorship to fill the No. 10, if it chooses to do so.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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