Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Is Christopher Bell Now ‘The Man’ at JGR?

1. It’s Still a Little Too Early to Panic About Toyota Smacking the Field

While the teams that took smashed-up racecars home from the first two races of the season will likely disagree, what just transpired at Phoenix Raceway this past weekend made for the least interesting race of the NASCAR Cup Series season so far.

That’s an issue for two reasons.

One is that the season finale, the race that decides the championship, is at the same track. If something similar happens in November, it’s not exactly a sign that we’re all going to be on the edge of our seats anxiously watching to see who wins it all.

But the bigger issue, albeit one closely tied to the first, is why it was a little dull: Toyota had the other two manufacturers covered and smothered, in Waffle House parlance.

See also
Stat Sheet: Toyota Has Golden Ticket for Championship Weekend

Consider that not only did Toyota drivers lead all but 14 laps at Phoenix, but the only interloper who kept it from being a clean sweep was Todd Gilliland. Did he heroically race his way to the front, passing a bunch of cars to make that claim?

Let me assure you, dear reader, he did not. He got to the point by staying out longer than everyone else during a long green-flag run during the race’s second stage.

Unless you’re someone with a vested interest in Toyota’s success — and particularly if you are part of Legacy Motor Club, which appears to have made the best-timed manufacturer switch in recent memory — this is suboptimal. Even the perception that Toyota has a Cup Series title in the bag somehow in mid-March is bad for the sport.

That said, it’s a little too early to be going all Chicken Little. The Cup Series season is notoriously long and fickle, usually with some momentum swings in the summer and then again in the fall. There’s also the not-insignificant matter of Toyota drivers having to make the Championship 4 to take advantage of their seeming superiority at Phoenix, and if there’s a silver lining to the playoff system that no one seems to fully love, it’s that weird things can happen once the postseason begins.

So while everyone should be tipping their caps to the Toyota camp and both Chevrolet and Ford teams have to be working overtime to prevent a repeat, there’s no reason to get all bent out of shape over Toyota backhanding the rest of the field.


2. Is Christopher Bell the Top Gun at Joe Gibbs Racing Now? Does it Matter?

It’s fair to wonder if the internal pecking order at multi-car Cup Series teams is only a source of fascination to NASCAR fans. Unlike other racing series, there are no team orders in NASCAR (not explicitly, anyway), and it’s not like whoever is on top gets to sit closer to the coach during Joe Gibbs Racing team meetings.

At least we don’t think so.

On the other hand, top-level racing is a contest that’s full of alpha dogs, and everyone in the Cup Series wants to think they’re the best. There’s undoubtedly internal competition, which can be healthy, and all but the most inexperienced drivers can read the tea leaves well enough to understand who might be in their ascendancy.

Last year, it was fair to wonder if there was a transition of sorts at Hendrick Motorsports, what with William Byron turning in his best work to date and Chase Elliott suffering a lost campaign. Nothing quite as dramatic is happening at JGR, but a case can certainly be made that Christopher Bell is now the top dog, even in a shop that also boasts Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.

(Also, don’t look now, but Ty Gibbs is figuring things out fast.)

We don’t have to do too much digging to see why this is likely the case. Bell made the Championship 4 in each of the past two seasons, effectively taking the torch from Hamlin, who had done it the three years before that. Truex is two years removed from his last time racing for the title and while he won the regular season championship in 2023, he sputtered out quickly in the playoffs.

In his last 57 Cup Series starts Bell has made it to victory lane six times. That’s as many as Hamlin and Truex combined, who have three wins apiece over that span.

To top it all off, Bell just managed to come home first at Phoenix, a track that has given him some problems over the years. There’s no way that Hamlin would admit he isn’t the standard bearer for JGR, and Truex likely wouldn’t care as much, but the evidence points to the idea that Bell is the top dog in the organization, for whatever that’s worth.

