5 burning questions for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season

Will We Top Last Year’s Race Winner Count?

In 2021, we saw 17 different winners in 36 points paying races. With a new car in 2022, that number unticked to 19 winners in 36 points paying races. Factor in the Duels and All-Star race and that number actually jumps to 22. Do we see a similar parity trend in 2023?

So far, we’re 1-for-1 with Martin Truex Jr. not winning a race at all a year ago and finding victory lane in the Clash. How many more winners will we see in 2023?

Part of me thinks yes, we will near 20 winners. I mean the field just keeps getting stronger and you now insert Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson, proven Xfinity Series winners, into the field on a full-time basis too.

However, another part of me says, no, because the bigger teams are big for a reason and after a full year’s worth of learning and data, even with limited practice still another year, they have a better idea on what direction to go down when we return to these tracks for a 2nd and even 3rd and 4th time next year. How much of an advantage will that be?

“I do think the car has been a major factor in the competition this year,” said Team Penske’s Walt Czarnecki. “19 different winners. It’s really boiled down to, and we’re going to have to do this on Sunday, boils down to preparation, execution, strategy, and a driver who wants to win.

“The cars are relatively even. I’ve got to be careful what I say here because nothing is ever even. I realize that. But it’s the closest I’ve ever seen.”

Rick Hendrick agreed.

“The car has made it super competitive on any given day, anybody can win,” he says. “You’ve seen all these different winners this year. Nobody has really just dominated the sport. The parity is really unreal.

“I think NASCAR got what they wanted. We’re all trying to figure it out a little bit better each and every week. But boy, you just look at the lead changes and how many people are up there running up front, and you always expect to see coach up there and Roger, and Trackhouse has done an unbelievable job.

“And you look at other teams like Petty and I think Brad and his team, they’re going to be contenders next year.

“So I think it’s leveled the playing field, and it’s good for the sport. I think the fans love it.

“I sometimes look back and like the old way, but it’s good for the sport.

“I look at Trackhouse and any other competitor that comes into the sport. I think the 23 crowd has shown a lot of muscle. They’re going to be competitors and fierce competitors next year.

“I think you’ve got to race everybody now. I’m going to pull for a Chevrolet team if it’s not us for sure, because we’re stronger together.

“But I look at them like Brad is going to be tough next year, having Reddick over in that Toyota is going to be tough. Hey, you’ve got to race everybody, so it’s going to be a bunch of good cars out there, and we just have to go race and win our share.

“But they have done a super job, and I commend them on that. We can’t really look at other people. We just have to get better ourselves. We have to do a better job of figuring out the car and crew chiefs and drivers working together and the whole organization working together.

“We’ve won 11 races this year, and you always want to win more, but I’m thankful to win 11.

“I see other competitors coming, and you can’t rest on your laurels. We’re going to have to be better.

“I think we are better. I think we are getting better every race. Some races don’t show it, but in some areas I think we’ve improved, and then in other areas we need to improve a lot more.

“I look at everybody as competition.”

Czarnecki doesn’t think that with a second year of this car in 2023, that the gap will necessarily widen just because the bigger teams have more money to develop it faster.

“I think we’ll see the lesser teams still have the same chance,” he says. “I really do. They’re being given that opportunity. Again, I think the car has indicated that or has illustrated that.

“It really boils down to the people. There are some darned good people, whether it’s Penske or Hendrick or Gibbs, there are a lot of good, talented, smart people in this sport that know how to race and know how to win.

“I think it could be just as open next year as it was this year.”

Other than Martin Truex Jr’s title with FRR in 2017, you have to go all the way back to Kurt Busch’s championship with Roush Fenway Racing in 2004 as the last team not named Gibbs, Stewart-Haas, Penske, or Hendrick to win a Cup championship.

A comparison to 2020 and prior?

In 2020, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports won 34 of the 36 points paying races. They took all four of the Championship 4 spots too.

In 2019, the same four teams won 33 of the 36 races run. They also took all four Championship 4 spots again. In 2018, they won 31 of the 36 races. Furniture Row Racing with a JGR alliance won four times that year which if you count them in this mix, that’s 35 of 36 races.

The last 2 years we’ve seen Kaulig, 23XI Racing, Trackhouse, RFK Racing and Front Row Motorsports all reach victory lane. All are ascending.

Plus, it’s going to be hard to replicate the record-breaking season we saw in 2022.

