Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: Austin Dillon’s Last Stand Among 7 Drivers to Watch 7 Races In

Did You Notice? … We’re seven races into the NASCAR Cup Series season already?

It is true what they say; time passes by faster the older you get. It seems like yesterday William Byron prevailed in a rain-delayed Daytona 500, and now, we’re already past Easter into April.

Seven races marks the one-quarter post of the regular season, and up top, not much has changed. Byron was the year’s first multi-race winner, and he’s joined Kyle Larson in victory lane for Hendrick Motorsports. Richmond Raceway drama aside, Martin Truex Jr. remains the point leader as a consolation prize and is one of four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers sitting inside the top six.

Like many times in recent history, those two appear ready to slug it out atop the standings while Ford works out the kinks in its new chassis. With that said, Ryan Blaney remains solidly in playoff position (fifth) and shows no signs of falling out before September.

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So with familiar faces (at least lately) up top, the drama appears to be developing further down the grid. Seven races in, here’s seven drivers and/or teams to watch whose difficult starts could lead to uncertain futures on the verge of NASCAR’s shift to a new TV contract (and, hopefully, charter deal) come 2025.

1. Richard Childress Racing (Austin Dillon, Kyle Busch)

Buried under the restart controversy this week was news RCR removed Keith Rodden as crew chief for the flailing Austin Dillon. That’s no surprise after one of the worst starts for any driver this season: No top-15 finishes, no laps led and frustration boiling over into these types of nasty radio transmissions former Frontstretch full-timer Davey Segal caught at Richmond.

The Rodden divorce (he remains in an internal role at RCR) leaves the talented engineer with a disappointing resume atop the pit box: just one win in over five seasons with Dillon and Kasey Kahne. That lone win was a big one — the 2017 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — but it came during a year in which both he and Kahne were removed from their roles at HMS (That also was his lone playoff appearance, a postseason that lasted all but one race).

In place of Rodden is Justin Alexander, Mr. Fix-It when it comes to Dillon’s Cup career. All four of Dillon’s wins have come with Alexander in charge. Three times together, they’ve finished 11th in the year-end standings.

With Dillon turning 34 years old this month and in year 11 of his full-time Cup career, Childress needed to pull out all the stops, especially with Austin Hill looming large down in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Even Dillon understands that, at some point, you have to produce in this industry, and a 53-race winless streak doesn’t fit the bill.

But there’s a bigger issue brewing amidst the changes, one Childress hopes Rodden can fix in his new role: an underperforming Kyle Busch. Busch has now had more races where he’s caused a caution for spinning/wrecking (four) than top-10 finishes (two), sitting a precarious 13th in points.

A matter of inches robbed Busch of an early win to make the postseason, coming up just short in that Atlanta Motor Speedway three-wide finish with Blaney and Daniel Suarez. Since then, the team’s gotten worse, not better, and it’s a discouraging sign Busch hasn’t qualified better than 14th since. RCR is losing the battle for track position, coming up short in these track position races, while Busch is struggling to figure out what makes him comfortable driving the Next Gen.

When you think about it, even though Busch won three times last year, the last of those was World Wide Technology Raceway back in June. Things haven’t been right here in almost a year, and you wonder if more changes are coming if RCR sees a potential double playoff miss. That’s an unsustainable scenario, especially when you have a two-time champion on the roster who still possesses plenty of championship talent.

2. Daniel Suarez

Speaking of Atlanta, it’s amazing how a matter of inches changed the course of Suarez’s career. Without it, he’d be 15th in points, owning just one top-five finish and we’d be talking about his vulnerability at Trackhouse Racing. Instead, that win virtually guarantees a postseason appearance and you could write off some recent struggles as Suarez and company being able to play around between now and September.

And yet. The difficulties of the No. 99 have been notable, leaving him the worst in the standings among this year’s winners by some 52 points. Ross Chastain has clearly established himself as top dawg in the food chain once again, posting four top-10 finishes and an average result of 10.7 compared to Suarez’s 18.6.

It’s not like rookie Zane Smith is pushing the envelope; his average finish is 29.0 and that includes a 13th in a wreck-filled Daytona 500. But how Trackhouse fixes the discrepancy in performance between their teams is worth watching, especially with expansion on the horizon and Shane van Gisbergen in the pipeline.

3. Shane van Gisbergen

Let’s talk SVG for a second. Driving in equipment a tick below Trackhouse levels, over at Kaulig Racing, he’s earned two top-10 finishes in six races, including on an oval with a normal setup (Phoenix Raceway). In an alternate universe, he would have won the race at Circuit of the Americas, handling the late contact that handed the win to Kyle Larson with class.

Thirteenth in the standings because of that, there’s still nothing to suggest SVG will miss the postseason running full time for that organization. Or that he won’t have a win, maybe two, in NXS before the end of the year. That could easily force Trackhouse’s hand when it comes to expansion for a championship driver who didn’t move halfway across the world to master the equivalent of AAA baseball.

At the same time, if SVG doesn’t quite make victory lane or has enough stumbles, it could be the breathing room Trackhouse needs to take an extra year to expand their team right. Remember, you’ve got Smith at Spire Motorsports, Suarez with a second team a level below the No. 1 and this prospect. Jumping from two to four cars just won’t happen, in my opinion, with the calculated way Justin Marks has built this operation.

