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NASCAR 101: 2023’s Biggest Storylines So Far

When the green flag drops this weekend at Martinsville Speedway, we will officially be a quarter of the way through the NASCAR season.

How can that be? The season seems so young!

That may be because there has been plenty to talk about, from a superstar’s injury to TV ratings, the parity of seven winners in eight races and the appeals panel, of all things. So, here is a brief roundup of the biggest 2023 storylines so far.

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There has been plenty to watch as NASCAR not only entered its second season with the new Next Gen racecar, but also its 75th season of competition. Yet there may be no bigger storyline than NASCAR’s most popular driver being sidelined for the majority of the season so far.

Chase Elliott is expected to return to the seat of his familiar No. 9 Chevrolet after being out of the car for six weeks. Elliott broke his leg in a snowboarding accident shortly before the third race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Josh Berry and road racing ace Jordan Taylor drove Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports entry in his place.

On the subject of Hendrick, let’s talk about all the controversy surrounding that organization this season.

At Phoenix Raceway, all four HMS entries each had their hood louvers confiscated, as well as one from Justin Haley‘s Kaulig Racing machine. All five drivers and teams were docked 100 points each along with hefty monetary fines.

In an utterly stunning move, the National Motorsports Appeals Panel elected to uphold the penalty but reinstate the points to the Hendrick team, but not the Kaulig team. Ironically, Hendrick teammates William Byron and Alex Bowman were hit with 60-point penalties for similar infractions following the Richmond Raceway contest.

The appeals panel also voted to keep a penalty against Denny Hamlin, after he admitted to intentionally wrecking Ross Chastain on the final lap at Phoenix, a feud that has been brewing since last season.

Christopher Bell has also had an encounter with Chastain this season, after falsely accusing him of contact at Phoenix. Bell, who is the current points leader, has had a strong season and won for the first time in 2023 last weekend on the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track.

With the victory, he’ll join Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the postseason. Stenhouse broke a losing streak that dated back to 2017 by winning the 65th Daytona 500. It was the first win for JTG Daugherty Racing since 2014.

It was a triumphant occasion for Stenhouse but not so for the folks in NASCAR television, as TV ratings for the Daytona 500 were down significantly. This has been a huge topic of conversation as ratings for every race this season have shown significant decreases after several flat seasons.

This has been surprising, especially with the world-renowned talent that has been coming through NASCAR doors. This has included two Formula 1 world champions who have gotten behind the wheel so far in 2023.

Kimi Raikkonen returned for a second outing in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 program, this time at Circuit of the Americas. Fellow F1 champ Jenson Button landed a three-race deal with Rick Ware Racing to run road courses.

There have been others too, like Taylor, dirt superstar Jonathan Davenport, the return of seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, action sports legend Travis Pastrana and longtime IndyCar competitor Conor Daly, who in a heroic never-give-up effort, qualified for his first Daytona 500.

These competitors have been good for the quality of the fields, especially as another one of NASCAR’s veterans is set for retirement. Just prior to the start of the 2023 season, 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick announced he would be stepping away from the driver’s seat at the season’s end. Harvick will not be leaving the sport altogether as he’ll be putting on the headset for FOX’s TV broadcasts in 2024.

That wasn’t the biggest offseason storyline, as Kyle Busch departed from Joe Gibbs Racing after 15 seasons for Richard Childress Racing. The pairing immediately hit it off by scoring a win at Auto Club Speedway in its final race as a 2-mile track. It was a statement win for Busch and the team Harvick used to drive for, proving once again that Childress still knows how to get to victory lane.

Harvick’s teammate Ryan Preece also stepped into the spotlight, joining Stewart-Haas Racing’s stable after an absence from the Cup season. Yet, it has been a struggle for Preece and his teammates, as all besides Harvick sit outside the top 20 in points, leaving speculation as to the future of SHR beyond 2023.

There is optimism, as one of Harvick’s rumored replacements, Zane Smith, has gotten a taste of Cup competition this season. As last year’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, Smith has already gotten off to another hot start in that series, collecting two victories in the first six races.

And in a controversial move over the offseason, Smith was announced to take on a part-time Cup schedule with his Front Row Motorsports team this season, displacing his teammate Todd Gilliland from a full-time ride.

Gilliland has been able to piece together a full-time schedule by securing races in a third FRM car and an entry with RWR.

On the note of RWR, that organization has been hit with a black eye as its full-time driver Cody Ware was indefinitely suspended from NASCAR following his April 10 arrest. Ironically, it was Smith who was named as Ware’s initial replacement.

With this suspension, driver injuries, and points deductions, the playoff field has been left wide open. So far, Stenhouse, Bell, Busch and Byron along with Tyler Reddick, Kyle Larson, and Joey Logano, have already clinched playoff spots by scoring victories.

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The playoff field also has some new faces, as RFK Racing teammates Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher are currently in postseason positions if the playoffs were to start today.

But there is still a lot of racing yet to be done before we get to the playoffs. They include the triumphant return to the historic North Wilkesboro Speedway for the NASCAR All-Star race and the debut of the Chicago Street Course.

Stay tuned to Frontstretch as we will keep you covered on all the storylines that are yet to come.

About the author

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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