1. Is Daytona Now Mostly Important as a Free Playoffs Pass?
Don’t worry, we’re not going to start off the 2024 NASCAR season by trying to suggest the Daytona 500 is any less important in a vacuum than it’s ever been. It’s still the race drivers and crew chiefs who dream of winning more than any other (most of them, anyway) at a venue unique in the sport.
It’s also an exercise in futility to bemoan the 500’s spot on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Having the Super Bowl of the sport at the beginning of the season feels more backward than ever, but it also has its benefits, getting eyes on NASCAR right from the get go. No other race could do that.
What’s most intriguing about the Daytona 500 circa 2024, however, is where it stands in relation to the other 25 regular season races. And as recent history suggests, that’s mostly to get a driver into the playoffs who won’t win the rest of the season.
Harsh? Maybe, but it’s happened three consecutive years: Michael McDowell in 2021, Austin Cindric in 2022 and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. last season. Their campaign-opening triumphs not only meant they’d be in the playoffs regardless, but also in very real terms meant the rest of the garage was competing for just 15 spots.
It won’t stay that way forever. A driver from a powerhouse team is going to break through and take the checkered flag on some February evening in Daytona soon. Maybe even this one.
Until it happens, the Daytona 500 will have an oversized effect on how the postseason shapes up. And honestly, maybe that’s fitting.
2. This Could Be the Season Where Chase Elliott Is As Interesting As He’s Ever Been
Chase Elliott is a number of different things. Talented? Of course. Popular? You don’t even need to count the times he’s won the award to prove that. Beloved is probably not too strong a term.
Is he interesting, though? That’s harder to say.
It’s not that Elliott has no personality. There have been times he’s been frustrated, angry or joyous, depending on the occasion. He’s not the dullest interview, but he’s not among the top five in the garage either.
There’s also no doubt that he’s been at the center of intrigue in his Cup Series career, but those times were because of questions about when he’d tick certain accomplishments off his checklist. When would he win his first Cup Series race? How about his first championship? Anyone who’s been following the sport for the duration of his top-level career remembers those moments.
Despite all that, it’s fair to say that Elliott as a character in the drama that is NASCAR has never been as interesting as he is headed into 2024. There’s no need to rehash his lost 2023 season, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was, indeed, lost thanks to off-track injury and suspension.
It’s not just whether Elliott will return to victory lane, as most pundits expect that. It’s whether he will show the fire that a championship contender needs, and if it will be obvious to NASCAR fans that he’s doing this because he wouldn’t rather be doing anything else, as opposed to because he’s just good at it.
That sounds like something you could build a movie or TV series around. Speaking of which …
3. Will NASCAR Get a ‘Full Speed’ Bump?
If you haven’t watched “NASCAR: Full Speed” on Netflix yet, do yourself a favor and check out at least the first episode sometime this week. Even in an era where social media, podcasts and other forms of communication give us direct insights from drivers in many different ways, it’s a fascinating look inside the sport that isn’t always available.
I caught my wife, who I’d say tolerates NASCAR more than follows it, watching along more than once. It’s anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but it suggests that “Full Speed” has the potential to draw in people who are lapsed race viewers or floating on the periphery of stock car racing fandom.
What isn’t as clear is whether “Full Speed” can do for NASCAR what “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” did. That series absolutely got people who never watched a race before to get up crazy early here in the U.S. to see F1 live for the first time.
All of that is to say that “Full Speed” feels like a success, not a phenomenon. And while the former is fine, NASCAR likely would have been much happier if it would have turned out to be the latter.
4. What Do We Even Make of Stewart-Haas Racing at This Point?
When you’re Tony Stewart and your name is on a race team, it’s reasonable to have certain expectations. Maybe not “Why can’t you drive as well as I used to?” but a few wins a season from a four-car operation is not out of line at all.
You may recall that Stewart-Haas Racing failed to achieve that last year, managing a total of zero victories despite fielding a very motivated Kevin Harvick trying to win one on his way out, as well as Aric Almirola, who could sometimes be counted on to nab a checkered flag once a year.
So when Stewart says things like “what we did the last two years isn’t acceptable anymore,” that’s what he should be saying. The problem is that at least on paper, the lineup doesn’t look primed to change that.
Josh Berry is a great story but is a 33-year-old rookie making a jump that almost always comes with a learning curve. Noah Gragson has talent but has had issues controlling his emotions. Ryan Preece just joined SHR last year, meaning … Chase Briscoe is who counts as a grizzled vet here.
It would be great for Stewart, Ford and probably the Cup Series in general if SHR was to rediscover some of its previous glory. That just seems like a big ask unless someone overachieves in ways that no one is expecting.
Maybe this is a case of recalibrating expectations. Stewart would love it if his group was contending, but just finding a way back to victory lane would be a major win. Let’s say two wins among the four drivers and we’ll call it a success.
In the meantime, we’ll keep debating whether the SHR drivers should be eligible for our Underdog House column, as sad as that is to say.
5. What Can Ryan Blaney Do For an Encore?
If anything, defending Cup Series champion Ryan Blaney has the opposite issue from the SHR drivers. Three wins wasn’t a shocker for the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, but winning it all was a little bit of a surprise.
It’s not that people didn’t think Blaney had it in him, he just never felt like the guy with the most speed and the team most likely to come through in the clutch at any point last year — until they did.
Repeating as champion seems like a nearly impossible task in the current era of Cup Series racing. On top of the parity between the best teams, you need to be both lucky and good.
With that in mind, maybe it’s a good thing that Blaney and his team never felt dominant while they were on their way to a title. Maybe it means they have another gear they’ve yet to hit.
Blaney can’t worry about that. All he can do, as his fiancée Gianna Tulio memorably said during the first episode of “Full Speed,” is “be Ryan f–king Blaney.”
And who knows? That just might be enough.
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