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 back tomorrow (Feb. 14) for position Nos. 20-11, followed by the top 10 on Feb. 15.
30. Harrison Burton
Harrison Burton had an up-and-down rookie year in 2022, scoring only one top five and two top 10s along with an average finish of 22.8. However, his pace picked up toward the end of the season. Burton finished inside the top 20 eight times in the second half, including a career high third at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Overall, he ended up 27th in the final points standings.
Combining the full season of experience under his belt with his entire Wood Brothers Racing team returning around him, Burton has a solid foundation to build from heading into his sophomore Cup Series season. He’ll be one to watch on superspeedways, as he showed a prowess in that particular type of racing, most notably running up front at last year’s Daytona 500 before getting caught up in an incident at the end of stage one.
The problem is an evenly-matched Cup field in which over 30 drivers have legitimate playoff aspirations. Burton may be hard pressed to improve on last year’s performance with the Cup field so strong from top to bottom. –Josh Calloni
29. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The pride of Olive Branch, Miss., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hasn’t won a Cup Series race since his two superspeedway victories in 2017. But a trio of runner-up results in his three years at single-car underdog JTG Daugherty Racing has left some convinced that the 35-year-old could find himself back in victory lane. With just 11 top 10s across three seasons, however, many aren’t expecting Stenhouse to set the world on fire.
A sudden run to the playoffs would be highly unlikely for the No. 47 team, but who expected the then-35-year-old and three-time Cup race winner Martin Truex Jr.’s shock run to the Championship 4 with the single-car underdog team Furniture Row Racing in 2015?
The old saying says lightning never strikes twice, and in this case, I’m inclined to agree. But stranger things have happened in NASCAR. At the very least, keep an eye on the always-aggressive Stenhouse in the closing laps of the Daytona 500. –Jack Swansey
28. Justin Haley
Justin Haley’s first full-time Cup season was not flashy, but he did show improvement throughout and took great care of his equipment. The driver of the No. 31 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet only had three DNFs in 2022, tied with Ryan Blaney for second fewest in the Cup Series. Three of his four top-10 finishes also came in the second half of the season while his 22nd-place points result put him ahead of Cup Series veterans like Brad Keselowski and Stenhouse.
With crew chief Trent Owens and a year in the Next Gen car under his belt, Haley seems primed for another step forward in 2023. Does he have the speed to compete consistently for wins and make a deep playoff run? No, not yet. Does he have the potential to win a race, make the playoffs and increase his top-10 total? Yes, he does, especially with his history of winning at superspeedways in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Don’t forget that Haley was in position to possibly snag a playoff spot at the regular season finale at Daytona.
Anyone who overlooks Haley and the No. 31 team does so at their own risk. –Andrew Stoddard
27. Aric Almirola
While 2022 wasn’t a standout season for Aric Almirola, he did announce that he would, in fact, not retire at season’s end like originally planned, instead returning on a multi-year deal to run the No. 10 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing.
2023 can only be seen as an improvement for Almirola who, despite starting the year with three straight top 10s, finished a dismal 20th in the 2022 standings, missing the playoffs for the first time in his Stewart-Haas Racing career. One can expect Almirola will be a usual threat on the superspeedways as well as the occasional intermediate track where his team finds the right setup.
However, if 2023 is anything like 2022, 15-plus winners is likely to happen again – something Almirola wasn’t a part of in 2022. He’s proven to be a playoff driver in the past, but if he delayed his retirement to continue working toward a championship, Almirola’s going to have to prove that he can still win. Otherwise, the move to stay out of retirement was simply keeping the seat warm for a development driver down the road. –Anthony Damcott
26. Ryan Preece
In his year off of full-time Cup Series competition, Preece ran part time in each of the three top divisions of the sport under SHR’s umbrella. He found the most success in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, running 10 races with one win, a worst finish of 11th and an average finish of 4.6.
Preece’s 2023 season started off with a bang by leading 43 laps in the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, but he finished seventh after an electrical problem caused him to lose spots in the closing laps. Preece is sure to be a threat on short tracks this season, as his background in racing comes from various northeastern short tracks in modifieds. –J.C.
25. Noah Gragson
2023 will feature a small, yet intriguing rookie class for the NASCAR Cup Series.
The top two finishers in the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series standings will go head-to-head for rookie honors in Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson. To add an extra layer of intrigue, it is no secret that the two do not get along.
Gragson jumps in after a breakthrough NASCAR Xfinity Series season that saw him win eight races – including a record-tying four in a row – and lead 1,010 laps in addition to earning 21 top fives and 26 top 10s. He also gained some Cup experience, competing in 18 races between Kaulig Racing, Beard Motorsports and a substitute role at Hendrick Motorsports.
Joining a newly rebranded Legacy Motor Club co-owned by Richard Petty, Maury Gallagher and now Jimmie Johnson, Gragson has all the tools around him to learn the ropes effectively. With Legacy’s emergence last season and its continued growth, Gragson could snatch Rookie of the Year honors at season’s end.
