Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Spring Is in the Air, but Ford Stinks

1. William Byron Is Making Us Believers …

Admit it: Even after he won six times in 2023, leading all NASCAR Cup Series drivers, you weren’t 100% convinced about William Byron as a perennial championship contender.

Not to say that he felt like a fluke, per se. You don’t find your way to victory lane that many times in one year in the most competitive era in NASCAR and deserve that label.

It was more a case of whether he could keep it up or do what sports stats nerds call regressing to the mean. Would Byron go back to winning maybe two races a season — still not bad! — or is he going to be a factor every week and one of the drivers we should expect to see going for glory at Phoenix Raceway this fall?

After the performance he turned in at Circuit of the Americas, we’re convinced now. Byron’s victory in Austin was his eighth in the last 40 races, meaning he’s winning one out of every five times out. Moreover, except for short tracks, he’s found ways to win at a variety of different tracks: twice at legit superspeedways, several times at intermediates and, perhaps crucially, once at Phoenix as well.

It’s way, way too early to talk about favorites to make the Championship 4, but Byron absolutely will be in the conversation once that time arrives. He’s earned that right.

See also
The Big 6: Questions Answered After William Byron Dominates at COTA

2 … But Where Does That Leave Chase Elliott?

There was a time, not all that long ago, when Chase Elliott was the undisputed king of road courses. He famously got his first-ever Cup Series victory at Watkins Glen International in 2018, a fun day for the sport at a race yours truly was fortunate enough to attend in person.

Elliott really flexed his multi-turn muscles over the next few years, winning two road course races in 2019, three in 2020 (his championship campaign) and two more in 2021. Whatever else was going on with the No. 9 team, Elliott could always hang his hat on that.

That’s no longer the case. Elliott is still good on road courses, capable of racking up top 10s or top fives regardless of the venue, but he hasn’t won on any of them in more than two years. On top of that, he’s no longer even the top road course threat in his own organization.

In his last five road course races, Elliott has two top fives, three top 10s and an average finish of 12.8. But Byron has two wins, three top fives and an average finish of 6.4 over those same events, so there’s really no comparison.

There’s also something larger and more intriguing going on with the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series Most Popular Driver (you know he’s winning it): after last season’s injury and suspension-laced debacle, I assumed he’d either prove he wasn’t as driven or come out on demon time and stick it to everyone.

Instead, Elliott has looked as locked in as ever, even dismissing the idea of appearing on NASCAR: Full Speed because he wants to concentrate on winning races. But the results haven’t been there yet, and his biggest strength is no longer quite as formidable (perhaps affected by the switch to the Next Gen car as well).

3. It Might Be Time to Say Goodbye to Cup at COTA

It’s OK for NASCAR to try things, admit they turned into best-case scenarios and then try something else. The Busch Light Clash at the L.A. Coliseum is a prime example. It was really cool the first year because it was different. Now? The novelty has worn off, and the actual product is meh at best. It’s time to move on.

COTA now feels like that, too. Drivers, teams and NASCAR itself are mostly unanimous that the facility is top notch and the Austin market is important to the sport. But we’ve also now seen four Cup Series races at the track and none were particularly thrilling.

This year’s race certainly wasn’t an affront to stock car racing in any way, it was just dull. Things certainly happened, but mostly they occurred behind the leaders, and because the circuit is so damn big, sometimes they weren’t even captured live by the broadcast.

Put another way, when my colleagues have to convince people that race was good, that’s not ideal. Fantastic races need no explanation. We’re also probably past the point where we can count on a different rules package or tire compound will magically make the Cup product better, though sometimes that does turn out to be the case.

So what to do? Leaving COTA altogether seems off the table, and the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Craftsman Truck Series races were better than the ostensible main event. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., for one, told The Athletic NASCAR reporter Jeff Gluck he’d like to return if the choice is COTA or another road course, but would prefer another oval even more.

That feels like the best play. There are a number of ovals waiting to see if they can nab a Cup Series race, and there’s no reason not to explore one of them instead. Leave Xfinity and Trucks at COTA next March and head elsewhere with Cup. It’s just time.

4. Is Legacy Motor Club Actually Building a Legacy This Year?

In the “life comes at you fast” category, Legacy Motor Club was one of the feel-good stories of Daytona International Speedway, putting both cars in the top 10 and sparking plenty of “hey maybe they’re going to be better this season” bursts of optimism.

