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Why the 2024 NASCAR season and Daytona 500 might be wilder than usual

“The way these races are, any of us can win at any given moment,” reigning 500 champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. says.
 
The 2024 NASCAR season should be tight and unpredictable, starting with the Daytona 500.
The 2024 NASCAR season should be tight and unpredictable, starting with the Daytona 500. [ TERRY RENNA | AP ]
Published Feb. 17

DAYTONA BEACH — When two-time champion Kyle Busch was breaking into NASCAR’s top Cup Series, he entered some weekends expecting only five or six competitors to actually be competitive against him.

Now it’s 12 or 15. At a superspeedway race like Sunday’s Daytona 500, it’s more like 30.

“You can literally look down the list and be, ‘Yeah, there’s no reason why any of these guys wouldn’t win,’ ” Busch said.

The parity makes Busch’s job harder but should create more entertainment for fans; the NASCAR season that opens with the green flag at Daytona International Speedway looks as wide-open and unpredictable as it has been in years.

“The way these races are, any of us can win at any given moment,” reigning 500 champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said. “These cars are getting closer.”

That was evident during Wednesday’s qualifying session. The difference between pole-sitter Joey Logano and the 36th-fastest driver (Tyler Reddick) was 0.869 seconds. In 2020, the spread from 1-36 was more than twice as large (2.27 seconds).

Joey Logano won the Daytona 500 pole in a tight field.
Joey Logano won the Daytona 500 pole in a tight field. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

But the trend began long before Speedweeks. The last five seasons have produced five different Cup champions (Ryan Blaney, Logano, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Busch). It’s the first time in NASCAR history that has ever happened.

Twenty years ago, only eight different teams won a race. The top three (Jack Roush Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt Inc.) combined to win 27 times.

Last year, 10 different teams earned the checkered flag at least once, with the top trio (Team Penske, Hendrick and Joe Gibbs Racing) winning only 22 times.

The main reason for the tighter field is the Next Gen car that debuted in 2022. Parts that were formerly made by each individual team now come from the same vendors. Fewer differences between teams means fewer chances for one shop to figure out an advantage over the rest of the field, bunching the cars closer together.

“The Next Gen car has just taken (parity) to a new level,” 2017 Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. said. “You are talking about everybody having the same parts and pieces — that’s never been a part of this sport. That’s definitely been the game changer.”

One that has changed the makeup of the championship picture.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was one of the 15 different drivers to win a race in 2023. He won the Daytona 500.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was one of the 15 different drivers to win a race in 2023. He won the Daytona 500. [ DAVID GRAHAM | AP (2023) ]

In two years with the Next Gen car, the series has produced 25 different race winners. That’s up from 19 over the two previous seasons.

Chase Briscoe said the series has room for even more victors than the 15 last season. It seems unlikely that Elliott and Alex Bowman will both finish winless again. Briscoe’s team, Stewart-Haas Racing, is rebooting after the retirements of Tampa’s Aric Almirola and former series champion Kevin Harvick and could sneak back into victory lane. If they rebound without major drops elsewhere in the garage, the competition for the 16 playoff spots will grow even more intense.

“I feel like there’s going to be more than 16 winners,” Briscoe said, “so points are going to be at an all-time high (in importance).”

Ryan Blaney is the betting favorite to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship but not by much.
Ryan Blaney is the betting favorite to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship but not by much. [ SEAN GARDNER | Orlando Sentinel ]

Betting odds reflect the potential for uncertainty. The Seminole Hard Rock’s sportsbook lists 13 drivers with championship odds of plus-2,000 or better. In college football and Major League Baseball, only nine contenders have comparable odds.

The unpredictability will be magnified during the pack racing at Daytona’s famed tri-oval.

Toyota and Ford tweaked the bodies of their cars over the offseason; Chevrolet did not. Will the updates give Toyota and Ford more speed, putting Chevy behind? Or will Chevy have an early advantage because its drivers don’t have to adjust to the tweaks? How much will Fords’ pointier noses affect drafting and pushing? We don’t have enough data to know yet, and Logano said he probably won’t have a good feel for the answers until after next month’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The former series and 500 champion does, however, know that the changes aren’t going to cause the field to separate too much.

“Everyone’s going to be really, really close,” Logano said. “It just makes the details matter more and more.”