Motorsports mailbag: On NASCAR final 4 favorites, Lando Norris-McLaren partnership

Each week The Athletic‘s Jordan Bianchi answers readers’ questions about the latest happenings across motorsports.

Note: Submitted questions have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Who do you think will make the final four at Phoenix this year? I’ve got Ross Chastain, William Byron and Kyle Busch but have no idea who will be the fourth. I haven’t seen anyone, including Denny Hamlin who has been there a bunch, who seems to have the Next Gen car figured out to some degree. Perhaps a surprise driver like Chase Briscoe or Austin Cindric? — Al M.

Both Byron and Busch are sound picks, especially Byron, who has come into his own this season and appears to have taken the step we’ve all been waiting for him to make. Don’t be shocked if he ends up having the most wins during the regular season. Busch has had a better season than you probably realize, giving the sense he’s set to go on some kind of summer run that sees him roll off several wins.

Based on how he has performed, Chastain should be considered a good choice, too. But the concern is whether his aggressive nature will bite him during the playoffs where one bad result can lead to elimination. The thinking here is that Chastain needs to experience the intensity of the playoffs and how important it is to maximize your points haul every week before he puts together a deep run culminating in a final four berth.

Then again, winning is a cure-all. So, the fact the No. 1 Trackhouse Racing team has had one of the fastest cars on a near-weekly basis means Chastain could overcome any missteps by winning a race to ensure automatic advancement. For now, however, reservations exist.

The third slot is Kyle Larson’s. He gets the nod because though he and his team have dealt with assorted issues, some of which are self-inflicted, he’s more capable of winning in any given week. At some juncture, you get the sense that, like Busch, Larson will reassert himself.

For the fourth spot, it’s among Chastain, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin or Martin Truex Jr. If his Darlington win proves a precursor of what’s to come, add Joey Logano to this group, too.

Will Lando Norris end up regretting signing that long-term deal at McLaren? That team has been inconsistent this year. —Calwin T

Still too early to say whether Norris will come to regret signing an extension through 2025. A lot will depend on whether McLaren can turn around a season during which it’s averaging nearly nearly points per race fewer than it was last year (9.2 versus 12.5), then continue that ascent through the duration of Norris’ contract.

During the past two years, McLaren looked to be on the cusp of big things — in 2021, Daniel Ricciardo earned a win and Norris nearly got his first on a couple of occasions, and in 2020, the team finished third in the manufacturer’s championship. That’s impressive considering how far McLaren had fallen before Zak Brown took control in 2018.

Seeing how Brown has rebuilt McLaren, it’s understandable why Norris was keen to stick around long-term. Signing with Red Bull, Mercedes or Ferrari would mean Norris would be the No. 2 driver to Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton or Charles Leclerc, and joining a different team represents a lateral move, at best.

By staying with McLaren, Norris remains with an organization that is heavily invested in him, values ​​him and has the potential to win races. That’s a lot of upside. And Brown deserves the benefit of the doubt that he can get McLaren back on track this season, especially once the team gets a better handle on the new car regulations.

Norris, 22, made the call. And if for whatever reason he doesn’t realize his full potential at McLaren, he’s still young enough that he can go elsewhere once his contract expires.

Do you think NASCAR should adopt an Indy/Formula One style of race control? If it did, would Logano’s team protest for Byron to be penalized for “contact” by putting Logano in the wall? Also, would Logano punt Byron if he knew NASCAR would penalize him for “contact?” — Matthew W.

No. Absolutely not. Never. There is zero gain to NASCAR instituting anything like the “avoidable contact” penalties that are commonplace in F1, IndyCar and sports car racing.

One of the NASCAR pillars is built upon is that unlike most other forms of racing, drivers have wide leeway to use their bumpers to engage in on-track physicality. Change how NASCAR officiates incidents between drivers, even minor ones, and you’re running the risk of altering what is a fundamental essence of NASCAR. Moments like the one between Logano and Byron are how NASCAR (and its television partners) want to see a race concluded. Finishes such as these offer drama and generate storylines, and they get people talking.

Under a revised policy, gone would be the classic bump-and-run move that is a staple on short tracks because that would be a surefire penalty. Imagine the barrage of penalties that would be called during a race at Bristol or Martinsville; you might as well eliminate both tracks at that point to avoid a barrage of penalties called.

There are few guarantees in life but here is one: The vast majority of NASCAR fans would revolt — we’re talking about a grab the torches and pitchforks and storm NASCAR’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla., kind of revolt — if NASCAR adapted contact penalties.

