2024 NASCAR season preview: Playoff picks, top driver, best rivalry and more

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2024 NASCAR season preview: Playoff picks, top driver, best rivalry and more

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Now entering its third season, NASCAR’s Next Gen car keeps giving us enough new wrinkles to keep things unpredictable at the start of each year.

The latest: Toyota and Ford have new cars in 2024, which could upset the balance of power and strengthen those teams on a variety of different tracks.

Or … maybe not! Who knows? With a lack of preseason testing, it’s a guessing game once again throughout the entire garage.

That includes The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck and Jordan Bianchi, but the prospect of being wrong has never stopped us before. So as we enter Daytona 500 week, here are our preseason awards predictions and our picks to make the playoffs, the Championship 4 and win the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series title.

Driver of the Year

Gluck: William Byron. The Hendrick Motorsports driver led the series last year in wins, top-fives, top-10s and average finish (in addition to being second in laps led). Have we mentioned he’s still only 26? Twenty-six! This guy is nowhere near his peak and is continuing to only get better. He’s going to win at least three races again and likely be consistent enough to make a run for the regular-season title. This could be way wrong if Chevrolet as a whole takes a hit in the shadow of Ford and Toyota’s new cars — which could mean some Denny Hamlin dominance, except we’re done picking Hamlin for anything. As Hamlin has said himself, he’s cursed.

Bianchi: Kyle Larson. Byron is a great pick. He could have a 2024 season in line with the one he had in 2023. But from this perspective, Larson is the selection. His stats from a year ago weren’t far off Byron’s — Larson led more laps and had the same number of top-fives — and had circumstances played out a bit differently, Larson could have had more than four wins compared to Byron’s six. The difference is Larson is at a level in his career where he feels like a lock each season to have three or more victories and be in contention for the regular-season championship, whereas we don’t know if Byron has hit that point because he’s only reached that status once. Give Larson a slight edge over Byron.

Breakout Driver

Gluck: Ty Gibbs. You’re going to see a lot of Gibbs mentions in this post, but with good reason. The 21-year-old seems poised to make his first playoff appearance in his sophomore season and has already shown the flashes of speed that should make him a mainstay in the Cup Series for the next couple of decades. He’s still got plenty of room to grow, both on and off the track, but that should only scare the competition because his ceiling is quite high. He’ll win a race this season (as evidenced by having the fastest car at the Clash) and will probably be a playoff driver for the next 20 years or so.

Bianchi: Gibbs. The obvious answer is Gibbs for all the reasons Jeff laid out. He’s an A-level talent who, with experience, has the potential to become a dominating force. And while Gibbs still has a ways to go before he’s running with the likes of Larson, Byron, Denny Hamlin, etc. every single week, there will be moments during the season where he’s in the mix for the victory. Pencil him in for a win and a playoff berth.

Rookie of the Year

Gluck: Josh Berry. This is a really tough call between the likes of Berry, Carson Hocevar and Zane Smith, but Berry’s experience earns him the slight nod here. Berry, 33, is much older than most rookies — but that might also serve him well throughout the course of a grueling season where all three should struggle to find performance at times. This won’t be easy, but Berry’s substitute duty for Hendrick Motorsports last season shows he’s capable of contending when the car is fast enough.

Bianchi: Berry. This is a very good crop of rookies — the deepest class since 2020 — and Berry, Hocevar and Smith all have merit. What separates them, and why Berry is the favorite to win the honor, is their respective situations. Hocevar and Smith are with a Spire Motorsports team that, while growing and increasing its investment, is not yet at the level of Stewart-Haas Racing. And in addition to driving for SHR, Berry is also working with superstar crew chief Rodney Childers. These are considerable advantages.

At 33 years old, Josh Berry is in a good position to be the top Cup rookie in 2024. He had three top-10s in eight fill-in starts for Hendrick Motorsports last year. (Jason Parkhurst / USA Today)

Best Rivalry

Gluck: Gibbs vs. Joey Logano. This feels like cheating, since we already got a terrific preview at the Clash. “I’ve watched this my whole life.” “Keep watching, buddy! Keeeeep watching.” Oooooh. Spicy. Logano gave quite a rational explanation of his side during a weekly SiriusXM appearance last week and certainly seemed open to a resolution, but it sounded like they already went through a similar discussion after their incident at Martinsville last fall. If Gibbs keeps running Logano hard and doesn’t back down, the fireworks will continue.

Bianchi: Gibbs vs. Logano. If Gibbs is going to take the next step everyone thinks he will in 2024, then having more run-ins with Logano feels inevitable. Neither driver backs down. Let’s also not dismiss the chance that Ross Chastain again does something to draw someone’s ire. Would anyone be at all surprised?

Biggest Disappointment

Gluck: Stewart-Haas Racing. Those of you who listen to our podcast, The Teardown, know I’ve famously made terrible back-to-back picks in this space. Two years ago, I said the biggest disappointment would be Trackhouse Racing; the team promptly used it for bulletin board material and both drivers won their first career race to make the playoffs that season. Last year, I picked RFK Racing — and both of their drivers made the playoffs (a season that included three victories from Chris Buescher).

That’s why this year, I’m piling onto SHR’s woes like an internet bully. Where is the reason for optimism with this team? Kevin Harvick is gone and the most senior member of the team experience-wise, Chase Briscoe, is only in his fourth season. Questions are swirling around the organization, like whether Ford will extend its manufacturer deal (which expires at the end of the year) and whether Gene Haas could sell a charter (or charters?) if the poor performance continues. That said, if you work for SHR and you’re reading this — your selection here could be terrific news based on my track record.