See also
Monday Morning Pit Box: Christopher Bell, Ty Gibbs Overcome Slow Stops at Phoenix

3. Do Joey Logano or Austin Dillon Have it Worse Right Now?

Two drivers, two very different sets of circumstances, two very valid candidates for the “Most Miserable Start to the Cup Series Season” if that was a real thing.

Here’s the resume for Joey Logano, as it were:

  • Won the pole at Daytona International Speedway and led the most laps but got caught up in a late wreck and finished 32nd.
  • Wrecked at Atlanta Motor Speedway, finishing 28th, but also got some insult to injury by being fined for unapproved alterations to his driving gloves.
  • Ninth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, not bad!
  • Poor all day at Phoenix, but wrecked again to finish 34th and he’s now feuding with John Hunter Nemechek.

As for Austin Dillon, his tale of woe has a similar cadence:

  • Involved in a multi-car crash on lap 6 at Daytona, a place where he’s usually competitive, finishing 37th.
  • Got turned on lap 2 at Atlanta, ending up 22nd.
  • Came home 16th at Vegas, not horrible
  • Caught up in a lap 6 crash caused when Derek Kraus got loose and spun, ending up with only a 34th-place result to show for the day.

Take your pick as to who’s had it worse. Dillon’s incredible early misfortune seems like it has to turn around eventually, and he’s probably more frustrated than Logano.

But Logano has the burden of much higher expectations for the season. He’s 30th in points after four races, which seems inconceivable for the former Cup champ and perennial contender.

For that reason, he gets the nod for most miserable, but this is a contest you don’t really want to win.

4. Ryan Blaney is Quietly Back Doing Ryan Blaney Things

Lost amid the two extremes after four races, the heady highs and despondent lows some teams have experienced, we have the defending Cup Series champion, Ryan Blaney.

The Team Penske ace has yet to win and finished first in just one stage, but he’s first in points by double digits over everyone else.

How? Well, he’s finished in the top five in every race in which he hasn’t had a DNF. Said DNF was at Daytona; since then his finishes have been second, third and fifth, the last of those coming at a track where we’ve already discussed that Ford was mostly in the weeds.

This is similar, but even better than Blaney did to start last season when he didn’t win until the Coca-Cola 600 but did manage to pull off several stretches where he ran top 10 for three weeks straight. More importantly, it looks like his form from the end of the playoffs, where his worst run in the last five races was 12th.

In other words, Blaney hasn’t missed a beat during the offseason, maintaining the cool consistency that led him and the No. 12 team to a title. All that’s missing is wins, but you have to figure those will come.

See also
Waid's World: One Writer’s Attempt to Be a Fan in the Bristol Grandstands

5. There’s Probably Only One Solution for Packing Bristol, but No One Wants to Talk About It

Attending a race at Bristol Motor Speedway remains on my bucket list. Having followed NASCAR only since the early 2000s, the change in attendance at that hallowed track has felt especially stark to me.

When I first got into the sport, Bristol had a waiting list for tickets. Now? Not so much.

Changing the spring race to dirt was a fun gimmick that most everyone would agree has run its course. This year the cars are back on asphalt and the guess is that there will be a honeymoon phase.

What history suggests is that it will be brief, and perhaps for only this year. Bristol can’t just keep swapping back and forth on the surface for the spring race, or at least it shouldn’t.

So what’s the answer? Probably cutting back to a single race each year. That would obviously be the night race since that has an aura all its own.

Bristol wouldn’t have to try very hard to find another track that saw its attendance surge when it had only one NASCAR weekend. But it’s a trickier proposition for Bristol than, say, Pocono Raceway, because it can rightfully say it’s one of the iconic venues of the sport, one that deserves to have more than one visit a year.

I wouldn’t argue that at all. I just don’t see any other way for the Last Great Colosseum to pack them in the way it did a few decades ago.

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Logano will win a race this year, Dillon won’t. Simple as that.

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