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Did You Notice?: 2024 NASCAR Midseason Awards

As NASCAR Cup Series teams turn their focus to Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend, it’s hard to believe they’re preparing to kick off the second half of the regular season.

Indeed, it’s 13 races down, 13 races to go with the start of Sunday’s (May 26) longest race of the year, the Coca-Cola 600. That sparks a countdown including races at every type of track NASCAR has (short tracks, one-milers, superspeedways, intermediates, road courses, even the street race at Chicago) the sport hopes will jumpstart competition heading into summertime. The peak will come with a regular season finale at Darlington Raceway (not Daytona International Speedway this year) that sets the 16-driver playoff field.

So, where are we? 2024 has seen two organizations in particular rise above the fray. There’s Hendrick Motorsports, celebrating its 40th anniversary in style: three of four drivers have already won and all-but-clinched postseason bids. Their six-race haul includes February’s Daytona 500 (William Byron), a third straight win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Kyle Larson) and the end of Chase Elliott’s long losing streak (Texas Motor Speedway).

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But Joe Gibbs Racing has appeared to match HMS punch-for-punch, setting up a heavyweight fight for those all-important playoff points in a year we’re unlikely to see 16 winners. Denny Hamlin has three victories this early in the year for the first time since 2010; Christopher Bell laid down the gauntlet at Phoenix Raceway, vanquishing demons at the site of the championship finale and Martin Truex, Jr. sits second in points, one of the sport’s most consistent drivers who has seen a handful of “almosts” soured by bad luck.

Is there anyone else who could fight through the scraps and keep JGR and HMS from a clean sweep of the Bowlesys this year? Let’s find out as this NASCAR midseason awards column keeps on rolling through the 2020s. …

2024 NASCAR Midseason Awards

The David Pearson Award (Hardest Charger): Denny Hamlin

A month ago, I would have picked Larson or Byron for this award. But Hamlin has caught fire in recent weeks. He has scored three straight top-five finishes, leaving him second in laps led (607) to go along with those three victories at Bristol Motor Speedway, Richmond Raceway and Dover Motor Speedway.

What’s crazy about Hamlin’s season is, until this recent streak, the only top-five finishes he had during the first 11 races were wins. It’s a boom-or-bust mentality top-tier drivers seem to be leaning toward this season with their postseason bids a virtual guarantee; if you don’t get the five playoff points for winning, what does it matter if you come home ninth or 19th?

Hamlin’s embraced the philosophy, getting aggressive without angering half the field (Truex during a late restart at Richmond Raceway notwithstanding). The 43-year-old seems comfortable, confident and best positioned to win the championship that has long eluded him… can 2024 finally be the year he follows through?

2023 winner: Kyle Larson, 2022: Ross Chastain, 2021: Martin Truex Jr., 2020: Ryan Blaney

The Tim Richmond Award (Comeback Driver of the Year): Noah Gragson

Elliott makes a strong case; he’s sitting fourth in points, quietly racking up a win and six top 10s with a series-best average finish (9.8), also the best of his career.

But what Gragson is doing with a Stewart-Haas Racing team that, for all we know, may have already been sold, is extraordinary. After a rookie season cut short where he failed to crack the top 10, Gragson already has five such finishes with a new No. 10 ride that took the entire season to reach that total last year with Aric Almirola. 19th in points, a 35-point penalty assessed at Atlanta Motor Speedway for failing inspection may ultimately keep him from getting over the playoff hump without a win.

Gragson’s done it all with a smile and a positive attitude, keeping his edgy personality while clearly rehabilitated from an August 2023 suspension that threatened to derail his career a la Larson’s racial slur incident from 2020. In this case, the career path feels similar to an SHR alum, Kurt Busch, who stepped from one ride to the next after bottoming out until he got another top-tier opportunity to prove himself.

