NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Nearly one month after Ryan Blaney was crowned the champion of NASCAR's 75th Anniversary season, stock car racing's best convened in downtown Nashville, Tennessee for NASCAR Champion's Week, the sport's year-end awards banquet. For Blaney, the 15 other drivers who made the 2023 NASCAR playoffs, and the champions of NASCAR's other national, regional and local touring series, the week marked the opportunity to commemorate the season that was while also looking ahead to what's to come in 2024.
On Thursday afternoon, all 16 playoff drivers, plus Xfinity Series champion Cole Custer and Craftsman Truck Series champion Ben Rhodes, met with the media to speak on a variety of on and off-track topics. Here are some of the notable storylines to come from Champion's Week.
Blaney doubling down?
One of the most significant storylines of NASCAR's 2024 season will be one Cup champion's attempt at the Indy-Charlotte Double, as Kyle Larson will become the latest driver to run both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. There is already a tremendous level of expectation throughout NASCAR for Larson's Indy 500 bid, and now, the newest Cup champion is expressing interest in The Greatest Spectacle in Racing as well.
Speaking to the media on Thursday morning, Roger Penske -- who owns both Team Penske and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- mentioned that Ryan Blaney has told him over the past several weeks he'd like to run the Indianapolis 500. Blaney confirmed his interest while speaking to reporters, saying the idea has "bounced around in my mind" for the last couple of years.
Even though he ended up winning the Cup championship, Ryan Blaney says he's still jealous that Bubba Wallace got to meet Mark Hamill. Struck out on getting Bubba's Star Wars helmet but he'll settle for his firesuit— Steven Taranto (@STaranto92) November 30, 2023
+ thoughts on a potential Indy 500 bid pic.twitter.com/OdjZNNnbg3
"I've poked around that idea with RP for a couple years now, and I might have to bring it back up," Blaney said. "So we'll see where that goes."
Larson is joining a very select fraternity of NASCAR drivers to have run The Double, as Larson will join a group that includes John Andretti, Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch. In expressing his interest to run the Indy 500, Blaney directly referenced his admiration for that group of less than half a dozen who have run both races in the same day.
"I just feel like not many people can do that, can do The Double. It's a pretty short list, and it'd be neat to just do it," Blaney said. "I have respect for all forms of motorsports, so I think you want to go experience something like that. I think at my age it'd be kind of perfect to do it. But I just think the nostalgia of it -- being able to say you ran, hopefully, 1,100 miles in one day on the racetrack -- is a cool feat. Cool for Kyle being able to do it, and maybe one day I'll get the privilege to."
The next stage for RFK Racing
Among the announcements made during Champion's Week was RFK Racing's revelation that the team will debut its new "Stage 60" program in 2024, fielding a third car -- the No. 60 Ford -- in select Cup Series races. Veteran driver David Ragan will debut the car in next year's Daytona 500, and the program is expected to be focused on superspeedway and road course races next season.
Speaking to reporters, team co-owner Brad Keselowski stressed that while the principle behind the program was to field a third car, it's paramount that RFK Racing is deliberate in how it chooses to grow, ensuring that any new team it debuts is competitive.
Brad Keselowski spoke at length about the creation of Stage 60. Says it's a targeted effort as RFK Racing tries to "crawl" towards expanding as a team and being deliberate about that.— Steven Taranto (@STaranto92) November 30, 2023
Focus for the 60 car sounds like it'll be superspeedways and road courses. pic.twitter.com/Ft0KDjhvJH
"We realized that we needed to kind of crawl, walk, and run our way to making that a successful venture," Keselowski said of expansion. "And I think the premise behind Daytona is that's probably one of the easier races for us to run with respect to selling a partner, bringing in a good driver like David, and then the success that we've had with our cars at those tracks. We felt really confident that we could go there and be competitive.
"... That requires, even for an existing company like RFK, an intentional process of how to get a team up from the ground to be successful. Today you could still just start a team and show up as an uncharted car and run, but the reality of you being competitive is very, very small. I just think that where we're at as a company, we don't want to just grow just to grow. I'm not particularly interested in that. We want to grow to be successful. And so it takes a very measured means to do that, and I think that's what the Stage 60 car represents for us."
Denny down for The Clash?
Only a few weeks after a fifth-place finish in the final championship standings, Denny Hamlin arrived for his media obligations in Nashville with his right arm wrapped in a sling following offseason shoulder surgery, a procedure Joe Gibbs Racing confirmed last week. Hamlin underwent a procedure that was supposed to have been similar to a previous surgery on a bone spur on his left side, but it ended up being worse than anticipated.
After suffering popped tendons in his right shoulder while playing sports during Las Vegas weekend, Hamlin shared that running the rest of the season caused further damage to his shoulder, as the combination of a genetic bone spur and the popped tendons led to Hamlin grinding on his rotator cuff and aggravating his existing condition prior to surgery. Now, Hamlin shared that he faces a longer recovery process -- approximately three months -- than he anticipated, and he did not commit to whether he would be physically ready to run the Busch Light Clash next February.
