Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Is 2024 the End of Next Gen Parity?

1. Is a Cup Series promotion imminent for Austin Hill?

On April 5, it was announced that Austin Hill will run four NASCAR Cup Series races with Richard Childress Racing this season, starting this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hill currently sits second in NASCAR Xfinity Series points and has won eight races in the series since joining RCR in 2022. While six of his eight wins have come on the drafting tracks of Atlanta Motor Speedway and Daytona International Speedway, Hill has transformed into a week-in, week-out contender, as he won the Xfinity regular season championship and recorded 16 top-five finishes last season.

He has put together an impressive resume while driving RCR’s No. 21, and what’s notable is that the upcoming race at Texas will mark his first start with RCR’s Cup team since his debut at Michigan International Speedway in 2022. Hill instead ran five Cup races in Beard Motorsports’ No. 62 last year, with a best finish of 14th at Daytona in August.

Could this partial schedule with RCR be a sign that Hill is getting ready for a Cup run in 2025? He certainly has the Xfinity results, and with his 30th birthday on April 21, there isn’t a lot of time to wait.

But if Hill is promoted to a full-time Cup ride at RCR, something has to give. Kyle Busch clearly isn’t going anywhere, and Austin Dillon seems to have his seat for as long as he wants it. To make room for him, the team would either have to purchase a third charter or have Dillon elect to retire.

Hill is a good enough prospect that RCR doesn’t want him to walk to another team. But with the news of Stewart-Haas Racing potentially selling charters and a logjam for RCR’s Cup lineup, it will be interesting to see how the situation plays out in the upcoming months.

2. With the Next Gen woes on short tracks, is NASCAR in need of another 1.5-mile track?

Let’s face it: The Next Gen car has been an absolute bust on the short tracks.

What was a problem that should’ve been rectified immediately after the first race at Martinsville Speedway in April 2022 has instead lingered on for over two years. It’s been bad enough that some people are glad that there won’t be another short track until June, which is a thought that seemed incomprehensible to someone in 2021.

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2-Headed Monster: Is NASCAR's Short Track Fix-It Plan to Simply Replace Them?

Does that mean NASCAR should throw in the towel on short tracks? Hell. Freakin’. No. The Xfinity cars and the first 73 years of Cup cars have shown that the tracks themselves are not the problem, and it would be a travesty if some of NASCAR’s most historic venues ever went to waste because they are unable to fix the car.

Some of the damage is already being done, as it’s rumored that Richmond Raceway will be down to just one date in 2025. But Richmond will still be on the schedule, and if it indeed loses its second date, NASCAR should explore giving the second date to an intermediate track until the racing has improved to where Richmond warrants two dates once again (but I’m not holding my breath for such a scenario).

It’s the 1.5-mile tracks like Kansas Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway that have exceled like never before via the Next Gen car, and in a cruel twist of fate, there are not enough intermediate races after the schedule was bombarded with them for decades.

For starters? Move Charlotte’s second date back to the oval. The Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL was only added because the oval was putting on subpar races back in 2017, and now the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that there’s no reason not to return.

There are also tracks that have been sitting around like Chicagoland Speedway and Kentucky Speedway, neither of which received a chance for action in the Next Gen car. The logistics may not support a return, but those tracks are still there. And if the street race currently in Chicago ever gets moved to a different location, it would be an opportune time to restart Chicagoland if the opportunity presents.

But there are only so many 1.5-milers in the country, and not every location has the bandwidth to support two dates per season. In that case, could NASCAR’s best option be building another?

Iowa Speedway is the newest track on the schedule, and it was built in 2006, back when NASCAR was still in its early-2000s boom era (Circuit of the Americas was built in 2012, but it was originally designed for Formula 1, not NASCAR).

It’s been almost two decades since a high-profile track was last built, and the money may not be present to build more. But it’s always fun to explore hypotheticals, right?

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And if a new 1.5-mile track was to be built, there are an abundance of regions in the country that are in need of racing, especially in the Pacific Northwest, the Mountain West and the Northeast Corridor.

If the money is there, go for it: Build another track and bring NASCAR to more people.

3. Will Jimmie Johnson finally shine in his part-time starts?

It’s been more than a year since Jimmie Johnson made his part-time return to the Cup Series in last year’s Daytona 500, and he’s amid an ugly stretch of races since with wreck after wreck, even if they weren’t of his own doing. Such as:

  • A 31st-place finish in the 2023 Daytona 500 after crashing out late; he had spent half the race in the top 15.
  • A 38th-place finish at Circuit of the Americas in 2023 after he was collected in a crash on lap 1.
  • A 37th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 after crashing out just past the quarter distance. He started last and made his way up to 23rd prior to it.
  • A 28th-place in the 2024 Daytona 500 with a crippled car after getting collected in a crash on lap 6.

That is a tough go for anyone in this industry, let alone a former seven-time series champion. It’s a triumphant return that, so far, has been a failure to launch.

But every race Johnson runs (he’s currently scheduled for nine this season) is a fresh slate, and that includes his upcoming start at Texas. He’s the all-time win leader at Texas with seven victories, and if he can avoid trouble, he’ll finally have a chance to turn his comeback around and show the NASCAR world what he can do in his return.

He may not have the speed or equipment to win, but if his performance in last year’s Coke 600 before crashing out is any indication, he absolutely has the ability drive his way up to the top 20. Now it’s just a matter of bringing the car home and seeing where the cards fall.

4. 2024: Hendrick & Joe Gibbs Racing vs. everyone else?

Even if short tracks, road courses and flat tracks have seen a decrease in the quality of racing with the Next Gen, it was a boon for NASCAR with the parity it created for Cup.

The 2022 season the all-time record with 19 unique winners, and not a single driver led 1,000 laps on the year — the first time that had ever happened in NASCAR’s modern era.

Even if 2023 featured some return to normalcy, last year still featured 15 winners from 10 different organizations.

This year, however? A much different story.

Outside of Daniel Suarez‘s victory for Trackhouse Racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway in February, Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports have combined to win seven of the eight Cup races this season: three for William Byron, two for Denny Hamlin and one each for Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell.

HMS and JGR have combined to lead more than 70% of the 2,429 laps run this season, and just under half of the 2,429 laps run this season have been led by three drivers: Larson (454), Hamlin (358) and Martin Truex Jr. (352).

It’s an even bigger story when excluding the first two races at Daytona and Atlanta. The last six races have been won by HMS or JGR, and the two teams have combined to lead 82.4% of the laps (1,623 of 1,969) while doing so.

The old saying is that the cream always rises to the top, and the cream is this case is the two winningest teams in the Cup Series today. They have dominated in just about every facet of the year, and six races is a large enough sample to say that the majority of this season will be written by the pair.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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4 Comments
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DoninAjax

Mr. H and Reverend Joe have a monopoly on Brian’s product. Penske might luck into a win but anyone else needs a disaster from the leading nine(?) cars.

Kevin in SoCal

Its been that way for a decade, or more.

Echo

Don’t ditch the dang car just yet, or the short tracks. Give the cars more horsepower like every driver and those smart enough to know are asking for. Sure be cheaper. I wonder why all you writers don’t get together and beat that question to death, saturate Nascar news about it every week until Nascar looks stupid for not at least trying it. We know they are boneheads but scream it to the world .

Shayne

Parity, like DEI, doesn’t work on the track. Parity is something for the front office to tout about.

Winning is about having the best possible people working together to achieve a goal. Does the NBA have parity on the basketball court? Of course not. Parity is only good when you’re willing to settle for second-best.

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