That feels like Gragson’s 2025, as long as he can keep this 2024 pace going. So far, so good. …

2023 winner: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., 2022: Chase Briscoe, 2021: Kyle Larson, 2020: Denny Hamlin

The Where Did He Come From Award (pleasant surprise): Ty Gibbs

There’s a reason the term “sophomore slump” came into fashion in NASCAR: plenty of rookies have regressed in their second seasons. Since Juan Pablo Montoya won Cup Rookie of the Year in 2007, only one driver has captured a victory as a Cup sophomore: Chase Briscoe in 2022. Keep in mind it’s a list that includes Joey Logano, Larson, Elliott and Byron.

Gibbs hasn’t found himself a way to victory lane … yet. What he has done is put together enough top-five finishes (four) to already match last year’s total, rising to as high as second in points while keeping himself out of trouble.

Only two drivers have completed more laps this year than Gibbs’ 3,851, putting him in position to break the curse and win as soon as this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 (Don’t count him out: Gibbs’ career average finish in the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Charlotte is an eye-popping 2.7).

2023 winner: Kyle Busch, 2022: Erik Jones, 2021: Daniel Suarez, 2020: Matt DiBenedetto

The Buckshot Jones Award (biggest disappointment): Zane Smith

The fact Smith earned the trophy shows how bad his rookie season has really been. Typically, freshman drivers are graded on a curve, but Smith races every week like he’s a fish out of water with the newly-expanded No. 71 Spire Racing Chevrolet.

Whether it’s a one-year stop for Smith to Trackhouse Racing remains to be seen. But it’s hard to see Trackhouse owner Justin Marks happy with a 29.0 average finish, only five lead-lap results and just three runs inside the top 25. One of them was a 13th at Daytona, meaning Smith hasn’t so much as sniffed the top 15 since the season opener.

It’s been so bad for Smith that a fellow rookie, Kaz Grala, is ahead of him in points despite missing two races for wildly underfunded Rick Ware Racing. The next guy below Smith in the standings? Part-timer Jimmie Johnson. But the most damning comparison may be with the other rookie at Spire, Carson Hocevar, whose 21.6 average finish has him running circles around someone who beat him for the Craftsman Truck Series championship just two years ago.

2023 winner: Noah Gragson, 2022: Brad Keselowski, 2021: Bubba Wallace, 2020: William Byron

The Richard Petty Award (best points racer): Alex Bowman

The much-maligned fourth member of Hendrick is quietly making sure a winless season doesn’t keep him out of the playoffs. Bowman has racked up eight top-10 finishes, tied for the series lead with teammate Byron, and only had one race (Texas) where he crashed and scored less than 10 points.

The focus, unfortunately for Bowman, by critics remains on the six laps led, a total his three teammates have ran circles around him on. But while people are growing impatient for Bowman to have his victory breakthrough, things are not all that bad over at the No. 48.

2023 winner: Kevin Harvick, 2022: Chase Elliott, 2021: Denny Hamlin, 2020: Kevin Harvick

The Jayski Award (best Silly Season move): Carson Hocevar to the No. 77

Speaking of Hocevar, the 21-year-old is a fast learner in his transition to Cup. Already, he’s posted a top-10 finish for Spire at Texas, its first at an intermediate track since first entering Cup competition prior to the 2019 season. Three top-15 finishes overall cap off a respectable start where Hocevar has made it to the finish of every race since the season-opening Daytona 500.

If Spire is serious about trying to step it up — and every indication is that they are — Hocevar is their its foundational building block for the future. It’s exposing Corey LaJoie and potentially making him vulnerable in the No. 7 Chevrolet, as Hocevar is in contention to challenge Josh Berry as a surprising Rookie of the Year award winner.

Considering the options that were available for Hocevar — look where Corey Heim is after staying in the Truck Series one more season — the ownership team at Spire has to be thrilled they were able to snag one of the sport’s hot young talents. Pairing him with Michael McDowell in 2025 could pay dividends.

