Did You Notice?… 42-year-old Martin Truex Jr. started off the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season by ending a year-long winless streak? His victory at the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum was his first since Richmond Raceway in September 2021.
Technically, it doesn’t count as a points win, but Truex was one of several older drivers that impressed out in L.A. Fellow 42-year-old Denny Hamlin won his Heat race, then led 26 laps in the main event before Bubba Wallace knocked him out of the way (driving the car Hamlin owns). Kyle Busch, a kid by comparison at age 37, swapped some paint up front and charged all the way back to third after an incident with defending NASCAR champion Joey Logano.
Names that were nowhere to be seen? Chase Elliott. Ryan Blaney. Christopher Bell (after flashing some early speed). For one week, at least, the sport’s talented 20-somethings took a back seat to the veterans who’ve carried the torch for NASCAR much of this century. Having Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson commentating on it all, men with 10 total Cup championships between them from 2005-2016, seemed like the perfect backdrop for a veteran resurgence.
One of the great questions in 2023 is whether Truex, Hamlin and others can sustain that momentum. 2022 felt like a year of transition in this sport; in the first year running the Next Gen chassis, it was the first time in the history of the elimination-style playoffs all drivers who made the Championship 4 were under age 35.
In fact, three of them were under 30: Bell, Elliott and Ross Chastain (who turned 30 during the offseason). That came one year after two 40-something drivers competed for the title; in 2022, only two 40-somethings even qualified for the 16-driver playoffs. Just one, Hamlin, made it past the Round of 16.
Can you say changing of the guard?
The question now is whether the cagey veterans have any Tom Brady adrenaline left in them. If not, it’s the latest transition to younger talent in NASCAR, one we’ve seen plenty of times before.
There was the rise of Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace in the mid-1980s. Jeff Gordon followed in the mid-1990s, convincing NASCAR owners drivers could be Cup ready in their early 20s.
The floodgates opened up after that, with a generation’s worth of Hall of Fame talent entering the sport within five years: Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Stewart, Kurt Busch and Harvick, among others. Those drivers mostly experienced instant success: four of them had won titles (2002-06) within their first eight full-time seasons in the sport.
People believe this next generation, led by Elliott, Blaney, Bell, Kyle Larson, Tyler Reddick, and now Chastain could be just as talented. But they’ve been a little slower to the uptake: Blaney, for example, is yet to make a Championship 4 after seven full-time seasons in the sport. Larson had eight years’ worth of missed opportunities before hooking up with Hendrick Motorsports for a record-setting year in 2021.
Can Harvick, Truex and others keep the next generation of talent from reaching their potential one last time? We know it’s Harvick’s last full-time season as a driver; at age 47, he’ll be joining the FOX NASCAR booth full-time next year. It leaves a driver with a history of aggression in nothing-to-lose mode, “The Closer” who showed he’s still got it with a two-for-one move to qualify through in one of the L.A. heat races.
Harvick was one of the sport’s hottest drivers last summer, winning two straight races in August to thrust himself into title contention before a disastrous start to the playoffs knocked him out. He’s still just two years removed from a nine-win, record-setting NASCAR season at age 44-45.
Then there’s Truex, newly single and singularly focused on redemption after missing the postseason altogether. He would have been seventh without the playoff reset in 2022 and still led five more laps (572) than he did in 2015, a year in which he made the Championship 4. Joe Gibbs Racing didn’t fall off a cliff last year; Truex just fought through the worst type of luck imaginable.
“Determined,” Truex said when asked to describe his mood entering 2023. “Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”
Then there’s Hamlin, age 42, entering a contract year with JGR and sponsor FedEx. He was the lone “elder statesman” within shouting distance of the Championship 4, the victim of Chastain’s Mario Kart move at Martinsville Speedway in October. Positioning himself as the long-term steward of Toyota, building up the 23XI Racing organization, he still has unfinished business as the Mark Martin of his generation. Only Junior Johnson (50) has more wins than Hamlin’s 48 without a title.
Added to the mix this year is AJ Allmendinger, taking one last shot at a full-time Cup ride after rebuilding his NASCAR career with Kaulig Racing. Ten wins in the past two Xfinity Series seasons, plus a Cup upset win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, have him thinking playoffs at bare minimum. Allmendinger had more top fives last year (three in 18 starts) than he had in any of his 10+ seasons running Cup full-time.
Conceivably, this quartet could come together to make up this year’s Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway, a track Harvick has won at a record nine times. Is it realistic? Allmendinger’s the least likely to make it, of course; he only has one previous Cup playoff appearance (2014). But Hamlin, Harvick and Truex combined for 14 Championship 4s among them, 39 percent of possible spots available from 2014-2022.
Let’s not forget Jeff Gordon’s final season, where he catapulted into the Championship 4 on the strength of his win at Martinsville. Did Truex just fire the first shot for one last rise to the top with this group?
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before taking off and coming back with a full season preview next week…
- Team intros for NASCAR? Doesn’t this sport pride itself on individuality versus the team mentality of Formula 1? For a series that claims they’re not afraid of that division’s rising popularity, it sure felt like a bit of a copycat move.
- Caution laps should have counted at the Coliseum. Lesson learned. For 2024, my vote is for fewer cars in the main event (20? That was once a limit for the All-Star Race) and potentially a new urban market to make this exhibition a traveling show.
- Todd Gilliland loses a handful of Cup starts days before the Daytona 500 to Zane Smith and now he’s supposed to go out there and race with a smile on his face for Front Row Motorsports? How could he not know losing races to sponsor money elsewhere was a possibility? With Smith the reigning NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, the writing is clearly on the wall here and Gilliland was essentially made a lame duck before the year even began. I don’t think this ends well…
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.
I’d rather see the young guys prevail even though I am an old guy. I can’t explain why. Maybe I still have beefs with some of the older drivers from the days when I really cared about a particular driver before he retired.
That Martin Truex Jr. didn’t make a playoff field that featured nearly half the drivers in the sport shows for the millionth time how inherently flawed NASCAR’s scoring system is and how it rewards luck over consistency. As you mentioned he was 7th in total points, and I would add that he was only a few points behind Ross Chastain, who got more attention than any driver last year even before his banzai move at Martinsville. I’ve got nothing against Chastain, but Truex is the established driver of the two. Chastain hasn’t won a title yet, and I’m betting other drivers are going to be making things a whole lot harder for him this year.
It will be interesting to see what kind of season Kyle Busch has. His brother went from Roush to Penske to Stewart-Haas to 23XI, and while I don’t have the numbers in front of me, as I recall he was the best driver on every team he was on. Kyle wasn’t the best in his short time with Hendrick, but he was a young driver on a team with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. I don’t know what went down at JGR and I’m the last guy to badmouth Joe Gibbs, but it does kind of seem like they could have made a greater effort to keep one of the all-time greats on the team. They certainly had no problem replacing him.
Kevin Harvick, I think, could still contend for a title. It seemed like SHR has been figuring out this new car, and he got white hot just before the playoffs. This guy dominated the circuit just a few years ago and I think he can still get it done. (I hope so because I picked him for my fantasy team this year.) I was never a fan of Tony Stewart as a driver, but I love him as an owner, because he calls out NASCAR when they should be called out, which is pretty often.
Watch Daniel Suarez this year. He’s a sleeper pick of mine. Christopher Bell has obviously arrived and will be in the thick of it. But Chase Elliott and the #9 team are the best right now.
Anyways good article Tom as always. I disagree with you a lot, but I never question your conviction.