Race Weekend Central

Five Points To Ponder: Do Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott Need a Cookie, Can 23XI Racing Deliver in Playoffs?

1. Could we see a Larson vs. Elliott championship fight?

If there is one thing that the postseason format has brought into NASCAR, it’s that the first 10 to 15 races do not matter as much as those just before the postseason. Like any other sport, it’s key to be at your best going into the postseason. Take baseball’s Atlanta Braves last year. As this Braves fans will admit, Atlanta was not baseball’s best team during the year, but it played its best when it counted the most.

It’s why Chase Elliott fans should not be celebrating right now. Other than the 15 bonus points it brings, a regular-season title has about as much use as a roll of toilet paper. Sure, it’s a nice feather in the cap, and diehard fans of the No. 9 driver will buy postseason merch that Chase’s digital team wisely put on sale within 24 hours after Elliott clinched the regular-season title, but it matters little if 2022 does not end with Elliott winning the championship.

Elliott has proven that he can run well at most any track, and despite Sunday’s near-miss, he’ll be a formidable driver to deal with in the postseason. That’s where Sunday’s winner, Kyle Larson, comes in. Nothing quite uplifts a team that can win like doing so going into a key stretch of the season. Getting back to victory lane, as we saw with Kevin Harvick, does a lot to give a team an extra jolt. And for a team that covered the field for a good part of last year, Sunday’s Watkins Glen win may very well make them a larger contender to win a second title in a row.

2. Is it time for Larson and Elliott to share milk and cookies with Mr. H?

Speaking of Larson and Elliott, is it time for one of Rick Hendrick’s kumbaya sessions made famous by the Chad Knaus/Jimmie Johnson “milk and cookies” story?

Hendrick Motorsports is hardly the first team to have two drivers that want to be the “alpha dogs” of the pack. Both are winners of one of the last two championships, and you would not expect either to willingly play second fiddle to anyone.

Twice this year, Larson has gone door-to-door with Elliott late en route to a win. Sure, it’s hard racing and going for the win as opposed to just filing in single-file and being content to finish second. That’s what everyone wants … well, except the driver in second.

If there is any ill will between the two, it probably needs to be mended soon, either by this week at Daytona International Speedway or by Bristol Motor Speedway, which hopefully someone has informed the driver of the No. 9 car is actually in September … not that we can blame him for being a creature of habit since Bristol’s night race for so long was in late August.

3. The most anticipated summer Daytona race ever?

Every racetrack has a challenge when it comes to making its second race in a season seem as prestigious as its marquee event.

For years, Charlotte Motor Speedway had the Coca-Cola 600 … and the 500-mile race in the fall that was a 500-mile race at Charlotte. Bristol, as exciting as the March race was through the years, always dealt with that event playing second fiddle to the night race. For a spell, you had to buy tickets to both races to get night race tickets, but that’s a nostalgic look for another time.

So here’s Daytona. I get the tradition thing of it running around July 4. As a race fan growing up in South Georgia, I knew many who’d go to that race instead of Atlanta Motor Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway thanks in large part to  the fact that until the late 1990s that it was run in late morning hours.

(Running a race to avoid late-afternoon showers in Florida: There’s an idea!)

You could get up early, make it to the race and be home just past dinner. My first race, in fact, was the 1996 Pepsi 400, so I have fond memories of those times.

But over time, as much as Daytona tried to make it a big event by running the midsummer classic at night, it didn’t stand out. Did it being one of the multiple night races on the circuit dilute things? Probably.

That’s why moving to late summer may be the best thing for this event. Minus the lead-up to the 2001 Pepsi 400 or maybe the 1984 Firecracker 400, I can’t remember this much anticipation for the 400-miler on Daytona’s high banks, and it comes as a result of its schedule placement and a possible 400-mile last chance qualifier for a playoff spot.

4. Should teams put all their eggs in the road-course basket, instead?

With a win likely locking up a playoff spot, the school of thought for a time was to put focus onsuperspeedways due to the crapshoot that comes with it. Sure, a wrong push in the draft could turn a race winner into a 17th-place result. The other aspect? Play the odds right and have a little luck, and you are in the postseason — like Austin Cindric this year and Michael McDowell last year.

The other edge of that sword, however, is that you can have a great car capable of winning but end up being shuffled back or worse, being wadded up and your sheet metal being part of a charity auction.

The fact is this: If you include Atlanta, there are six superspeedway races on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule while there are also six road courses. Why pour money and effort into a speedway car that may not win even if its one of the best cars out there and stands a good chance of being mangled when you can more easily run at the front with a good car and in theory, avoid being hung up in a wreck on the road course?

Daytona, Talladega, and Atlanta may be highly entertaining, but the best car winning is hardly a given, and the fates are in the hands of luck and not drivers. On the road course? It’s more in the hands of drivers and teams.

5. Is this the ceiling for 23X1 Racing?

Let’s get this out of the way first: Bubba Wallace has signed a contract extension with 23X1 Racing, so he’ll be racing the No. 23 car for the foreseeable future, no matter how much some keyboard warriors may dislike that fact.

The future of the No. 45 car? Who knows who’ll be in it next year? But we do know that Kurt Busch hopes to be back for the postseason after missing several races due to a concussion suffered at Pocono Raceway last month, so for the first time, 23X1 will be in the playoffs, a huge step for any organization.

But has this season been a success regardless of whether or not a Daytona win on Saturday gets the No. 23 into the postseason? With Kurt Busch’s Kansas win, it showed that the team has people and racecars capable of winning, and Wallace’s recent streak of top-10 runs is a good step forward.

