Did You Notice? … The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season is ready to rev into high gear. The 65th annual Daytona 500 Sunday (Feb. 19) kicks off 37 NASCAR Cup Series races in a 38-week span, including the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, the first time the sport’s top division has returned to that iconic short track since 1996.
North Wilkesboro’s return is just one of several juicy storylines to unpack in the coming months. Instead of just doing the same old season preview, here’s some of my more aggressive hot takes on how the 2023 NASCAR season will unfold before us.
Kevin Harvick will be your Cup champion. Yes, that’s right; the oldest full-time driver competing this season will leave holding the hardware in what I think will be a renaissance year for aging veterans.
At the moment, Harvick ranks just 12th on the list on Caesars Sportsbook, sitting at 18-1 to win the title behind younger, more pragmatic choices like Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell. Even Kyle Busch (16-1) slots ahead of him in his new ride for Richard Childress Racing.
But I think people are discounting Harvick’s determination in this, his final season before heading up to the FOX Sports booth in 2024. A driver known for his aggression can push the issue without repercussions; it’s now or never for him everywhere we go.
Harvick is just two years removed from a nine-win season at age 45, a year so dominant he would have won the championship by 91 points without the playoff. He’s adjusted to the Next Gen just fine, winning two regular season races last August before back-to-back DNFs to start the playoffs derailed him.
Harvick also has perhaps the strongest Stewart-Haas Racing team around him since Tony Stewart was driving. Chase Briscoe won his first Cup race last year and is one of the sport’s budding superstars, ready to take the leadership mantle from Harvick. And Ryan Preece is a clear upgrade in the No. 41 over Cole Custer, a dark horse postseason contender eager to prove himself.
All Harvick needs to do is make the playoffs and then all attention turns toward getting his No. 4 all the way, similar to how Jeff Gordon reached the Championship 4 for Hendrick Motorsports in his final season (2015). And if Harvick reaches the finale at Phoenix Raceway? He has a NASCAR-best nine wins there and over 1,600 career laps led.
These types of John Elway-style endings are rare in sports. If Harvick can pull it off in 2023, becoming a two-time champ, it ups him from a run-of-the-mill Hall-of-Famer into one of the sport’s legendary drivers.
The Next Gen’s record-setting parity will continue in 2023. The sport had a record-tying 19 winners in 36 points-paying events in 2022 (20 if you add Ryan Blaney’s All-Star Race triumph). The running school of thought is year two has given the sport’s big teams time to tinker in the offseason, their edge in resources enough to restore order after a year where non-playoff drivers won three straight races in the Round of 16.
I beg to differ. If anything, the Cup field got more competitive during the offseason as some of the middle-class operations beefed up. Kaulig Racing now has AJ Allmendinger running full time (and championship-eligible) while Legacy Motor Club replaced Ty Dillon with a once-a-decade talent in rookie Noah Gragson.
The other major Silly Season move, Kyle Busch’s jump to Richard Childress Racing, started a domino effect that allowed another Gragson-like talent in rookie Ty Gibbs to move into a top-tier ride at Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch replaces Tyler Reddick, who arguably upgrades 23XI Racing as Kurt Busch scales back to part time should he be medically cleared to return.
That means, out of the 36 full-time entries, 24 of them have drivers who have won since the start of the 2021 season. Gibbs and Gragson could easily win as freshmen while Preece is in the best equipment of his career.
That’s not even counting a moonlighting seven-time Cup champion, Jimmie Johnson, who has race-winning equipment over at Legacy Motor Club. Johnson’s return to the sport comes with motivation to rewrite his final chapter, a winless last three full-time seasons that included two playoff misses in 2019 & 2020.
That feels like a recipe for 16 winners during the regular season. A record-setting 20 for 36 races wouldn’t surprise me.
NASCAR’s new TV deal will have three networks. Right now, FOX and NBC are in an exclusive negotiating period for the next NASCAR television contract (the current one expires at the end of the 2024 season). Conventional wisdom is that both will be part of the next television deal, expected to bring in slightly more money for all stakeholders.
But you know what brings in the most money? Getting a third partner to the bargaining table, either through streaming (think Amazon) or through linear networks still capable of providing the largest audience. NASCAR did that the last time: their deal from 2007-14 included a smaller number of races from FOX, then a six-race Turner summer stint before ESPN took over for the rest of the season.
Unlike last time, when it felt like FOX and NBC were clear frontrunners, plenty of others would step up if NASCAR chooses to open up the bidding. Sports packages have become incredibly valuable properties in an era in which fewer people than ever watch television live; 30 of the top 31 most-watched telecasts last year were sports-related.
Recent rumors around NBCUniversal bidding for the NBA deal has only spiced things up. Would a network that recently went through layoffs in its sports division have enough to spend for both that and NASCAR? And if it doesn’t … who steps up?
Silly Season is going to be wild. Last year, so much focus surrounded Busch, it was easy to forget we had one of the quietest offseasons in recent memory. The ride-swapping was easy to track: Kyle Busch to RCR, Reddick to 23XI (Kurt Busch steps back from full-time driving), Ty Gibbs to JGR, Noah Gragson to Legacy while Ty Dillon moves to Spire Motorsports and gives the No. 77 one full-time driver.
2023 should be very different. We’ve already seen one ride open up with Harvick’s retirement. Zane Smith‘s announcement he’ll run six races in Todd Gilliland’s car seems to make that sophomore a lame duck at Front Row Motorsports.
Then, there’s the list of drivers on expiring contracts: Alex Bowman (Hendrick), Denny Hamlin (JGR) and Martin Truex Jr. (JGR), among others. Then, there’s the manufacturers: Toyota is eager to throw money around that not only shores up that aging JGR program but adds other teams to their stable.
Not everyone will switch rides: hours after writing this column, Bowman and Daniel Suarez signed multi-year extensions with their current teams. But overall, I’d expect greater movement and some potential new ownership entering the fold with the anticipation of more TV money beginning in 2025 once the new deal gets announced this fall. While charters have increased in price, there’s still room to buy in on the back of the grid, and organizations like JR Motorsports keep toying with the idea of moving up.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …
- It’s been a while since we’ve seen this strong a Daytona 500 field of open cars. Travis Pastrana, Kaulig Racing’s Chandler Smith, RCR’s Austin Hill (running for Beard Motorsports), reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, IndyCar’s Conor Daly and Johnson. Not a weak team or car in the bunch, setting the Duels up to actually mean something on Thursday night, Feb. 16.
- How quick can Gragson and Gibbs reach victory lane? Keep in mind the last two Daytona 500s have produced first-time winners: Michael McDowell and Austin Cindric.
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.
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