Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: What Should Be Expected From Ty Gibbs & Noah Gragson in 2023?

Is 2023 the year Brad Keselowski returns to victory lane?

Last year was not Brad Keselowski‘s year; he went winless for the first time since 2010, recorded career lows in top-five and top-10 finishes and finished 24th in points.

But it had been five years since RFK had won a race, and it certainly wasn’t going to do it overnight.

What Keselowski and the team did, however, was show progress in the final races of 2022. That was most on display at Bristol Motor Speedway in September, where Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher combined to lead 278 of the 500 laps in a race that saw Buescher return to victory lane for the first time since 2016.

Keselowski also won a pole at Texas Motor Speedway, scored his only top-five finish of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway and crossed the line at Martinsville Speedway in fourth before being disqualified; all of these performances came in the 2022 playoffs.

The No. 6 car’s speed appears to have transferred to the start of 2023, even if the finishes haven’t reflected it. Keselowski led the most laps in the Daytona 500 for the second year in a row and was mixing it up for the lead until the race ended in a string of overtime restarts and crashes (that ultimately collected him as well).

Keselowski then spun at Auto Club Speedway early in the race but came from a lap down to finish seventh. He was a top-10 car in the first two stages before fading in the finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a race where most of Ford was out to lunch. He then followed it up with an average running position of sixth at Phoenix Raceway, but a power issue during the final restart relegated him to 18th.

Is this the year that Keselowski ends his drought and returns to victory lane for the first time since April 2021? It’s too early to say; the No. 6 car has shown top-five and top-10 speed, but the ability to pass for the lead and run up front on non-superspeedways like Bristol last year would only improve his chances.

Win No. 36 may come this year or down to the road. Nevertheless, the start of 2023 has been a 180 for Keselowski when compared to the start of 2022.

How much success will Kevin Harvick have in his retirement tour?

Kevin Harvick may be the oldest full-time driver on the Cup Series grid, but he certainly didn’t look the part on Sunday (March 12) at Phoenix Raceway.

Harvick ran a methodical race, slowly picking cars off one-by-one during long runs from his starting spot of 15th. He finally made the move on Kyle Larson for the lead with 44 laps to go.

And Harvick was gone. He left everyone in the dust and had built up a 5.5-second lead with 10 laps to go. But his chances at a 10th Phoenix victory evaporated with a late caution.

It wasn’t a win, but it was arguably his best performance at Phoenix since 2020, all while Ford has relatively struggled out of the gate. And after the penalties that hit Alex Bowman, Harvick now finds himself in the points lead for the first time since 2020 after finishes of 12th, fifth, ninth and fifth to open the year.

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It’s a long season and teams can either improve or regress in the next seven months. Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing also have work to do on the 1.5-mile tracks.

Teams also need luck and circumstance on their side, as seen on Sunday. But if Phoenix was any indication, Harvick and the No. 4 team have the potential to win one, if not multiple races in his farewell.

Sammy Smith won his first Xfinity Series race. Who’s next?

Sammy Smith showed winning speed to start off the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity Series season, but he only had a best finish of 17th after spins in the first three races.

His fortunes finally changed in the fourth race of the season, as he scored his first career win at Phoenix after leading 92 of the 200 laps. In doing so, he became the fourth-youngest Xfinity winner and the youngest at Phoenix.

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Behind Smith, there are three names that stand out: Chandler Smith, Sheldon Creed and Sam Mayer.

Mayer finished runner-up at Auto Club, and he was potentially half a lap away from a win at Daytona before a wild crash sent his car upside down. Meanwhile, Creed led laps at Auto Club after almost pancaking the inside wall and he finished third at Phoenix despite a late spin and a resulting tire disadvantage.

It appears that it’s a matter of when — not if — for those two. But when discussing who will do it first, Chandler Smith has already made his presence known at the top of the scoring pylon.

He was two laps away from victory at Las Vegas after leading 118 laps, and he looked poised for either a third- or fourth-place finish at Phoenix until he and teammate Kyle Busch got together on the last lap (he still finished fifth). Regardless, Smith joins Justin Allgaier as the only drivers to have three top-five finishes in the first four races.

Kaulig Racing’s bread-and-butter tracks have been the superspeedways. Atlanta Motor Speedway races like one and will be a home race for Chandler Smith, who was also one lap away from winning the Craftsman Truck Series race there in 2022. If Kaulig can provide a car to match the likely favorite in Austin Hill, Smith certainly has a chance at getting it done this weekend.

What should be expected out of Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson this season?

The Ty GibbsNoah Gragson rivalry was one of the biggest storylines in the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series season, and the pair are competing against each other once again for Cup Series Rookie of the Year honors in 2023.

It’s been a less than ideal start for both of them through four races.

Gibbs currently sits 20th in points with finishes of 25th, 16th, 22nd and 28th. Gragson is 30th with finishes of 24th, 22nd, 30th and 29th.

Neither start should raise concern, however.

The days of super rookies in the late ’90s and early 2000s are gone, so it’s foolish to expect any hot lower series prospect to be winning in Cup right off the bat. That is shown through William Byron, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick, three of the most coveted prospects to rise through the ranks in the last five years.

All three had won championships on their way up the NASCAR ladder, and all three had experienced growing pains in their first seasons. Byron had just four top 10s in 2018, while Bell and Reddick only had seven and nine, respectively, in 2020. All three are still maturing as drivers and it took them multiple years to reach the level they are currently at.

And in Gragson’s case, it appears that Legacy Motor Club may have lost a step. Erik Jones hasn’t made much noise in the top 10 to start off the season and both cars have essentially been run out of pocket for the last three weeks: Allegiant Air and Sunseeker Resort (Jones’ and Gragson’s sponsors, respectively) are both properties owned by team co-owner Maury Gallagher.

But while there should be no expectations of them contending immediately, both Gibbs and Gragson need to show flashes of brilliance this season. They did just that at Michigan International Speedway last summer, as Gragson was mixing it up in the top five before a mid-race crash while Gibbs recovered from a speeding penalty in the final round of pit stops to finish 10th in his third career start.

If both drivers can have a sprinkle of those moments mixed in through their 2023 rookie seasons, look for them to make strides in 2024 and beyond.

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.

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