Memorial Day Weekend marks the halfway point of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.
But when compared to 2022, critics might say a more appropriate term should be “In Memoriam.”
After a sizzling debut of the sport’s Next Gen chassis, it turns out people’s worst-case scenario fears about this car blossomed one year late. Passing has turned into a major struggle, especially on short tracks, while parity has turned elusive as top teams once again have gained the edge on both handling and horsepower.
Just two drivers, Kyle Larson and William Byron, have combined to lead over 33% of all laps run. They’re part of a Hendrick Motorsports program that’s won five of 13 points-paying events despite injuries to two of their full-time drivers (Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman). Larson’s recent dominance at the NASCAR All-Star Race, where he built a 13-second lead, is just the latest example of HMS seemingly in position to lap the field come playoff time.
At least the last month has offered hope for a better summer (also reflected in the ratings — NASCAR had five straight weeks of viewership increases before North Wilkesboro Speedway). Joe Gibbs Racing has won two of the last three points-paying races, with Ty Gibbs emerging a heavy favorite for Rookie of the Year. Ross Chastain, despite rubbing half the field the wrong way, remains a wild card while leading the points. Excitement ticked up at the two most recent intermediate races: Kansas Speedway and Darlington Raceway.
A look at the playoff bubble shows it competitive once again with roughly a dozen drivers competing for seven spots. Can they find a way to challenge the hierarchy above them?
Remember, HMS looked incredible at this point in 2022. The whole four-car organization had won by the first week of May, only to flame out in the postseason with the lone Championship 4 entry, Elliott, spun out by Chastain at Phoenix Raceway.
Who’s stood out thus far in 2023? A few years ago, I brought back “The Bowlesy Awards,” first appearing on SI.com, and the new-age edition continues here with a look at what to focus on as the regular season hits halfway.
2023 NASCAR Midseason Awards
The David Pearson Award (Hardest Charger): Kyle Larson
Larson’s arguably more famous for his near-misses in 2023 (Phoenix, Bristol Motor Speedway dirt, Kansas, Darlington), leaving him near the epicenter of controversy. You could even add an asterisk after Dover Motor Speedway, a race where Larson claimed he was the fastest car before becoming the victim of another Chastain mistake.
The bad luck feels unfair: four DNFs for crashes, wrecking in three other events and an electrical problem that left him 15 laps down at Auto Club Speedway. But through all that, Larson’s still won twice, plus the All-Star Race where he came from 23rd place to the front in just 30 laps.
Keep in mind during this driver’s championship season (2021), he’d won just once by this point. While teammate Byron may have better numbers in points-paying wins (three) and laps led (596), raw speed thus far gives Larson the edge. You’d have to think the odds will balance out at some point, right?
If they do, the competition better watch out. We’ll know soon where Larson stands, as he went on a hot streak during his title run two years ago: three straight wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway and Nashville Superspeedway, all of which are on the schedule within the next month.
The Tim Richmond Award (Comeback Driver of the Year): Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
This time last year, Stenhouse was rumored to be losing his ride before a brief flurry of top-10 finishes surrounded a long-term contract extension with JTG Daugherty Racing.
Stenhouse still finished 26th in points, his worst performance since 2014, leading to minimal expectations for this single-car team in the midst of multi-car giants. The hiring of former crew chief Mike Kelley, with whom Stenhouse won two NASCAR Xfinity Series titles in 2011-12, fell under the radar.
Not anymore. You could see Kelley’s focus from the start, this team roaring out of the box with a Daytona 500 win and following that up with three additional top-10 results. That total is already one short of the most Stenhouse has put up during a full season with JTG; projected out over a full season, 12 top-10 results would easily become a career high.
While Daytona locks them into the playoffs anyway, JTG still remains highly competitive, as Stenhouse is 14th with no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Considering how some other small-time teams have fared in year two of the Next Gen, you have to tip your cap.
The Where Did He Come From Award (pleasant surprise): Kyle Busch
It’s hard to be shocked by the upside of a two-time Cup Series champion. But the end of Busch’s tenure at JGR wasn’t pretty: just two top-five finishes and no wins while his work divorce played out as a public, constant distraction. He came to his new ride at Richard Childress Racing needing a reset and, at age 37, faced questions about how swiftly he could pull off a second act.
Feels like those concerns have been put to rest; through April, Busch had more wins than his old four-car organization combined. Victories at Auto Club and Talladega Superspeedway clinched an early playoff spot while six top-10 finishes leaves him on pace for the most at RCR since Kevin Harvick left the organization in 2013.
There’s a long way left to go here; teammate Austin Dillon is struggling, 31st in the standings after a 60-point penalty assessed last month at Martinsville Speedway. Yet Busch has still exceeded expectations, breathing life into a team that appeared adrift the second Tyler Reddick departed for 23XI Racing last summer.
The Buckshot Jones Award (biggest disappointment): Noah Gragson
Not a single top-10 finish for this rookie through 13 races? Doubt anyone had that on their bingo card for one of the sport’s most-aggressive, hard-charging drivers. Three DNFs, a run-in with Ross Chastain and only two lead-lap finishes have Gragson 32nd in points, behind a driver in Elliott who’s missed six total races due to injury.
