Friday 5: Five things to watch in 2024 in NASCAR

Much will be made about when Chase Elliott wins, if Ryan Blaney can claim another title and will this be Denny Hamlin’s year, but there are more things to watch this Cup season.

Here are five such things:

1. Decisions and desperation

NASCAR’s change to the playoffs could make quite an impact on the regular season.

For the first time, the Cup playoffs will feature two superspeedway races (Atlanta and Talladega) and two road course events (Watkins Glen and Charlotte Roval).

They represent four of the first six playoff races. That could alter who advances in the first two rounds.

How does that affect the regular season?

With the unpredictability of superspeedways and road courses, points will be critical. Mistakes in the regular season that cost teams points could be further magnified in the playoffs.

Without the 21 playoff points earned during the regular season and the 15 bonus playoff points for winning the regular-season title, Martin Truex Jr. could have been eliminated in the first round.

Joey Logano wasn’t as fortunate. The 2022 champion was eliminated in the first round last year. He finished four points behind Bubba Wallace for the final transfer spot.

Logano had eight playoff points to Wallace’s zero, but the difference was that Wallace outscored Logano by 12 points in the opening round.

If Logano had scored more playoff points in the regular season, he could have avoided becoming the first reigning champion to be eliminated in the first round.

2. Performance gains

Is newer better? Or will Chevrolet’s version of the Next Gen car still reign? In the Next Gen era, Chevrolet has won 37 of 72 points races.

Ford and Toyota each have changes to their cars this season, while Chevrolet remains the same.

“We believe that our new Camry … is going to come out of the gates pretty strong,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development. “We all use the same tools to test and develop the bodies and they’re all virtual. It’s (computational fluid dynamics), it’s time in the wind tunnel, and from those metrics, from all that information, certainly the numbers look good.”

One key change for the Camry are the bumpers, Tyler Reddick said.

The previous bumper configuration made it more challenging to draft at superspeedways, Reddick said, and played a part in his incident in last year’s Daytona 500 while running fourth.

“The thing that bit me in the 500 last year was just getting pushed in the corner,” he said. “The shape of last year’s bumper was not great for drafting. The shape of it really lifts the back of the car up when you get pushed and just that little tap I got from (Kevin) Harvick was enough to spin us around.

“Hopefully, the work that everyone did there on the part of Toyota and (Toyota Racing Development) helps that.”

Reddick noted that Fords had flatter bumpers that allowed those cars to “just run over the back of each other and push really aggressively, and that really equated to a lot of speed down the straightaways. It was really hard to break them apart.”

Fords have won three of the last five races at superspeedways, scoring wins at Talladega in the playoffs (Ryan Blaney), Daytona regular-season finale (Chris Buescher) and the spring Atlanta race (Joey Logano). Toyota’s last win at a superspeedway was October 2021 at Talladega by Bubba Wallace.

Ford’s new car also gives that manufacturer confidence on what this season could be like.

“We have to have parity with the other (manufacturers) that NASCAR dictates," said Richard Johns, NASCAR Performance Lead for Ford Performance. “Obviously we have the common underwing, the common greenhouse. We have to try and find the small gains and performance that we’re allowed to have in our body design. With working with our studio and trying to optimize performance, that’s how we wound up with this car. We’re really happy with it.

“All of our metrics point to it being an improvement from last year and over ’22.”

3. Spring races

After the season opens at Daytona, Atlanta and Las Vegas, the next five races will be at short tracks and a road course. That stretch will be revealing.

Those races should show the effectiveness of the new package at those tracks, along with the progress of some teams.

The five-race stretch begins March 10 at Phoenix and continues to Bristol, Circuit of the Americas, Richmond and Martinsville (April 7).

Competitors have been vocal about the challenges in passing at short tracks and road courses. The new package includes a simplified diffuser underneath the car and a 3-inch spoiler (up from a 2-inch spoiler).

“We’re trying to operate in a similar zip code of downforce that we have been, but I expect to see a lot of commentary from the drivers about the back half of the car and that feel of being able to slip that car around,” said Brandon Thomas, NASCAR vice president of vehicle design, of the changes.

It will be worth watching a couple of drivers in particular at these races: William Byron and Kyle Busch.

Byron wasn’t a factor in the Martinsville playoff race, willing his way to a 13th-place finish to reach the Championship 4.

In the title race, Byron started on the pole and led the first 92 laps. After Ryan Blaney passed him for second with about 100 laps to go, Byron got no closer to the lead. He ran the last 65 laps trailing the other two title contenders still on track after Christopher Bell fell out of the event.

Busch struggled on short tracks last year in his first season at Richard Childress Racing. Busch led one of the 2,829 laps run in the seven races last season at Phoenix, Richmond, Martinsville and Bristol. His average finish was 16.9 at those tracks. His average finish in the other 29 races was 14.6.

4. Trackhouse Racing

This is, perhaps, the most fascinating organization in the Cup garage.

Car owner Justin Marks’ team begins its fourth season. Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez return. Rookie Zane Smith joins the organization but will race for Spire Motorsports because Trackhouse Racing has only two charters.

Trackhouse also has former Australian Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen on the payroll. He’ll run the Xfinity season with Kaulig Racing and seven Cup races for Kaulig, beginning at Circuit of the Americas on March 24.

Marks takes a different approach to tasks. In the team’s first year, Suarez was the lone driver and the team was based out of Richard Childress Racing. Marks bought Chip Ganassi Racing and its two charters for the 2022 season and added Chastain, who went on to finish second in the points and create the Hail Melon viral moment at Martinsville.

While Chastain won twice last year, including the season finale at Phoenix, he was eliminated in the Round of 12 and Suarez failed to make the playoffs.

This team will be worth watching to see how it rebounds from last year. Can this team find a way to purchase a charter and be a three-car team? What does it do if Smith performs well or van Gisbergen shows he’s ready for a full-time Cup ride in 2025?

Those are among the questions that should make this team fascinating to watch.

5. Off the track

While there are many other items to watch for on the track, a key element off the track also will be worth watching.

Sports Business Journal reported Thursday that Cup teams unanimously agreed to let their charter negotiation expire without a further extension.

The Charter agreement between teams and NASCAR ends after the 2024 season. While there is plenty of time to have a deal in place, should it go a few months before a resolution, it could curb any potential moves by drivers. Teams and drivers could wait to see what the next agreement looks like and how much money goes to teams before making any future deals.

Also key this year will be what NASCAR does with the 2025 schedule.

Talk of a Cup race in Montreal for this season didn’t happen but what about 2025? Where will the Clash be? This is the final year of the current three-year deal to run inside the Los Angeles Coliseum. Will California Speedway truly be turned into a short track or will the rest of the land be sold? Is there another new venue for the series next year with the beginning of the new media rights deal?

Those and many other questions remain to be answered in the coming months.