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A Christmas wish list for NASCAR 2024

1. An improved short track package

I think we all want this. NASCAR recently held a test at Phoenix in yet another attempt to find ways to produce better racing at oval tracks of one-mile in length or shorter. While the Next Gen car was an obvious success in improving the racing at intermediate tracks, the show at both short tracks and road courses has suffered. Unfortunately, it appears the recent aerodynamic changes just aren't enough to make real tangible change in the on-track product.

Is the answer simply more horsepower? Many believe so, but Tyler Reddick recently said that it would take up to 1,000HP or more to make any difference at all. Additionally, NASCAR has made it very clear that they aren't interested in increasing the horsepower. Earlier this year, Denny Hamlin suggested that improvements could be seen with a different tire approach from Goodyear, aiming for more fall-off during the run. Whatever the answer may be, I really hope they find it soon, because better racing at short tracks and road courses tops my wish list for NASCAR 2024.

Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro (Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images)

2. Denny Hamlin continues to embrace the role of NASCAR's villain 

Speaking of Hamlin...he had quite the year in 2023. His podcast, Actions Detrimental, is a must-listen every week. The veteran driver escalated and then seemingly ended his year-long feud with Ross Chastain, then got into skirmishes with his friend Kyle Larson as they battled for the win at both Kansas and later Pocono. After being showered with boos practically every race weekend, he began to bask in it. His post-race interview after winning the Bristol Night Race was a highlight of the season, saying to fans: "Hey, I beat your favorite driver." When asked which one, he promptly replied: "All of them." 

With so few drivers comfortable with taking on the black hat, here's hoping that Hamlin continues to embrace the role in 2024. 

3. Another international racing star gives stock cars a try

We were spoiled this past year when it came to international talent turning their eyes to NASCAR. Two F1 World Champions [Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen], two overall winners of the Le Mans  24 [Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Rockenfeller], two Supercars champions [Shane van Gisbergen and Brodie Kostecki], and even Travis Pastrana all ran at least one Cup race during the 2023 season.

As someone who grew up watching everything with at least two wheels and an engine, I can't get enough of these crossovers. Van Gisbergen's heroic drive at Chicago even got Max Verstappen talking about NASCAR, and motorsports propping up fellow racing series is something I yearn to see more of. In a time where everything seems to devolve into us versus them, things like NASCAR's Garage 56 program showed that all forms of racing should be working with each other rather than against one another. So yes, give me more international racing stars on the NASCAR grid, and hey, more NASCAR drivers venturing beyond the world of stock cars would be great as well. 

Larson will be at the Indianapolis 500 next year in the first attempt at the Indy 500/Coke 600 double since Kurt Busch did it a decade ago, so that will be a fun story to follow.

4. The Brickyard 400 to be a success

The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been revived! For the first time in four years, NASCAR will race at the iconic oval, leaving behind the road course. The original change wasn't a terrible move, as the road course gave us some exciting races and surprise winners, but the disappearance of one of NASCAR's crown jewel events left a noticeable hole in the calendar. Although the race has been criticized in the past as being too boring, the current car should make for some better racing around the 2.5-mile speedway.

So please, give us a good race that is well-attended so the sanctioning body never considers removing the Brickyard 400 from the schedule ever again.

Brad Keselowski, Team Penske, Ford Mustang Discount Tire (Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images)

5. The Daytona 500 to have a clean finish

I'm not ignorant to what Daytona is. A high-speed chess match, but also a lottery. A choreographed dance, but also a barroom brawl. Even still, the last few Daytona 500s have all ended in similar fashion, with last year's finish being especially egregious. 

2020 saw a photo finish marred by a terrifying crash with Ryan Newman hospitalized afterwards. 2021 ended with the Team Penske drivers wrecking each other, leaving Michael McDowell to win the race under caution.

2022 wasn't the worst offender, but they did crash across the line behind the leaders.  However, the most recent running of NASCAR's most-watched race was nothing short of a wreckfest. The Daytona '530' went 12 laps beyond the scheduled distance, and still ended under caution. The FOX Sports commentators barely reacted as the race-ending crash unfolded, likely because of how expected it was. 

So all I want for Daytona is a green-flag finish in 2024. No triple overtime, no race-ending horror crash. Is a thrilling, close finish without untold chaos and destruction too much to ask for NASCAR's biggest race of the year?

