5 things to look at from Fontana and to look ahead for to Vegas

How Many Wins Will Kyle Busch Get?

I like the fact that Busch is hungry. However, even he was surprised to get to victory lane as soon as he did in Sunday’s Pala Casino 400 at the Auto Club Speedway.

“Truthfully, no,” he said if he thought he’d challenge for this so soon. “I felt like there was going to be a little bit of a learning experience, a little bit of a growth pattern.

“I never doubted myself, but sometimes you do. You kind of get down on it, you wonder what’s going on and what’s happening and you put yourself in a different situation and you’re able to come out here and reward your guys. It’s not about me always winning but it’s about the guys. I’ve been with a lot of great people that have given me a lot of great opportunities in my career, so it’s awesome to be able to reward them.

“I’m going to enjoy it for sure, and hopefully there’s many more left to go.”

How many more is on the table?

Sky could be the limit here.

2022 was the most wins (4) in a single season for RCR since Kevin Harvick won 4 times for them in 2013. It’s a long way from being winless in 2021 and having 1 win in 2020. In fact, from 2014 through 2021, they were winless in 6 of those 8 seasons. They had 1 win in the other 2 years each. This time, they had 4 trips to victory lane and 3 of the 4 were at iconic tracks in Indianapolis, Daytona and Talladega.

While all 4 wins were on “wild card” type tracks, with a pair of road course wins and two on superspeedways, it still is signaling that RCR is trending up.

Busch brought his dominance over and can take RCR to greener pastures away from the “wild card” type tracks and RCR can in turn bring Busch better success on those same “wild card’ type venues as well.

So how many wins can now be expected? I want to say at least 2-3 more, but trends could say otherwise too. RCR hasn’t won a championship since 1994 and Busch while at one point having scored five championship 4 appearances in a 6 year span, he’s had none in the last three. He was eliminated in the first round last year. Also, entering the season, Busch only had scored 5 wins in his last 130 starts. 

Can he win in bunches again?

It’s entirely possible. He finished second in the Clash. Was leading the Duel when he was spun by Daniel Suarez on the backstretch. He was leading the Daytona 500 on Lap 200 before getting collected in the overtime messes. The win on Sunday was actually a late arrival instead of an early one.

While his 2020 win came late in the season in Texas, his 2021 win coming in Pocono and the 2022 win on dirt, maybe this early 2023 win is a signal of what’s to come. He won eight races in 2018. He won five times in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

I get a sense that the Busch between 2015 and 2019 is coming back in 2023.

Trackhouse, RCR, RFK Racing Out Performing Bigger Teams

We’re two races into the 2023 season and the teams to reach victory lane thus far are JTG Daugherty Racing and Richard Childess Racing. Does this signify parity is still on the forefront?

Other than Martin Truex Jr’s title with Furniture Row Racing in 2017, you have to go all the way back to Kurt Busch’s championship with Roush Fenway Racing in 2004 as the last team not named Gibbs, Stewart-Haas, Penske, or Hendrick to win a Cup championship.

While the gap on their stranglehold on victory lane has lessened, their reign on the championship trophy hasn’t.

From 2020 and prior, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports won 34 of the 36 points paying races. They took all four of the Championship 4 spots too.

In 2019, the same four teams won 33 of the 36 races run. They also took all four Championship 4 spots again. In 2018, they won 31 of the 36 races. Furniture Row Racing with a JGR alliance won four times that year which if you count them in this mix, that’s 35 of 36 races.

The last couple of years, smaller teams are winning more frequently. Now, we’re 2-for-2. Does that go to 3-for-3 on Sunday in Vegas?

Las Vegas is your typical 1.5-mile track. So, why do only the best win here?

Over the last 14 Cup races in Vegas, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Kyle Larson have combined to win 12 of them.

Also, Penske, SHR, HMS, JGR/Furniture Row have won the 13 of the last 14 Vegas races. The last non team of them to win other than Kurt Busch’s triumph with Chip Ganassi Racing in the 2020 Fall race? Roush/Fenway Racing (Carl Edwards) in 2011.

However, maybe RCR, RFK Racing or Trackhouse wins outright this Sunday. These are arguably the top three teams in regards to performance right now and one could say that they upset the big teams this weekend.

Around this time last season, we wondered if Trackhouse Racing could sustain this early season success. Daniel Suarez finished fourth in this very race. A week later, Ross Chastain led 83 laps and finished third in Vegas. Were they going to be a legitimate threat?

They ended up being so. Chastain won twice and marched all the way to the final round of the playoffs which ended with a runner-up finish in the final standings. Suarez won in Sonoma and was 10th when it was all said and done.

The question for 2023 was, could they build even further off that 2022 success or was that a flash in the pan with this being a new car?

