NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions as we head back east from west coast swing

Is Chase Briscoe The Next Best Indiana Driver?

Indiana has produced a lot of good stock car drivers. Jeff Gordon, not Indiana born but claimed as a Hoosier, won four championships including 93 trips to victory lane and 81 poles. Tony Stewart came behind him with three titles of his own as well as 49 wins and 15 poles.

You also had John Andretti (2 wins, 4 poles) and Ryan Newman (18 wins, 51 poles) join them from the Hoosier State. But, is Chase Briscoe the next great one up next?

He finally got over the hump in just his 40th career Cup start on Sunday in Phoenix. He won 11 times in 85 Xfinity Series races and twice in 28 Truck Series starts. The Mitchell, Indiana native has all the tools to be the next great one. He was also third in the season opening Daytona 500 too.

What about Justin Haley. He’s already won a Cup race in a wild fashion at Daytona in the July 2019 race as if the Winamic native can get a top ride soon, you can’t count him out either.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 13: Chase Briscoe, driver of the #14 Mahindra Tractors Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the the Ruoff Mortgage 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 13, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Are Briscoe, Chastain, Reddick Legit? What About 23XI Racing, Trackhouse and RCR?

Most said that the parity with this new car would stick around for a while. Since most of the west coast cars were already planned for, there wasn’t much you could do to learn, adapt and put that into your equipment.

Well, after four races though, one has to wonder if Chase Briscoe, Tyler Reddick and Ross Chastain are in fact for real. Are they legitimate championship contenders already?

Briscoe finished third in the Daytona 500, led 20 laps in the second race at Fontana and now led 101 in his Phoenix victory. That’s a hell of a start for him.

What about Reddick? He was 24th in Fontana but that’s only due to a late race cut tire. He swept both stages and led a race-high 90 of 200 laps. In Vegas, he spun early but rebounded to finish 7th. On Sunday, he was there again with a third place run in his No. 8 Chevrolet.

Then you have Chastain. He was third last week and second this one.

As we head back east, these three have to be among the top ones to beat right now. Plus, last year’s spring race was a very big indicator for the Fall race. 8 of the 10 cars in the top 10 last March was there again at the checkered flag last November.

That’s great odds that at least 1 or 2 of these three will do so again this November. The thing is, will any be competing for a title in the process?

Part of this is that all their teams are legit now.

Trackhouse and RCR are for real. For the third straight week, Trackhouse nabbed a top five. Daniel Suarez was fourth in Fontana while Ross Chastain was third in Vegas and runner-up at Phoenix. Also, Suarez was back in the top 10 again in ninth for his 2nd in three weeks.

This team is legit.

So is RCR. Austin Dillon had late race contact with Suarez or he was heading towards his third straight top 11. For Tyler Reddick, he swept the two stages in Fontana, was seventh in Vegas and now third.

23XI Racing has something to say for it too. They’ve had a top 10 in 3 of the 4 races themselves. Parity is high but these teams are standing out too.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 06: Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, and Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 06, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Who Are The Main Contenders Right now?

Hendrick Motorsports won the final 5 races of 2021. They won 2 of the first 4 of 2022. That’s 9 wins in the last 11 races. They look like the real deals so far. So does Briscoe, Reddick and Chastain.

One reason as to why?

Well all of them are under the age of 30. We’ve seen 10 straight races a driver under the age of 30 has won. Also, most came from a dirt racing background.

Briscoe says their dirt background is to why these three are starting off so strong.

“I mean, I think you see the dirt guys, I mean, Ross isn’t a dirt guy, but a lot of the dirt guys, when we go to a racetrack, you get three laps, three hot laps and you better figure it out quickly.

“I think this car, being new, not a lot of practice, the dirt guys have always had to figure that out quickly. The guys that grew up late model or pavement racing, they don’t necessarily have that. They go and test and run hours of practice. The dirt guys, you got to figure it out quickly, adapt.

“I think that’s why you’ve seen dirt guys run earlier in this Next Gen car. It’s an equalizer to a certain extent. More comers and goers throughout the race. The old car, you saw one guy be fast. He was just fast the whole time. Couldn’t really catch him.

“This car you have really fast short-run guys, really good long-run guys. It’s interesting to see how that plays out throughout the race. I can’t speak to the setup side of it, but from a driver standpoint, I feel like we’ve done a lot better finding that limit and being able to ride on that limit. At first, you couldn’t find the limit, and then it was gone.

“I don’t think we’re better race car drivers or better teams, but I do think it’s an equalizer to a certain extent because it’s a new opportunity and guys to have figure out and adapt.”

He’s not wrong. Kyle Larson is a dirt guy and won Fontana and runner-up last week. Christopher Bell is another and he won the pole in Vegas. Alex Bowman is also a dirt guy and he won that same Vegas race over Larson.

Fontana, Vegas and Phoenix were all won by dirt guys. Larson and Bell won 2 of the 3 poles too.

Kyle Busch has been racing more and more on dirt and he’s off to 3 top 7’s in 4 races. The finishing order up front has been Larson, Bowman, Elliott, Byron, KyBusch, KuBusch, Chastain, Reddick and Briscoe. Maybe this is starting to show the contenders from pretenders.

The thing is, among them, Elliott hasn’t won on an oval since Nov. 2020. He’s finished 10th, 26th, 9th and 11th this year. Byron, has been 38th, 34th, 5th and 18th. Neither have extensive dirt backgrounds, which could be why they’ve not been as good as their teammates Larson and Bowman. In fact, since the start of the 2021 season, no one has won more races than Larson (11) and Bowman (5).