2023 winner: Martin Truex, Jr. not retiring, 2022: Kurt Busch to No. 45 Toyota, 2021: Rudy Fugle to William Byron’s No. 24, 2020: Team Penske crew chief swap

The Breaking News Award (biggest story to watch): Stewart-Haas Racing

While the charter deal still takes center stage, many of the teams negotiating want to find themselves with more charters to put on the table. SHR is offering them that chance, reportedly in position to sell two if not all four it has once its contract with Ford expires at the end of the year.

After a sleepy Silly Season the last four years, that’s one heck of a domino on top of the tower. Gragson, Briscoe, Berry and Ryan Preece would be released into the wild with a whole lot of other teams looking to gobble up charters and guaranteed spots on the grid. Beyond the obvious needs of someone like Trackhouse, who has four drivers signed and only two spots to give, is a long list of maybes and wows that could shake up the pecking order.

Would 23XI Racing buy a third charter to expand their program with Corey Heim? Or is Heim headed to Legacy Motor Club because they have the inside track on a charter? We’ve already seen McDowell jump ship at Front Row Motorsports, moving to Spire for 2025; is that because someone like Briscoe or Gragson is about to replace him?

SHR’s alleged departure also comes at a time when the ownership within the sport is consolidating. What will the potential loss of a once-vocal advocate like Tony Stewart mean as both sides try and navigate through to a long-term compromise agreement? And will other teams beefing up their charter count make it difficult to impossible for new owners to jump on board? There’s a lot to unpack here.

2023 winner: NASCAR Cup Series ownership, 2022: Joe Gibbs Racing, 2021: Who replaces Keselowski at Penske?, 2020: The 2021 schedule

The Dale Earnhardt Sr. Award (best on-track altercation): Chris BuescherTyler Reddick at Darlington

This late-race battle for the lead gone sour at Darlington wins because it’s two young, talented drivers who will impact the sport for the next decade-plus. It wins because it’s the Lady In Black, the most treacherous track on the circuit who’s unforgiving if you lose focus for even half a second.

And it could be the moment, looking back, Buescher’s boss and owner Brad Keselowski punches a ticket to the playoffs while the No. 17 team gets left behind. And Reddick knows he made a mistake that changed all of it.

What a moment in a three-week dose of almost-turned-awful finishes Buescher’s had to suffer through.

2023 winner: Bubba Wallace-Ryan Blaney at Talladega, 2022: Bristol Dirt Race finish, 2021: Ty Gibbs vs. the field/Austin Cindric at Daytona road course, 2020: Chase Elliott vs. Joey Logano at Bristol

The Tony Stewart Award (best off-track altercation): Ricky Stenhouse Jr.-Kyle Busch

Yes, this one is recent, but it’s also hard to beat. The fracas knocked down Frontstretch alum (and current Happy Hour fill-in) Davey Segal, leaving him bloodied, along with several crew members who wound up in the way.

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Stenhouse, looked at as a mild-mannered guy in the garage, literally waited over two hours to go and punch the guy. And Busch? After a few years of “mellowing,” it was the Busch of old, giving it right back as a year’s worth of frustration over the struggles he’s had at Richard Childress Racing seeped out.

I don’t think we’re done with these two either. Stay tuned; poor runs during the summer are only going to make Busch madder and in a position to play around with the No. 47 team a little bit more.

If the YouTube link’s not showing up for you? Click here.

2023 winner: Noah Gragson-Ross Chastain, 2022: Ty Gibbs vs Sam Mayer at Martinsville, 2021: Noah Gragson vs Daniel Hemric at Atlanta, 2020: Kyle Busch vs. Alan Gustafson

The Darrell Waltrip Award (Tweet of the Year): Marcus Smith vs Denny Hamlin

Rarely do you see someone with the power Smith, the President of Speedway Motorsports, has in the sport clash with a driver/owner like Hamlin. But after Hamlin criticized the way Smith has been taking care of Speedway Motorsports tracks responsible for roughly a dozen Cup races over the course of the year, Smith fought back with a vengeance.

