OPINION: Lessons from NASCAR's West Coast swing

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OPINION: Lessons from NASCAR's West Coast swing

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OPINION: Lessons from NASCAR's West Coast swing

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Trivia question time.

Since the 2021 season, who has the most NASCAR Cup Series wins after Kyle Larson? Here’s a hint: it’s another Hendrick Motorsports driver. Another hint: he already has a win this year.

For those who haven’t figured it out yet, the answer is Alex Bowman, who has five wins to Larson’s 11.

Yet Bowman still seems to be somewhat overlooked as a serious contender. Kyle Busch unloading over the in-car radio after Bowman won at Las Vegas didn’t help matters. Sure, Busch was more upset that he didn’t win than the fact that it was Bowman who did, but his comments about Bowman “backing into” wins led to people pulling the stats.

Fact: Bowman hasn’t dominated the races he’s won. Also a fact: winning is winning. Bowman has developed into a consistent Cup Series driver and is now a consistent winner. Being in the playoffs is becoming a given, and Bowman is on the edge of breaking into that Championship 4 group.

Either way, Bowman deserves more respect than he’s getting. His win at Vegas came about because he outdrove Larson, who is considered the best in the Cup Series today.

Who else can say they’ve gone from backmarker who found out they were fired via Twitter to Hendrick Motorsports sim driver to being hand-picked as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s substitute and then replacement? What a biography it’s going to make one day. However, if you start paying attention to him now, it’ll save having to read all about it in the future.

Here are some other things that stand out after the West Coast swing:

Better for Briscoe

Before Chase Briscoe won at Phoenix Raceway, he would be on the list. All he did was just solidify his place and the belief that the Next Gen car is a game-changer for him.

Briscoe has been fast to start the season and much more comfortable driving this car than the sixth-generation car. A driver being comfortable and driving a vehicle that suits their style makes a ton of difference. For some reason, last year Briscoe, who is insanely talented, was out to lunch.

Yes, some of it was being in a tougher series and that Stewart-Haas Racing was on its back foot. And then there was Briscoe, never honing in on the feel and balance he needed with the car. This year, he has been comfortable at every type of track the series has been to, and he used the word “comfortable” in talking about Next Gen.

None of this should be a coincidence. Next Gen is harder to drive and requires some muscling around, and the drivers who are taking to that quickly are those who can adapt to such a challenge or have a background driving diverse vehicles. Briscoe is one of those, and it should pay dividends this season.

Bowman’s finding his happy place at Hendrick. Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Images

New car, new stories

A lot has already been made about the early season parity the season has seen. Four different drivers won races and two were first-time winners (Austin Cindric and Briscoe). It goes deeper, though, as we see more organizations make noise during races.

Nine different organizations finished inside the top 10 at Fontana. Ross Chastain and Tyler Reddick have already led more laps this season than any of their previous seasons combined. Then there is Erik Jones putting Richard Petty back near the front with solid runs.

The list goes on. If the car is supposed to be the great equalizer, then it’s doing its job. For now, at least as teams have yet to completely wrap their hands around it and find advantages. Eventually, certain organizations will master the car and begin separating themselves from the rest of the competition. Until then, please enjoy seeing new faces in new places.

But in speaking about the new car we also need to look at the racing it’s producing. Fontana and Las Vegas were competitive and certainly more enjoyable to watch than the last few years. However, Sunday at Phoenix didn’t show much of a difference with the new car. Passing still seemed difficult.

It’s OK, though. Not every race will be a barnburner and sometimes that is the car’s fault, and sometimes, it now appears, it’s the racetrack.
There is a lot of intrigue around what other tracks Next Gen can make a difference this season, and the racing gets rave reviews.

Who has work to do

New car or not, teams also look at the West Coast swing as the first indicator of what they’re working with early in the season. A lot is learned during this stretch of racing and teams don’t really get the chance to fully implement changes or adjustments until home. Cars are prepped and ready for the West Coast during the offseason, and what you’ve got, you’ve got.

It’ll be amazing to see how things changed over the next few weeks as the series shifts to races close to home. What a stretch we’re about to embark upon – Atlanta, COTA, Richmond, Martinsville, Bristol dirt, and Talladega before we get to May.

Hendrick Motorsport, Trackhouse Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Team Penske and even Stewart-Haas Racing seem to be on solid ground right now. Or at least headed in the right direction with their fleet. The same can’t be said for RFK Racing, 23XI Racing and to some extent, Joe Gibbs Racing.

We knew it would take some time for Brad Keselowski and the revamped Roush group to show signs of improvement. The hope was that Next Gen would be a helping variable. So far, the organization has had good days where it looks like they’ve hit on something and then other days where they are struggling and getting lapped.

23XI Racing is in the same boat. Kurt Busch might have checked a box at Phoenix with a top-five finish, but man, did he scratch and claw and need all 312 laps to get there. Meanwhile, Bubba Wallace and his team shot themselves in the foot with mistakes and finished 22nd.

The hot and cold game applies to their Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing. There have been times when Gibbs drivers have led laps and looked strong, and then a day like Phoenix where it was a fight.

These teams need to buckle down before it becomes too much to overcome.

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