Race Weekend Central

A New Season Brings Optimism for Everyone

Pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training in Florida. Most every team and its fans has a positive outlook about the 2023 season and their potential to make the World Series.

The same feelings are flooding into Daytona International Speedway as the 2023 NASCAR point season kicks off with the Daytona 500. Every full-time team in the garage is going into the season with a mindset that they can win a race, make the playoffs and potentially win a championship.

While that is more true than ever with the latest generation car, there are still some teams that have a better chance than others. Let’s take a look at some predominantly subjective observations about title contenders.

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You start out looking at the defending champ, Joey Logano.

The two-time champion won four races in 2022, second most in the series. His season was far from dominant but he turned up the heat as the season wound down and he shone brightest in the final race of the year, dominating the title race at Phoenix Raceway.

The team is back together for a run at defending the crown, which is incredibly hard to do. It last happened in 2010 when Jimmie Johnson snagged his fifth-consecutive championship. It has only happened 13 times in the 75-year history of the sport, so the challenge is difficult, but not impossible.

The next set of title favorites is the entire Hendrick Motorsports stable.

They took the two previous titles in the series with Kyle Larson in 2021 and Chase Elliott in 2020. Elliott led the series in victories in 2022 with five. Larson was tied for third most with three. William Byron had two and Alex Bowman had one.

It is safe to assume that Larson and Elliott will both be in the mix again this year, but Byron and Bowman both have the potential for title runs in 2023. Byron has back-to-back top 10 season finishes. He closed out last season with six top-10 finishes in the final 10 races.

The team looked to be hitting their stride and enters 2023 riding that wave of momentum. Bowman was coming into the season with some big question marks hanging over his head, but they were wiped away this week. Bowman has signed a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports through 2026. His sponsor, Ally, stepped up as well, inking a deal to stay on the No. 48 through 2028. That pressure removed from his shoulders, Bowman can focus solely on improving his results and making a run at the title.

The next driver might be a surprise for the folks who aren’t paying attention, but Ross Chastain needs to be near the top of everyone’s potential champion list. Chastain led the series in top-five finishes last season, nabbing 15 over the course of the year. He also scored the most top 10s with 21.

He was obviously given a tremendous amount of attention after his bonzai move at Martinsville Speedway to make the final four, but his season was very impressive and he came home second in the standings.

Trackhouse Racing Team has quickly established themselves as a very strong team that knows how to get the most out of this new version of the Cup car. Another season under his belt in quality equipment will certainly make Chastain a driver to watch in 2023.

Similar to Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing’s entire organization has to be looked at as potential title contenders.

Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell finished in the top five in points last year and both scored multiple wins last year. Hamlin is widely considered the best driver without a championship currently in the series, and his career is closer to the end than it is to the beginning. 2023 might be the year where he finally breaks through and grabs the brass ring.

Martin Truex Jr. is also looking like he might make a run after his effort at the Clash. While a quarter mile temporary race track is far from a bell weather of what the season holds, the team showed that they had a handle on this car as they head into 2023. Truex’s 2022 was anything but remarkable, but his decision not to retire and come back strong just might be the impetus to make him another multi-time title holder.

Ty Gibbs will be a long shot to take the big trophy home, but he should be in the playoffs. A victory during his rookie year definitely is not out of the question.

The former JGR driver, Kyle Busch, could very well be the dominant driver of 2023. 2022 was a terrible year for Busch. He won one race, and that was a gift at Bristol after Chase Briscoe took out Tyler Reddick on the last lap. Busch moves to Richard Childress Racing for this season and is paired with Randall Burnett.

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Burnett has shown that he can get the most out of this new car, putting Tyler Reddick into Victory Lane three times in 2022. Putting one of the best drivers in the sport into cars that have the potential to win every week is a recipe for a dominating bounce-back season. Busch is definitely poised to make a strong run at title number three.

A rising tide lifts all boats, so don’t be shocked if Austin Dillon runs even stronger in 2023 as well. Dillon still has the potential to be the first driver to win the title in all three national series. Being partnered with Busch can do nothing but help in his pursuit of that accomplishment.

23XI Racing is another team that has a good chance to make a run at a title in 2023. The synergy of 23 being in the year and the company name is just another coincidence that might lead to good Karma for the team. Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick have both shown the ability to win races. Reddick’s biggest challenge has been getting his cars to the finish.

Wallace’s challenge is keeping his emotions in check. The end of the Clash was an opportunity for him to lose it again, but he kept his temper in check. If he can continue that maturity he will have the opportunity to win multiple races this season. Reddick is still developing in his career and three wins in 2022 just shows the potential that he has going forward.

Ryan Blaney could easily have a dominating season, if he can figure out how to get his cars into victory lane consistently. Every other driver who had double digit top 5 finishes in 2022 not only won a race but won at least two races. Blaney didn’t win a race while earning 12 top-five finishes. If he can get over the hump and win multiple races, his title hopes will be very real.

Kevin Harvick is retiring.

The new car has been a challenge to say the least for him. If he can get a handle on the car for this last ride, he might be able to write a storybook ending. His teammate, Briscoe, is continuing to develop into a seasoned veteran. Briscoe and his team repeatedly showed the grit and determination to make it to the title race last year. While they came up short it was not for lack of effort behind the wheel or over the wall. Look for Briscoe to continue getting better as he gains even more experience.

Erik Jones is going to be spending a lot of time with Jimmie Johnson this year. Hanging around a seven-time champion can do surprising things for a talented racer. Jones has done some great racing in the No. 43 and just might be able to put it all together this season.

The other drivers in the series absolutely have the talent to win races and make a run once they reach the playoffs. As they drive through the tunnel into Dayona, they all feel like they are going to have a shot to make it to the top of the mountain in Phoenix. The beauty of Daytona starting the season is that everyone has an equal shot at the title and it can all start with a win in the biggest race of the season. Let’s all look forward to a fantastic 75th year of NASCAR.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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