Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: 2023 NASCAR Playoff Picture Already Taking Shape

Did You Notice? … We’re nearly a third of the way through the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series regular season? Time passes quickly these days, even with a series that has a bloated schedule of 38 races (including its all-star event and the Clash) and only one off weekend during a nine-month period.

Just like last year, the theme of parity under the Next Gen era continues: there have been seven winners in the first eight events. What’s different, at least to some degree, is where the winners are coming from.

WINNERS BY TEAM THROUGH EIGHT RACES

TEAM2022 WINS2023 WINS
Hendrick Motorsports43
Joe Gibbs Racing11
Team Penske11
Stewart-Haas Racing10
Trackhouse Racing10
JTG Daugherty Racing01
23XI Racing01
Richard Childress Racing01
If we assume a win clinches a playoff spot, as it has every other year during this postseason format, the following are our seven locks: William Byron (HMS), Kyle Larson (HMS), Christopher Bell (JGR), Joey Logano (Penske), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (JTG Daugherty), Tyler Reddick (23XI), Kyle Busch (RCR).

Already, that means only nine of 16 playoff spots are left available.

Who’s in the best position to grab them? Let’s start with a look at the one team who remains on top early in the year.

Just like in 2022, Hendrick has gotten off to a hot start despite two major penalties assessed by NASCAR: one for hood louvers confiscated from all teams at Phoenix Raceway, then a second given to Alex Bowman and William Byron after officials took their cars to the R&D Center after Richmond Raceway. Conspiracy theorists might say that’s because the point penalties from the louvers were overturned, causing such an uproar that NASCAR has actually changed the appeals process going forward so that no one individual element of a penalty can be removed if the panel believes an actual violation was committed.
See also
Holding a Pretty Wheel: NASCAR's Penalty Process Casting a Long Shadow in 2023

Despite all that hot mess drama, HMS has showed better speed than 2022, when all four teams were locked into the playoffs by early May. With Chase Elliott close to returning from a fractured tibia, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them pull a repeat by the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend.

No, don’t even start with the argument Elliott might struggle in his transition back; Josh Berry was just second with the No. 9 at Richmond. He’ll win. The big challenge now for HMS is to keep themselves in overdrive, holding onto their momentum through the playoffs instead of peaking months too early and leading to just one participant in the Championship 4 (Elliott) last November.

OK; so we’re adding Bowman and Elliott. Only seven spots left to give.

Behind HMS, it’s debatable who the second-best organization is. Penske has all three of its cars in playoff position and reigning champion Joey Logano has already won (Atlanta Motor Speedway). But Logano also has two last-place results, producing a position differential of -63, as he, Ryan Blaney and Austin Cindric have struggled with inconsistency. Logano also owns the only win for Ford, who’s been a step behind on speed at the 1.5-mile intermediate tracks.

Gibbs now has a win after Christopher Bell won on the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt surface. Both Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin have shown promise but failed to close the deal on any race after Truex took the season-opening exhibition out in the Clash.

Instead, an increasing number of off-track headlines are beginning to dominate the conversation. Hamlin’s 25-point deduction for wrecking Ross Chastain has left him on the defensive. It’s also notable that, despite making clear he wants to remain with JGR, a long-term extension with the team and sponsor FedEx remains unsigned (both contracts are up after 2023). Truex’s nasty exchange with crew chief James Small at Richmond kept up this narrative that they snatch defeat from the jaws of victory; his in-season winless streak has reached 52 races.

In theory, Truex, Hamlin and Blaney should grab three of the seven spots left. We saw with Truex how it goes when you leave yourself winless over the course of a regular season, but it’s hard to see him and Blaney shut out all over again.

And Hamlin? He’s won two or more races in each of the last four seasons with crew chief Chris Gabehart. Seems like he’ll get it together somewhere, maybe even Martinsville Speedway this weekend.

Suddenly … we’re down to four.