6. An actual ROTY battle

2023's Rookie of the Year battle was nonexistent. Noah Gragson struggled mightily, even before his midseason suspension, allowing Ty Gibbs to easily capture ROTY honors. 2022's battle was over the moment Austin Cindric won the season-opening Daytona 500, as neither of his rivals managed to make the playoffs. In 2021, Chase Briscoe scored nearly double the points of his only competition.

The last real battle was between Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell, almost four years ago. 2024's rookie class will feature Josh Berry, Carson Hocevar, and Zane Smith. I think there's some real potential there for a great fight all the way to season's end. Unless Stewart-Haas Racing makes a major step up in its overall performance, I think there's a real opportunity for one of the Spire Motorsports drivers to take it. And if it ends up being a battle between the rookie team-mates, even better!

Ty Gibbs, Joe Gibbs Racing, Monster Energy Toyota Camry, Sunoco Rookie of the Year (Photo by: John Harrelson / NKP / Motorsport Images)

7. Brad Keselowski finally snaps his winless streak

Since the 2012 Cup champion joined Roush as a co-owner, rebranding the team as Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing [RFK Racing], he has done an admirable job in turning things around for the organization. In his first year with the team, both drivers missed the playoffs and failed to reach Victory Lane, but 2023 was a major step forward.

Both cars made the playoffs for the first time in nine years and Chris Buescher won three races. It was the most victories in a single season for Roush since 2013, and the first time they got more than one driver into the playoffs since 2014. They ended up seventh [Buescher] and eighth [Keselowski] in the final standings. 

There was just one thing missing: Keselowski has yet to win a race for himself as a driver/owner. The Michigan native has 35 career wins but it’s been nearly 100 races since he last won a points-paying Cup race. He's come close, even pushing his team-mate to victory in a 1-2 finish this year at Daytona. It would be an emotional moment and one of the final pieces missing in RFK’s return to relevance. 

Brad Keselowski, RFK Racing, Ford Mustang, Chris Buescher, RFK Racing, Fastenal Ford Mustang (Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images)

8. Stewart-Haas Racing finds its footing

While RFK has been on the upswing, SHR has gone in the opposite direction. This year was the first time Stewart-Haas Racing has gone winless since its inception in 2009. And with veteran Kevin Harvick stepping out of the car, they are left with four young drivers who have a combined one victory at the Cup level. But should the struggles continue, it would be unfair to blame the drivers, as even Harvick missed out on winning a race during his farewell season.  

Seeing one of just three remaining four-car teams at the Cup level struggling like this has been painful to watch, and hopefully they can get things turned around next year. 

9. Chase Elliott returns to form

Elliott failed to win for the first time since 2017, and did not make the playoffs for the first time in his entire Cup career. He missed six races due to a leg injury, and a seventh after he was suspended for intentionally wrecking Hamlin during the Coke 600.

Whether you're a fan of Elliott or not, the sport is always better off when its Most Popular Driver is doing well. 2023 was a disastrous season for the Hendrick Motorsports driver. And besides, it's always exciting to watch Elliott and team-mate Larson battling each other at the front of the field. It's often produced fireworks.

10. A DTS-esque response to Netflix’s NASCAR documentary 

Maybe wishful thinking, but as an American who has watched Formula 1 since Brawn GP’s 2009 title run, the sudden uptick in US interest for the sport after Drive to Survive arrived on Netflix has been stunning. I am sincerely hoping that the streaming service can do the same for NASCAR, introducing stock car racing in a way that appeals to a larger audience. The series will follow the ten-race playoffs, which ended with Ryan Blaney being crowned champion.

Along with the on-track drama, Netflix hopefully showcase sthe personality of the current star drivers, as more traditional media has struggled in that area. NASCAR already has a great product, but they need to do a better job at selling it. The action, the drama, the politics and personalities – it’s all right there. Perhaps Netflix is finally the key in showcasing it properly.

NASCAR remains king in viewership among US-based racing fans, but the younger demographic is one the sport is desperately chasing. Soon we’ll find out if Netflix can help in those efforts, as the five-part series is set to come out in early 2024.

Ryan Blaney, Team Penske, Menards/Dutch Boy Ford Mustang (Photo by: Rusty Jarrett / NKP / Motorsport Images)

Honorable mentions: An improved FOX Sports broadcast, a new charter agreement to be finalized early in the year, and at least one international Cup race to be announced for 2025.

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