Race Weekend Central

Friday Faceoff: Who Is Under the Most Pressure in 2023?

Who is under the most pressure to perform well in the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season?

Wyatt Watson: This question is a toss-up between two young drivers from Hendrick Motorsports: Alex Bowman and William Byron. Bowman is coming off one win in 2022, and while he lacked consistency, he did make the Round of 12. If it weren’t for his wreck at Texas Motor Speedway that gave him a concussion, causing him to miss the rest of the season (except Phoenix Raceway) he would have the slight edge.

However, Byron easily takes honors in this competition. Both have been racing for Hendrick for six seasons. Bowman has grabbed seven wins to Byron’s four. Bowman and Byron both have made a Round of 8, but Bowman’s path was much less controversial.

Byron’s performance in the playoffs was unsatisfactory for a Hendrick driver. He managed a best finish of third in the Bristol Motor Speedway night race and failed to score another top five the rest of the playoffs. Both struggled down the stretch, but for the younger prospect, Byron needs to show that he is capable of making a Championship 4 run next season.

Zach Gillispie: Ty Gibbs. Yes, he’s in his first full season. Yes, he’s only 20 years. Yes, he’s the defending NASCAR Xfinity Series champion. And yes, no one’s really talking about him.

Still, think about this. He’s just hopped into the seat that was vacated by the most dominant driver of the last decade. He’s earned a reputation for being a borderline dirty driver that is constantly shrouded in controversy. He’s the owner’s grandson with a silver-spoon reputation. And his limited Cup starts last year were severely underwhelming, especially for a driver who has quickly won — even dominated — in every series he had been a part of up until Cup.

The pundits might give him grace for being a rookie, but the pressure to perform for Gibbs is so much greater than anyone else on the grid.

Amy Henderson: Kyle Busch. While as an individual, he doesn’t really have anything to prove with 60 wins and a pair of titles, his performance has declined notably in the last couple of years. He no longer has the excuse of contract talks. His move to Richard Childress Racing means he’s under the gun not just to win, but to elevate that organization. He’ll need to lead when the going gets tough, something he hasn’t been able to do consistently in the past.

The team did improve over the last couple of years, and a lot of that credit goes to his predecessor, Tyler Reddick. There’s a lot riding on Busch’s performance this year beyond adding to his Hall-of-Fame numbers.

Josh Calloni: There is no shortage of right answers for this question, but I’ll say Bubba Wallace. He had a really nice second half of 2022, winning at Kansas Speedway and scoring eight top 10s in the last 18 races of the season. However, entering his third year at 23XI Racing, it’s time for the pairing to make the playoffs.

There was, and still is, a lot of hype around both team and driver, and their pairing together, and while they have shown flashes, 2023 is the year everything will need to be put together for a playoff berth.

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Which new driver/team combination will enjoy the most success in 2023?

Jack Swansey: I’m so bullish on Reddick and the No. 45 team that I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the Corning, Calif., native lifting the trophy in Phoenix. Splitting 2022 in half, both Reddick and his new team 23XI had atrocious openings to the year — Reddick inventing new ways to lose races he should have won and 23XI pit crews struggling to put wheels on racecars.

But both turned it around at the halfway point, as Reddick rattled off three wins and his new teammate Wallace stacked up career highs in top fives and top 10s in addition to his second career Cup win. If Kurt Busch hadn’t been forced to step out of the car for medical reasons, he would have been a serious playoff contender. Even John Hunter Nemechek had top-five speed in his one-off appearance before crashing out.

There’s a reason co-owner Denny Hamlin wanted to snatch Reddick up a year in advance; anyone can see that he’s got the chops to run at this level, it was just a question of smoothing out the rough edges. As of Road America last year, Reddick seems to have put it together — whatever it is that allows a driver to regularly compete at the front of the Cup field.

23XI has it too. This is a partnership coming together for both parties at the perfect moment. The timing could not be better.

Chris Skala: The obvious answer here is either Busch or Reddick. But how about the driver that drove through the field at the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum two weeks ago, Ryan Preece?

Yes, Stewart-Haas Racing has had a rough two seasons; however, Los Angeles was a sign that the No. 41 is going to be strong on short tracks and tracks like Phoenix, World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that Preece is the first driver on a new team to win in 2023. With Kevin Harvick retiring at the season’s end, this No. 41 team could be the one that puts SHR back to being consistent winners.

Watson: Easily Busch, and RCR will have much more success this year. Reddick showed that the No. 8 is bad fast and can compete for wins. Combine that with a champion of the sport and you’re in for domination. Busch will take this new opportunity and cash in at least two or three wins along with plenty of solid finishes. Busch’s knowledge and competitive nature will also elevate his teammate Austin Dillon and improve his performance.

Calloni: I’ll stick with the 23XI theme with this answer and say Reddick and the No. 45 team. Reddick is coming off the best year of his career, scoring his first win at Road America before adding two more throughout the rest of the season. Add that to a No. 45 team that was strong on its own, with Kurt Busch scoring a win in the car and Wallace showing consistent speed in the car once taking over for Busch after his concussion. The duo will turn heads this season, with multiple wins for Reddick and a deep playoff run.

