In addition to the Daytona 500, in which other NASCAR Cup Series events should Jimmie Johnson participate in 2023?
Stephen Stumpf: I could see Jimmie Johnson competing at his best tracks, brand-new circuits and the crown jewels. The latter would be the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Southern 500 and the Bristol Motor Speedway night race. That takes his total up to four. Johnson has at least five wins at Dover Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, Auto Club Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway. One race apiece would bring his total up to eight. Finally, I imagine that new tracks will be on his bucket list. Johnson has never competed at Circuit of the Americas, Nashville Superspeedway or World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway. Along with the new Chicago Street Course, that would bring his total up to 12. And although it wouldn’t be a points race, everyone will be eager to make the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway. I envision him running about 12 races in 2023.
Luken Glover: Johnson has expressed interest in several other events in the Cup Series. Two are exhibition races: The Busch Light Clash at the LA Coliseum and the All-Star Race. Who wouldn’t want to see the most recent seven-time champion finally compete at North Wilkesboro? With four Coca-Cola 600 wins, that crown-jewel event is one he should run, potentially completing the Memorial Day double. Then there is the inaugural Chicago race. With the experience he gained in the NTT IndyCar Series, that is one at which he could be competitive. If I had to throw another in, it would be Auto Club (his home track) or Martinsville, where he has nine wins.
Mark Kristl: Johnson definitely ought to run the first Cup event at Darlington Raceway. He could easily throwback to any number of paint schemes, be it Petty- or GMS-related, or any other NASCAR legends. Because 2023 will be the final time Auto Club hosts NASCAR as a 2-mile racetrack before becoming a short track, the California native might want to race there too because it’s his home racetrack and he is a six-time winner there.
Amy Henderson: I’d expect Johnson to run the tracks he has fun at: Charlotte, Martinsville and Dover. He’ll probably want to run the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro because he never had a chance to race there. Maybe the Southern 500, but that’s a playoff race, so he may not want to get in the way of that. Look, as a driver, he has nothing to prove. He’s earned the right to go out and have some fun, so I hope wherever he chooses he enjoys himself.
Which Cup driver faces the most pressure to succeed in 2023?
Anthony Damcott: Todd Gilliland could be on the chopping block after the 2023 season if he doesn’t step up his game. This year was his rookie year, so he’s still learning. However, when the ride he vacated (the No. 38 truck) just won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship with a talented up-and-coming driver in Zane Smith, it has to put pressure on Gilliland to perform better. Combine that with the fact that Michael McDowell has continued to show improvement since his 2021 Daytona 500 win, and Gilliland needs to pick up the pace in 2023 and show owner Bob Jenkins that he made the right choice promoting him to the Cup Series.
Stumpf: 2022 wasn’t a failure by any means, but Denny Hamlin will be 42 in just a few weeks. If he wants to win a championship, the clock is ticking. Ryan Blaney led 636 laps in 2022, but he went winless for the first time since 2016. The end of the season added insult to injury, as he had to play defense in the closing laps at Phoenix Raceway while teammate Joey Logano went on to win the race and the championship. He certainly has the speed to be a contender, but he needs to put it all together soon. Then there’s Cole Custer and Harrison Burton. It was Burton’s rookie year, but he only had two top 10s for a team that has a technical alliance with Team Penske. He will have to up that number next year. As for Custer, the last time he scored a top-five finish was in July 2020. He may not even be in the No. 41 car next year, either.
Mike Neff: Tyler Reddick making the move to 23XI Racing puts a lot of pressure on him. Kyle Busch, moving into Reddick’s car, needs to produce. Ross Chastain has set the bar rather high for himself too, and Alex Bowman and William Byron truly need to step it up and become serious championship contenders.
Kristl: Corey LaJoie earned his career-best finish of fifth at Atlanta Motor Speedway, yet he still slumped to his worst points finish since 2018, when he ran part time. LaJoie is older than 30 and has 200 Cup starts yet he has one top five and one top 10. At what point should the conversation transition from is LaJoie is in underfunded rides to LaJoie lacks Cup-level talent? Especially when Chevrolet has Sam Mayer, Brandon Jones and Josh Berry in the pipeline, Spire Motorsports may have better younger options for 2024 if LaJoie does not finally break through with a serious uptick in performance.
Henderson: Busch. Not only is he moving to a new team and manufacturer, but he’s also going to have to elevate that team a bit to be a title contender. Busch has struggled with the last couple of car packages; after winning five races in his 2019 championship season, he’s won four total and not finished higher than eighth in points. If he’s going to make a third title run, he’s going to have to come out swinging; he’ll be 38 next year, and while he’s got plenty of years left, the recent cars have not been kind to older drivers.