Those have mostly faded in the weeks since. Erik Jones hasn’t returned to the top 10 since the opener and had his worst finish of the year with a miserable 32nd at COTA. Through six races, he has one top 10, two other top-20 results and three finishes in the 20s or 30s … which is the same as he had at this time in 2023.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that John Hunter Nemechek has two top 10s, while his predecessor, Noah Gragson, had none in his 22 races last season. Nemechek’s average finish after six races is 17, while Gragson had a mark of more than 22 through the same point last spring.

All that is to say that Legacy is making progress, but so far it’s been baby steps instead of any leaps forward. One thing to keep an eye on is that Nemechek is well ahead of Gragson in the standings and would make the playoffs if the season ended today.

If he’s still in that spot come postseason time, 2024 will go down as a massive success for Legacy. Race wins would obviously put it in that same mindset too.

Anything else is probably going to be considered spinning its wheels, which is too bad considering how bright things looked leaving Daytona.

See also
The Underdog House: NASCAR Underdogs No Match for AJ Allmendinger at COTA

5. That Smell in The Air? It’s Ford

“What an incredible smell you’ve discovered!”

While that line was first uttered by the great philosopher (and captain of the Millennium Falcon) Han Solo, it applies just as easily to the Ford contingent in the Cup Series — because so far, its drivers stink.

Consider that of the 35 cars to make every 2024 start in Cup, 14 are Fords. Not only have they combined for zero wins, they have just three stage wins and only one of their drivers (Ryan Blaney) is in the top 11 in points.

Even sadder, of the bottom 10 in points out of the 35 Cup regulars, seven are Fords, including an astounding run of five straight in spots 30 through 34. Only the struggles of Zane Smith in a Chevrolet are keeping the Ford gang from wallowing in complete misery at the very bottom.

It’s one thing for one team, like Stewart-Haas Racing, to be off the pace. But the woes are definitely manufacturer-wide at this point. Ford teams just haven’t figured the Next Gen car out, especially where it performs the worst. Even Blaney wasn’t a real factor at Bristol Motor Speedway or COTA, and Joey Logano has reached the point where he was celebrating an 11th-place finish in Austin like it was a moral victory.

There are plenty of intermediates and drafting races still left on the schedule, and Blaney obviously proved last season that it’s not impossible for a Ford driver to race for wins and championships even in the current vehicle (though he’s starting to look more and more like Superman for pulling that off). It’d also be silly to think that everyone from Ford and its teams aren’t crunching as hard as possible to figure out a way to turn things around.

But it’s very clear now that they absolutely have to solve these issues because the current status quo is unacceptable. If it doesn’t change, it’s not hard to imagine the stars of tomorrow saying “thanks but no thanks” when Ford rides open up, because it smells that bad right now.

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Tom

Maybe the Dark Horse should be renamed the Shithorse because of how slow they are this year. I think Ford is in a lot of trouble because their design is flawed badly. I do see Logano and Blaney getting at least a win but it won’t come easy.

Daytona-520

Put another way, when my colleagues have to convince people that race was good, that’s not ideal. Fantastic races need no explanation.

Ummm, you guys had to do the same thing after Bristol, so I guess we shouldn’t be returning there either according to you? 

DoninAjax

FORD is right where NA$CAR wants them to be!

sdelfin

Things can change from one season to another, but I was quite convinced that Byron would remain a top contender as long as the cars were fast enough to support that. It’s worth noting that he has excelled with the current-gen car. Either it suits his style, or he adapted very well.

On that topic, some of Chase’s issues with road courses may be due to the switch to the new car. All his road course wins did come in the previous car.

As for Ford, I assume they’re off to a worse start collectively than last year, but they still struggled considerably a year ago. Logano won Atlanta which is now a restricted track which makes it more of a wild card. The next win didn’t come until the end of May for Blaney. Then Ford finally started running much better in the late summer. It took them a while to figure out their aero situation last year, but they finally did to the point where they had a lot of success including the championship. And with the new nose for the car, it’s like deja vu. It seems they’re starting over after all the progress they made. I guess what I’m saying is Ford stunk last year too, until they didn’t.

CHIEF

Poor Ford Falters (espn comment) – Ford drivers have yet to win this season and did not expect big results on the road course. They delivered on their low expectations. hendricks aero rules and horsepower packages decides who gets to win in his sandbox (Lexus or Cadillac) – chalk up another one for his “hard working – overachieving” golden boys. Ford should get out of nascar and stop being their “Whipping Boys”.

John

As long as NASCAR keeps kissing up to Rick Hendrick, well, you know . . . .

DoninAjax

Reverend Joe isn’t too far behind, if not even, with Mr. H.

kb

Paging Roger Penske….paging anybody! Speak up LOUDLY!

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