1. Kyle Larson as championship frontrunner is simply wild
One of the silliest parts of sports punditry is the “if the season ended today … ” syndrome, simply because the season does not, in fact, end until it ends. But the concept persists because it’s fascinating, and never more than right now in the NASCAR Cup Series, where if the powers that be declared the playoffs would be starting next week, Kyle Larson would be the favorite to win the title.
Think about how unlikely that statement would have been a few months ago. Set aside the (much deserved) suspension he received last year and the redemption narrative. Those have been written about quite a bit, and will again if this unfolding story continues on its current trajectory.
Instead, focus solely how when he performed at Chip Ganassi Racing. Larson was acknowledged as a prodigious talent who never quite seemed to have everything click. He won races, but never as many as one might expect. He showed lots of speed, but not on all types of tracks. Larson was the ultimate “he’s good, but maybe he’d be great if he was driving for a top organization” driver.
Larson’s arrival at Hendrick Motorsports just as the team was re-ascending to the top of the sport couldn’t have worked out more perfectly, though it didn’t look that way through the first 10 or 11 races. The No. 5 team looked a lot like the former No. 42 team, where lots of laps would be led but a mistake would doom them in the end. Sometimes it was the driver, other times the crew, and still others just bad luck.
Not any more. Larson is on a ridiculous run of three straight second-place results followed by two consecutive victories. A fairly comfortable victory at Sonoma (or as comfortable as possible with late-race cautions and overtime), where he had just one previous top-10 finish, is as big a serving notice victory as one could ask.
None of this means anything if the Cup Series landscape has changed, as it often does, by the fall. Yet even this moment, where Larson is on top of the stock car racing world, took so many pieces falling into place that it’s worth acknowledging how unlikely it really is.
2. Is Stewart-Haas Racing in need of a rebuilding phase?
Rebuilding as the stick and ball sports use the term isn’t really a thing in NASCAR, where you take your lumps for a bit in the hopes of being better a few seasons later. Not officially, of course, because tanking is a dirty word. But teams in other sports definitely do it, and Stewart-Haas Racing might want to consider it as well.
Or maybe the organization will be forced to do it. It feels like any week could be the one where Kevin Harvick returns to form, but despite a streak of four straight top 10s between Talladega and Dover, he isn’t running up front (just 39 laps led in 2021) and definitely isn’t challenging for wins. At 45 years old, how long will he want to keep grinding it out if he isn’t contending?
His teammates have been dismal. Aric Almirola would win the 2021 award for Most Snakebitten Driver if there was such a thing, and is currently in the midst of his worst stretch of results since he joined SHR. Cole Custer has taken a half-step back from his rookie season, which isn’t shocking, and Chase Briscoe has looked like a rookie, which he is.
So here’s an unorthodox-for-NASCAR suggestion: Maybe SHR should embrace the rebuild. Let Almirola check out other opportunities for 2022. Harvick is reportedly signed through 2023 and has earned the right to retire whenever the heck he wants, but if he wants to hang it up after this season or next, don’t fight it all that hard. Regroup around Custer and Briscoe and find a couple more young drivers to go with them.
It’s certainly not as practical in a sponsor-driven sport like NASCAR, and one can imagine conversations with potential partners are tricky when they include things like “well, you’re probably not going to be on a hood in victory lane this year.” If things get any dimmer, though, Stewart-Haas might not have much choice.
3. Kurt Busch as a veteran teammate for Bubba Wallace is intriguing
Perhaps because Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan are involved, it was fun to buy into the preseason hype that maybe Bubba Wallace could grab a win or two and 23XI Racing would get off to a flying start in its inaugural campaign. Reality has since set in, along with the cold truth that it doesn’t really work that way for new, one-car teams, no matter who the owners are.
One thing the team could do to change that is to not be a one-car team in 2022, which is why The Athletic‘s recent report that 23XI Racing could put Kurt Busch in a second car next season is the kind of rumor that makes too much sense. The elder Busch brother is at the stage of his career where he could serve as a mentor and see if Wallace is getting the most out of the cars or needs to step it up along with the engineering side.
The organization learns a lot, Wallace gets a veteran to bounce ideas off of — remember, he came from another one-car team, so he’s never had this at the Cup Series level — and Busch gets a chance to stay in the limelight for his final seasons. That sounds like a potential win-win-win from here.
4. Chris Buescher is going to make the playoffs
Since all of the fun 2021 playoff scenarios are being ruthlessly stomped on by Larson and Hendrick Motorsports and involved lots of different race winners, it’s easy to overlook who’s going to make it into the postseason on points. Barring a disastrous summer, Chris Buescher is going to be one of them.
He’s done it before, back in the Chase era driving for Front Row Motorsports. But that postseason berth came courtesy of his first, and to date only Cup Series victory. What Buescher is doing in 2021 is arguably more impressive, turning in consistent performances on a weekly basis driving Roush Fenway Racing cars that have proven themselves to not be top-notch over the last decade or so.
The next step is to find his way back to victory lane, but every accomplishment should be celebrated as it happens, and Buescher being one of the 16 drivers with a hypothetical chance to win the championship come Darlington would definitely count as one.
5. Would NASCAR ever do away with the All-Star Race?
Of all the many, many suggestions about what NASCAR could do with the All-Star Race to improve it, the one I find especially compelling is the suggestion put forward by my esteemed colleague Matt McLaughlin in his most recent column: Just don’t have one, and give the teams a rare midseason off-week instead.
But would NASCAR really ever put out a schedule without an All-Star Race? The guess here is probably not. For starters, if NASCAR has shown us anything in recent decades, it’s that it wants to prove its one of the biggest sports by assuming their trappings. Playoffs? Other major sports have them, so NASCAR does too. All-Star games? Yepper.
On top of that, pro sports tend to add much more often than they subtract. The NFL is never going back to 16 games a season once it starts playing 17 this fall. The NBA’s play-in tournament is likely here to stay, as bizarre as it is.
The All-Star Race is another chance for NASCAR to make money as long as people buy tickets to it and someone wants to broadcast it. Keep those ideas for how to spice it up coming, because the chances of it going away are virtually nil.