It’s February, which means the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season is finally upon us. Cars will take to the track later this week at Daytona International Speedway for the 65th running of the Great American Race.
With a wide array of driver and team changes from Silly Season alongside more minor personnel tweaks — or even a few lineups that stayed exactly the same — there’s a lot to discuss as the Cup Series moves into the sophomore season of the Next Gen era.
For 2023, the Frontstretch staff each voted on a top-30 ranking, taking into account each driver’s 2022 season as well as their outlook for 2023.
Below is where we landed. Check Monday’s (Feb. 13) article for positions Nos. 30-21 and check tomorrow (Feb. 15) for the top 10.
20. Austin Cindric
Austin Cindric began his rookie Cup season in 2022 by checking off one of the biggest accomplishments the sport has to offer: winning the Daytona 500. It looked as though the iconic Team Penske No. 2 team would not skip much of a beat transitioning from the Brad Keselowski era.
However, after that noteworthy start, Cindric’s 2022 campaign would fizzle out, with only four top fives and eight top 10s after the 500, driving the same Penske equipment Joey Logano used to win the championship. Cindric would make the playoffs and even advance to the Round of 12, but he only netted one top-10 in the 10 playoff races, a ninth at Talladega Superspeedway.
With the Cup Series competition as fierce as it has ever been, Cindric will likely need to take a step forward in performance to return to the playoffs. He is always one of the top contenders to win at road courses, and there are six of those on the 2023 schedule. Those tracks could be his ticket back to the playoffs. With his crew chief Jeremy Bullins coming back and the championship No. 22 team in the same garage, there’s a good chance that Cindric will find another level in 2023. –Andrew Stoddard
19. Chris Buescher
After a six-year absence, Chris Buescher got back to victory lane in 2022 by winning the Bristol Motor Speedway night race. Buescher’s triumph was the first win in a full-field race for the rebranded RFK Racing team headed by Jack Roush and Keselowski.
Additionally, Buescher also posted career bests in top fives, top 10s, and laps led last year. In a season of transition for his team, Buescher proved to be a great stabilizing force.
For 2023, Buescher and the No. 17 team should be aiming for the playoffs. Along with the Bristol victory, he showed speed at road courses and superspeedways, suggesting that he will have more opportunities for wins. The real question is whether Buescher can break out from the other mid-pack drivers and finish in the top 10 with more frequency. RFK is bound to go through more growing pains in 2023 as Roush’s team looks to recover the dominance it once had on NASCAR’s intermediate tracks. Buescher can win his way into the playoffs, but making any noise in the postseason will require more than the occasional top 10. –Bryan Gable
18. AJ Allmendinger
After a successful NASCAR Xfinity Series stint consisting of 13 wins with Kaulig Racing, AJ Allmendinger climbs full time into the team’s No. 16 NASCAR Cup Series entry.
Forty-one years old, Allmendinger is primed for his last shot at glory in the Cup Series. He competed regularly in the premier series from 2007-2018, but he logged only one win in that time.
Once Allmendinger joined Kaulig, he found renewed success in Cup running part time. Over the past two years, in 23 starts, he has scored one win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, five top fives and 11 top 10s. Additionally, he participated in half the Cup season in 2022, gaining valuable experience in the Next Gen car.
The Cup field is still deep and the Next Gen ushered in parity in 2022. Still, Allmendinger can sustain his Cup successes with Kaulig via the road courses. With the road courses on the Cup schedule, including a new street course, Allmendinger could be a playoff contender, if not advancing further, possibly into the Championship 4. –Mark Kristl
17. Bubba Wallace
Last year was 23XI Racing driver Bubba Wallace’s best Cup season, statistically.
On top of earning its first win devoid of any controversies of rain stoppage at Kansas Speedway, the No. 23 team racked up 10 top 10s and five top fives, both of which are career bests for Wallace.
Despite the improvement of the Denny Hamlin-owned race team in 2022, it experiences a couple of blemishes for its two drivers. Thanks to Wallace’s suspension after his fisticuffs entanglement with Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch’s concussion, neither one of them ran the full season, and as a result, didn’t compete for the championship.
So what? Well, already Wallace has a low bar he can easily overcome heading into 2023. While returning with the team he had his most competitive season with, he also is returning to Daytona for the Daytona 500 – a race he narrowly finished second in last year and in 2018.
Wallace also breathes easily going into 2023. His job is safe for another few years with 23XI, as it was announced he had signed a contract extension last August – an advantage he did not have one year ago. –Dalton Hopkins
16. Erik Jones
The 2021 offseason was a time of uncertainty for Erik Jones, as he joined a then-Richard Petty Motorsports team that was seven years removed from last winning a Cup race. He ended ’21 with career lows in top 10s (six) and points finish (24th).
Last season was a different story. With the newly rechristened Petty GMS Motorsports, Jones impressed out of the gate, as he recorded a third-place finish at Auto Club Speedway after running in the top five all day. And after leading the white flag lap at Talladega in April, Jones put it all together on Labor Day weekend, as he held off Hamlin to snap a three-year winless drought and score his second Southern 500 triumph.
All in all, Jones finished with one win, three top fives and 13 top 10s to finish 18th in points. The partnership with GMS Racing brought the No. 43 car to victory lane for the first time since 2014, and with Jimmie Johnson hopping on board to be a co-owner in the rebranded LEGACY MOTOR CLUB, Jones looks poised to repeat, if not surpass, last year’s performance. –Stephen Stumpf
15. Daniel Suarez
The addition of Ross Chastain to TrackHouse Racing Team seemed to improve the entire team all around, including Daniel Suarez. The Monterrey, Mexico native got his first career win in 2022 at Sonoma Raceway, and in doing so, qualified for the playoffs for the first time in his career.
