The new Netflix series launched last month. The Clash at the Coliseum was last week. Come Sunday, the eyes of the racing world will be on Daytona International Speedway once again.
That’s right, a brand-new season of NASCAR is right around the corner. Qualifying for the 2024 Daytona 500 begins on Wednesday night. Twenty-four hours later, the Duel kicks off to confirm the final few places in the Great American Race, and the green flag drops on Sunday.
Who better to get you primed for another season of spirited stock-car shenanigans than Marty Smith and Ryan McGee?
McGee: All right, son. Daytona is here. Is there an overarching theme for the 2024 NASCAR season that you’re watching out for?
Marty: I think the sport has a lot of momentum coming off of the “Full Speed” documentary on Netflix.
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McGee: Starring you.
Marty: It really developed a lot of characters that I think will garner interest from people that otherwise wouldn’t have known or cared. Certainly, Denny Hamlin was the big winner in that and he’ll be a factor at Daytona. You can put that in the bank.
McGee: One of only four three-time winners. The only drivers with more are Richard Petty with seven and Cale Yarborough with four.
Marty: There always feels like there’s a new and beautiful energy down there at Daytona every time we go, because it is a new season. There is that sense of renewal, rebirth.
McGee: We say it all the time, the Daytona 500 prerace grid is Earth’s happiest place. Remember that time we got caught out there walking the length of the pit lane? The only humans on the hot side of the wall were the drivers rolling out onto the track and Marty & McGee, walking our butts off, just hoping no NASCAR officials saw us.
Marty: We were pumping our fists and walking like hell, and the Wood Brothers were like, “Hey guys … um … what are you doing out there?” But that’s that energy I’m talking about. It’s always there. But I just think that this season has so much potential. Look at a champion like Ryan Blaney. I think because he is so invested in the sport, McGee, he gives so much of his own time to grow the sport on all these different platforms.
McGee: Like, ahem, our Never Tell Me The Odds ESPN Star Wars podcast, just this week!
Marty: It just feels like there’s a lot of positive momentum.
McGee: And youthful momentum. I remember the last real preseason NASCAR Media Tour, five years ago, and this huge rift opened up between Blaney’s generation of guys versus the established guard of the sport. Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch were mad because those younger guys were doing all of this marketing work and, in the minds of the veterans, hadn’t yet earned that right. We all wrote then, “Is this the changing of the guard?” But it wasn’t because the older dudes answered by winning all the next championships and races. But I feel like it’s happened now. Do you?
Marty: Yes, I do. But I also think that part of that is that all the old dudes are gone. You know, the standard-bearing guys for so many years are all retired now. Harvick is now in the TV booth. All these guys that won all these races and all these championships for so long are now ambassadors, owners, television analysts. So yeah, man, I do feel like there is this group of young drivers, and I feel like they do have personalities to grow the sport, if they want to.
McGee: That’s the key phrase: “If they want to.” I have argued with some of the guys that we’re talking about, that they have the personality, but the fans say they don’t because they haven’t actually been introduced to these guys. Period. Maybe Netflix changes that. We just saw Jimmie Johnson go into the NASCAR Hall of Fame last month, and you and I wrestled with that perception his entire career, people telling us, “Well, this guy is boring” and we’re like, “No, he’s actually the least boring person you’ll ever meet!” But for whatever reason, that connection never happened, and I feel like these guys now maybe have a better handle on that.
Marty: I look at it, Blaney is a great personality, but he’s a very unique personality in that he’s very jovial away from it all. When he puts the helmet on, he turns into an assassin. Then there’s those guys that have been around a while that still have a competitive fire, whether that’s Hamlin, Busch, Joey Logano …
McGee: Martin Truex, Jr.
Marty: All those guys, young and old, have the potential to be great factors. All of them are champions. So, you know they know how to do it, but can you put it together in this current format? It’s just so hard to win in the format right now. No Daytona 500 winner has gone on to win the championship since Jimmie Johnson in 2013.
McGee: I like it being hard on these guys. I’m a sick sportswriter. So, mix it up! That’s why I like what NASCAR keeps doing to the schedule, too. Really ever since 2020, they are willing to try some stuff and if it works, great. If it doesn’t, OK, they won’t do it like that again. But the idea of moving dates around, bringing back North Wilkesboro, finally sending a Cup race to Iowa Speedway, I just like the fact that they are willing to try things, and I really like the fact that it keeps teams on their toes.
Marty: I agree. And I am really fascinated to see what it really means for Jimmie Johnson’s team, Legacy Motor Club, because they have moved to Toyota and have two young drivers in Erik Jones — even though he’s been around a while — and John Hunter Nemechek. Jimmie Johnson has been in a Chevrolet quite literally his entire life, but he moves to Toyota based on the fact that they go from a team that was not considered elite tier by their own manufacturer to one that is by Toyota. So, what does that ultimately mean? They have Matt Kenseth on board in an executive role. Jimmie driving in nine races, starting at Daytona. Jimmie Johnson with something to prove is a scary idea.
McGee: Meanwhile, over at his former team, Hendrick Motorsports, Chase Elliott has something to prove, too. He’s this mix of everything we’ve talked about: a young guy but also a veteran, a former champion but facing the hurdles of the format while also coming off a brutally disappointing season in which he was hurt, suspended and missed the Playoff. Worst-case scenario.
Marty: The most popular driver in the sport. And he didn’t win a race in 2023. So, what kind of fire does he show up with? I think he probably will have a chip on his shoulder to prove some things.
McGee: As we like to say on “Marty & McGee,” we’ll get you out of here on this. We’ve talked about drivers. We’ve talked about racetracks. We’ve talked about NASCAR in general. Would you like to now have a rousing, lengthy conversation about charters and the ongoing financial negotiations between NASCAR and team owners?
Marty: No, thank you.