I’d say after the early start to this season, they may be the leaders in the clubhouse for a championship run.

Chastain has won 3 of the 4 stages this season including leading the most laps (91) on Sunday in Fontana. While he didn’t necessarily win the race outright, he did sweep both stages and finished third.

If you go back to the end of last season, Chastain has six top four finishes in the last eight races including 5 of which in the last 6 at that.

“To start off this year the way we have is a total 180 from last year when it was not like this, so as much as it stings, as much as it does hurt, hats off to Chevrolet for top four there, and pumped to be in this position with Trackhouse, and for our first crack at the big tracks here, it’s all we can ask for, and we will regroup and study and be back next week,” said Chastain.

Suarez was one spot behind Chastain on Sunday in fourth place.

Trackhouse had dual top 10’s in Daytona (Suarez 7th, Chastain 9th) and now dual top 5’s in Fontana (Chastain 3rd, Suarez 4th).

Watch out.

Once upon a time, Richard Childress Racing and Roush Racing were two of the premiere teams in NASCAR. Those old Dale Earnhardt vs. Mark Martin battles were a sight to behold. Now, history is seemingly repeating itself. Well, not quite yet, but it could soon be if the ascension of these two organizations continues through the 2023 season.

At the Busch Light Clash, RFK Racing (formerly Roush Racing) struggled. However, they vowed for it not to ruin their end of season momentum from 2022. They didn’t either.

With 5 laps remaining of the Daytona 500, Brad Keselowski was 1st. Chris Buescher was 2nd. While end of race carnage halted that momentum, it was still Buescher in fourth and Keselowski in 22nd. However, Keselowski led the most laps in that race (42) while Buescher led the second most (32).

Last Sunday in Fontana, they finished seventh (Keselowski) and 13th (Buescher). For Keselowski, it was a rebound for an early race spin. For the team, it was a massive improvement from a year ago to where Keselowski finished 27th and Buescher in 33rd.

The same sort of improvement is on the horizon for RCR. While they looked good here last year with Tyler Reddick sweeping both stages and leading 90 laps in the process and teammate Austin Dillon finishing runner-up, this season, Busch won this time around and Dillon in ninth for Dual Top 10’s.

However, look at how this season has gone for them overall. They finished 2-3 in the Clash, they were running 1-2 at Lap 200 of the Daytona 500 and now 1-9 in Fontana.

2022 was the most wins (4) in a single season for RCR since Kevin Harvick won 4 times for them in 2013. It’s a long way from being winless in 2021 and having 1 win in 2020. In fact, from 2014 through 2021, they were winless in 6 of those 8 seasons. They had 1 win in the other 2 years each. This time, they had 4 trips to victory lane and 3 of the 4 were at iconic tracks in Indianapolis, Daytona and Talladega.

While all 4 wins were also on “wild card” type tracks with a pair of road course wins and a two more on a superspeedway, it still was signaling that RCR is trending up.

Busch gave them a win on a 2-mile track on Sunday.

Busch should have a great chance of winning on Sunday. Tyler Reddick was strong in this car a year ago. Ross Chastain won an Xfinity race for Ganassi here and was 3rd last spring after leading 83 laps and runner-up last Fall after leading 68 more. On top of that, Chastain finished 7th in both Kansas races last season as well. One could say he should be the favorite on Sunday. Suarez actually finished each stage in the second race in third.

Keselowski has a Top-10 finish in all but three starts at Vegas since Penske went to Ford’s in 2013. He won the Fall race in 2018. He was second and third respectively in 2019 and seventh and 13th in 2020, with a runner-up and seventh in 2021. Now he’s with his own team at RFK Racing and picking up speed including a Top-10 result last weekend in Fontana.

SHR/23XI Racing Off To A Slow Start

Stewart-Haas Racing sits 4th (Kevin Harvick), 25th (Aric Almirola), 33rd (Chase Briscoe) and 34th (Ryan Preece) in points after the first two weeks.

23XI Racing is in a similar boat. They had high promise entering the season but both Tyler Reddick (38th in points) and Bubba Wallace (26th in points) are back with the SHR trio that sits way behind the pack right now.

Between three SHR drivers and the pair at 23XI Racing, they make up 5 of the bottom 14 spots in points. JJ Yeley, Jimmie Johnson and Travis Pastrana are three drivers in that mix and they have raced just once this year.

Wallace was 20th and 30th in the two races this season.

Reddick struggled in the Clash, was 39th in the Daytona 500 and 34th in Fontana. If you go back to the end of last season, he’s had four DNF’s in the last 5 races including being the second to worst finisher in Daytona and third to worst in Fontana.

Luckily for 23XI Racing, the Toyota camp was strong at both Vegas and Kansas last year. Both are like tracks. The 45 car swept the Kansas races and should look the part in Vegas on Sunday.

