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May 29, 2024

Gateway Turning Point: Regular-season shakeup and could a winless champ break through?


cars race at gateway
Jeff Curry
Getty Images

Here’s what’s happening in the world of NASCAR with the Coca-Cola 600 in the rearview and World Wide Technology Raceway (Sun., 3:30 p.m. ET, FS1) right around the corner.

THE LINEUP ️

1️⃣ Kyle Larson’s difficult double opens door to regular-season turmoil

2️⃣ Is a winless past champion about to break through at Gateway?

3️⃣ Why Gateway is crucial for drivers looking for win No. 1

4️⃣ How many more new winners will we see before the playoffs?

5️⃣ Catch the pack – news and notes from around the garage

kyle larson looks on
Logan Riely | Getty Images

1. Kyle Larson’s difficult double opens door to regular-season turmoil

The championship favorite’s all-around dismal Sunday saw two frustrating race results and the handing over of his points lead.

What should have been, for all intents and purposes, one of the most fulfilling and memorable days of Kyle Larson’s life this past Sunday wound up being “one of the most disappointing ones (he’s) ever experienced.”

To make matters worse, the repercussions from missing the Coca-Cola 600 after rain impacted both ends of his Indianapolis/Charlotte double attempt might be felt for months.

The 2021 champion and ’24 title contender entered the weekend as the favorite to win another Coca-Cola 600 — which would’ve made him the first to do so after also racing in the Indianapolis 500 earlier in the day. That last part happened — Larson finished 18th, on the lead lap in his IndyCar debut — but he didn’t even get a chance to fight for the win at Charlotte; in fact, weather ensured he didn’t turn a single lap at all.

He also entered the weekend with a 30-point lead in the standings over the rest of the field, and exited it in third place, six points behind new leader Denny Hamlin. What was shaping up to be a cakewalk to the Regular Season Championship might now be a path littered with obstacles.

ANALYSIS: Regular-season title picture up in the air after Charlotte

Hamlin claimed the points lead for the first time this season, but with four drivers nipping at his heels — three of which are champions and the other is tied with him for the season lead in wins — you get the sense he may not hold it for long. But then he might take it back. And lose it again. And on and on until we crown a champion. This season’s battle at the top just tightened tremendously.

The door was just blown open for someone to claim the top spot — and its bonus points — before the regular season closes in just over three months. And it’s likely a revolving one.

Of course, it’s entirely possible Larson rebounds in a huge way and just stomps the field en route to a win at World Wide Technology Raceway on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1), but the drivers around him also gunning for the Regular Season Championship are the sport’s elite. It’s also entirely possible Hamlin goes on a run himself, or Chase Elliott, William Byron, Martin Truex Jr., Tyler Reddick, et al. There is no shortage of drivers in the upper echelon right now that could rip off two or three wins in a five-or-six-race stretch to start to create more distance between the points leader and everybody else.

It has felt all season that Larson and the No. 5 team surely could’ve had more than two wins at this point, given how strong they’ve looked pretty much from the drop of the green flag at Daytona. With Larson on top of both the world and the standings heading into his marathon day, his 2024 near-misses didn’t seem to hold a ton of weight. Now, they feel illuminated.

There’s a vacuum at the top of the Cup Series, ready for the taking for whomever decides to go on a streak of summer dominance.

Larson might be the one to do that. But for the first time in several weeks, it feels like it’s possible he might not be.

kyle busch celebrates at gateway
Jeff Curry | Getty Images

2. Is a winless past champion about to break through at Gateway?

Several stars are still in search of win No. 1 in 2024 — and a few of them are well positioned to make it happen in St. Louis.

So much of the focus coming out of the 2024 All-Star Race was, understandably, on Kyle Busch, after he and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. fought in the infield at North Wilkesboro Speedway following the race.

Perhaps this is the weekend all eyes should be on Rowdy, however.

Still in search of his first 2024 win and in a tenuous-at-best playoff position, Busch enters the weekend at 15-1 odds to win at World Wide Technology Raceway, according to DraftKings. That puts him at 11th-best on the oddsboard, despite entering the weekend as the defending winner of the race that saw him pick up his most recent Cup Series trophy.

That can be credited, of course, to his somewhat down season to date — Busch, 14th in points, is on pace for his worst average finish since 2010 — but his chances to walk out of the St. Louis area with a provisional playoff berth feel much greater than his betting line. He was riding all that mojo coming out of North Wilkesboro into Charlotte, another race he was expected to compete for the win, but was ultimately stopped short of going the full distance due to weather. That might make the itch to return to Victory Lane grow even more.

And Gateway is arguably an even better shot.

Not only did the two-time champion win this race a year ago, but he was runner-up in its debut a season earlier — with a different team and manufacturer. He’s won there in the Xfinity Series before and has led more than 38% of all Gateway laps run in the Cup Series.

On the verge of tying his career-long winless streak of 36 — he sits at 35 now — this lines up as his best chance to snap the skid perhaps until mid-summer.

That said, almost all of that can be echoed for Busch’s longtime competitor in Joey Logano, one of the other handful of drivers with experience at Gateway before 2022 and the winner of the inaugural Cup race there two years ago. No. 22 finished third there last season and picked up some recent momentum — along with $1 million — by winning the All-Star Race two weekends ago.

Logano is another strong bet to make it happen — and enters the weekend with slightly better odds, at 14-1 — but there are some overall larger concerns with Team Penske’s performance of late, with the premier Ford organization not placing any of its cars in the top 10 in the last three points-paying races and just one total over the past six. The team is the two-time defending Cup Series title winner with Logano and last year’s champ Ryan Blaney — who has only two top 10s in the last 10 races — but things aren’t quite clicking at the moment and none of its drivers are in the top 10 in points.

It’s tough to go out on a limb and say that one of them will win, but it does feel notable that there are only four drivers (Busch, Logano, Blaney, Martin Truex Jr.) to land a top 10 in each of Gateway’s two Cup races — and they are all both winless in 2024 and former champions.

After the All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600, we’re now solidly within that middle portion of the Cup Series slate, with just 12 races remaining before we set the 2024 NASCAR Playoffs field. All four of the aforementioned feel just about ready to strike and make their move on the postseason and it’s entirely possible we see some more shifting and re-positioning in the standings as the early-season dominators are caught up to and some fresh faces land in Victory Lane.

You shouldn’t be shocked if one of these four makes it happen this weekend.

3. Why Gateway is crucial for drivers looking for win No. 1

Kim Coon and Skip Flores break down why World Wide Technology Raceway is essential for drivers looking to break into Victory Lane in this week’s episode of Around The Track.

4. How many more new winners will we see before the playoffs?

With eight different drivers taking a checkered flag so far in 2024 — including a repeat winner at Charlotte — how many more fresh faces will take a trip to Victory Lane?

SeasonNo. of Winners Races 1-13No. of Winners Races 14-26Total Regular-Season Winners
20179514
20186410
20196511
20208311
202110414
202211516
20239514

5. Catch the pack — news and notes from around the garage

Paint Scheme Preview: See the Gateway and Portland looks

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