Who will win the Cup Series Rookie of the Year?

Henderson: Gibbs has two distinct advantages over Noah Gragson. First and foremost, He’s got top-notch equipment at Joe Gibbs Racing. Legacy Motor Club is a team on the rise, but it’s nowhere near the level of JGR right now.

Second, note the name of Gibbs’ team: driving for his grandfather, he’s going to be the team’s focus (sorry, Hamlin), and as such, the focus of Toyota as well. Gragson is going to sit well down the Chevrolet ladder. Both drivers are volatile and prone to on- (and off-) track meltdowns, so it could come down to who can keep a more even keel, but in the end, Gibbs’ advantage in equipment is too big to ignore.

Luken Glover: The status quo pick is Gibbs, and rightfully so. After all, he is in JGR equipment while fellow rival Gragson is in equipment at Legacy.

However, let’s have a bold prediction here: Gragson will win Rookie of the Year. Gibbs should be the favorite, but Gragson shouldn’t be slept on. Neither one set the world on fire in their limited Cup starts a year ago, but I’d argue that Gragson was more impressive. With a fairly level playing field with the Next Gen car, Legacy on the rise, and Gragson’s ability to find a groove, he has every capability to win rookie honors.

Mike Neff: Two aggressive drivers moving up to full time in Cup will present a great battle for Rookie of the Year. While Gragson may have some exciting runs during the year, Gibbs will most likely have the more consistent, solid results that lead to a rookie title.

Gillispie: The car Gragson is driving only had one top 10 and finished 29th in points last year. But you see, Gragson was not driving it. He will be a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year. Sorry, Gibbs.

See also
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How will new Chevrolet team Kyle Busch Motorsports perform in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series?

Skala: It might take some time to get acclimated to the new manufacturer, but KBM is going to be good. Chase Purdy, unfortunately, is carrying a big load on his shoulders as the team’s only full-time driver. However, Kyle Busch isn’t going to allow his team to struggle and put it in a bad spot. I expect Chevrolet to have this team in top equipment and ready to roll at Daytona International Speedway.

With Busch running his selection of races and maybe others drivers stepping in to join youngster Jack Wood in the No. 51, this team is only going to get better. Chevrolet has its development team to work with and develop drivers much like KBM did for Toyota with Byron, Wallace, Christopher Bell and Chandler Smith.

Glover: With only one full-time driver, KBM will not be as large of a force this season. Purdy has spent time with both GMS Racing and Hattori Racing Enterprises, championship organizations. However, he only has five top 10s and has career-high points finish of 16th so far. That should be improved this season, but he will likely be around the bubble for making the playoffs.

Winning seems unlikely, but he shouldn’t be completely written off. The No. 51 will likely win races with Busch and potentially other drivers, but this will be a rebuilding season for KBM.

Neff: It is KBM, it will have 10 wins and contend for the championship with multiple drivers.

Swansey: With Busch behind the wheel? You won’t notice a difference.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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.

Wyatt Watson has been an avid fan of NASCAR since 2007 at the age of 8. He joined Frontstretch in February 2023 after serving in the United States Navy for five years as an Electronic Technician Navigation working on submarines. Wyatt writes breaking NASCAR news and contributes to columns such as Friday Faceoff and 2-Headed Monster. Wyatt also contributes to Frontstretch's social media and serves as an at-track reporter.

Wyatt Watson can be found on Twitter @WyattGametime

Josh joined Frontstretch in 2023 and currently covers the ARCA Menards Series. Born and raised in Missouri, Josh has been watching motorsports since 2005. He currently is studying for a Mass Communication degree at Lindenwood University

Jack Swansey primarily covers open-wheel racing for Frontstretch and co-hosts The Pit Straight Podcast, but you can also catch him writing about NASCAR, sports cars, and anything else with four wheels and a motor. Originally from North Carolina and now residing in Los Angeles, he joined the site as Sunday news writer midway through 2022 and is an avid collector (some would say hoarder) of die-cast cars.

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

Never at a loss for words, Zach Gillispie is a young, talented marketing professional from North Carolina who talks and writes on the side about his first love: racing! Since joining Frontstretch in 2018, Zach has served in numerous roles where he currently pens the NASCAR 101 column, a weekly piece delving into the basic nuts and bolts of the sport. Additionally, his unabashedly bold takes meshed with that trademarked dry wit of his have made Zach a fan favorite on the weekly Friday Faceoff panel. In his free time, he can be found in the great outdoors, actively involved in his church, cheering on his beloved Atlanta Braves or ruthlessly pestering his colleagues with completely useless statistics about Delma Cowart.

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Bill B

23X1 and Trackhouse both seemed to turn a corner last year. Was it for real or just the parity created by having a new car where all the teams started from scratch?
For that matter, will the circumstantial parity we saw last year still be the norm, or will the larger teams with greater resources start to widen the gap?

jdquick

Who is under the most pressure this year, got a short answer for that one. NASCAR. IMHO when you put on a crap show with a fake “playoff” at the end you are in trouble. NASCAR has fallen and it can’t get up and I don’t know what the answer is but it isn’t what the powers that be are doing now with tricked up races like the coliseum, street races or turning the once great Bristol into a farm field.

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