Kurt Busch has 2 top 8’s in his last 3 starts and exceling with cars not quite to his liking yet. Chastain and Reddick are on the verge of a breakout.

A team missing is Team Penske. They won Daytona with Austin Cindric but despite some breakout moments, they’ve not finished where they should have.

Cindric won the pole in Fontana but only finished 12th. He was 19th in Vegas and while he was quickest in practice at Phoenix and qualified eighth, he only finished 24th.

Ryan Blaney was fourth in the Daytona 500, struggled in Fontana in being 18th, crashed and finished 36th in Vegas, was second in practice and qualified on the pole in Phoenix but pit road kept him from a win despite leading 143 laps.

Joey Logano has just been ho-hum. He was 21st in Daytona, 5th in Fontana, 14th in Vegas and 8th in Phoenix. He’s only led 19 total laps on the year.

So, while they’ve showed flashes of speed, they just can’t put the overall package together yet.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 13: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Rheem – Capitol Container Toyota, stands on the grid during the Ruoff Mortgage 500 during at Phoenix Raceway on March 13, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Is JGR/RFK Racing Worried Moving Back East?

As we head back east, Joe Gibbs Racing is honestly reeling. Martin Truex Jr. has only led 12 total laps and while he swept the two stages in Daytona, was 13th, 13th, 8th and 35th on the season in finishes. Denny Hamlin had issues in the Clash, wrecked in the Daytona 500, had overheating issues in Fontana, made a costly mistake shifting after his final stop in Vegas and was plagued by pit road problems in Phoenix. He has no top 10’s all season (37th, 15th, 32nd and 13th) with 31 laps led.

Christopher Bell was 34th in Daytona, 36th in Fontana, qualified on the pole in Vegas but spun while running third and finished 10th. He qualified fourth in Phoenix but spun again and came home 26th. 3 of his 4 races being 26th or worse with 32 laps led himself.

The best has been Kyle Busch and he should have won if not for that late caution in Vegas and while he’s led 77 laps, he’s not had a smooth season thus far. Still, he has 3 top 7’s in four races so when he does heat up, watch out.

They sit 2nd (Busch), 13th (Truex Jr.), 27th (Hamlin) and 30th (Bell) heading to Atlanta.

RFK Racing Struggling Too

Brad Keselowski is seeing first hand just how hard it is for other teams outside of the big ones to compete for top fives or hell, even top 10’s, in NASCAR’s premiere series. RFK Racing struggled in the Busch Light Clash. They’d rebound in Daytona and even swept the two Duels with Keselowski winning the first one and Chris Buescher the second. But, once we left the beach, it’s been all downhill for the organization.

Keselowski has finished 27th, 24th and 23rd on the west coast swing. He finished outside the top 20 just once in 22 previous Phoenix starts but wasn’t anywhere close to the top 20 on Sunday.

Buescher, was 35th, 18th and did get to 10th on Sunday but still seeing something off.

They have a lot of work to do to close that gap.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 13: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Rheem – Capitol Container Toyota, races during the the Ruoff Mortgage 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 13, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Is Kurt Busch Putting Pressure On Bubba Wallace?

Kurt Busch didn’t expect this. The Toyota camp seemed down last weekend again as he qualified his No. 45 Toyota Camry in 15th on Saturday. But, as the checkered flag flew in Sunday’s Ruoff Mortgage 500, there he was in the top five. He crossed the finish line fifth in his 23XI Racing entry.

 “It was surprising, and it was fun,” Busch said. “We were the top Toyota today, which is somewhat of a surprise. We were just trying to get to 10th, but we will take a top five. It’s really cool for our program, this car number, No. 45. To get a top five, check mark done. This was a good West Coast Swing. Not so much on points with stage one and stage two, but our finishes were there, and we will keep chiseling away.”

He was only 12th in the first stage and 19th in the second one. Busch, hadn’t had a top five in each of his last 10 Phoenix starts either. But, he kept chipping away at it and there he was inside the top 10 coming to the final two restarts.

Busch, said a change in driving style in terms of tire preference helped get him there.

“I’m normally a sticker guy,” he continued. “I need sticker tires and this car reacted really well to scuffs today, so that’s good for our notebook at 23XI (Racing). The restarts – I was able to find the right spots to be. Thanks to MoneyLion, Toyota.”

Busch sits 12th in points heading to the place he won the last time out at in Atlanta last July. This was his second top eight finish in the last three races. He’s doing exactly what he was brought in to do.

Bubba Wallace was runner-up in the season opening Daytona 500 to give 23XI Racing a top 10 in 3 of the 4 races thus far. Busch, has out paced Wallace in each of the three west coast races too. Is this going to help or bring down Wallace?

See, the team didn’t know exactly what they had last year. They were a single car team and Wallace struggled at times. He did win at Talladega, but he only had three top 10’s, all being in the top five, in 36 races.

So, they sought a veteran to see if it was car or the driver or a combo of both. While there’s a new car out this year, Busch already has 2 top 10’s in 4 races. Wallace has had three in 40 with the same team.

Does Busch’s presence and getting the most out of the car help teach Wallace or put pressure on him by exposing him? That’s why this situation is going to be one to watch as the season develops.

Busch didn’t have a good car either at Phoenix but he got a top five out of it. Wallace, had a similar taste but was 22nd.

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