Driver Press Recap
NASCAR Cup drivers were available to the press Saturday morning/afternoon and had much to say about their cars, and the track, here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as well as the possibility of switching the set up and new additions to the course.
The biggest topic was the addition of a start/restart zone and everyone that spoke about it today was in favor of it. Martin Truex, Jr. said he is glad there is a start/restart zone and he thinks it won’t be 5-6 cars wide, like it had been. He does think that there would still be some darting in, but he thinks it will be calmer. When asked if he thought it should have been single file, he said he didn’t think that was in NASCAR’s vocabulary.
One of the rumors swirling around is that the Brickyard may go back to the oval. It seems as though emotions are mixed on the driver’s end of things. Christopher Bell likes the track here, it’s a fun place, but is looking forward to perhaps being on the oval. Denny Hamlin definitely prefers the oval, “we’re crossing over the bricks in the wrong direction.” He would rather run the oval. Martin Truex, Jr likes that there are lots of opportunity to run road courses. And Austin Cindric said, as long as he was in Indy, it was all pretty cool to him.
The other thing that the drivers were talking about was the opinion some drivers had that the last few races didn’t matter. Truex vehemently disagreed. He said that every race was important. He was trying to lock down bonus point for the playoffs. And Austin Cindric feels like they have the best chance to get a win here at Indy.
I guess the thing that sums it up the best is when Austin Cindric said, “As long as I’m in Indy, it’s pretty cool to me.”
2023 will be a critical year for NASCAR thanks in no small part to their next impending media rights deal, set to take effect in 2025, but expected to be announced later this year. Current rights partners Fox and NBC are signed through the end of next season - 2024 - as part of a deal that was signed back in 2023. Financial terms were never disclosed, but it was widely believed that Fox and NBC paid upwards of 50% more than the $2.7 billion that Turner and ESPN paid alongside Fox for the 2007-14 deal, placing the current deal at around $4 billion.
This next NASCAR deal will likely push the price tag even higher and with streaming possibly becoming more of a factor, broadcasters will no doubt pony up to have the stars of the sport grace their screens for the next decade plus. Here, we'll go over the favorites, the likeliest to land the sport, who might be dark horses and who might be out.
Let's be clear - FOX needs NASCAR. Sure, they have NFL in the fall, Major League Baseball in the spring alongside Major League Soccer as well as the Pro Bowlers Association. But what do they have in the late winter to bridge the gap between the NFL playoffs and MLB Opening Day? Nothing except NASCAR. It's become clear that NASCAR and FOX need each other. FOX needs that stopgap between the end of the NFL playoffs and the start of the MLB season - that's where NASCAR comes in. NASCAR needs that first half ratings surge to lead into the summer stretch and that's where FOX comes in. Expect FOX to re-up with NASCAR as part of the next deal.
Now the last run of NASCAR on ABC and ESPN as part of the 2007-14 contract may have left a sour taste in many NASCAR fans' mouths but since then, ESPN has started to recover as they not only snatched NHL rights from NBC but also took SRX on Thursday nights from CBS. By putting SRX on Thursdays, ESPN is likely telling NASCAR 'Hey, we know SRX is taking your drivers on weekends, so we're gonna move the races to midweek so that doesn't happen.' This is a show of good faith to the sanctioning body to perhaps get negotiations started early, get them out of the way and announce the deal sometime before the Chicago Street Race. With F1 already on the ABC/ESPN roster, the addition of NASCAR could potentially bring back the SpeedWorld branding ESPN had in the 80s and 90s. Now if only we could hear that iconic theme song again...
Dark Horse: CBS/Turner
A CBS/Turner team-up just makes sense considering the two media conglomerates already work together on another major sporting event in March Madness. Just one problem and it's a problem that hit NBC in the tail end of their 2001-06 run. That problem is the NFL. Not only does CBS have NFL during NASCAR's playoffs, but they also have college football, college basketball and golf clogging up their schedule throughout the year. CBS might only be able to take about 5-7 races with either TBS or TNT taking the rest if this team-up were to come to fruition.
