Race Weekend Central

Friday Faceoff: Who Has Been the Biggest Surprise in Cup?

Who has been the biggest surprise in the NASCAR Cup Series this season?

James Krause: Richard Childress Racing, and not in a good way. Kyle Busch sits 15th in points after Martinsville Speedway. Since his third-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Busch has one top 10. By comparison, Busch was locked into the playoffs with a win and had four top 10s at this point last season. While the No. 8 Chevrolet may not be meeting high expectations, Austin Dillon and the No. 3 team are failing to meet the standard of some lower-funded organizations. Dillon is 31st in the standings with one top-20 finish. Justin Alexander took over as crew chief for Dillon last weekend, and there are no immediate signs he’ll turn the team around as the team finished 34th.

Wyatt Watson: Daniel Suarez’s three-wide finish at Atlanta is easily the biggest surprise of the season so far. Essentially locked in (barring at least 12 different winners in the next 18 points-paying races) to the playoffs, Suarez punching his ticket to the postseason has pretty much eliminated any stress during the regular season. Without the win, Suarez would be sitting 10 points below 16th-place Chase Briscoe. Winning is all that matters in this format, and the way Suarez won will be on replay for generations as well.

Mike Neff: The pair at 14th and 15th in points. Multi-time champions Joey Logano and Busch are both floundering at the back of the playoff point positions. While they have both had some good runs, Logano has a second and Busch has a third and we are a third of the way through the season. Neither driver can be pleased with their position, and the dog days of summer may make it tougher for them to find the speed to threaten for wins.

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

The 189-lap green-flag run toward the end of the Cup race was the longest at Martinsville since 1996. Is that a problem?

Chase Folsom: Yes, but it stems from a bigger problem: that the cars are horrible. The fact that the race went green isn’t necessarily as big of a deal as the fact that the cars can’t get close enough to one another and are too stuck to the ground to allow the race to go green for that long. If NASCAR fixes the issues with the racecar, which will take more than just a few minor adjustments, the long green-flag runs will fix themselves.

Neff: If you like green-flag runs, then no. If you want to see beating, banging, rooting and gouging, it was horrible. The short track package is a little better this year, but it still feels neutered. These 900-horsepower monsters need to have the spacers removed and be allowed to eat. Open up the butterflies and let them breathe fire. That kind of power will change the short track races for the better.

Krause: Yes and no. Part of the reason the green-flag stint went as long as it did was due to how difficult it was to pass or race in traffic with the Next Gen car, even with a second lane starting to develop. That said, I enjoyed the race taking its natural course and not being broken up with questionable cautions like we may have seen in years before the introduction of stage racing. If the drivers are running clean and managing their equipment, I don’t want a pointless caution breaking things up.

Watson: The problem at Martinsville isn’t the green-flag runs, it’s the lack of passing, the shifting that allows for a more stable drive around the track, the lack of horsepower and the lack of tire falloff. It has been preached all week by many of the sport’s top podcasts (Actions Detrimental, Door Bumper Clear, The Teardown, etc.) how unacceptable that style of racing was, and I agree. That racing sucks, and it needs to be fixed. Short track racing is what has helped make the best moments for the sport, and NASCAR and Goodyear need to swing for the fences to make the necessary changes to fix racing at Martinsville. I don’t care if Martinsville goes without a caution for an incident. If the stronger cars can pass and comers and goers develop throughout the race, the racing product at Martinsville can thrive once again. For now, however, we’re stuck with the leaders being damn near unable to pass much slower lapped cars.

Chevrolet has won four of the last five Cup races at Texas Motor Speedway. Will that trend continue? And who is the strongest threat to dethrone Chevy?

Neff: Most likely the Chevy strength at mile-and-a-half tracks in 2024 — and at Texas — will continue. Chevy drivers have claimed both of the 1.5-mile racetracks checkered flags this year. The most likely driver to knock Chevy out of the top spot is Ryan Blaney. He was second at Atlanta and third at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this year. If anyone looks poised to wrest the trophy away from Chevy, it is Blaney.

Krause: The trend will continue. Hendrick Motorsports is going to carry a lot of momentum off Martinsville, plus it has four wins on true intermediate tracks since the start of the playoffs last season. William Byron won last season at Texas and Kyle Larson won at Vegas earlier this year. The second- and third-place cars at Vegas are the strongest challengers to Chevy. Tyler Reddick, who finished runner-up to Larson, has a win at Texas, and 23XI Racing combined to lead 147 laps of the series last trip to Texas. Blaney, who took third, won the 2022 All-Star Race At Texas and has 10 top-10 finishes over his last 10 Texas starts.