But is it enough to show this season as a success?

Wallace was done zero favors with last year’s Michael Jordan interview that set the level of expectation last year to win multiple races. It honestly was the worst thing for Wallace going into 23X1 Racing to be putting expectations in place that any logical follower of racing knows would not be met.

This year? The goal of being in the postseason was a considerable task, and had the No. 23 run the whole year like it was since July 1, Wallace would be in decent shape to get into the postseason on points. Thanks to Busch’s win, he will be in the postseason if he is able to race.

Right now, 23X1 Racing is on the level of Richard Childress Racing or RFK Racing: good enough to have a driver maybe or maybe not get into the postseason, but not much else come playoff time.

That’s a good step ahead as Kurt Busch is likely in the postseason. But Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan partnered for this venture to do more than be fringe postseason participants, and at some point, the expectations will be raised. It’s up to the drivers to do that.

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jdquick

Wow, just wow. Bubba is a 20th place (give or take a place or two) racer and now that he has a pole and a couple of top 5’s he is an all star, right? Wow, just wow…..

Dale EarnHog

he has more top 10’s than a couple of Playoff drivers and fringe contenders this year.

DoninAjax

He’d have more if 10 more drivers had dropped out some events.

Dale EarnHog

Or if he hadn’t had a loose wheel at Nashville while running 6th. Or been wrecked coming to the line while in the top 10 at Atlanta and Talladega. Or if he hadn’t been caught up in the big one at Charlotte and Darlington while running 12th. Or if Brad hadn’t come down on him at Auto Club while in the top 10. He’s had far and away the worst luck in Cup this year, and there’s been plenty more incidents out of his control.

Jerry

no Chase was telling kyle that he helped him win bristol and he shood have returned the favor

DoninAjax

That was “teammate” help. Larson was going for the win and the other drivers didn’t matter. Imagine if it was Bubba although I can’t see Bubba in the lead for the restart but I can see him picking 7 or 8 places because of a big wreck.

Jill P

As usual, NASCAR will help out Chase if he needs it during the playoffs with timely cautions, rescinded penalties, etc. to make sure he gets into the final round. The rest of them will have to earn it.

DoninAjax

“Right now, 23X1 Racing is on the level of Richard Childress Racing or RFK Racing”

23XI is on a par with Reverend Joe’s teams. The problem is the driver of the 23 is not on a par with the others but still gets more hype than he deserves. Memories of Danica come to mind.

Charlie

First, Larson and Elliott: Clear an area in the garage, mark a boxing ring on the floor, make them fight for five minutes, non stop (neither will make it) and then whoever is running the show explains to them it is over THEN the crew chiefs have to do the same thing and Chad Knaus explains to them it’s over. Then you will see them work together.

Now, for 23-11. I have no problem with the contract extension as it is an excellent marketing opportunity for the team and NASCAR.

My main concern is Kurt Bush. We don’t know how many concussions he has suffered in his career. I am a football official and we are learning more about the brain and injury. An old friend who was a retired neuro surgeon said we have learned more about concussions in the past five or six years than over his 40-plus year career. So it is complicated. We all should be concerned, like or dislike, about his well being in the future. I will be surprised if he races again.

And this will happen with more drivers in the future. In football, they are establishing baselines for brain function with younger and younger players. Concussions are serious. Let’s hope he makes the best decision for himself and his future.

Jeremy

I read Dale Jr’s second book a while back (post retirement, I believe), and there is a section in there where he details a couple of the concussions he had, what it was like, and how he dealt with it (alone). At that time, even the son of The Intimidator didn’t dare tell anyone for fear of his own team looking at him as “damaged goods”. It was interesting and sad at the same time. Odds are high Kurt has had other concussions before this one.

Kevin in SoCal

In baseball and football, if you have the best record you get home-field advantage in the playoffs.
In NASCAR, you get 15 bonus points.
Neither one carries a lot of weight.

Ted

That bottom of the 9th inning and extra innings, can make or break teams.

M.Neil Stevens

B.Wallace is like the #3 car driver, a capable car with a incapable driver. Media kept popular, because of ownership of cars. Put Gibbs in #23 or Reddic in #3 and see what happens. Just saying.

johndawgchapman

According to Dylan the times they are a-changing.
Back in the day, most drivers hated the road courses, so they just basically blew them off. The cars weren’t suited for them either setup, or braking wise & most handled like hogs on ice. Kenny Schrader said he just tried to keep it on the pavement.

Now, even before the number was increased, teams & drivers recognized that they had to get better. Reddick is a prime example. Elliott is credited with being the best, but he hasn’t won one yet, in ’22. That tells us all we need to know about the state of road course racing now.

We don’t need any more, but I’m satisfied with what we have. I’d just like to see the locations passed around a bit more. Canada, & maybe Mexico come to mind.

Bill B

At the risk of sounding like an Elliott fanboy (which I am not), he would have won easily without those last two cautions. He even managed to hold the lead after the first crapshoot restart with 5 to go. I’m not saying he’s the best anything, I am just saying you can’t say he isn’t the best just because of what happened on that last restart.

Jeremy

He should have seen that coming. Maybe he thought he’d be safe from that move with a team mate on the inside? Guess he knows better now. Next time, take the inside lane, overdrive turn 1 and use up the #2 guy on the outside to keep the lead – everyone knows 8 wheels corner better than 4 when you’re on the inside. Lesson learned?

Bill B

Exactly the same thing with Hamlin on the inside of Chastain on that final restart at Atlanta (I think) a few weeks ago.

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