Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Has Gibbs Caught Up to Hendrick?

1. A points-paying North Wilkesboro Cup race?

One of the most welcome surprises of the 2023 NASCAR season has been the return of North Wilkesboro Speedway, just in time for NASCAR’s 75th anniversary celebration.

Having sat largely vacant since NASCAR’s exit in 1996, North Wilkesboro’s first year back in NASCAR will consist of a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race on Saturday, May 20, and the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race on Sunday, May 21.

As expected, All-Star weekend has been one of the most highly anticipated dates on the 2023 calendar. And with the race just over a week away, the attention has already turned to 2024 and beyond: Could the 0.625-mile short track be back on points-paying schedule for the first time in more than 27 years?

The ticket sales already suggest that the weekend will be a success, and if there is even the potential for a points-paying race in the future, by all means, make it happen.

The track has the infrastructure to support it, and there has been 27 years of anticipation building up to next week.

And while there have been concerns about the Next Gen car’s performance on short tracks, none of that should matter for the time being. All that matters is that a historic relic of NASCAR’s past — one that was nearly lost forever — will be making its triumphant return.

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2. Has Joe Gibbs Racing caught up to Hendrick Motorsports?

No, but the gap between Hendrick and second place is the closest it’s been all season.

The talk of the town in the first months of 2023 has been Hendrick teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson. The formidable duo has four wins on the season, and the pair has combined to lead 1,142 of the 3,248 laps run up to this point.

But despite a rocky start to the season, the JGR quartet has slowly but surely marched to the top of the scoring pylon.

Christopher Bell scored his first win of the season at the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track, and he leads all drivers with eight top-10 finishes in 12 races. Martin Truex Jr. broke a 54-race winless streak at Dover Motor Speedway on May 1, and he backed it up with one of the fastest cars at Kansas Speedway the following week. Denny Hamlin also returned to victory lane at Kansas (albeit with last-lap controversy), as he broke a 33-race drought for the 49th win of his career.

Ross Chastain is the regular season points leader, but the trio sits right behind him in second (Bell), third (Hamlin) and fourth (Truex).

And last but not least is Ty Gibbs, who turned heads with top-five speed at both Dover and Kansas. And while the finishes didn’t show for it thanks to a fueling problem at Dover and a crash at Kansas, Gibbs has only continued to improve during his rookie year.

Nevertheless, Hendrick is still top dog even with JGR’s recent surge. Larson and Byron have shown speed at just about every track this year, and while that hasn’t always been reflected in the finishing order, the pair has finished at the front of the field when they’ve been able to run a clean race without any external issues (Larson in particular has had a mechanical failure or been involved in an incident in eight of the 12 races this season, the majority of which can be chalked up to bad luck).

If the No. 5 and No. 24 cars can make it to the finish in one piece, they’ll almost always be at the front of the field.

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3. Twelve races down, 14 to go until the Cup playoffs. Who are the biggest players for the regular season crown?

After 12 races of the 2022 season, Chase Elliott had a 65-point lead and showed no signs of slowing down en route to the regular season title and the 15 playoff points that came with it.

After 12 races of 2023, the battle looks wide open.

Although Chastain hasn’t won a race since Talladega Superspeedway in April of last year, he currently leads the regular-season point standings with five top-five finishes in 12 races. He’s led the third-most laps (254) behind the Hendrick duo of Byron and Larson, and he leads the series with an average finish of 11.6.

He currently has just over a half-race advantage (31, 36 and 36 points, respectively) over Bell, Hamlin and Truex, but that’s far from a safety net with 14 races to go. JGR has found a sudden surge of speed in the last month, and all three drivers have visited victory lane since the start of April.

Further down standings is Larson, who sits in eighth, 66 points behind despite five finishes of 29th or worse (Chastain’s worst finish of the year is 28th). Byron is 73 points back in ninth, and that’s including a 60-point penalty handed out at Richmond. If the No. 24 team wasn’t penalized, Byron would only be 13 points behind in second.

The Hendrick duo, the JGR trio and Chastain look to be biggest favorites for the regular season title in August, as all drivers have either had the best display of consistency or the fastest speed in the garage.

For now, though, the race remains wide open. It’s a prize that every team will be gunning for, as the 15 playoff points will go a long way toward setting up a potential championship run to Phoenix Raceway.

4. Are first-time Xfinity or Truck winners in the cards at Darlington?

Darlington is a notoriously difficult track for first-time winners. In 10 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Darlington, Kasey Kahne in 2004 was the only one to score his first Truck win at The Lady in Black, and he was already a Cup rookie by that point.

In the NASCAR Xfinity Series, you’d have to go all the way back to 1983 for the last time a driver’s first Xfinity win came at Darlington. Neil Bonnett was the driver in question, and by that point, the series was in its second year of modern operation.

Even with the difficult odds, Saturday’s (May 13) Xfinity race at Darlington has the potential to produce a new first-time winner: Sheldon Creed.

After all, Creed came oh so close to scoring his first win at Darlington last September. He and Larson made contact in turn 1 while battling for the lead on the last lap, and that allowed a lurking Noah Gragson to pass both of them for the win in the final set of corners.

Creed has led double-digit laps in four of the 10 races this season, and with Darlington last September being his best performance in an otherwise inconsistent rookie season, the No. 2 team looks poised to make noise at the front of the leaderboard once again.

It won’t be an easy task, however. Larson is entered in the race for Kaulig Racing, and Creed will also face stiff competition in the form of Justin Allgaier, who’s won the last two Darlington Xfinity races in May, and John Hunter Nemechek, who won last year’s Truck race at Darlington.

As for the Truck race, Nick Sanchez is still searching for his first Truck win and has led a series-high 187 laps (with 168 of them at Texas) through eight races. However, he has not raced at Darlington in any series. The season has also been dominated by past winners, as Tanner Gray is the only other non-winner that’s currently top 10 in the points standings.

Friday night’s (May 12) Truck race will likely be a battle of experience — especially when Byron will be competing in Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 51 truck.

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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