The re-written record books suggest an answer…

19 Different Winners: The 2022 season tied the NASCAR Cup Series record of the most different winners in a single season (19) all-time; joining 1956, 1958, 1961 and 2001.

Five first-time winners, a Modern Era record (Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez, and Tyler Reddick).

It’s hard to fathom any of the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers being winless. I can’t see Truex and Ryan Blaney going winless all season and I don’t see Denny Hamlin or Christopher Bell going backwards. I don’t foresee Kevin Harvick going winless in his final season in the sport. I can’t fathom Joey Logano winning a title last year and not winning a race this one.

There’s 5 regular season road courses which favors AJ Allmendinger. Kyle Busch has won a race in each season for nearly two decades. Tyler Reddick won three times in that car last season.

That alone is 12 drivers.

I don’t think among last year’s first time winners, they all go winless. I’d say at least 3 of those 5 find victory lane, if not more.

That’s 15.

Does RFK find more victories? Brad Keselowski was also winless in 2022. That could push this to at the very minimum 16-17 there.

Can Legacy Motor Club win again? That’s 17-18.

See where I’m going…

HAMPTON, GEORGIA – JULY 09: Noah Gragson, driver of the #9 Bass Pros Shops/TrueTimber/BRCC Chevrolet, and Ty Gibbs, driver of the #54 Monster Energy Toyota, race during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Alsco Uniforms 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on July 09, 2022 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Can Rookies Find Victory Lane?

Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson are technically rookies, but both made nearly a half seasons worth of attempts last year. Now, can they find victory lane in 2023?

Gragson, driver of the No. 42 LEGACY Motor Club Chevrolet, made 18 Cup Series starts last year, the majority of which came for Kaulig Racing in its No. 16 Chevrolet. Ty Gibbs, driver of the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, made 15 starts for 23XI Racing as Kurt Busch recovered from a concussion.

The duo will battle each other for 2023 Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors after heated battles the past two years in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Gibbs triumphed on Nov. 5 at Phoenix Raceway, taking home the 2022 Xfinity championship with his seventh win of the season and 11th of his career.

Gragson was victorious eight times last season and finished runner-up to Gibbs in the championship race by 0.397 seconds in his No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet. In total, Gragson has collected 13 Xfinity wins and two Craftsman Truck Series victories.

This could be seen as a controversial decision by NASCAR here. It can be hard to call either a “rookie” when Gragson raced literally half of a season last year and Gibbs nearly half himself.

In the past, the requirement was no more than 7 career Cup starts to be considered a rookie at the beginning of a full-time season. These two have more than doubled that. While that rule no longer exists and this is under NASCAR’s discretion, it’s hard to fathom either being considered “rookies” when they’re far from it.

On the flipside, why wouldn’t NASCAR want a rookie battle between these 2 in Cup though? This is a true rivalry and being apart of the same rookie class always pits them against one another.

The question though is, does NASCAR look foolish in allowing them eligibility?

Lets see if they look like rookies or not….

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 06: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, and Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 DeWalt Toyota, drive during the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 06, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Who Are The Championship 4?

Trends say one thing, but what does reality say? I tend to side with the trends. That’s because they proved to be right a year ago and also the fact that we’re seeing consistency in the final couple of rounds among continual drivers.

Prior to the 2020 season, in order to win a NASCAR Cup Series championship, the road went through Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. Combined, that trio had won 4 of the 6 championships under this new format.

Harvick had five final round appearances in eight years at that, but none in the last three including a first round defeat last season.

Busch had five championship 4 appearances in the last 8 years but none in the last three. He too was an opening round exit last year. Busch has only scored 5 wins in his last 130 starts. 

Truex also has had five Championship 4 appearances in the last 8 years. He didn’t even make the playoffs last year. He’s also entered 2020 having only two wins in his last 43 races run too. Then came a four win season and all the momentum back. That was lost in a winless campaign in 2022 to give him 6 wins in his last 115 tries.

While their reign appears to be ended, maybe this is the new norm. Chase Elliot, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney have since emerged.

Elliott has 3 championship 4 appearances in the last 3 years. He also has 6 straight Round of 8 appearances.

Hamlin has 3 final round appearances in 4 years.

Larson was surprisingly eliminated in the Round of 12 last year but just won the title on the heels of a 10-win season in 2021.

Logano has 5 straight Round of 8 appearances and 8 in 9 tries. He also has 2 Championship 4 appearances in the last 5 years including 5 overall and two titles.