Denny Hamlin arrived to his media availability with his arm in a sling following shoulder surgery. Was supposed to be just a bone spur procedure but he hurt his shoulder during Vegas weekend and racing the rest of the season aggravated the injury. pic.twitter.com/BAsZpOf4vd— Steven Taranto (@STaranto92) November 30, 2023
"I'm a long, long way from where I need to be. I thought I was gonna have a three-four week recovery like I did before, and I came out knowing that I had a ton of damage that needed to be fixed," Hamlin said. "... Do we need to analyze The Clash? Maybe when the time comes. Because from what I've heard, they don't want me loading [my shoulder] for three months. Obviously that timeline does not line up for what I need."
Though Hamlin did not commit to running The Clash, the exhibition race at the Los Angeles Coliseum that opens the season, he didn't rule out being able to compete either -- namely given that he gutted out the final five races of the season despite the injury, which proved significantly debilitating both in and out of the cockpit.
"I find it hard to believe that I'll have more pain in late January than what I did at the end of October and November. Getting through those last five races was really, really hard," Hamlin said. "And so I think that if I can get through that, then certainly I'll probably be able to challenge myself to get back in a car sooner than what they would want me to."
The All-Harvick team
Now a month removed from his final race at Phoenix and the end of his NASCAR career, 2014 Cup Series champion and future Hall of Famer Kevin Harvick is officially set to move into the next phase of his career. Harvick will become an analyst for Fox Sports in 2024, joining play-by-play announcer Mike Joy and fellow analyst and former Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer in the broadcast booth.
Forming the exact dynamic of the three-man booth, and exactly what role Harvick takes on in that group, will be a subject of intrigue for NASCAR's television audience. And in some ways, the natural comparison for Harvick's projected role in the Fox Sports booth is the one that Greg Olsen -- who is local to many in the NASCAR industry as a legendary tight end for the Carolina Panthers -- has stepped into as the A analyst for Fox's NFL coverage.
The natural comparison for Kevin Harvick at Fox Sports is to @gregolsen88 , who's been very successful as their A analyst. Harvick says he likes Olsen's bold, to the point style— Steven Taranto (@STaranto92) November 30, 2023
That said, Harvick would like to try and step into a role akin to the one John Madden once had. pic.twitter.com/EvBOHgRKpc
Like many in the Charlotte area, Harvick is a great admirer of Olsen's abilities as a broadcaster. But in the grand scheme of his continued role in the sport, Harvick drew a comparison to the incomparable John Madden in terms of the impact he wants to have on NASCAR.
"I like Greg's style, because it's just very bold and to the point. I think that's the easiest way to do it -- just be who you are and tell it like it is. But Greg's got a very strong personality and is very knowledgeable about what it is," Harvick said. "I think for me, I think when you look at somebody like ... I use John Madden as the example, because I really like what John Madden did with football, right?
"He could sit in the booth, tell a great story about a game, but also go sit in the offices and make an impact on the sport. I want to continue to be a part of the sport and help the drivers and NASCAR and teach and learn in the same breath. But I think a lot of the things that I've been fortunate to be able to do can hopefully help some of these guys and gals as they learn go forward and be better at what they do. I envision the booth as a big part of being able to help the sport as well in ways outside of the booth, because you get to see and hear a lot of things."
Comparison, the thief of Bubba's joy
Given that they became best friends as they rose through the racing ranks together, one may have expected that Ryan Blaney winning his first Cup championship would be a triumph Bubba Wallace would be able to enjoy. However, that isn't what ended up happening. Instead, Wallace had to spend the initial part of the offseason trying to keep himself upright mentally.
In a social media post following Phoenix, Wallace let on that he was fighting against feelings of hopelessness and wasn't able to enjoy celebrating Blaney's championship with him, which the two ended up discussing over the phone a few days later. Wallace was able to laugh about it Thursday, joking that Blaney went through the same thing when mutual friend and contemporary Chase Elliott won the title in 2020.
"I was like, 'Man, I guess you winning the championship sent me into depression. Damn. Congrats, but I didn't want to see that,'" Wallace said. "He was like, 'Yeah, Chase did it to me three years ago.'"
Wallace has been open about his struggles with depression in the past, referencing a 2019 season that was personally difficult for him. He credited his wife with helping him work through his issues, and he openly appreciated how the mental health struggles he faces are not as severe as those others experience.
"The next thing you know, the clock strikes five o'clock and it's like, 'How's it going?' and I'm like, 'Oh, I'm good.' It just kind of blows over," Wallace said. "I know it's not that easy for a lot of people, it lingers for days and days and weeks. But you know, the grass is always greener, the sun comes up."
Bubba Wallace says there's a little bit of satisfaction in finishing Top 10 in the Cup standings, but he's not completely satisfied. Missing out on a win is a major "yeah, but" for him as he focuses on continuing to run up front consistently next year. pic.twitter.com/0ZP6QriQTj— Steven Taranto (@STaranto92) November 30, 2023
The 2023 season was by far the best of Wallace's career, as he parlayed five top fives and 10 top 10s into his first playoff run and a 10th-place finish in the final Cup Series standings. Wallace, however, let on that he wasn't satisfied -- mentioning in particular the missed opportunities he had to win a race despite performing at a high level more consistently than in any of his prior seasons.
"A lot of people are like, 'Hey man, it's a great year. You did great.' I'm like, 'Yeah, but,'" you know? I'm just competitive. I want to win, I know how hard it is, and I know we gave up a couple wins this year," Wallace said. "I think just really focusing on that and just trying to be better ... Not being so surprised when the No. 23 is running up front. We've got to get used to that and make the most of it and make it last."