Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Parity or Powerhouses?

1. Will the 2023 season look like another one where anyone can win on any given week … and do NASCAR fans want that?

Sports fans don’t know their own hearts’ desires.

Sure, everyone with a rooting interest wants their team, player or driver to win. They say they want as level a playing field as possible, and for it to be possible for anyone to win at any time.

Numbers suggest the opposite is true. TV ratings and other gauges of interest almost always find that when there’s one superstar or team at the forefront, more people care. The masses love a winner and will jump on the bandwagon. Others will root against them with all their might. Either way, dominance gets people interested.

That idea has never been more relevant for the NASCAR Cup Series than it is right now, on the cusp of the 2023 season. Last year was one for parity lovers, with 19 different drivers winning at least one race and no one winning more than five. Joey Logano won four times, making him a fine series champion. Clutch, for sure. But dominant? Not really.

Contrast that to the 2022 campaign, where Kyle Larson was The Man. He took the checkered flag 10 times, more than twice as many as anyone else, and surprised absolutely no one when he took the championship as well. You were either on board or hoping against hope that someone would upset him.

If you took a straw poll of NASCAR fans, everyone except Larson fans would probably say last season was more fun. There was a sense of unpredictability and freshness to it all, aided by the new Cup Series car. It’s likely that the lack of one or two drivers really flexing their muscles and winning a ton was at least partly due to teams needing all year to figure it out.

The 2023 season might be like that too, with no repeat drivers for a while and tons of parity. But it’s just as likely that some organization will hit on something that will make them the obvious class in the garage.

Which way will it go? And if it’s parity, will fans eat it up, or will they tire of a second straight year where there’s no one power in the garage? Those are the most interesting fundamental questions as Daytona International Speedway beckons.

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2. Can TrackHouse pull off an encore?

At the center of the parity party from last year was the emergence of TrackHouse Racing.

It would have been difficult for a Hollywood scriptwriter to concoct a more feel-good story: one owner had been around stock car racing for a while, and the other a music megastar. One driver long considered a talent who just needed the right opportunity; his teammate looking for redemption after not finding the success he craved during his first shot at a top team.

Except for Ross Chastain ruffling the feathers of Denny Hamlin et al, it all played out splendidly. Daniel Suarez won for the first time. Chastain found victory lane more than once, led all Cup drivers in top-10 finishes and was a bona fide championship contender.

As that megastar owner, Pitbull, knows all too well though, there’s a difference between leaving people wanting more and then actually coming back out and giving it to them. TrackHouse won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year, and with success comes raised expectations. It’s going to be fun seeing if they can deliver.

3. Does Kevin Harvick have it in him to walk into the sunset a winner?

After going winless during the 2021 season, Kevin Harvick appeared he might be headed for another season of futility last year. It took 20-plus races, but Harvick managed to grab not one, but two consecutive victories … and then immediately became a non-factor in the playoffs thanks to horrible days at Darlington Raceway and Kansas Speedway.

Unlike some drivers who announce their final season and then change their minds (Aric Almirola comes to mind), we can be pretty confident that this is indeed it for Harvick since he announced during the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum that he’s headed to the FOX booth come 2024 to join Mike Joy and Clint Bowyer. The bit question now is whether he’ll be a factor in the championship hunt during his last hurrah.

Stewart-Haas Racing as a whole seemed slower to adapt to the new car than the other big Cup Series teams, but Harvick’s two wins were promising. If the No. 4 team can channel those vibes from Michigan International Speedway and Richmond Raceway, maybe he can write one more triumphant chapter in a Hall of Fame career.

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4. Is it fair to expect anything when Jimmie Johnson gets behind the wheel again?

In contrast to Harvick, Jimmie Johnson didn’t reveal nearly as much about his 2023 Cup Series plans during the Clash weekend. The seven-time champion will be in the No. 84 Chevrolet at Daytona, and at the Chicago street course. He’ll be taking part in several other races as well, it’s just not clear which ones.

There will be intense interest, to say the least, to see if Johnson can sneak in and grab career victory 84, which would tie him for fourth all time with two gentlemen you may have heard of, Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. It would be quite the story if he can pull it off.

And while it’s not fun and perhaps not wise to bet against him, we’re talking about a driver who’s in his late 40s, driving part time in a car that won’t even be out there every week for a team that hasn’t exactly been a regular frontrunner. Plus Johnson drove his final three Cup Series seasons without winning even once.

Those are some seriously daunting odds. No one would ever suggest Johnson can’t pull it off, but maybe we should all just enjoy having him out on the track at all.

5. Has NASCAR fixed the Cup car’s safety issues?

Some would argue that safety is too strong a descriptor since there’s no evidence that Cup Series drivers are in more danger of permanent injury or worse. Others would say it’s exactly right since more than one person who experienced a crash in the current car reported feeling a lot more banged up than they expected.

NASCAR took a lot of flak for the perception that it wasn’t taking those reports seriously enough during last year. And wholesale changes in the middle of a season aren’t easy, even though driver safety should always be a paramount concern.

But logistical issues are no longer in play. NASCAR had months to tinker with and modify whatever was needed in order to keep drivers as secure as possible in all kinds of collisions. There are no more excuses, and if there are complaints about hits feeling too hard now, the justifiable outrage level will be much, much higher in 2023.

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Re #5: if reports from the Clash are accurate, Safety has not been improved enough. :/

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