Blaney has 4 Round of 8 appearances in the last 6 years too.

Combined 2 of the last 4 series champions made up the Round of 8 last year. The only ones missing was Busch and Larson…

That means more than likely, the Round of 8 will feature: Blaney, Logano, Elliott, Larson and Hamlin. I then like Christopher Bell to join them.

The driver to finish third in the Championship 4 has made it to at least the Round of 8 in each of the last 5 years with 3 of the 6 being in the Championship 4. That’s good news for Bell for a march through the playoffs but not necessarily the final round.

That leaves really just two spots open.

To break it down further, it’s down to tracks now. The Round of 12 features Texas, Talladega and the ROVAL. My upset special in this round is AJ Allmendinger winning the ROVAL and making the Round of 8. More than people think, Talladega has been kind to playoff drivers, while Texas could be a wildcard in and of itself.

The Round of 8 is Vegas, Homestead, Martinsville.

Larson is Mr. Homestead, I think Hamlin can win Vegas and Martinsville is up in the air.

I just have this feeling Harvick gets to the final round in his final year so give me Elliott, Larson, Hamlin, Harvick fighting for this year’s title. We keep saying, if Phoenix was ever moved to the final race, then just hand the championship to Harvick. Well, it has been. Four years now. Harvick is 0-for-3 in getting there. He won’t end 0-for-4.

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 20: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, Erik Jones, driver of the #43 FOCUSfactor Chevrolet, Noah Gragson, driver of the #62 Beard Oil/South Point Chevrolet, and Todd Gilliland, driver of the #38 First Phase Credit Card Ford, spin after an on-track incident Series 64th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 20, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Is The Car Fixed?

Bubba Wallace noted on his scanner early in the Busch Light Clash that he felt like contact to his rear bumper was just as hard now as it was last year. See, this is the main area to which NASCAR placed emphasis on improving. That’s because rear contact hits to his Next Gen was felt far worse than the previous car. It’s to what caused Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman to miss some time last year due to concussion like symptoms.

Both relatively innocent hits caused each to miss multiple weeks. For Busch, he’s still dealing with the effects from his Pocono crash. NASCAR went back to the drawing board and felt like they had a way to help.

However, hits during the Clash was concerning with drivers discussing the hits that they were feeling.

“I mean, truthfully, it didn’t really feel much different at that speed and just the bumper car action that you get through the middle of the corner,” said Kyle Busch. “Yeah, like Austin said, when you get hit a few times, your head is getting jacked into the back of the head rest and you’re getting the whiplash effect. But what the damage to the cars looks like front and rear, underneath, you have no idea, but it’s still a brunt of a hit.

“But if we had the old cars that we used to have, nobody would have a radiator left. I think half the field would be parked in the infield. Might not be a bad thought, but get some of those squirrels out of there, but yeah, it’s a necessary evil to the fronts, for as hard of a shots as some of the guys were taking, Bubba’s bumper, you could see the damage that he had to it, so he might have been one of the ones that got hit the hardest.”

His teammate, Austin Dillon, said that the first 30 laps or so of the race, his head was against the head rest almost every lap.

“It was just bang, bang, back and forth, every corner,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how aggressive it was the first run. There was nothing but just hammer each other and hope to come out the other side.

“I got hit one time at the end, I was telling Kyle, when we got back in line, it knocked the wheel out of my hands. I couldn’t believe it. Just kind of picked up the gas and caught it back.

“But you’re taking some pretty good blows out there and trying to stay calm. It still doesn’t feel good. I think the positive part is NASCAR has showed us things that they’re trying to do to help that area of the car, for the low speed impacts, the lower speed impacts. We’re making progress. That’s the biggest thing.”

Kyle Larson notes that he didn’t have many hits to the rear of his car last year, but there was one instance that did stand out to him to think that this could to be an issue.

“Yeah, definitely,” Larson said on if he could still feel the hits on Sunday night. I didn’t really — I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, wow, like that was a hard hit.

“I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and this was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do, it’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

If they’re feeling this in cars going less than 100 mph, what happens when they back into the wall at speeds in excess of 150 mph?

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA – APRIL 24: Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 Moose Fraternity Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 24, 2022 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Who’s This Year’s Ross Chastain, Who’s This Year’s Martin Truex Jr.?

