Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Is NASCAR So Back Now?

1. Maybe NASCAR Has Some Momentum (for Now) After Atlanta

Do you spend any time around older kids or younger adults? If so, you’ve probably heard someone say “we’re so back” at some point.

The phrase itself, not to mention memes around it, is a commentary on our short attention span society. People are as quick to declare that something is over as they are to say it’s back, and the pendulum seems to swing ever quicker in the 2020s.

That’s just as true for an entire sport/organization the size of NASCAR. There are aspects of top-level stock car racing that will never return to what they were at the sport’s peak, including attendance levels at the races and TV ratings in an increasingly fractured entertainment landscape.

But there were signs going into this season that perhaps NASCAR had some forward momentum. Maybe it was the Netflix series, a new fresh face (Ryan Blaney) as NASCAR Cup Series champion, or some combination of those and other factors.

Then all that buzz threatened to go right down the tubes thanks to the early season weather, which affected both the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum and the Daytona 500. When the 500 did run, viewers were treated to a long stretch where cars were running about half-throttle to save fuel. In the Great American Race, no less!

Cue the “it’s all over” memes. But keep the “we’re so back” ones ready too, because then Atlanta Motor Speedway’s race happened. No big deal, just one of the most entertaining start-to-finish events at that track (though your mileage may vary a bit if your favorite driver was out of contention on lap 2) topped by the most breathtaking finish in recent memory.

It’s an ongoing exercise to wonder what would happen if you showed non-race fans one race to see if you can get them hooked, or at least intrigued, especially if something like NASCAR: Full Speed has piqued their curiosity. Normally, you might opt for the Daytona 500, since it’s supposed to be the biggest and best race of the year.

Turns out you just needed to wait a week this time around. Thank you, Atlanta, for getting people talking about NASCAR again. Las Vegas Motor Speedway, please don’t tilt the scales back to “it’s all over,” if you would.

See also
Big 6: Questions Answered After Daniel Suarez Wins By Inches in Atlanta

2. Daniel Suarez May Have Just Saved His Job, Now Can He Do More?

It wasn’t hard to find Daniel Suarez on those inevitable “Drivers on the Hot Seat” lists before the start of the season. In fact, one of my colleagues named him the driver on the hottest seat of all earlier this month.

The reasons why were easy to understand. Suarez was entering his fourth year with Trackhouse Racing after managing just one win in the prior three. His performance regressed in 2023, as he and the No. 99 team missed the playoffs after making it in 2022.

A talented driver, a nice guy and good for the sport, no doubt. But all those things only get you so far without results.

Thanks to coming out on top of the three-way dash to the finish at Atlanta, Suarez can breathe a little easier on that front. He and his team have to feel good about not just breaking through with a victory, but knowing they’ll be around for the postseason as well.

Now the challenge is to do more. Suarez finished 10th last spring in Las Vegas, so he’s proven he can run well there. It’s what waits on the other side that will be the measuring stick, as it’s easy to forget he opened the 2023 season with three straight top-10 finishes before the wheels came off in a brutal five-race stretch where his average finish was 25.2.

The Cup Series schedule changes mean they aren’t all the same tracks in the same order this year, but Suarez and company need to show they won’t slump similarly. Circuit of the Americas stands out more than the others, because while Suarez has often been a threat to win at other road courses (and did exactly that at Sonoma Raceway in 2022), he’s been pretty awful at COTA, failing to finish better than 24th there with Trackhouse.

So even with the seat cooled, he’s got some work to do. At least now he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder quite as much.

3. Front Row Motorsports Looks Surprisingly Like the Real Deal

Truth in naming is always a good thing. For much of its existence, Front Row Motorsports hasn’t had it. Front row of what, exactly?

Through two races in 2024, though, no problem. Michael McDowell has taken the team name literally, rolling off second at Daytona International Speedway and then from the pole at Atlanta. But McDowell has shown he can go fast when he’s given a car with speed, especially at the drafting tracks.

The true revelation has been Todd Gilliland. You wouldn’t know it if you just looked at him sitting 32nd in points at the moment, but he ran up front a lot during the first two races of 2024 — to the point where he’s leading all Cup Series drivers in laps led.

You can probably see where this is going, though. McDowell has historically been lousy at Las Vegas. Gilliland, too, though in a very small sample size. Suffice it to say that between the two of them, they have a total of two top-20 finishes and zero top 10s.

If Front Row can show the same kind of speed in Sin City that it has on the drafting tracks, that’s going to raise an eyebrow. Otherwise, we’ll just be waiting about two months for Talladega Superspeedway to see those FRM drivers up front again.

4. Three Drivers Who Want to Hit the Reset Button on 2024

Honestly, there are probably more than three drivers who wouldn’t mind if NASCAR retroactively decided to wipe away the first two weeks of the season, considering how many cars ended up in wrecks at Daytona and Atlanta.

But there’s sadness and regret, and then there’s outright misery. Here are three who likely fall into the latter category at the moment.

  • Brad Keselowski – Two races, two DNFs. The only driver below him in points is Jimmie Johnson, who only started one of the two races. That’s the worst possible start you can have, and after RFK Racing came into the season with such high hopes.
  • Austin Dillon – Ahead of only Keselowski in points, which is doubly disappointing since the drafting tracks are where Dillon has excelled in the past. Can’t blame the equipment since teammate Kyle Busch is atop the points and nearly won at Atlanta.
  • Josh Berry – While he had to know it was going to be tough replacing Kevin Harvick in the No. 4 Ford, Berry probably at least hoped to get off on the right foot. Instead, he’s the last of the four Stewart-Haas Racing entries after two weeks, which is worse than it sounds since none of them are higher than 22nd in points.

There’s plenty of time for all three to rebound. Keselowski is a good bet to do that after the way he and RFK in general performed in 2023. The other two … who knows? The glass-half-full way of looking at it is that the season almost has to get better for them from here.

See also
The Underdog House: Drafting Prowess Shines Through for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in Atlanta

5. A New Era for the Xfinity Series Begins Next Year … If It’s Still Called That in 2025

It’s going to be fun trying to remember next season that the NASCAR Xfinity Series has its own new TV deal starting next year. All of the series’ races will be shown on The CW in 2025, which is a big deal.

As Sports Business Journal reminds us, however, this is the last season under Xfinity’s current deal to sponsor the series, and while the door is open for a new deal, there are no guarantees that parent company Comcast will sign one.

A potential sticking point is that Comcast also owns NBCUniversal, which currently shows about half the Xfinity Series races each season. That’s good corporate synergy, the kind that will disappear after this year.

Will Comcast want to sponsor a series that is being shown exclusively on what is ostensibly an NBC competitor? It sounds silly when you type it out like that, raising the very real possibility that NASCAR’s secondary series will enter a new age in more ways than just its broadcast home next February.

About the author

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Share via