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Did You Notice?: Setting NASCAR Cup Series Expectations for 2024, Car Nos. 1-20

Did You Notice? … The 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season is at hand? By the time you read this column, the Daytona 500 will be hours away as we follow up the NFL’s Super Bowl with stock car racing’s biggest race of the year.

What are the big questions facing the Cup field this coming season? Let’s take a look at each full-time chartered team below through one stat that gives us an indication of where they are heading into 2024.

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No. 1 – Ross Chastain

157. It’s how many laps Chastain led in the Phoenix Raceway finale last year, more than the previous 21 races after owner Rick Hendrick lashed out at Chastain about a wreck involving Kyle Larson in May. Chastain drove tentative after that but a fiery exchange with champion Ryan Blaney last November was a big step toward regaining his mojo. Can he keep it?

No. 2 – Austin Cindric

5. The amount of top-five finishes Cindric has after winning the 2022 Daytona 500 as a rookie. In that same time period, his Team Penske teammates have 42, eight wins and the last two Cup championships. 2024 feels like put up or shut up for the son of Team Penske President Tim Cindric; more mediocrity could be risking a Cole Custer-like demotion to the NASCAR Xfinity Series. The key? Rebuilding on road courses, where Cindric earned five of his 13 career NXS wins.

No. 3 – Austin Dillon

21.8. Dillon’s average finish last season, the worst for him in Cup since his rookie season of 2013 and better than just three other full-time drivers. Remember how Kyle Busch’s arrival was supposed to make Richard Childress Racing better across the board? The key for Dillon in 2024 is to avoid messes of his own making; a driver who once finished all 36 races in a Cup season has a whopping 18 DNFs over the past two years. Opportunities at superspeedways and a handful of intermediates need to be cashed in or building criticism Dillon might be holding back this program will be warranted.

No. 4 – Josh Berry

33. Josh Berry’s age as a full-time Cup freshman. If he goes on to win Cup Rookie of the Year, he’d be the oldest recipient since Andy Lally (36) back in 2011. Berry is deserving of the promotion with JR Motorsports but there are some yellow flags: no wins in the NXS and mixed results as a Cup super sub. There’s also the not-so-small problem of how rough Stewart-Haas Racing equipment has been without Kevin Harvick at the controls: only seven top-five finishes last season and no other drivers ending the year inside the top 20 in points.

No. 5 – Kyle Larson

17. The number of Cup races Larson has won over the last three years since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2021 – the most of any driver in that span. Larson is now considered a generational talent, knocking Chase Elliott down a peg at HMS while positioning himself to be the next Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson. To live up to that, Larson must start knocking off bucket list races (Daytona 500, Indianapolis in a stock car) while adding a second title under this oddball playoff format. Anything less is a failure as expectations for him rise precipitously; a successful Indy 500 will only make them launch into the stratosphere.

No. 6 – Brad Keselowski

98. The number of starts since Keselowski last won a points-paying Cup race – dating back to the spring of 2021 at Talladega Superspeedway. The owner/driver for RFK Racing has brought Roush back from the dead, building a powerhouse for branding off the track and speed on it. But is one of the sport’s smartest drivers better served building the organization behind the scenes? Forget competing in the Championship 4; failing to end this streak in year three might give us that answer, even though Keselowski is younger than some other veterans (turning 40 this year).

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No. 7 – Corey LaJoie

+3.5. The improvement in average finish for LaJoie at Spire Motorsports last year, from 24.3 to 20.8. A similar jump in 2024 would put him on the playoff bubble; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made it last year with an average of 17.8 and that surprise Daytona 500 win. LaJoie has to get over the hump at one of those superspeedways; he came within one bad move at Atlanta Motor Speedway not long ago. Otherwise, I fear the talent of rookies Zane Smith and Carson Hocevar may turn the tables on a veteran who’s worked so hard to get Spire to the precipice of next-level success.

No. 8 – Kyle Busch

17.3. Busch’s average finish during last year’s playoffs, a backslide that included just eight laps led as his first year at RCR ended with him 13th in points. It fed a narrative Busch was more lucky than good notching three regular season victories; the competition is stronger in 2024 and, approaching age 40, Busch is under increasing scrutiny. The good news here is no NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team to manage will give Busch added focus, also investing in family and son Brexton’s busy racing schedule.

No. 9 – Chase Elliott

23. The number of laps Elliott led on road courses last season, his worst performance since 2017 when only Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International were on the schedule. The decline at those tracks with the Next Gen has been compelling; it’s like everyone else has caught up and the sport’s Most Popular Driver hasn’t evolved. Is it Alan Gustafson? Is it the injuries? Is it a lack of focus or frustration with an extended slump? It feels like Circuit of the Americas is an important benchmark along with Bristol Motor Speedway in the spring; an early win is crucial to make sure things don’t go haywire.