The prioritization of who goes where may rely on SVG’s next couple of months.

4. Chandler Smith vs. Sheldon Creed

Chandler Smith has jumped out to a hot start in his new ride with JGR, posting two wins in the first six races to ascend into the NXS points lead by 10 points over Austin Hill. It’s perfect timing for Smith, who made this move from Kaulig in part because of the potential upward mobility Toyota could offer him in as little as 12 months.

The possibilities for Cup are endless: Taking over the No. 19 should Truex retire, a potential third team at 23XI Racing, even moving over to Legacy Motor Club if circumstances permit. Personally, it feels like JGR is the best fit, as the team commits to a similar evolution HMS went through in the mid-to-late 2010s.

To stay atop the list, Smith will need to contend with none other than his own teammate, who also moved into a new ride this year after a contentious end to his tenure at RCR. And while Sheldon Creed hasn’t won yet this year, he’s come close; a runner-up in the season-opening race at Daytona and three top-five finishes overall. Despite a disappointing tenure in NXS so far, top-tier equipment and his previous tenure as Truck Series champion (2020) means the talent is there; Creed has the potential to turn it on at any time.

Both drivers understand what’s at stake considering the age of Truex and even Denny Hamlin atop the Toyota depth chart. Seeing these two battle it out as we head into the summer will gain added importance as focus turns once again to Truex Retirement Watch.

5. Michael McDowell

McDowell was re-signed by Front Row Motorsports this year as they let their Truck Series champion, Smith, move over to Trackhouse. McDowell is now the longest-tenured and most successful driver in FRM history, responsible for their growth into a playoff-caliber organization.

Also true: McDowell turns 40 this year, has some sponsorship limitations and has seen two early potential wins (Daytona, Atlanta) slip through his fingers. Daytona was not of his making while Atlanta probably was; either way, the end result is no top-five finishes and 20th in the season standings.

That seems about right considering how Ford has struggled to start the year? At the same time, it always feels like McDowell is teetering on the edge when it comes to his NASCAR career. There will be some younger free agents available and an alliance with Team Penske could allow for additional opportunities to grab fresh talent.

It’s the cross McDowell seems to bear, a talented driver who peaked a little older and, as a result, has to prove himself every year. 2024 is no exception.

6. Ryan Preece

A story came out just Tuesday (April 2), renewing rumors that have circulated for months Stewart-Haas Racing is looking to downsize as soon as 2025. It’s the same song and dance that was circulated last summer and fall before the organization ultimately returned to the circuit with all four cars and charters intact.

Of course, they also lost tens of millions in sponsorship, from Anheuser-Busch to Hunt Brothers Pizza. Depending on whom you talk to, SHR’s return with four was more the result of not getting a good sale price than actively choosing to continue with the status quo. (It’s important to note any conversation with anyone on the team will give you the same answer: full speed ahead with what we have. It’s always OK with these things until it’s not).

It’s a weird time for this to pop up again considering the strong start SHR has had: Noah Gragson has been a quality pickup and would be in the thick of the playoff race without a 50-point post-race inspection penalty assessed at Atlanta.

The other SHR team that got hit with that penalty? Ryan Preece and the No. 41. Unfortunately, unlike Gragson, Preece has not impressed at the same level. The driver with the least amount of sponsorship joins Gragson some 79 points outside of playoff position.

It’s a harder hill to climb for a veteran who turns 34 this year and hasn’t produced in this ride despite more experience. Preece has already been downsized once in Cup, with JTG Daugherty Racing; would a continuing slump this spring put him in position to have it happen a second time?

7. Harrison Burton / Wood Brothers

Last but not least, there’s Harrison Burton, bringing up the rear like he has for most of the 2024 Cup Series season. It’s been a tough go for him in year three with the Wood Brothers, posting just one top-25 finish to date (11th at Atlanta) and an average result of 29.0, behind even the longtime backmarkers at Rick Ware Racing.

Is there anything left the Woods can do to jumpstart things here? Burton is not only the year’s most disappointing driver in Cup but feels like the equivalent of a lame duck.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…

  • Others have spoken out about the restart controversy but I’ll say this much: Elton Sawyer admitting NASCAR made a mistake opens up Pandora’s Box. Think about how many restarts we have each race and how arbitrary that restart line is. Not only did the sport lose some credibility in that moment, I wonder how many restarts will suddenly look “questionable” over the next month and put the sport under the same level of scrutiny they’ve had for years over throwing the caution flag.
  • If you haven’t seen it, check out the eerie similarity between the way Richmond ended Sunday and how this race played out in fall 2017. History does have a way of repeating itself…

Follow @NASCARBowles

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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DoninAjax

How many “last stand” does Dillon get?

Bill B

You mean, “how deep are his grandfather’s pockets”, don’t you?

DoninAjax

Of course! How about Bubba Pollard replacing him if there’s enough money??

Bill B

NASCAR’s restart inconsistency is consistent with NASCAR’s over all inconsistent calls.
So everything should be OK.

DoninAjax

Business as usual!

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