Race Weekend Central

Stairway to 7

With seven races in the books for the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season, we’re approaching a decent sample size of on-track action from which we can begin to make some big picture assumptions about the year so far and what’s to come. Track wise, we’ve seen some variety: two superspeedways, one 1.5-mile track, a road course, two short tracks and a trip to the venue that will crown the champion in November. Now there’s enough to make some initial reads:

Ty Gibbs Looks for Real

No question, Ty Gibbs has had a stellar start to the season. He is tied with four other drivers for the most top fives (three) and three other drivers for the most top-10s (five) and has a lowest finish of 17th (Daytona 500). He is fourth in points, has led 195 laps (fourth best), and holds the second-best average finish (9.0) — only Martin Truex Jr. is better (8.1).

At this point it seems not so much if but when he’ll finally get that elusive inaugural win. Still just 21 years of age, Gibbs looks primed for a breakout season, and if he gets that first win relatively soon, it wouldn’t surprise me if he ended the season with multiple victories.

Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway will be Gibbs’ 59th at the highest level and it’s worth remembering that it took Chase Elliott until his 99th try to win his first Cup race. Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron won his first at the 98th time of asking just for the record. Expect Gibbs to get it done faster, perhaps as early as this weekend.

See also
Only Yesterday: Martinsville Speedway & Ricky Craven's Other Cup Win

Short Track Woes

It’s an important race this weekend for NASCAR’s short track package. Bristol Motor Speedway was an anomaly of a race and Richmond, despite an excellent first 30 laps on a damp track and a compelling finish, was not the most exciting. And let’s not forget, the first Martinsville race of 2023 was the lowest rated on the Jeff Gluck Good Race Poll (just 37% thought it was good).

As we head to arguably the most historic of all NASCAR tracks this weekend, my wish, not my expectation sadly, is for a great race. For years, I’ve written there isn’t much that ails NASCAR that can’t be fixed with a trip to the little old paper clip. For the last few years with the Next Gen package, that has definitely not been the case. Here’s hoping Sunday’s (April 7) race bucks the trend.

Truex Tops the Standings

Despite Truex losing his ever-loving mind at Richmond during the final couple overtime laps and then again after the checkered flag flew, it’s worth noting that the Joe Gibbs Racing veteran leads the standings in points, average finish (8.1) and has led laps in six of the seven races – only the Daytona 500 eluded him. For all his frustration, as much as it may or may not have been merited at Richmond, he’s setting the standard at this early stage. You can’t help but feel a victory, which would be the 35th of his 664-race 21-year Cup career, is just around the corner.

Is This Willy B’s Year?

While it might not have worked out like he hoped in the final race of last season, Willy B is doing Willy B things and picking up right where he left off in 2023. He has two victories so far in 2024, with one in the Great American Race and a smooth as silk dominant victory at Circuit of the Americas. You wouldn’t bet against him setting marks in 2024 to match his six win, 15 top five, 21 top 10, 1016 laps led 2023 season.

Now in his seventh fulltime season (which seems sort of remarkable given he still looks so youthful), Byron has all the pieces he needs to join Hendrick teammates Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott as a Cup champion. If you’re the betting type I’d suggest you look no further.

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

Gragson Impresses

Outside of the points penalty, it’s been a solid start to the year for Noah Gragson after a 2023 he would likely wish he could erase from the memory bank. Yes, there is the small matter (or maybe not so small matter) of the 35-point deduction for the roof air deflector infractions at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which leaves him mired 30th in the standings, but strong runs at Richmond and Phoenix (both 12th) and a ninth-place effort in the Daytona 500 point to better things ahead for the SHR wheelman as he approaches 50 races at the Cup level.

The Full Speed Effect

A quick word on the excellent Netflix Full Speed documentary for which my only criticism is why wasn’t it more than five episodes. According to a Jeff Gluck article in the Athletic, some 88% of viewers did not watch the Championship finale in Phoenix, and if that doesn’t spell new fans, I’m not sure what does. The positive TV viewing numbers so far in 2024 suggest this too. So simply put, I fervently hope there’s a second series announced soon.

The Usual Suspects

And as much as everything changes, everything stays the same. Willy B has won twice, Denny Hamlin also has a pair of wins, Larson dominated Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the win (and could have had more), and Christopher Bell, making up for last year’s finale, scored a strong victory at Phoenix. Truex, as mentioned, tops the series standings with 2023 Cup champion Ryan Blaney in the top five overall. So yeah, while much is new, the usual suspects are, well, the usual suspects.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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