Watson: Chevrolet had many strong Camaros in last year’s hot fall race. Byron and Ross Chastain finished 1-2 for Chevy, and Larson led the second-most laps of the day at 99 circuits. However, Toyota will be the biggest challenger to Chevrolet’s dominance in the Lone Star State. Bubba Wallace led a race-high 111 laps, and Joe Gibbs Racing will undeniably have safe odds to have one of its entries look good. Ford unfortunately doesn’t seem to stand a chance without extraneous circumstances playing out. It’s too close to call at this stage right now, but it will no doubt be Chevrolet vs. Toyota.

Folsom: That trend continues, just because the Chevys — and more specifically the Hendrick cars — seem to have Texas on lock with the Next Gen as long as they can keep their cars pointed in the right direction. Should anyone dethrone its dominance, it will be Wallace. He’s had a ton of speed to start the year, he’s bound to find victory lane again soon, and he had the second-best car at Texas last fall.

See also
Truckin' Thursdays: A Swan Song Season for Johnny Sauter?

Is Christian Eckes ready for a promotion?

Watson: Once Christian Eckes gets some time in a Cup or NASCAR Xfinity Series ride, he’ll be ready to move up. And without a doubt, he deserves an opportunity. He was arguably one of the most consistent drivers in 2023, with four wins to his credit at a variety of tracks (Atlanta, Darlington Raceway, Kansas Speedway and the championship race at Phoenix Raceway) and already has two victories in six races (Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville). The 23-year-old is primed to get an opportunity somewhere just as Corey Heim has gotten ample experience with Sam Hunt Racing’s No. 26 in the Xfinity Series.

Folsom: Absolutely, Eckes is 100% ready and deserving of a promotion. He’s blossomed into a fantastic racecar driver in the No. 19 — and specifically a short track ace, which would continue into the Xfinity Series. The question is where does he go? If he stays in the Chevy camp, where does it make room for him in Xfinity? Does he go to Kaulig Racing if Shane van Gisbergen moves up or Josh Williams gets the boot? Does he replace Austin Hill in the No. 21 if Hill finally moves to Cup with RCR? Regardless of where he drives, Eckes is wheeling an Xfinity car in 2025.

Neff: He has two wins and five top 10s in six races so far this year. He certainly seems to have a thorough handle on a truck. That resume would justify a shot in an Xfinity car.

Krause: Eckes at least deserves consideration for some one-offs or a part-time ride in the NXS soon. Eckes has been consistent over his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series career and now looks like a bona fide title contender with McAnally-Hilgemann Racing emerging as a top team in the series in terms of performance. Even beyond his few seasons piling up top-10 finishes in a truck, Eckes’ resume over the ARCA Menards Series and late models should inspire some confidence in prospective teams looking to put him in their car.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

James Krause joined Frontstretch in March 2024 as a contributor. Krause was born and raised in Illinois and graduated from Northern Illinois University. He currently works in La Crosse, Wisconsin as a local sports reporter, including short track racing. Krause is a fan of football, auto racing, music, anime and video games.

Chase began working with Frontstretch in the spring of 2023 as a news writer, while also helping fill in for other columns as needed. Chase is now the main writer and reporter for Frontstretch.com's CARS Tour coverage, a role which began late in 2023.  Aside from racing, some of Chase's other hobbies include time in the outdoors hunting and fishing, and keeping up with all things Philadelphia sports related.

Wyatt Watson has been an avid fan of NASCAR since 2007 at the age of 8. He joined Frontstretch in February 2023 after serving in the United States Navy for five years as an Electronic Technician Navigation working on submarines. Wyatt writes breaking NASCAR news and contributes to columns such as Friday Faceoff and 2-Headed Monster. Wyatt also contributes to Frontstretch's social media and serves as an at-track reporter.

Wyatt Watson can be found on Twitter @WyattGametime

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

6 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mike

If i was you i wouldn’t worry about joey logano. If anyone watched the races at the beginning of the year he was running up front in all of them and had a fast car but got caught up in a wreck which is no indication of lack of speed. Just bad luck. I doubt joey is worried at all. He knows he has a great team and fast car, i will bet he will make the playoffs and be in the final 4. Remember 2022 he didnt start off very good but as usual when it comes time to perform, he does

Echo

I agree Joey will win a race.

Tom

Back to back top 5 finishes for Joey make me feel he’s finally gotten a hand on the new Mustang. He and Blaney will start winning races soon.

Echo

Has the 23 been taken back to Nascar and inspected this year after any race ! Anyone know ! Just wondering. Whiny Hamlin should run near the front at Texas if you think bubba will be a factor, no comparison which driver is best and the cars will be the same. It would be hard to bet against Larson and Byron.

Echo

Oh I forgot the biggest surprise driver this year. Definitely Austin Dillon. I’m shocked that he isn’t running dead last.

Bill B

Don’t worry, they’ve replaced the crew chief. Things are really going to happen to him now.

BTW, they’ve tried replacing everyone but the driver now to make that team better. Reminds me of another driver from a while back that ran a Ford.

Share via