Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Which Non-Daytona 500 Winner Will Have the Best Performance on Sunday?

Who are the favorites to win the regular season championship in all three series?

It’s a new season, and between team changes and drivers moving up the racing ladder, every series will have its own unique feel for the 2023 season.

The question everyone asks at the start of the season is who will win the championship. But since the championship is only decided by one race and is all but impossible to predict before the season starts, I’ll instead focus on the drivers who have the best chance at the regular-season championship. The regular season is 26 races for the NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series and 16 races for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.

Chevrolet has won back-to-back manufacturers titles in the Cup Series, and it looks poised to continue its dominance. Chase Elliott won the regular-season championship last year, and while he will be a factor, Kyle Larson will be back and gunning for the top spot. Larson wasn’t leading much in the first two-thirds of 2022, but he came to life with a dominant win at Homestead-Miami Speedway in October. No one was able to beat the No. 5 team when it hit its stride in 2021, and it looks like the team has figured out how to dominate in the Next Gen car.

Beyond Hendrick Motorsports, Ross Chastain built a solid foundation in year one at Trackhouse Racing and has the potential to build on that first year. And if Toyota and Ford are back in the game, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano will be in the mix for 2023 as well.

With Ty Gibbs, Noah Gragson and AJ Allmendinger moving up to the Cup Series, the Xfinity Series faces an unknown landscape in 2023. Justin Allgaier and Josh Berry each scored three wins and were right behind the trio in dominance for 2022, and they will be joined by John Hunter Nemechek at Joe Gibbs Racing, who will be the leader of Toyota’s top Xfinity team. Those three will likely duke it out for position as top dog.

The Truck Series is a no-brainer. Zane Smith dominated in 2022, and his two closest competitors in Nemechek and Chandler Smith left for the Xfinity Series. Ty Majeski, who ended 2022 on a hot streak with two wins, and Corey Heim, who scored two wins in a part-time schedule for Kyle Busch Motorsports last season, will likely play spoiler for Zane Smith this season.

See also
Eyes on Xfinity: New Faces & Their Places

What did NASCAR get right with the Jan. 31 rule changes?

NASCAR announced a plethora of rule changes for the 2023 NASCAR season on Jan. 31.

And for the most part, it got everything right.

The change unpopular with some is that Chastain’s Hail Melon maneuver at Martinsville Speedway last October will now result in a time penalty. However, that penalty is a necessary evil. Now that someone has successfully rode the wall at Martinsville, what will stop the top two or three cars from doing the same thing on the final lap in April? It was cool the first time, it won’t be a cool on the fourth or fifth.

The biggest change that NASCAR nailed was the removal of stage cautions at the road courses in Cup. Cautions take forever on NASCAR’s winding tracks, and as the old saying goes, cautions breed cautions. The removal of the stage cautions will increase the pace of the event and will also allow for the return of full-race pit strategies that had become obsolete since the introduction of stages.

Furthermore, crew chiefs will no longer be suspended if a loose wheel falls off of a car. Just two crew members will be suspended for two races if a wheel falls off, and that’s only if the wheel leaves the confines of pit road. It’s a far more sensible penalty when compared to the counterintuitive penalty of removing the crew chief from the pit box.

NASCAR has also created a wet weather package in all three series for paved tracks that are 1 mile or shorter in length. It’s an excellent decision that will remove rain delays for eight different tracks, but the teams will need to err on the side of caution. Rain racing on ovals has never been done before in NASCAR, and it’ll be unknown how the package fully translates to a race until the skies open up on a Sunday.

What will Front Row Motorsports look like after the No. 38 car situation with Zane Smith and Todd Gilliland?

Zane Smith was lined up for a partial Cup schedule with Front Row Motorsports in 2023, and all signs pointed to FRM running a third, non-chartered car for his schedule.

What no one expected, however, was that Smith would replace Todd Gilliland in the No. 38 car for six races this season.

Gilliland competed full time for Rookie of the Year last season with FRM, and the expectation was for him to return full time to the team in his sophomore season; no one outside of the team ever expected this development.

Neither did Gilliland.

FRM will likely stay mum on why the decision was made, but the probable causes can be traced back to the cost of running an open car in the Cup Series as well as Smith’s rise to stardom after winning the 2022 Truck championship.

But for whatever reason it was done, the reality is that this move will hurt FRM in acquiring future drivers. Gilliland can’t be happy about this situation, especially when considering that the rug was pulled from under him in early February. It would be a shock to see him back with FRM in 2024.

Will other drivers take kindly to the team after the way this Silly Season move played out? It will take a few years to play out, but drivers will likely think twice before signing with FRM if they feel they could be faced with the same roster moves.

See also
A New Season Brings Optimism for Everyone

Which non-Daytona 500 winner will have the best performance on Sunday?

Of the 40 drivers in the field for the 65th Daytona 500, only seven of them (Austin Cindric, Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell and Jimmie Johnson) have won the Harley J. Earl Trophy.

The odds look good for a first-time winner, and there are several contenders.

Brad Keselowski has won seven Cup races between Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, but never the 500. He was two turns away before a violent crash on the final lap of 2021, and he led the most laps (67) in 2022. If Ford is as good at Daytona as it was last season, will he finally seal the deal?

Ryan Blaney has also excelled at superspeedways in his Cup career, and he too has won every race at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway — except the Daytona 500.

Blaney scored runner-up finishes at the 500 in 2017 and 2020, and in 2018 he led a race-high 118 laps before finishing seventh. If it wasn’t for Cindric blocking his run in the last dash to the checkered flag, Blaney may very well have claimed victory last season. He’s also looked stout to start off Speedweeks, as he paced the field for 30 of the 60 laps in his Bluegreen Vacations Duel on Thursday (Feb. 15) before finishing third.

Another name to watch is Elliott. He has two wins at Talladega Superspeedway, and he scored a dominant win at Atlanta Motor Speedway last July. His best finish in the 500 is second in 2021, and it’s hard to imagine him not being a player on Sunday.

And how about Kyle Busch? This will be his 18th try in the Daytona 500, and he’s the led the most laps of all the drivers that have never won it. He has a fresh start with Richard Childress Racing, and that may be the spark that he and the No. 8 team need this Sunday.

Of course, just one crash can wipe a dominant car. But look for these drivers to make some noise up front before mayhem breaks out.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

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.

Share via