His teammate had a more eventful season, mainly due to run-ins with other drivers, his aggressiveness and passion, and a little move you might have heard of called the Hail Melon. But that didn’t stop Suarez from a strong summer stretch before faltering a little bit in the playoffs.
Suarez enters 2023 in his third season with TrackHouse hoping to improve upon his 10th-place points finish in 2022. With TrackHouse establishing itself as a threat to win at most racetracks, Suarez is looking to cash in on some of the same good fortune that his teammate had last season and give Daniel’s Amigos a season to remember. –Anthony Damcott
14. Chase Briscoe
Chase Briscoe took a great step forward in his second Cup Series season. Not only did he score his first win and reach the playoffs for the first time, but he also posted six more top fives and seven more top 10s than his rookie year. Briscoe also did some of his best driving of 2022 in the postseason. He and the No. 14 team clawed their way to the round of eight despite entering the first and second round elimination races below the cut line. Last season was the biggest indication yet that Briscoe could soon be a weekly contender.
However, there is still work to be done. Briscoe and his team had several strong races last year that were spoiled by mistakes and bad strategy. Even in the postseason, the No. 14 team showed up to some events with cars that were noticeably slower than their playoff competitors. Briscoe and Stewart-Haas Racing are clearly still searching for what they need to run in the top 10 week in and week out. Finding that consistent speed, and getting more experience racing with the front runners, will be crucial to Briscoe’s success in 2023. –Bryan Gable
13. Alex Bowman
Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman returns to Cup Series racing under a cloud of uncertainty.
It is not only uncertainty about his performance, but his health as well. Bowman was one of the few concussed casualties of the Next Gen car’s safety flaws when he backed into the wall at Texas Motor Speedway last September. As concussion protocol goes, he was sidelined out of the No. 48 Chevrolet until the year’s last race at his home track of Phoenix Raceway where he finished 34th.
While he recovers from his injury, Bowman also has a new headache to deal with, one of not knowing if he’ll even be in his HMS ride in 2024.
It is a contract year for Bowman, and knowing that he was the lowest-performing driver in HMS in 2022 – even before his injury – there is blood in the water for those hungry younger drivers in the HMS feeder team of JR Motorsports.
With questions about his health, his driving performance and his future at HMS surrounding him, the Showman heads into the new season with a weight on his shoulders.
And there is a lot of it. –Dalton Hopkins
12. Martin Truex Jr.
Any way you slice it, Martin Truex Jr.’s 2023 was one of the most successful abject failures in recent NASCAR history. The 2017 champion was ranked in the top five in points at the end of the regular season, but due to an unexpectedly high number of race winners, he found himself on the outside of the playoffs looking in. And as Jones, Wallace and Buescher broke through to spoil playoff races for the championship guys, Truex could never quite put it together. For the first time since 2014, the former champion failed to find victory lane.
In June he renewed his contract at Joe Gibbs Racing through the end of this season. And he just opened 2023 by winning the Clash at the Coliseum.
The veteran driver is at a career crossroads. He could spring back stronger than ever in what may be his final year full-time in the series – all that would take is getting a little less unlucky in just a few races. But beware, somewhere out there Father Time lies in wait for the 42-year-old.
For what it’s worth, forget Father Time. Expect a return to form for Truex in 2023. –Jack Swansey
11. Kyle Busch
It’s a new era for Kyle Busch in the Cup Series in 2023 as he shifts over to Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 team after a very successful 14 years with Joe Gibbs Racing. He earned 56 of 60 total wins with JGR, as well as two championships in 2015 and 2019.
However, in the last few years, Busch has won four events — once each year in 2020 and 2022 and twice in 2021. Last year’s win at the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track was a bit lucky, as Briscoe wheeled his car into Tyler Reddick, spinning them both out. Reddick was able to get to roll again, but before he could reach the finish line, Busch came around and edged him to take the victory.
Busch also struggled quite a bit in 2022, not finishing seven races, including five in the latter half of the season. One of these was a disqualification at Pocono Raceway where he initially crossed the line in second behind then-teammate Hamlin (who was also disqualified).
However, the Las Vegas native closed out the season with two top fives and four top 10s in the last five races, ending his JGR tenure on a relatively high note.
Rowdy is ready to move on after finishing 13th in points, matching his ranking from 2012.
Busch will have Reddick’s former crew chief Randall Burnett atop the No. 8 pit box this season. That’s the same crew chief who helped to lead Reddick to three wins last year and his Xfinity Series championship in 2019.
Busch should earn at least two or three victories this season. He still was in contention for the win in several races last year and likely won’t change only because he is with a new team. Watch for him at road courses like Circuit of the Americas and Sonoma, not only because Reddick won on two road courses in this car, but also because Busch has had some success at Sonoma. He also was one of three drivers at the Goodyear tire test at COTA, so he’ll have some extra experience there.
At just 37 years old, Busch still has the talent and capability to visit victory lane. Perhaps a new environment is just what he needs in this second year of the Next Gen car. –Joy Tomlinson
Check back tomorrow (Feb. 15) for the top 10 in Frontstretch’s 2023 preseason power rankings.
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