What changes should NASCAR make for 2023?
Glover: Several things on the Next Gen car need to be tweaked. Most importantly, it has to become safer. The force of impact needs to be absorbed more by the car, something NASCAR will hopefully implement. It also needs to fix how the car runs on short tracks and road courses. That may involve an increase in horsepower, but looking at ways to alternate the ride height would be helpful too. Also, the four-race suspension for a loose wheel needs to be lightened. It bothers me that drivers who use their car as a weapon may get a fine or one-race suspension, but a wheel coming off on pit road lands a four-race vacation. And start times need to be adjusted. That doesn’t look like it will happen now, but NASCAR found itself going head-to-head with other major events too many times because of 3 p.m. ET start times.
Kristl: NASCAR must start standardizing its penalties. Carson Hocevar wrecked Colby Howard at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, but he wasn’t penalized. Byron spun Hamlin under caution at Texas but was only penalized with some points. Bubba Wallace crashed Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and was suspended one race. In addition, NASCAR ruled Custer manipulated the race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL for teammate Chase Briscoe to advance but NASCAR found no fault when Ben Rhodes advanced to the Championship 4 thanks to ThorSport Racing teammates Christian Eckes and Matt Crafton not passing him late in the race. Both instances occurred under green-flag conditions. Where is the consistency? Please, NASCAR, establish some in 2023.
Damcott: It’s worth looking at the format of the Clash. One-hundred-and-fifty laps at a half-mile track is a lot different than at a 0.25-mile track, and this year’s event seemed to absolutely fly by. Now if there was an implementation of a stage or two (much like a points-paying race) to slow the action and allow for strategy, the race might seem a little bit less rushed. It is also time to revisit the 100% rule in light of several incidents taking place late in the season, like how Custer helping Briscoe resulted in a penalty whereas Crafton and Eckes helping Rhodes at Homestead-Miami Speedway warranted none). The rule is very tough to enforce as it is, but when it’s enforced very inconsistently — much like the yellow line rule — revisiting it would help before it became too controversial.
Stumpf: The Next Gen car itself. There will be zero excuse in 2023 if drivers continue to get concussions or other injuries from rear-end impacts. NASCAR appears to be currently working on a bumper clip, and that is a step in the right direction for safety. The other change needed is an improvement in the racing product. The Next Gen car provided exceptional racing at intermediate tracks, but the racing product needs a complete facelift at short tracks, flat tracks and road courses. Whether that involves removing the rear diffuser, increasing the horsepower or some other fix, something needs to change by February.
Neff: It is time to spread the schedule further. No track gets two races. Add more short tracks and dirt races on real dirt tracks. This is all, of course, more for 2024. NASCAR also needs to give this car some crumple capabilities to get away from injuring drivers.
Who was the biggest underachiever in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2022?
Neff: Riley Herbst seemed to be the driver who did the least with the most. In a Stewart-Haas Racing car that contended for the title in 2020, he had a year to acclimate to the team. 2022 should have afforded a legitimate title run, and the team was just a bit off.
Damcott: Unless Kaulig Racing’s equipment really fell off (which is unlikely considering AJ Allmendinger continued his winning ways), Daniel Hemric apparently had a massive championship hangover from 2021. At no point in the season was there talk of the 31-year-old defending his title. Aside from winning the pole for the season opener at Daytona International Speedway, Hemric didn’t really stand out. He only acquired 14 top 10s, with only three top fives. Even if one makes the argument that Kaulig’s equipment is a small step behind that of Joe Gibbs Racing, Hemric went from winning the championship to finishing all the way down in ninth in the championship standings. Larson seemed to have a similar issue on the Cup side throughout the summer months, but Hemric didn’t ever really have a chance at defending his Xfinity title throughout the season.
Glover: Hemric seems to be the popular pick, and as the 2021 champion, rightfully so. However, I expect him to rebound in 2023. Herbst had another underachieving year. He did improve in many statistical categories, but two important factors are wins and playoff advancement. He had no wins and was eliminated in the Round of 12. We’re talking about a No. 98 SHR car that won 11 times from 2018-2020, plus Custer won nine times in the No. 00 for SHR. Herbst improved, but time is running out to get that elusive win.
Henderson: Hemric for sure. Hemric managed just three top fives all year coming off winning a championship with no victories. Yes, he changed teams, but his teammate won five races and the regular season title, so equipment isn’t the problem. Sure, Landon Cassill didn’t have a win either, but he’s also never had good equipment and had to learn how to race for wins, something he hasn’t had the opportunity to do before. Hemric’s performance just didn’t look like it came from the defending series champion.
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