Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Will NASCAR Finally Get New Short Track Package Right?

1. Is Kyle Larson the title favorite?

In this week’s edition of premature predictions that surely won’t backfire or prove to be wrong, Kyle Larson and the No. 5 team already look championship caliber after trouncing the field in Sunday’s (March 4) NASCAR Cup Series event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Larson swept the first two stages and led 181 of the 267 laps on his way to the 24th victory of his Cup career and 18th since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2021. And after a bad break the week before at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Larson surged from 11th in points to the lead after scoring the maximum 60 points in Sin City.

That said, Sunday wasn’t a complete cake walk. Tyler Reddick kept Larson honest in all three stages, and it took early pit road miscues from the No. 45 team and a game of cat-and-mouse aero blocking in the closing laps for Larson to eke out the win.

But with three races in the books, Larson looks just as good, if not better, than he did to start 2023. And while he wasn’t winning 10 races last year, the No. 5 team brought some of the fastest cars to the track each week. Larson was second in wins last year with four, and he led 1,127 laps, the most of any driver. Yet last year was also one of missed opportunity, as Larson recorded eight DNFs, 11 finishes of 25th or worse and three finishes outside the top 30 after leading at least 75 laps in the race.

If he can keep the car clean and turn the 25th-place finishes of yesteryear into the top 10, top five and winning drives of today, there’s no telling how far Larson could go in the 2024 season. We aren’t in ‘The Kyle Larson Era’ just yet, but we’re getting close.

See also
NASCAR Mailbox: Is It Time to Hit the Panic Button on Alex Bowman & Chase Elliott?

2. John Hunter Nemechek, 2024’s Buschwhacker?

John Hunter Nemechek won seven Xfinity Series races for Joe Gibbs Racing last year, and he’s continuing to add to that total in 2024 after a dominant win at Las Vegas last Saturday (March 3).

Nemechek is currently scheduled to run 10 Xfinity races this season for JGR’s No. 20 car, but with driver vacancies in JGR’s expanded four-car lineup, there’s the potential for him to run more.

The No. 19 car was announced to have a driver lineup consisting of Ryan Truex, Joe Graf Jr., Taylor Gray and William Sawalich, while the No. 20 car had Nemechek and Aric Almirola splitting the ride. But for Las Vegas and the upcoming race at Phoenix Raceway, Almirola has been named as the driver for the No. 19. If Almirola keeps getting moved, could Nemechek run more than 10 races in the No. 20?

He could, as the restrictions of Cup drivers racing in the lower series only apply to those that have three years of experience in Cup, which Nemechek (who ran full-time in 2020 and had one start each in 2022 and 2023) doesn’t have.

Second-year Cup driver Ty Gibbs could also join the schedule, as he ran eight races for JGR’s Xfinity program in 2023 after winning the title a year prior.

Regardless, Nemechek will have a minimum of 10 Xfinity races on his slate for 2024, the most of any driver currently racing in Cup. And with a win already under his belt, Nemechek has the ability to make a big splash in the remaining Xfinity dates on his calendar.

See also
Eyes on Xfinity: Brandon Jones Is Turning the Corner

3. Will NASCAR finally hit on the Next Gen car’s short track package at Phoenix?

For all the success that the Next Gen car has had on 1.5-mile tracks and other intermediates, it’s taken a leap backward for short tracks and road courses. That’s a shame, as short tracks in particular have been some of the most anticipated events on the schedule.

NASCAR has kept making tweaks to the package ever since an absolute dud of a race at Martinsville Speedway in April 2022, and its latest test will come this weekend at Phoenix, where it will debut a new short track package that was tested over the offseason.

For Sunday, the new package will consist of simplified rear diffusers with fewer vertical strakes and a strake-free engine panel, among other tweaks. Six drivers (Christopher Bell, Larson, Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, Corey LaJoie and Erik Jones) conducted the test at Phoenix in December, while the rest of the field will hit the track with it this weekend.

While it’s still a question mark to see how the cars perform on track, there is some excitement from drivers. In an interview done with Jim Utter of Motorsport.com, Chase Briscoe expressed optimism in how the cars will race with the new changes.

“I certainly think this package on paper is going to put a lot more in the driver’s hands,” Briscoe said. “We should be slipping and sliding around a lot more. I think it’s going to be easier to pass guys, you’re going to see a lot more comers and goers.

“From a racing standpoint on the short tracks, I definitely think it’s going to make it better. So that’s exciting to think about.”

That’s quite the seal of approval, and it should give viewers some optimism heading into the weekend.

That said, it will be disappointing if it doesn’t live up to the hype. We’re in year three of the Next Gen car, and it’ll be another long wait to try something else if this one is no good. But even if Sunday doesn’t fix the problem 100%, any progress from the last two years is a victory. Because after all, you miss all of the shots you don’t take.

4. NASCAR and professional bowling join forces once again in Phoenix. The more crossovers, the better?

NASCAR is back in Phoenix, and for the second year in a row, it will join forces with the PBA tour.

A PBA NASCAR Invitational was held in conjunction with NASCAR’s Phoenix weekend in March last year, and it is back this year as a part of PBA’s first-ever All-Star Weekend.

The main event, where NASCAR drivers pair up with a pro bowler from the PBA or WBPA, will take place on Friday (March 8), and the participating drivers are Almirola, Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Almirola and bowler Kyle Troup are the defending champions, and Almirola is no stranger to bowling himself, as Go Bowling had sponsored him at Stewart-Haas Racing and will be onboard his Xfinity car this weekend,

Almirola also partook in one of the coolest crossovers I’ve seen, as he drove a car in the Charlotte Motor Speedway trioval at 140 mph while pro bowler Jason Belmonte dropped a bowling ball from the car to level all 10 pins at the start/finish line.

As someone who bowls as a hobby, it is exciting to see NASCAR join forces with the PBA for another year. Events like these bring publicity to both series, and I will be sure to watch the tape-delayed NASCAR bowling competition when it airs on FOX next Sunday (March 17). And with NASCAR looking to grow its audience and expand its reach in the wake of the Atlanta photo finish and NASCAR: Full Speed on Netflix, the more partnerships it can strike, the better.

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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Bill B

LOL picking a title favorite after two crap shoot races and one 1.5 miler….
Come on guys, you can do better.

Will NASCAR’s changes fix the short track problem? I’m not holding my breath, especially since the first short track isn’t until next weekend. A long time to hold one’s breath.

Echo

I’m sooo excited nascar is teaming up with bowling. Almost wet my pants with excitement.

sdelfin

I wouldn’t use Phoenix as a good measure of the short-track package on its own as it’s too different from the others and races a bit more like a flat intermediate track, more like a Loudon. Luckily, we have Bristol coming right up, with Richmond and Martinsville not long after, so we’ll have a clearer picture of the entire package within a month. My expectation is that it will be better, but only a little bit. This will also be the first spring Bristol race on concrete since the new car, so it will be interesting to see how the tires hold up as that was a big problem for the first Bristol night race with the new car.

DoninAjax

The question in the headline is obviously rhetorical, since Captain Obvious knows the answer, based on past history, is no!

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