The biggest goal for Gragson and any freshman is to run as many laps as possible. He’ll have to build his notepad and learn characteristics of each track when he goes there for a second, third, or fourth time. With Erik Jones as his teammate, Gragson should also be able to get some reliable feedback from the No. 43 team.
Tracks with worn-out surfaces fit right into Gragson’s wheelhouse. Do not be surprised to see him join Kyle Larson and Tyler Reddick in rim-riding this season. And if Gragson takes it one step at a time, goes to the right sources for feedback and stays focused, a fruitful career is at his disposal. –Luken Glover
24. Michael McDowell
The emergence of the Next Gen car benefited Michael McDowell and his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team last year. While he didn’t win, he earned a career best 12 top 10s, more than double what he earned in 2021. He also claimed two top-five finishes at Sonoma Raceway and Talladega Superspeedway.
The addition of Todd Gilliland to the fold seemed to have helped the organization a bit, with Gilliland himself picking up a top five and two top 10s. His top five (a fourth) came at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course where McDowell also finished eighth.
Blake Harris, McDowell’s crew chief in 2022, also helped the team’s strategies on the racetrack to get the No. 34 out front more often. Harris’ 2022 run with McDowell allowed other teams to take notice, and he will move over to serve as the crew chief for Alex Bowman’s No. 48 team.
McDowell will instead work with Travis Peterson this year, who was previously a race engineer at RFK Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. McDowell will also welcome a new teammate, at least in a few races, as Zane Smith, the 2022 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, will drive six races in the No. 38.
The changes might cause McDowell to struggle at first after the Daytona 500 while the team takes time to gel together. But the Next Gen car could still allow drivers like McDowell to contend for wins, especially on the road courses and superspeedways. –Joy Tomlinson
23. Ty Gibbs
In the past two years, Ty Gibbs has won the 2021 ARCA Menards Series and 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series championships. His meteoric rise has riled some folks, but his talent is uncanny. Now, Gibbs is tasked with his toughest competition: the NASCAR Cup Series field.
After Kurt Busch’s injury at Pocono Raceway, Gibbs replaced him at 23XI Racing. In 15 races, Gibbs scored one top 10, a 10th at Michigan International Speedway in his third start.
Gibbs logged nine lead lap finishes in his part-time slate, but he gained valuable experience in the Next Gen car. Of his four DNFs, only two were due to crashes – one at unpredictable Talladega and the other at Kansas Speedway.
Undeniably talented, Gibbs expects to run as well as he has throughout his racing career. His 2023 ride comes with a tall task, though, as he is the successor to future NASCAR Hall of Famer Kyle Busch.
Will the pressure of being the grandson of the team owner and following a legend overshadow the fact that Gibbs is only 20 years old? Fortunately, he has great equipment, excellent teammates and his championship-winning Xfinity crew chief Chris Gayle to aid him in his rookie season. –Mark Kristl
22. Austin Dillon
If any year is a pressure year for a driver, it’s the driver that comes in at No. 22 on our power rankings, and that is Austin Dillon. Dillon is coming off a playoff appearance after his win at Daytona last August and now has a new teammate in Kyle Busch. The duo finished second and third in the Busch Light Clash last weekend and now look to keep the momentum going into the Daytona 500.
Dillon will also have a new crew chief this season as veteran Keith Rodden takes over for Justin Alexander. In 2022, Dillon had his best year as a Cup driver by finishing 11th in points and scoring three straight top-10 finishes for the first time in his career.
With Busch coming over to join Dillon at RCR, one would expect those numbers to continue in 2023. Dillon will have one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history to lean on and the support of a team that seems to be trending upward going into the upcoming season. –Chris Skala
21. Brad Keselowski
Last year, Brad Keselowski ended the NASCAR Cup Series season winless. It was the first time the new team co-owner of RFK Racing has done so since his rookie season in 2010.
That may sound like a depressing statistic – and well, that’s because it is – but it doesn’t mean the 2012 Cup champion is entering the 2023 season with a dark cloud over his head.
In the last 10 races of 2022, the No. 6 team earned three of its six top 10s, including its lone top-five result at Homestead-Miami Speedway. One of the 10 races was the Bristol Motor Speedway night race in September, in which Keselowski led a season-high 109 laps and was the easy favorite to win had it not been for a late-race flat tire that forced him to finish 13th. That was also the race that his RFK teammate, Chris Buescher, wound up winning instead.
Keselowski’s new team left last year on the upswing, and while his statistics for the whole season leave something to be desired, he does have momentum on his side.
Is it championship-worthy? No, but one can expect at least a win from the No. 6 in 2023. –Dalton Hopkins
Check back tomorrow (Feb. 14) for the second installment in Frontstretch’s 2023 preseason power rankings, this time Nos. 20-11.
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