Reddick personally, has three consecutive Top-10 finishes here including 7th in last year’s spring race and sixth in the Fall. He led 32 laps in last October’s race. Reddick also had 2 finishes outside the top 30 last year at Kansas but both were due to crashes while leading when a tire went down too…This car, won both Kansas races however with Kurt Busch in the spring and Bubba Wallace in the Fall. On top of that, this car won the opening stage here last Fall as well.

Wallace has the capability to shine here as well.

For SHR, Briscoe was 4th the last time out here and 8th in Stage 1 of the spring race before a crash. Almirola (6th last spring) and Preece (4th in Truck race last year) can also show what they’ve got as well.

As teams in the NASCAR garage have gotten younger, SHR is in transition. Almirola almost retired at the end of last season. He’s back for another year in 2023. However, his days are numbered as this could be his final year too. If not 2023, I don’t see him going much past 2024.

Now that we for sure know that 2023 will be Harvick’s last, there’s a very real threat that none of the drivers that were with this organization as soon as 2019, will be racing for them in 2024.

However, as SHR has taken a step back in performance, who’s going to take the baton and carry SHR into the future?

“I know you don’t like to hear these things,” Tony Stewart said in a video tribute to Harvick back in January, “but you’re the flagship at SHR. Single-handedly, without a doubt, the greatest racer we ever had.”

When SHR was formed for their debut season in 2009, they immediately won. However, this was Tony Stewart’s team then despite them also having Ryan Newman as a part of it.

Stewart won 13 of the first 15 races for SHR. Newman had 3 total wins from 2009 through 2013.

2014 it transitioned really over to Kevin Harvick. SHR doubled their fleet that year going from a 2 car team to a 4 car operation as they added Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick while letting Newman go.

Harvick won the championship that year. He and Busch were the veteran presence that SHR needed as Stewart’s shelf life was waning.

Over their next 23 trips to victory lane, Busch and Harvick combined for 22 of them. Stewart had one.

Clint Bowyer won for them twice in 2018 but this was largely in the midst of Harvick’s reign.

SHR has won 69 total races entering the 2023 season, Harvick has won 37 of them. In fact, from 2019 on, Harvick has 16 of SHR’s 19 wins with only Cole Custer (once), Aric Almirola (once) and Chase Briscoe (once) having won in that span.

So when Harvick walks, out goes 37 wins and counting with him. Almirola has two trips to victory lane at SHR, Briscoe has one and Ryan Preece has never won a Cup race yet. I would sense that Custer would be the easiest replacement for Harvick to move him back up, but he has that lone win in 2020 too.

In theory, if Almirola returns in 2024, SHR would boast a lineup with 5 career wins (that’s if they don’t win at all in 2023). If Almirola walks too, out goes his 3 career wins.

Which is why the most intriguing aspect to Harvick announcing his retirement is where does SHR turn? Who’s going to be their new on track leader?

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 06: Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning 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)

Alex Bowman Time?

It’s been a quietly good start to the season for the Hendrick Motorsports driver. He won the Daytona 500 pole and turned that into a 5th placed performance. A week later, he was eighth in Fontana. Bowman enters Sunday’s race at Las Vegas sitting third in points. He could improve even further if things go to plan on Sunday.

Bowman is the defending Pennzoil 400 race winner. In fact, 3 of his last 5 Vegas starts he’s had a top six finish in. At Kansas last year, Bowman finished 9th in the spring and 4th last Fall including leading over 100 laps that day. 

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 06: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 DeWalt Toyota, leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 06, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Restart Zones

NASCAR expanded the restart zones this season in order to help the leader get an advantage back on the double file restarts. They did so by 50% at that. In turn, as Joey Logano said on Sunday in Fontana, it gives him more space to nail the throttle.

In the past, the restart zones were smaller and allowed teams to time jumping the starts. Now, they don’t have that luxury.

Logano was blamed for the Lap 86 pile up in this past Sunday’s Pala Casino 400. Aric Almirola said he thought Logano was playing games in trying to prevent the runs from coming from behind. He felt like Logano just stopped in the middle of the restart zone instead of accelerating.

He said it was a “Mickey Mouse restart.”

His teammate, Ryan Preece, agreed calling it “stupid.”

Christopher Bell said that it’s a byproduct of this new zone. He noted that all it took was guys laying back a bit and then all the sudden the further you get back, the bigger run you’ll get and if you don’t take off up front, you get what we saw on Sunday.

Logano admitted that it’s his choice on when he decides to go but he didn’t brake check anyone either. He said he went late in the zone because the car alongside was laying back to get a run. He noticed the games so decided to wait until the latest possible moment to take off.

That had an accordion effect behind. Do we see this happening again on Sunday in Las Vegas, especially a place that’s prone to some wild restarts?

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