Behind JGR/Penske comes Trackhouse, one driver away last November from earning a miracle title with Chastain. Both he and Daniel Suarez signed long-term deals in the offseason but the watermelon farmer is the clear number one here. Leading the points at times early in the year, he’s already got an 86-point cushion on the bubble, and it would take a long list of drivers willing to get revenge for Chastain to wreck himself down the list.

Amazing how we haven’t mentioned Stewart-Haas at this point, a team who’s taken a clear step back from the top tier. But Kevin Harvick remains the lone exception, a beacon of consistency in his final season by racking up five top-10 finishes and sitting fourth in the overall standings. He, too, has a large cushion over the bubble (-73), and it’s hard to see the retiring driver missing out.

Would you look at that … heading to Martinsville in April with only two spots remaining, right?

But that’s where things get good. Assuming this all plays out the way it’s outlined above, Brad Keselowski and Austin Cindric have the most points of any drivers remaining. But there’s a star-studded group on the outside looking in, including …

  • Rookie Ty Gibbs at JGR (four straight top-10 finishes)
  • Suarez (who won last year at Sonoma Raceway)
  • Bubba Wallace (who’s got to capitalize off Reddick’s speed and change his luck at some point)
  • Austin Dillon (see above and insert Kyle Busch)
  • AJ Allmendinger (could steal a road course race at any time)
  • Chase Briscoe (ditto)
  • Chris Buescher (Won Bristol Night Race last fall, RFK Racing has stepped up a level these last six months)
  • Erik Jones (Last year’s Southern 500 winner could surprise at Darlington Raceway? Even with Legacy Motor Club looking lost)
  • Noah Gragson (Hard to count out this high-upside rookie)

That’s 10 drivers, right there, fighting for two spots — three if someone from the Blaney-Truex-Hamlin triumvirate stumbles, or one if, say, Justin Haley, Michael McDowell or Corey LaJoie find lightning in a bottle and win a pack race.

See also
Up To Speed: What Is Long-Term Plan for FRM?

It all equals a solid spring and summer drama of buildup toward the postseason. The question is whether the actual on-track action can heat up with it after a number of underwhelming races to start the year.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …

  • There’s no news about the penalty report quite yet. But NASCAR best be prepared to issue Ryan Preece the same 25-point penalty they gave Hamlin for his payback incident. The tough part about setting a new precedent in-season? It’s hard to change it without major pushback.
  • Michael McDowell now has two 360-degree spins without hitting anything versus one top-10 finish. One of the weirder starts to 2023.
  • The crazy thing about that Bristol Dirt Race? It was the best of the three before it got going. I wouldn’t be opposed to a fourth year but when you’re riding at 35-40% of overall capacity? Your one late model ringer says it’s a “show” more than a dirt race? And the ratings are down 13%? Yeah, I think I may agree with Dalton Hopkins that it’s time to find somewhere else.

Follow @NASCARBowles

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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4 Comments
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Dawg

AJ Allmendinger could STEAL a road course victory. How would it considered a steal, when the Dinger is one of, if not the best, road course driver in the series? Put him in a car equal to Elliott’s, & he’d be a co-favorite at every RC,

When he won the 24 Hours of Daytona, he was the one they picked to drive the all important final stint.

In my book, a steal was when Chastain wrecked AJ on the final lap at COTA, or when Brisco wrecked both himself, & Reddick on the final lap on the dirt at Bristol to hand the win to Busch.

I will have to admit that AJ’s win at the Indy road course could be considered a steal. But he’s still the only RC ringer to have won in the modern era.

But If he were to pull another win, in what is at best a second-class car, unless it were handed to him, it would be a master class in driving.

To call it a steal would be to devalue the win.

Echo

I agree with you.

DoninAjax

It’s easy to predict the top 16. Mr. H cars, Reverend Joe cars, Roger cars, Richard cars and the ones NA$CAR wants, although I don’t think they want any Fords.

Kevin in SoCal

16 is too many drivers, it should go to the top 12, then there’s more pressure to win.
On the flip side, you may see more people wrecking to win, though.

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