Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Can Austin Cindric, Chase Elliott Take Advantage at COTA?

1. Can COTA Provide Chase Elliott and Austin Cindric a Shot in the Arm?

If drivers such as Chase Elliott and Austin Cindric have the illness of a slower-than-desired start to the season, then this weekend’s stop at Circuit of the Americas may as well be like pulling up to an after-hours primary care clinic.

Indeed, for drivers like Elliott and Cindric, COTA stands as a place where both can get things well on the road to recovery. Elliott’s had a quietly solid points season so far, good for sixth overall. That’s good, but what’s not good is only one top 10 and no top fives. That’d make mid-tier teams ecstatic.

For an organization like Hendrick Motorsports? Not so much.

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And then there’s Cindric.

Like Elliott, he’s a proven performer on road courses with NASCAR Xfinity Series wins on five different road courses.

This weekend could not be more well-timed for Cindric, currently 21st in the standings. Cindric has proven in the past that he has the talent to produce, but sometimes things can get in a rut and not line up right. The problem for the driver of the No. 2 car is that coming off one non-playoff season, he can ill afford to experience the same. If he does, dreaded hot seat talk could make its way to the stove’s burner.

If either Elliott or Cindric are to give their seasons a shot in the arm, this weekend may be the best chance given that there won’t be another road course event until June at Sonoma Raceway.

2. Is the Panic Button Looming at RCR?

Sure, last season was not the deep postseason push that fans of Kyle Busch were accustomed to, but a lot of equity was built up by what the driver did in his first year with Richard Childress Racing. For the first season in a while, a driver who called the Welcome, N.C. shop for them home won multiple times in a season.

For nostalgic fans of the old days of RCR, it likely did their heart good to see the organization doing well.

Yes, Busch won three times, but none came in the NASCAR Cup Series after a June win at Worldwide Technology Raceway. It’s fair to say that between Busch not making it past last year’s Round of 12 and Austin Dillon not making it into the postseason, that the latter half of 2023 was a disappointment at RCR.

Busch got a nice jolt to start this year on restrictor-plate tracks, notably coming in third in Atlanta Motor Speedway’s thrilling three-wide finish, but has fared no better than 22nd since then, adding up to an average finish of 18th, good for 16th in the points standings.

Dillon has yet to manage a top 10, mired way back in 30th place.

For the most part, RCR has begun its 2024 as last year finished. If the goal is to change the course from the end of last year, then that’s a problem and a reason why the window may be closing before hitting the panic button.

3. Is Ross Chastain in Ryan Blaney’s Head?

You may have heard the expression, “a hill I choose not to die on” when it comes to deciding how much energy to put into a disagreement or debate. That phrase has a cousin – “I may not die on this hill, but I will spend some time fighting on it.”

If there was any doubt that Ross Chastain has gotten into the head of defending Cup champion Ryan Blaney, then Sunday (March 17) night at Bristol Motor Speedway may have confirmed as much. Blaney had numerous comments about how his weekend came undone, but in a time in which sound bytes consume so much attention, Blaney appeared to make it clear that Chastain lives rent-free in his head.

In short, Blaney is done talking about his run-ins with Chastain and now everyone knows it. They would have never known that before Sunday evening.

Now?

Chastain, as he has in the past, has unwittingly become a major storyline with a subplot involving a previous champion.

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4. Should the Trucks begin the Season at Bristol?

By the record books, Saturday night’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Bristol was the series’ fourth stop of the season.

That’s a result of the Trucks being a companion event for the most part to the Cup Series during the early portion of the season. It’s understandable for the sport to want all of its national divisions as part of all things surrounding the “Great American Race.” But is it the best way to kick off the season and put on the best show among the Truck Series?

Bristol made its case on Saturday that the Truck Series should begin its season there, not Daytona International Speedway.

Saturday gave you all you could want from a race in this series. Door-slamming trading paint, less-experienced drivers learning the hard way what not to do and a series regular doing what few in this series have done – go wheel-to-wheel with Busch and win.

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You know what it didn’t have?

Three-fourths of the race featuring trucks wadded up and turned into sheet-metal auction candidates. That’s what you have at Daytona where, frankly, a place some less-experienced drivers do not need to race at yet. Just because you can do something, does not mean you should.

For a support series, it makes little sense to mangle trucks at Daytona – and potentially Atlanta – and then roll west for a race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to begin the season.

It does, however, make sense for the Truck Series to get back to its roots and showcase short-track racing to begin a season, and Bristol is the perfect place for that.

5. Did Bristol also Help Rockingham’s Fate?

In case you were on some desert island Sunday, tire wear became a big deal at Bristol. It may have been a handful for drivers to drive, and there is no problem with that. The reason why? Tires are being chewed up in a significant way.

Another track that had a reputation for grinding up tires? Rockingham Speedway, with a good bit of help from the sand sediment from the Carolina Sandhills.

Nobody knows what the future of this track in Richmond County, N.C. holds. But if NASCAR has hit on something with its short track package, racing at The Rock may have become a whole more desirable and welcomed on Sunday.

That, of course, depends on moving pieces getting in gear to bring the track’s revival along, the same thing that was said a few years ago about North Wilkesboro Speedway.

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