Which NASCAR track should add a fake harbor like the Miami F1 track? — Justin V.

Talladega seems like the ideal location. Not because solely of the absurdity of a fake marina inside Talladega but for the potential of what antics would occur in a marina. Martinsville is the second choice because eating a Martinsville hot dog while sitting on a yacht stationed in a fake harbor sounds like something out of a bad sitcom.

Was this past weekend’s Darlington race the perfect NASCAR race? It had a little of something for everyone and not too much of any one particular thing. I feel like it should be the poster child of what NASCAR wants in a race. — Richie M.

“Perfect” is a strong descriptor, but it’s more than fair to say that Darlington again delivered, indeed offering fans a little bit of everything. It had solid, competitive racing, an uber-challenging track, drivers could pass (Kevin Harvick, Elliott and Hamlin each started in the back and worked their way forward), there was pit strategy, unpredictability (Justin Haley finishing third) and plenty of fireworks with Logano shoving aside Byron for the win.

If you’re a NASCAR fan and didn’t enjoy that, it might be time to re-evaluate your expectations. The only quibble: It took 3 hours, 21 minutes to complete. That’s a considerable amount of time to invest into a race taking place during the afternoon on Mother’s Day.

Should Darlington be the championship race if one race is going to decide it all? It seems to be a driver’s track to the fullest. — Liam C.

On merit alone, yes, Darlington is the kind of track that should host the championship finale. Similar to Homestead, Darlington pushes drivers and offers an ideal showcase of their ability to control a car, manage tires and adapt to changing conditions.

Of course, it’s not that straightforward. It never is.

The early November date of when the championship race is held is a hurdle. NASCAR has preferred the race to be held in a warm-weather locale — Homestead-Miami Speedway from 2002 to 2019, then shifting to Phoenix Raceway where it currently resides.

Also, Miami and Phoenix are also big markets, giving NASCAR additional media attention as opposed to a venue in rural South Carolina without an abundance of lodging and other entertainment options.

Maybe these factors shouldn’t matter, but there has been no indication that NASCAR is open to deviating from this approach. Darlington’s best hope to land the championship finale is if NASCAR begins rotating the race around on an annual basis. Perhaps then NASCAR’s decision-makers may feel comfortable giving the venerable track a shot because it would just be a one-year experiment, not a long-term commitment.

What reasonable steps could NASCAR take to turn more of their races into events? And is any attempt to make a race more unique/special minimized by the fact that there are already 36 races on the schedule? — Jared C.

A good question, one quite a few people within the industry have been asking the past few years.

The problem, as Jared notes, is the Cup Series schedule encompasses 36 races running from mid-February to early November. That’s a considerable amount to hold an audience’s attention span. And it doesn’t help that quite a few races extend well past three hours, only making it harder to invest one’s time. The issues facing NASCAR aren’t all that dissimilar from those that Major League Baseball is encountering, both with a marathon of a season and games that often feel overly long.

But the schedule is unlikely to be scaled down to a more digestible number. Eliminating any races would mean a reduction in television rights fees, which simply doesn’t make economic sense when that money is the lifeblood that keeps NASCAR going.

One solution is the frequency it visits some tracks during a season. Racing multiple times on the same tracks year after year gives a feel of stagnation, dampening excitement even if that track is a venue like Darlington. NASCAR recognizes this, and it has factored into Michigan, Dover, New Hampshire, Pocono and Texas each losing a points race since 2018.

Still, more could be done. Of tracks on the current schedule that have two dates, a good argument could be made that Kansas, Las Vegas, Darlington, Phoenix, Atlanta and Richmond should all go down to just a single annual date. That alone would give each visit to the aforementioned tracks some uniqueness. For example, say you’re a NASCAR fan wanting to attend a race at Kansas, would you want to attend Sunday’s race or in the fall when the track hosts a playoff race? The latter has more significance and Sunday largely elicits a shrug of the shoulders.

Other suggestions include something like what Talladega does as it offers assorted extracurricular activities after hours in its notorious Boulevard or what Gateway announced this week with the track planning to host a music festival in conjunction with its Cup weekend. The music acts include Old Dominion, Nelly and Cole Swindell. Tracks also could look to do what Bristol and Charlotte have done as their two races are distinctly different — Bristol has both a dirt and paved oval, Charlotte an oval and a road course race.

(Photo of Kyle Busch: Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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