Ross Chastain broke onto the scene a year ago by putting both himself and his team, Trackhouse, on the map. Also, Martin Truex Jr. went winless and narrowly missed out on the playoffs. So, who are this year’s version of Chastain and Truex Jr.?

For the Truex first? I’ll take Kyle Busch. I feel like yes, he has a chip on his shoulder. However, can he truly perform? Yes, Tyler Reddick won three times in that car last year, but that was his second season in it. Who’s to say Busch and RCR will acclimate as quickly as it was when Reddick left?

Busch has won at least one race in 18 consecutive seasons. The thing is, Busch has only scored 5 wins in his last 130 starts, was eliminated in the first round last year and driving for a team that hasn’t won a championship since 1994. He very well could go winless in the regular season and miss out on the playoffs if they’re not careful.

As far as the next Chastain? Give me Ryan Preece. He basically is, Ross Chastain.

Preece had a front row seat to witness how Ross Chastain had bet on himself and eventually make it the top of the NASCAR Cup Series with a Championship 4 appearance this past season. The pair were teammates with JD Motorsports in the NASCAR Xfinity Series during the 2016 season. Preece bet on himself for 2017. He took a four race deal with Joe Gibbs Racing on the Xfinity Series level a year later and it paid off. He finished 2nd in his first start and won his second. That led to a more expanded role in 2018 with the team with making 15 starts.

The problem is, as he shined, there wasn’t much room to move up with JGR or Toyota to the Cup ranks. That’s why he took his Cup shot with JTG Daugherty Racing in 2019.

Meanwhile, Chastain witness that and bet on himself in 2018. He returned full-time with JDM in 2017 but did what Preece did in 2018 and took a three-race deal with Chip Ganassi Racing. Like Preece, he won his second start. That led to a full-time opportunity with them for 2019 only for the sponsor to get federally indited which left Chastain on a wild path from Kaulig to Niece in the Truck Series, back to Ganassi in the Cup Series and then to Trackhouse this past year.

Preece meanwhile struggled in his first Cup opportunity. In 108 career starts, he had just two top five finishes, 9 top 10’s and 25 laps led with points finishes of 26th, 29th and 27th respectively. With JTG downsizing from one car to two for the 2022 season, it left him without a ride.

SHR picked him up as a developmental driver. He would race in all three NASCAR divisions for Ford and SHR. It was another risk for him to punt on a full-time ride and hope that being a reserve driver and doing simulator work would lead him back to the Cup Series. Nothing is guaranteed.

Which is why November’s announcement was so massive for him, because he now lands with a top team like SHR in a Cup seat and has a future solidified so long as he performs.

“This is the opportunity I’ve been working for,” Preece said. “Nothing was guaranteed at the start of this year, but I felt like if I put in the time, whether it was in a racecar or in a simulator, that SHR was the place for me. It’s a company built by racers, for racers, and it’s exactly where I want to be.

“I know this season just finished and most people are looking to take a break, but I can’t wait to get going.”

Which is why I also think Preece has a Chastain like capability for a breakout performance in 2023.

Think about it.

Chase Briscoe won with this team in 2022 and marched all the way to the Round of 8. Preece is more than capable of doing the same. He’s not a rookie. He has 115 Cup starts under his belt. He knows these tracks. He knows these cars. He helped set them up in a simulator role. When given good equipment, he can win.

In 19 starts with JGR in the Xfinity Series, he had 2 wins, 11 top 5 finishes, 14 top 10’s and 218 laps led. In two part-time years with David Gilliland Racing in the Truck Series, he had two wins 8 top 5 finishes, 11 top 10 results and 133 laps led in just 12 starts.

He consistently took a 15th to 20th place car or Truck to a top 10 and a top 10 car or truck to a top 5. He far out drove the equipment he was handed and when he was handed a good piece he’d compete for wins. Which is why I feel like 2023 could be Preece being the new driver on the scene turning heads like Chastain did in 2022.

“Ryan has bet on himself a couple of times in his career and it’s always paid off. Now we’re betting on him,” Stewart said.

“I’ve run some Modified Tour races and it’s a tough series with a lot of talent. Ryan’s Mod Tour championship speaks to his talent, and I think he proved that when he pushed all his chips into the middle of the table and bet on himself by getting those Xfinity Series races with Gibbs. When he finally got the right opportunity, he delivered in a big way.

“Now, Ryan’s got the right opportunity in Cup. We’re proud to have him and look forward to seeing what he can do in our racecars.”

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