While NBC has made strides in NASCAR coverage over the past eight seasons, they'll probably out after the 2024 season. Reason being is the same reason that took them out of the 2007-14 deal - Sunday Night Football. SNF draws big ratings for the network and there is absolutely no way NBC is giving that up especially when the network is potentially in the running to take the NBA back from ABC in 2025. If you're NBC, you have to start thinking about what's more important in your sports properties - NASCAR or the NFL. 10 times out of 10, the answer is the NFL.
With this in mind, we could be looking at a FOX/ABC/ESPN triad in NASCAR when we get to February 2025.
The 2023 NASCAR season begins on February 5th with the running of the Busch Light Clash at the Colosseum at iconic Los Angeles Memorial Colosseum. After last year’s historic season and the debut of the Gen-7 cars, 2023 is shaping up to be an even more competitive and unpredictable season with not just old faces in new places, but also a promising rookie class, NASCAR’s first street race and the uncertainty of who NASCAR’s next media partners will be in just over 2 years’ time.
Needless to say, there's a variety of storylines set to shape the upcoming NASCAR Cup Series season and it all starts with a pair of rookies that dominated the Xfinity Series in 2022.
Ty Gibbs is the defending Xfinity Series champion. He'll make the jump to the Cup Series driving the renumbered 54 car (formerly the 18) vacated by Kyle Busch, who defected to Childress in the offseason. He also comes off the death of his father Coy this past November, which caused him to miss the last race of his fill-in role at 23XI Racing. In his Xfinity championship season last year, he wound up with seven wins and was a consistent threat to win each and every week. It's a safe bet to expect that consistency to continue in his new role in the Cup Series in spite of the level of competition present at NASCAR's highest level.
The 24-year-old Vegas native is coming off a season where he won eight times and was a favorite to win the Xfinity Series title all season long, only missing it by one position in the final race at Phoenix at the hands of his Cup Series rookie rival Ty Gibbs. In 18 prior Cup Series starts over the past 2 seasons, Gragson has a best finish of 5th - that came at the August Daytona race. Last season, he filled in for Alex Bowman in the 48 while he recovered from a concussion. This season, he steps into the 42 for 7-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty. If Gragson can maintain the run of dominance that propelled him through his time in the Xfinity Series, the 42 team could be the surprise of 2023.
Either way, it's shaping up to be a great rookie battle from the green at Daytona to the checkers at Phoenix in November.
Perhaps the highlight of the 2023 NASCAR season is the running of NASCAR's first ever street race along Grant Park in Chicago - set for July 4th weekend. It began as a fantasy track on iRacing for the popular eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series in 2021, a race which saw James Davison take the virtual checkered flag. Since then, momentum only grew for the street race before the official announcement on July 19th, 2022.
The Chicago Street Race is replacing another popular Midwestern track in the 4-mile road course of Road America in the Milwaukee suburb of Elkhart Lake. In a statement, NASCAR's senior vice president of racing development and strategy Ben Kennedy told reporters "We've had some great racing there the past couple of years, we've seen some really exciting finishes...unfortunately we won't be back."
Kennedy however did leave the door open to return to Road America in the future, adding "I've had a long-standing relationship with them and just because we won't be going back in '23 doesn't mean we're not going to keep going back in the future."
Racing on city streets provides a great unknown in itself as most of these drivers have only seen the course through iRacing. The course itself is a challenge, starting through South Columbus Drive, weaving through South Lake Shore Drive, into East Roosevelt Road then back onto South Columbus, which will then lead them through East Balbo Road, then a run through South Michigan Avenue and East Congress Plaza finally turning through East Jackson Drive and back onto South Columbus to complete their 2.2 mile, 12-turn lap.
Race distance and title sponsor have yet to be determined, but we do know the Xfinity Series is set to be a companion race on July 1st with the Cup Series making their inaugural trip along the Chicago streets on July 2nd. This will mark both series' return to the Chicago area since they left Chicagoland Speedway after the 2019 season (their respective 2020 races were called off due to COVID and the 1.5-mile track was left off the schedule in 2021 in favor of Road America).