The full spat is posted here but blew up when Smith simply said, “Your negative comments would carry a lot more weight if you had a championship to back them up.”

Ouch. It was on from there, a public war of words that simply made Smith look bad before backtracking and apologizing.

2023 winner: Ross Chastain, 2022: Anything Denny Hamlin says, 2021: Anything Marcus Lemonis says, 2020: Bubba Wallace and the entire field in solidarity at Talladega Superspeedway

(Best Race): Advent Health 400

Look at Kansas, taking this award for the second year in a row. It’s hard to ignore as this event had all the elements of a perfect race: passing out front from the drop of the green, strategy, comers and goers plus an overtime that ended with the race being decided by (literally) inches.

It was so close between Buescher and Larson, Buescher’s team argued the way the track painted the start/finish line may have made the difference between winning and losing. When you race for 400+ miles and find yourself in a virtual tie? Yeah, I’d say that’s a race worth rewatching.

2023 winner: Advent Health 400 at Kansas Speedway; 2022: Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway, 2021 winner: GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, 2020 winner: GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway

(Biggest Upset): Daniel Suarez at Atlanta

We’ve had so many good finishes the last month it’s easy to forget the craziness of the second race of the year out at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Suarez earned a playoff bid and potentially saved his job in the process with a wild three-wide finish, coming out on top by just three-thousandths of a second.

“It was a very special moment,” Suarez said of an ending that needed to come under review before the driver of the No. 99 Chevrolet was ultimately declared the race winner.

Even crazier? The two drivers who just missed out, Busch and reigning champion Ryan Blaney, still have yet to win a race in 2024.

2023 winner: Kyle Busch at Talladega, 2022: Austin Cindric at the Daytona 500, 2021: Michael McDowell at the Daytona 500, 2020: Cole Custer at Kentucky Speedway

Driver on the Hot Seat: Austin Dillon

It would be easy to go with Harrison Burton again, as not much has changed over at the No. 21 Ford (Burton sits 33rd in points, devoid of confidence and top-five results).

However, Dillon’s future (and the future of RCR) is explicitly tied to how he does in the season’s second half. The team’s already made a crew chief change to Dillon’s best pairing through the years, Justin Alexander, and it hasn’t made much of a difference during a trying 2024 season. An eighth place at wreck-filled Texas is the only top 15 Dillon has to date, failing to lead a single lap and stumbling to 31st in the Cup standings.

If that holds, it would mean Dillon’s only playoff appearance of the past four years (and season with a win) was 2022, when he secured a desperation bid by emerging victorious in the Daytona season finale. For RCR to become title contenders once again, and with Austin Hill coming up the ranks next season, will this veteran put aside his pride and potentially step aside for the good of the company? Or will a sizzling summer suddenly reinvigorate a team that’s running nothing like the history of the No. 3 it’s supposed to represent?

2023 winner: Harrison Burton (kept ride), 2022: Harrison Burton (kept ride), 2021: Ryan Preece (wound up losing ride), 2020: Clint Bowyer (wound up retiring)

Follow Tom on X at @NASCARBowles

About the author

Tom Bowles
 | Website

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

Who would win the <insert driver here> Most Obnoxious Driver Award?

Kevin in SoCal

Darryl Waltrip (or Michael) would be the award named after, and Denny Hamlin would win it.

DoninAjax

Darrell already has an “award” named after him. So that leaves Mikey. Eventually it should be named after Denny.

Echo

Absolutely right, no question about it. I sure hope he chokes again long before the final at Phoenix because Toyota and especially his crew have Phoenix figured out this year. If he makes it there I’ll pray for a flat or better yet, a blown engine on lap 1

DoninAjax

The Tony Stewart Award should be Best Blocker Who Complains About Blocking.

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