No. 10 – Noah Gragson

4. The number of lead-lap finishes Gragson had in 21 Cup races, a stunning 19 percent clip that helped usher an early departure at Legacy Motor Club. Among those who were better: Josh Bilicki, JJ Yeley and B.J. McLeod with a sliver of the equipment Gragson had to work with. SHR offers Gragson a second chance to get it right, arguably with better resources. It feels like feast or famine for a driver who needs to focus, work hard and rediscover the next-level talent he’s fostered along the way.

No. 11 – Denny Hamlin

44. The age Hamlin turns in November, putting him in rarified air if he wants to win that coveted first Cup title. Bobby Allison was 45 in 1983 and would be the only one older if it happens for Hamlin in 2024. All the pieces are in place: the right crew chief in Chris Gabehart, top-tier Toyota support, a team he owns in 23XI Racing that’s growing fast but still a half-step behind the mothership at Joe Gibbs Racing. Feels like now or never for him to get it done.

No. 12 – Ryan Blaney

0. The number of drivers with back-to-back titles since NASCAR switched to its current four-round, elimination-style format back in 2014. Only three of the previous nine champions have even reached the finale the following year. Here’s why it feels more possible for Blaney: a superspeedway in each of the first two rounds (Atlanta, then Talladega) and then a similar Round of 8 schedule (Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway and Martinsville Speedway) that play to his strengths. Add in a new body style for Ford and it’s hard to see Penske’s new top dog missing out.

No. 14 – Chase Briscoe

-275. The pass differential for Briscoe last season, the worst in the Cup Series. Don’t understand it? Simple: a negative number means you’re getting passed more than passing other people. It’s why SHR made a crew chief change midseason, switching to Richard Boswell without much of a difference in performance. The team begs to differ, pointing to a fourth-place Martinsville finish last fall as a potential turning point. But the departure of SHR leader Harvick and the loss of sponsorship dollars here make it hard to see the same vision.

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No. 15 – Riley Herbst/Kaz Grala/TBD

32nd. The highest a Rick Ware Racing-owned team has ever finished in the owner standings. Last year, it racked up a total of 322 points to wind up tied for 34th; by comparison, the 30th-place team of Briscoe had 534, a whopping 212-point difference. It’s hard to see that changing even with promising young talent. Do know that Grala has been perpetually underrated, especially on road courses, and Herbst is a stone’s throw away from full-time Cup and can guide the car to the front on superspeedways.

No. 16 – A.J. Allmendinger/Josh Williams/Shane van Gisbergen/TBD

6. Finishes outside the top 20 in the final 10 races for Allmendinger last year, misery during the playoffs hidden by that upset victory at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. That started a rally-around-the-AJ effect but his employer’s call looked at the overall body of work, and here’s a hard truth: it wasn’t enough. Their strategy seems sound: get the same one-win performance with the ‘Dinger chasing trophies in Cup while racking up five to seven wins a year full-time in the Xfinity Series. Seems like a smart plan for an underfunded team that gives them a bonus of extra money from the SVG development deal (a move that could eke them out another Cup win while they’re at it). Josh Williams? He’s guaranteed to get some TV time. I’m just not sure for what.

No. 17 – Chris Buescher

449. Laps led for Buescher during the last two Cup seasons running for RFK, a total that comes with four wins and a surprise Round of 8 appearance in 2023. An average finish of 12.1 last season was the best of his career by nearly six spots; not bad for a guy whose future was questioned when Keselowski bought into the team. At age 31, Buescher is a true wild card in a year Ford revamped its chassis and RFK is asserting its power; another successful year and he becomes the most unexpected, unassuming superstar of the sport in perhaps the last decade, maybe more.

No. 19 – Martin Truex, Jr.

+303. The pass differential for Truex last season, the best in the Cup Series. It showcased his speed but also the crew’s penchant for mistakes; even with three wins, the people the No. 19 team beat the most were themselves. Crew chief James Small is a capable leader who may have reached the end of his lifespan here; there were no changes in what could be a farewell Cup campaign but you wonder if JGR won’t come to regret that. But if they clean it up? Here’s your dark horse title candidate people aren’t talking about and remember, he is the 2023 regular season champion, after all.

No. 20 – Christopher Bell

+7.4. Bell’s increase in his average finish from his rookie season of 2020 to last season’s 12.9, a career best. All the key metrics for Bell have increased steadily every year he’s been in Cup: average start, pole positions won, laps led, lead-lap finishes and back-to-back trips to the final round of the playoffs. Indeed, the most unassuming top-tier driver is often forgotten when you think of Championship 4 predictions but that doesn’t mean he won’t get there. Here’s my concern; with Truex and Hamlin nearing the end of their window, will be there a tilt in their direction within JGR come playoff time? It’s hard not to root for and/or push your resources toward drivers who’ve meant so much on their way out; by comparison, Bell has a whole decade or more of success ahead of him.

Follow @NASCARBowles

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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