Days after a difficult and largely ignored start to its 2024 season, NASCAR is ready to plow into its regular season in its traditional fashion, holding its biggest event first instead of last. The Daytona 500 is set to start the 36-race Cup Series on Feb. 18, two weeks after the unofficial beginning on a quarter-mile track inside the Coliseum.
The Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum is now in the rearview mirror, thankfully for NASCAR. With the brightest of intentions and a full marketing strategy aimed at Latinos, NASCAR, on a few hours notice, moved the Sunday race to Saturday night after California’s unprecedented weather event made the likelihood of running the race as scheduled impossible. Admission was free, but the crowd was barely visible.
It was the last year of a three-year contract to hold the exhibition in Los Angeles and a renewal seems less likely, although NASCAR has not announced any decision. Coupled with the closure and plans to rebuild the Fontana track, next year could be the first time since 1996, with the exception of the COVID year, that Los Angeles has not held a Cup Series event in the region.
All of which means auto racing fans will experience NASCAR through the lens of television with Fox and FS1 taking all the races up to June 9 until NBC and USA broadcast the races the last half of the year.
Along the way will be the usual intrigue and feuds along with mostly competitive racing with enough stops during the race to make sure no one runs away with a thing.
So, here are five storylines that are expected to dominate NASCAR at least at the start of the season.
Can Chase Elliott rebound?
The most popular driver in NASCAR for the last six years, as voted on by the fans, is Chase Elliott. He has won 18 races in his nine years in the Cup Series. Last year was the first time since 2017 that he didn’t win at all. It was a partial season in that he missed six races after sustaining a broken leg in a snowboarding accident and a seventh after being suspended for aggressive driving. More importantly for NASCAR, when your most popular driver isn’t racing, television ratings drop.
“I kind of started out the  season OK,” Elliott said. “I was happy for the first couple weeks, then I got hurt. Seems like after that there were a lot of ups and downs. And unfortunately, more downs than ups and I never got in a good rhythm. I did think toward the end of the year … we started to identify some areas that I wanted to continue to work through.
“I think a lot of those things are going to start to carry. As we go into this year, we just need to keep our heads down. It’s a marathon and we understood that and we’re ready to get back to work.”
Elliott vowed not to give up snowboarding although minor shoulder surgery in November has kept him off the slopes. It would be shocking to not see him in Victory Lane at least once.
Kyle Larson doing the ‘double’
It hasn’t been done since 2014, but Kyle Larson is going to give it a try, running in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on May 26. Kurt Busch was the last to try it and he finished sixth in both races, the best by a driver pulling double duty. Others who have attempted it are John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart.
The obvious question is why?
“The Indy 500 is the biggest race in the world and you want to compete in the big ones,” Larson said. “I’ve always wanted to do the double because it’s a cool thing to try and accomplish, to finish both races in two different types of cars, two different states, it’s just really cool. I’ll drive different types of cars throughout the week between my dirt cars, NASCAR and whatever other cars I can run in.
“It just kind of fits my brand, what I like to do. Like I said, I just want to compete in the biggest races in the world and it doesn’t get any bigger than the Indy 500. I’m definitely excited about it. It’s going to be a great experience no matter what and hopefully I can do a good job.”
Of course, he’ll take a plane for the 575 miles between Indianapolis and Charlotte. He’s not expected to drive that too.
Replacing Kevin Harvick?
There should certainly be some pressure replacing retired future Hall of Famer Kevin Harvick and that’s the position in which Josh Berry finds himself. Josh Berry? Maybe you remember him replacing Elliott when he was injured in the snowboarding accident. But now the 33-year-old is in the hot seat of replacing Harvick in the No. 4 car on the Stewart-Haas team. He has been in a whopping 12 Cup Series races.
The goal he has in his sights is modest, yet still challenging.
“I think winning rookie of the year is the goal that stands out for us,” Berry said. “I think that would be a great deal. The rookie class will be strong and winning that would be meaningful.
“There is a lot of pressure with being part of the Cup Series. Going to an organization like Stewart-Haas, they are trying to rebound after a tough season by their standards. … I don’t think there is any added pressure based on what Kevin has accomplished over the last decade. It’s on all of us to dig in and work hard.”
Can RCR win its first title in 30 years?
Richard Childress Racing is one of the iconic names in the sport, having won six Cup titles with Dale Earnhardt, the last coming in 1994. And last year, Kyle Busch left Joe Gibbs Racing to join RCR. Busch has 63 Cup Series wins, the most of any active driver. He is arguably the best driver of his generation. Last year, he won three races, all in the beginning of the season.
So, with one year on his new team, is this the year to bring the Cup championship back to RCR?
“I feel like [last year] we were able to get together, myself and [crew chief] Randall [Burnett] and the team, we were able to build pretty good chemistry right out of the gate,” Busch said. “We started out really good, really hot, there was a lot of excitement there, which was great. We had some good results right out of the gate and then the way some of the NASCAR procedures changed throughout the year, and some of the rules changes. But the rest of the competition just kind of caught up and it just got tougher from there.”
Busch is confident that things could be very different in his second season with RCR, which could break a three-decade drought.
The newest raceway
With the demolition of the speedway in Fontana, it left a one-race hole in the NASCAR schedule and that went from the most populous state in the country to the 31st-most populated. The race at Iowa Speedway will be held June 16 at night on NBC’s secondary USA network.
It’s not as if NASCAR wasn’t pulling the strings on this. It owns the Fontana site, announced its demolition in favor of a short-track approach, while selling off the remainder of the property for $569 million. Still, with plenty of notice of the change, NASCAR has not announced any timetable for the rebuilding of Fontana.
Dave Allen, president of the NASCAR-owned Fontana property, put it this way.
“Yeah, most likely it wouldn’t be ready next year,” he said.
So, if things go well in Iowa, NASCAR will have some more decisions to make about its schedule in the future.