After a dominant performance at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the NASCAR Cup Series, will Kyle Larson return to championship form in 2023?
Even with two wins in the regular season, 2022 had not been kind to Kyle Larson when compared to his 2021 excellence. Almost any season would be hard to stack up against a season with 10 wins and 2,581 laps led, but Larson has been shockingly absent from the front of the field for most of his title defense. After 33 races, he sat with just the two wins and less than 400 laps led.
With fellow teammate and champion Chase Elliott dominating the regular season, there were questions around whether or not Larson could recapture the speed and dominance of 2021 for the final 10 races.
It finally happened at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and it was an absolute rout. Larson was continuously reaching 10-second leads on long runs and held off Ross Chastain and AJ Allmendinger in the last 17 laps to finally win at Homestead — a track at which he had come oh so close in the past — for the first time in a Cup car. He led 199 of the 267 laps and had the fastest green-flag lap 109 times. The No. 5 was in its own zip code almost all day.
Even more impressive about the performance by Larson is that there hadn’t been a race this season where a Next Gen car was as untouchable as he was in South Florida. In a year with considerable winning parity, it has also been a year of parity within races. In the first 33 races, a driver had led more the half the laps on only four occasions: William Byron at Martinsville Speedway in April (won), Elliott at Road America (second), Martin Truex Jr. at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (fourth) and Joey Logano at Richmond Raceway in August (sixth).
None of the four even reached 60% of the laps led while Larson was just a tad shy of leading more than 75% of the race last Sunday. Even if it was just for one weekend, Larson, Cliff Daniels and the No. 5 team were able to put together a race that rivaled their most dominant performances of 2021.
Whether it was a championship hangover or struggling to adjust to the Next Gen car, it appears that Larson’s slumber is over. If the team can build on its Homestead performance in the offseason, look for the No. 5 to be dominant in 2023.
What are the biggest Silly Season dominoes that have yet to fall?
For the Cup Series, there isn’t much left. Front Row Motorsports, Live Fast Motorsports, Wood Brothers Racing and Rick Ware Racing are the only teams that have yet to announce their starting lineups. And for all four teams, there is little noise about those seats being available. That leaves just two other Cup rides up for the taking: the No. 18 car for Joe Gibbs Racing and the No. 41 car for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Ty Gibbs moving up to the No. 18 has been all but announced. That just leaves SHR, as co-owners Tony Stewart and Gene Haas are split about whether Ryan Preece or Cole Custer should drive the car next season.
Beyond that, the biggest shakeups will happen in the NASCAR Xfinity and Craftsman Truck series. A big domino fell this week, as it was announced on Oct. 27 that David Gilliland Racing, rebranded as TRICON Garage, will switch to Toyota with Corey Heim, Tanner Gray and Taylor Gray as full-time drivers along with a rotating driver lineup in a fourth truck.
In the Truck Series, the lineup for the Chevrolet-branded Kyle Busch Motorsports has yet to be announced. The No. 61 truck for Hattori Racing Enterprises is also open, as it was announced that Chase Purdy will not return. Likewise, Hailie Deegan — a Ford development driver — will not follow TRICON to Toyota.
Matt DiBenedetto, Zane Smith and Grant Enfinger are signed to return to their current rides. Daniel Dye will also join Enfinger as a teammate at GMS Racing next season. Beyond that, everyone else has unannounced plans.
For the Xfinity Series, JR Motorsports and Kaulig Racing are the only multi-car teams that have announced their full 2023 lineups. Bayley Currey, Jeremy Clements and Ryan Sieg will reprise their respective roles from 2022, but beyond them, all other full-time rides have yet to be announced.
Even if most of the Cup Silly Season is over, the Xfinity and Truck series are set to have an exciting and entertaining offseason.
Who will be racing for the Cup championship at Phoenix?
Well, consider my original four prediction a swing and a miss. I decided against Logano, but he went out and won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the closing laps. The even-odd superstition of Logano making the final four in every even-numbered year lives on.
Only three spots remain, and it’s a tight battle at the cut line. Chastain (+19), Elliott (+11) and Byron (+5) are above the cut line, with Denny Hamlin (-5) right behind them. Ryan Blaney (-18) has a bit of ground to make up, but it is still feasible for him to point his way in.
Unlike most races, qualifying can make or break the playoff chances for teams this weekend. It was hard to pass at Martinsville Speedway in the spring, as the drivers that restarted up front stayed there for about the entire race. Elliott led the first 185 laps from the pole and Byron paced 212 of the final 218 after getting the lead on pit road (the other six laps led were led during pit sequences).
The expectations for Martinsville are very low this weekend, but it appears that the race will at least be a step up from April, as that race was run at night with sub-50-degree temperatures. With a warmer race under the sun, the drivers should at least have a little better luck in making passes.
That said, a starting spot in the 20s will force a team to play catchup throughout the afternoon. And given how close the cut line, a driver failing to get stage points may be the difference between elimination and advancement.
Elliott and Byron both qualified well at Martinsville in April, and it seems likely that they will start toward the front once again. Chastain has had struggles in qualifying this season, and he started April’s race from 27th before finishing fifth. Hamlin looks to be the big wild card; he led 379 laps at Martinsville in 2021, but he struggled in April with a 28th-place finish and an average running position of 25th. If the No. 11 team brings a car with that (lack of) speed this weekend, its title hopes are over.
Of course, this is all in a vacuum. Mechanical failures, penalties and crashes are always a threat for teams every weekend, and any of the three would be disastrous. But given the results from April and relative tameness of that race, the Championship 4 for Phoenix will be the same drivers currently above the cut: Logano, Chastain, Elliott and Byron.
A Cup race on ice: is it possible?
It was announced that the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series will host a debut ice race in Finland for the 2023 season.
Yes, you read that right. Ice.
Ice racing is as simple as it sounds. Drivers compete on a frozen surface that is the equivalent of ice skating for automobiles. Popular in colder climates, it will make its NASCAR-sanctioned debut in March, right in the heart of a Finland winter.
Would anything of that sort be possible for a Cup race?
It’s not likely. It might be a spectacle for a debut race, but the freezing weather will be a deterrent for fans that are used to attending races in spring and summer. If it were to be done, NASCAR and the track would have to be prepared for a race with lower turnout than normal.
But if NASCAR were to try an ice race as a one-time event, Alaska Raceway Park would be a perfect site. The 0.333-mile short track is the northernmost NASCAR-sanctioned track in the United States, and it is nestled in the mountains and only 40 miles away from Anchorage, Alaska, a city of 291,000 people. It would give race fans in the U.S.’s northernmost state a chance to see NASCAR in town, as the closest Cup circuit to Anchorage is 3,047 miles away in Sonoma, Calif. Even a race on pavement would be a huge hit with a local crowd.
That said, the current Cup drivers have no experience racing on ice. If the transition to dirt was different enough, prepping unexperienced drivers for a race on ice will be a whole different animal. An ice race should not be run if it will not be safe for the drivers.
Making it an annual race would be a challenge given the cold conditions, lack of experience and remoteness, unless the race is held in the contiguous United States. But as a one-time deal? It’s certainly possible down the road.
About the author
Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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