Every year, the wintertime and the NASCAR offseason is a welcome -- but very short -- respite from what is otherwise a demanding, year-long grind of racing. Come 2024, that grind is soon to begin again, and exactly what it looks like will be based in large part on these months where driver lineups, crew lineups and rules packages are set.
With much activity going on within the confines of race shops across NASCAR, here are some major storylines for the week of Dec. 4 as the offseason continues.
Offseason testing in Phoenix
One month after Ryan Blaney was crowned the Cup Series champion and the 2023 season was completed out west, Blaney and a select group of other drivers and teams returned to Phoenix Raceway for a two-day test as NASCAR looked at a number of aerodynamic and technical changes for the Next Gen car. Blaney was one of six drivers to participate in the test, joining Chris Buescher, Erik Jones, Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson and Corey LaJoie.
The first day of testing centered around different splitters and diffusers as well as tires engineered to degrade more during green flag runs as NASCAR tries to build upon marginal improvements made to the Next Gen car's short track package in 2023. According to Cole Cusumano, teams ran a simplified diffuser -- featuring just two fins in the middle at a 90-degree angle -- as well as an alternate splitter design.
After ascertaining a direction on aerodynamics and tires, NASCAR spent the second day of the test experimenting with existing mufflers to slightly soften the otherwise deafening noise made by Cup Series motors. Gearbox and shifting changes were not included as part of this test.
Speaking to reporters, Blaney noted the biggest difference came in the alternate splitter, which significantly reduced downforce.
"It was big. The first laps I had I was like, 'Man, this thing drives way different,'" Blaney said. "... It's a massive aero loss when you do that. And then the simple diffuser wasn't as big of a change as the splitter, but it was still something to feel."
The topic of mufflers -- while anathema to the purest of gearheads -- has been one that has occasionally popped up in the Next Gen era, particularly with NASCAR now using mufflers in urban settings at stadiums (Los Angeles Coliseum) and on street courses (Chicago) where noise ordinances are more of a consideration. Kyle Larson told reporters he did not notice a difference in cockpit cooling with the mufflers tested on Wednesday, but spoke positively of the idea overall.
"I definitely think our racecars are way too loud, and probably are still too loud with the mufflers," Larson said. "I think the cars can be quieter just to help the fan experience."
Notable crew changes
Not one, but two of the biggest stars in NASCAR will have new eyes in the sky in 2024, as the spotters for both Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney announced they will be stepping down. Eddie D'Hondt announced Saturday he would not return as Elliott's spotter next season, followed Monday by Josh Williams announcing he would step down as Blaney's spotter.
Last weeks NASCAR banquet was my last call as spotter for the 12 team and Team Penske. After 9 years it was time to personally and professionally make a change for myself and my family. Im forever grateful to everyone I’ve gotten to work with at TP, especially those that have… pic.twitter.com/ELtV7aRpjS— Josh Williams (@joshtwilliams) December 4, 2023
According to Bob Pockrass of Fox Sports, former NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Tim Fedewa, the longtime spotter for Kevin Harvick, will take over as the spotter for Blaney next season. A possible landing spot for Williams exists at Spire Motorsports, as Williams has previously spotted for Zane Smith in the Craftsman Truck Series.
Spire Motorsports announced a number of personnel moves this week, hiring Stephen Doran as the crew chief for Smith's No. 71 Chevrolet and Luke Lambert as the crew chief of the No. 77 for Carson Hocevar. Doran joins Spire from Stewart-Haas Racing, where he was an engineer on the No. 4 team, while Lambert moves to Spire after being crew chief of the No. 42 at Legacy Motor Club in 2023.
In addition, Spire has also hired Doug Duchardt, whose career in racing has included stints at General Motors and Chip Ganassi Racing, as its new team president.
Drivers on the move
Unbeknownst to most at last Sunday's Washington Commanders game, many in NASCAR became aware of a part of Joe Gibbs Racing's 2024 plans in the Xfinity Series and the apparent hiring of a Cup veteran. While serving as a guest of the team, Joe Gibbs was seen introducing Aric Almirola to Commanders owner Josh Harris, with lip readers online ascertaining that Gibbs appeared to tell Harris that Almirola is now driving for them.
According to Bob Pockrass, the expectation is that Almirola will drive part-time for Joe Gibbs Racing -- where he began his NASCAR career in the 2000s -- in the Xfinity Series, joining a driver lineup that will also include Chandler Smith and Sheldon Creed. Such would align with the expectations for Almirola's racing future, as he had entertained continuing to race part-time when it was announced he would not return to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2024.
The matter of Almirola's replacement in the SHR No. 10 has been a rather poorly-kept secret: It is widely expected the team will hire Noah Gragson as its new driver as Gragson looks to reclaim his standing as a bright young star following a disastrous rookie year in Cup with Legacy Motor Club. Gragson was recently spotted at Stewart-Haas Racing's shop, and he also drove a Ford in this past weekend's Snowball Derby with Rette Jones Racing.
Gragson did not let on to any 2024 plans in a recent conversation with Matt Weaver of Sportsnaut, instead choosing to discuss his regrets and personal growth from the end of his rookie season. Gragsonin August while serving a month-long suspension after he was spotted having liked a racially insensitive meme on his Instagram account.
"There have been some challenges this year, but I wouldn't trade them for anything in the world," Gragson said. "I don't know that I would change anything that has happened because I have learned from it and it gives me a chance to be a better person.
"In life, you either win or you learn, on and off the racetrack. The wins have been great, but you learn through the hardships and defeats. I am grateful to have good people around me, and I'm working really hard every day to hopefully get a second chance and to make the most of it."
While the Stewart-Haas No. 10 seat is seemingly filled, some intrigue still exists as to exactly who will drive the No. 16 for Kaulig Racing next season. After running the car full-time in 2023, it was announced Thursday that A.J. Allmendinger would go back to full-time Xfinity Series racing for Kaulig in 2024, though he will continue to run a partial Cup schedule.
The assumption of many had been that the No. 16 would be taken over by Ty Dillon, but that assumption may have been premature. Weaver shared in a recent thread on X that information suggesting Dillon had been hired to drive the No. 16 was "incorrect," casting ambiguity on both who will join Daniel Hemric at Kaulig next season as well as the exact plans of Dillon, who has bounced from team to team since Germain Racing shut down following the 2020 season.
Nuts and Bolts
- Last weekend's Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway, the biggest event in late model stock car racing, featured a significant presence of NASCAR drivers from the top of the Cup Series to those trying to work their way up the ranks. NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver Ty Majeski took home his second Snowball Derby win in the past four years, inheriting the lead after Stephen Nasse and Bubba Pollard took each other out while racing for the win in the final laps.
- On the sponsorship front, Legacy Motor Club announced that AdventHealth has joined the team and will sponsor Erik Jones' No. 43 Toyota in six races next season, including the Daytona 500. In addition, AdventHealth will also sponsor the No. 84 driven by NASCAR Hall of Famer Jimmie Johnson in three races at Texas, Charlotte and Kansas.
- Trackhouse Racing has expanded into motorcycle racing, as it was announced this week that the organization would field a team in the MotoGP World Championship. Trackhouse Racing will become the only U.S.-based team in MotoGP, fielding two cycles for riders Miguel Oliveira and Raul Fernandez.
- Sonoma Raceway formally announced this week that the course will be repaved for the 2024 season, with work set to begin following its final event of the season the weekend of Dec. 16. The repave will be completed in time for next season's Cup Series race at Sonoma in early June.