1. Corey Heim was penalized, but did it accomplish anything?
For those unaware of how Friday’s (Nov. 3) NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series finale at Phoenix Raceway ended, championship contender Carson Hocevar spun championship contender Corey Heim while both were running in the top 10 with 30 laps to go.
With the laps ticking down, Grant Enfinger looked poised to clinch his first Truck Series championship in the final race for GMS Racing. That is, until three laps to go, when Heim walled Hocevar in retaliation to bring out a caution.
It took a total of four overtimes and 29 extra laps to complete a race that was about wrapped up, and the late calamity cost Enfinger the title.
Heim denied that the retaliation against Hocevar was intentional, but NASCAR thought otherwise and elected to penalize Heim on Wednesday (Nov. 8).
The only problem is that, in the grand scheme of things, the penalty does nothing. It drops Heim from third to fourth in the driver standings and costs him some cash, but that’s a softball penalty for an incident that, in NASCAR’s judgement, altered the outcome of a championship.
The penalty would’ve been more hard-hitting if it was applied to the start of his 2024 season, but I digress.
If anything, the penalty adds insult to injury for Enfinger, GMS and the No. 23 team: NASCAR determined that the incident that cost them the title was worthy of a penalty, but the penalty won’t make them the champions.
The overwhelming takeaway from Friday’s finale is that when championship contenders take each other out — whether on purpose or by accident — it calls into the question of whether the current method of determining a champion is broken.
2. Did Ross Chastain set the new standard of racing the Championship 4 at Phoenix?
After 10 years of the elimination format, we finally had a non-champion win the final Cup Series race of the season. But before I discuss the thrilling battle between Ross Chastain and Ryan Blaney in the final stage, I have to bring up a prediction of mine from two weeks ago that aged horribly.
None of that changes the reality that the eventual champion is 9-for-9 in winning the Cup Series’ Phoenix finale since the elimination format began in 2014. The last time a non-champion won the finale was 2013, when Hamlin scored his lone win of the season at Homestead. Kevin Harvick is the king of Phoenix, but that alone won’t be enough to beat the Championship 4 for a win; I would be floored if anyone else was able to.
Harvick had a car capable of leading and running in the top five, while it was Chastain that put on a clinic by leading 157 of the race’s 312 laps.
It has always seemed as if there was an unwritten rule about racing the Championship 4 or putting them in precarious predicaments. But if there ever was an unwritten rule, Chastain put it out to the pasture.
Things got dicey with 50 laps to go, as Chastain was clinging to the lead with an ill-handling car while championship contender Blaney was following his tire tracks with a faster car. Tensions soon reached a boiling point with the No. 12 team, as Blaney tried to put the bumper to Chastain in what proved to be an unsuccessful attempt to take the lead.
A caution with 35 laps to go for a Kyle Busch spin led to a restart with 31 to go, and Chastain left the rest of the field in the dust for the fourth Cup win of his career. Blaney, 1.2 seconds back, finished second to claim his first title.
Let me be clear: I have zero issue with how Chastain raced Blaney. And in Chastain’s own words, he never made contact, wrecked, or put the bumper to the No. 12 car. All he did was use track position and clean air to his advantage.
Blaney may have been racing for a title, and he certainly had a right to be frustrated. But Chastain was racing for a win, and he did exactly what he needed to do to take the checkered flag.
Drivers never laid back for the championship contenders in the final race of a full-season championship, nor did they do so in the 10-race playoff format that was in place from 2004 to 2013. Why should now be any different?
With Chastain defying the odds last Sunday, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more drivers go to battle against the Championship 4 in 2024. Because at the end of the day, the teams and drivers will be looking out for themselves and their bottom line more than anyone else.
And if aggressive, but clean, racing for the win in the finale is a problem, the championship shouldn’t come down to one race.
3. With Kevin Harvick’s retirement, is 2023 the end of an era?
In many ways, yes.
With Kurt Busch‘s official retirement earlier in the season and Harvick’s retirement after the conclusion of Phoenix, the longest-tenured driver in the Cup Series today is none other than Kyle Busch, who has been full-time since the 2005 season.
Harvick was the last full-time driver to have raced in NASCAR’s heyday of the early 2000s and to have competed in an era where the championship was still decided by a full season.
With 60 wins, Harvick is 10th on the Cup Series’ all-time win list. And with his retirement, just five drivers in the field have more than 25 wins: Kyle Busch (63), Hamlin (51), Brad Keselowski (35), Martin Truex Jr. (34) and Joey Logano (32). Those five are also the longest-tenured drivers in the series, with their first full-time seasons coming in 2005, 2006, 2010, 2006 and 2009, respectively.
They’re the new old guard. And after a handful of years where the established veterans went head-to-head against exciting new talents, the young blood is beginning the acquire the upper hand.
Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Blaney and William Byron have gone from the future talents of yesterday to the stars of today, and there are plenty of others that have burst onto the scene within the past three years.
Time marches on, and the stars of the 2000s and early 2010s have called it a career, one-by-one; the current mix of NASCAR’s past, present and future should be cherished while it’s still here.
4. Has Cole Custer established himself as the Xfinity Series favorite for 2024?
When Cole Custer was demoted back to the Xfinity Series in 2023, the expectation was that he would dominate. After all, he won seven races in 2019, and that season was good enough to earn him a promotion to Cup.
The first two-thirds of his season fell short of that expectation, but there were signs of potential. Custer had just one top 10 in the first six races, but he then followed it up with a streak of 11 top 10s in a row. He also picked up two road course wins at Portland International Raceway and the Chicago street course in the summer. But those were his only pair of victories as he combined to lead just 172 laps in the first 27 races of the season.
But as soon as the playoffs began, a switch was flipped within the No. 00 team.
Custer finished his playoff run with five finishes in the top six, with the only two exceptions being the product of a flat tire while leading at Homestead-Miami Speedway and a last-lap crash while running top five at Martinsville Speedway.
The No. 00 team also showed a tremendous amount of race-winning speed in the playoffs, as Custer led 414 laps in the final seven races before clinching his first championship with a dominant win at Phoenix after leading 96 of the race’s 202 laps.
After the early season struggles that Custer and the No. 00 team faced, the playoffs were an incredible turnaround; it’s a turnaround that makes sense.
Custer didn’t hop into an established ride at the start of the season. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Xfinity program had previously downsized to one car for Riley Herbst, and the No. 00 team was built from scratch with crew chief Jonathan Toney at the helm.
The team won the pole at Phoenix in March, but Custer was a non-factor once he lost the lead after the first 30 laps. When I asked him about that race during Thursday’s (Nov. 5) Championship 4 Media Day, Custer said that they are a completely different team than what they were at the start of the season.
It certainly showed.
After a few months of ironing out the wrinkles, Custer ended the year with a championship and the same brilliance that he showed back in 2019. With seven-time 2023 winner John Hunter Nemechek moving up to the Cup Series and a year of experience under the No. 00 team’s belt, Custer has a strong chance of going back-to-back next November.
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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