Bianchi: SHR. Congratulations, SHR, Jeff just assured you of having a sensational 2024 season that includes multiple wins and playoff berths. In all seriousness, though, what reason is there to think SHR is going to be any better than it has been for the past few years? Fairly or not, the prevailing sense in the garage is that this organization is headed in the wrong direction with little hope of pulling out of the tailspin.

Surprise Playoff Driver

Gluck: None. I made this pick last year and was wrong (at this time last year, you would have said Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael McDowell were both not expected to make the playoffs). And it’s always risky to think this way, because all it takes is one superspeedway win and suddenly there’s an underdog in the final 16. But on paper, I’m not seeing how any surprises can jump up and make the playoffs this year — at least on points alone. If anything, the field should be even stronger with Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman running full seasons instead of trying to make the cut after missing races with injuries.

Bianchi: Erik Jones. It may take a few months, but once Legacy Motor Club fully integrates into being a Toyota-supported organization and gets all its new personnel on the same page, look for Erik Jones and his No. 43 team to take advantage. All it takes is a single victory during the regular season to qualify for the playoffs, which is something Jones can certainly accomplish. And don’t forget, both Darlington races occur during the regular season this year, giving Jones two chances to win at his best track, where he’s won twice before.

Erik Jones

Can Erik Jones crack the playoff field? He’s in a good position at Legacy Motor Club and gets two regular-season cracks to tame Darlington, a track where he’s won twice. (Chris Graythen / Getty Images)

Most Likely First-Time Winner

Gluck: Gibbs. The reasons were laid out earlier, but there’s another big one here as well — the list of drivers who have never won a race is fairly thin. You could make a case for Corey LaJoie if Spire Motorsports continues to improve. After that, you’re looking at Ryan Preece, Todd Gilliland, Harrison Burton, John Hunter Nemechek … you get the point. None of those drivers are in the type of equipment you’d think would contend for wins very often.

Bianchi: Gibbs. LaJoie winning on a superspeedway or SHR’s Preece winning on a flat short oval (think Martinsville, Richmond or New Hampshire) wouldn’t be all that shocking. But Gibbs, again, is the obvious selection. In fact, he may win multiple times.

Playoff picks for the 16-driver field (in alphabetical order)

Gluck and Bianchi (15):

  • Christopher Bell
  • Ryan Blaney
  • Alex Bowman
  • Chris Buescher
  • Kyle Busch
  • William Byron
  • Ross Chastain
  • Chase Elliott
  • Ty Gibbs
  • Denny Hamlin
  • Brad Keselowski
  • Kyle Larson
  • Joey Logano
  • Tyler Reddick
  • Martin Truex Jr.

Gluck only (1):

Bianchi only (1):

Gluck explanation: This is the opposite of going out on a limb. But it’s also difficult to sit here and make a case for why any of these drivers won’t make it. One of the Hendrick or Gibbs drivers are going to miss the playoffs? They shouldn’t, and that’s half of the field (eight drivers) right there. I’m not expecting RFK Racing or 23XI Racing to regress, so that’s four more. Team Penske has won the last two championships, and those guys aren’t going to miss the playoffs. Suddenly, we’re down to only two slots. I have Ross Chastain and Kyle Busch in those. So who are you going to bump? I’m sure the playoff field won’t be that straightforward, but sitting here in February, it’s tough to see another driver outrunning those 16.

Bianchi explanation: This feels too straightforward, right? Consider 1) a notable name or two is likely to miss the playoffs just as Truex, Elliott, Bowman, Logano and Jimmie Johnson have done in recent years; and 2) there is always a driver or two who unexpectedly scores an upset win to punch their playoff ticket. But even taking into account these two tenets, there are no obvious red flags exist to eliminate the usual suspects. So while there should be some deviation, it’s hard to go too far out on a limb. The only difference is Wallace falls out of my projected bracket and Jones slides in.

17th-place driver (first driver to miss)

Gluck: Jones. I wanted to find a way to put Jones into the field, but I couldn’t justify taking out Keselowski or Bowman (which were the two I considered). There’s a lot of reason to be optimistic about Jones, though. Legacy is going to be naturally improved with its Toyota connection after it had to race blindly through much of last season following news of its manufacturer change (which prompted Chevrolet to cut off the information flow). And Jones continues to be an underrated and impressive driver; heck, he won the Southern 500 again two years ago. He’ll have a solid season, but I’m just not sure it’s enough to make the playoffs.

Bianchi: Wallace. He narrowly misses out on a second consecutive playoff berth. Though it also wouldn’t be surprising if he wins multiple races for the first time in his career and goes on a deep playoff run.

Championship 4 drivers

Gluck: Byron, Larson, Hamlin, Reddick

Bianchi: Byron, Chastain, Larson, Truex

2024 Cup Series champion

Gluck: Larson. This is a significant gamble in the sense we don’t know if Chevrolet’s performance will decline. If Chevy as a whole is down, then this pick could be very wrong. But as we wrote in December, 2024 seems like it could be the Year of Larson. Capping off a busy season with his second Cup Series title seems entirely possible.

Bianchi: Truex. Assuming Chevrolet doesn’t suffer much of a performance drop-off, an argument could be made for either of the Hendrick teammates. But the chatter within the garage is the redesigned Toyota Camry is fast, which, if true, would translate into Joe Gibbs Racing having the fastest cars on the track. Look for Truex to capitalize on this by having his usual exceptional regular season, then breezing his way through the first three playoff rounds into the Championship Four — where he wins his second Cup title.

(Top photos of Martin Truex Jr., Ty Gibbs and Kyle Larson: Sean Gardner / Getty Images; Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images; Sean Gardner / Getty Images)