Turns out Legacy Motor Club just doesn’t have the speed, period, with even new co-owner Jimmie Johnson flaming out in both his Cup starts. It honestly could get worse from here as this lame-duck Chevrolet organization will find itself switching to Toyota come 2024.
The Richard Petty Award (best points racer): Kevin Harvick
Ford’s been a step behind this season, registering just one victory: Joey Logano at Atlanta Motor Speedway’s pack race in March. It makes what Harvick’s done with the No. 4 team all the more remarkable in this, his final full-time season driving Cup, as the oldest full-time driver in the field (47 years old).
Somehow, Harvick’s third in points with four top-five finishes despite a laps led total (79) that doesn’t even crack the top 10. His net gain of +1.7 from average start (14.3) to average finish (12.6) is the best of any current driver in playoff position besides Stenhouse.
It’s a good position to be in considering this Stewart-Haas Racing team is likely to put its best foot forward as the end of Harvick’s career comes closer. It feels like we haven’t seen the last of him in victory lane; will that final victory come at Phoenix this November?
2022 winner: Chase Elliott, 2021: Denny Hamlin, 2020: Kevin Harvick
The Jayski Award (best Silly Season move): Martin Truex Jr. not retiring
Could you imagine Truex retired right now? The best way to get over a long-term relationship (Truex and girlfriend Sherry Pollex broke up this offseason) is to distract yourself with wins and on-track success. Thus far, Truex is leading the charge at JGR with victories at both the exhibition Clash at the Coliseum along with Dover earlier this month.
It’s also given Joe Gibbs a little breathing room and a chance to regroup after the tragic loss of son Coy Gibbs last November. Whether Truex returns for 2024 is anyone’s guess, but if 2023 does become his final season, it feels like a much better sendoff than the winless, shocking, playoff-miss 2022.
2022 winner: Kurt Busch to No. 45 Toyota, 2021: Rudy Fugle to William Byron’s No. 24, 2020: Team Penske crew chief swap
The Breaking News Award (biggest story to watch): NASCAR Cup ownership
Owners continue to leak their dissatisfaction to both reporters and the public over charter negotiations gone awry. The closest this sport has ever had to a franchise system expires after the 2024 season, along with it, 36 guaranteed spots on the grid.
How far is NASCAR willing to go to anger a group that could literally obliterate the Cup field if they pull out? What is the end goal here for an organization who, until this recent squabble, had been commended for making things more of an open forum among all its stakeholders?
Add in a lack of recent public interest in owning a NASCAR team, with new blood suddenly slowing to a trickle, and you’ve got the ingredients for a rocky summer until both the TV and Race Team Alliance extensions get done.
2022 winner: Joe Gibbs Racing, 2021: Who replaces Keselowski at Penske?, 2020: The 2021 schedule
The Dale Earnhardt Sr. Award (best on-track altercation): Bubba Wallace-Ryan Blaney at Talladega
This one was a tough decision; a lot of sloppy aggression this year as the bump-and-run suddenly feels like the only way to win.
Why I went with Bubba-Ryan is due to their close friendship off the track. They work together so well, it was a total eyebrow-raiser to see a misjudgment for the win that took both drivers out when each one is nursing a long drought from victory lane. I don’t think Kyle Busch is complaining, though …
2022 winner: Bristol Dirt Race finish, 2021: Ty Gibbs vs. the field/Austin Cindric at Daytona road course, 2020: Chase Elliott vs. Joey Logano at Bristol
The Tony Stewart Award (best off-track altercation): Noah Gragson-Ross Chastain
I honestly don’t think anyone else is close due to the lack of action we’ve seen at several NASCAR races this year. Even though Gragson took the punch, this moment could be a turning point in the way drivers handle Chastain going forward.
The Darrell Waltrip Award (Tweet of the Year): Ross Chastain
Gotta appreciate the subtle sarcasm after the Gragson altercation at Kansas.
2022 winner: Anything Denny Hamlin says, 2021: Anything Marcus Lemonis says, 2020: Bubba Wallace and the entire field in solidarity at Talladega Superspeedway
(Best Race): Advent Health 400
Who would have ever thought Kansas Speedway could make this list? Once one of NASCAR’s most-maligned tracks, this race produced a track-record 37 lead changes, including a last-lap bump-and-run that gave Denny Hamlin his first victory since last May’s Coca-Cola 600.
“This is just a perfect racetrack for this racecar,” Hamlin said after winning. “The match between the car, the tire and the racetrack … that’s why you saw today really nobody running away from the field. As many leaders as we saw side-by-side, two, three laps in, I saw these guys dicing up three-wide for the lead.
“It has just enough falloff where track position is very important but it’s not everything. You can still get position on someone, like you saw there on the last lap.”
2022 winner: Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway, 2021 winner: GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, 2020 winner: GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway
(Biggest Upset): Kyle Busch at Talladega. For all those yelling Stenhouse, keep in mind he had two previous victories in pack races, both in 2017. Seeing him up front is not unprecedented.
Busch hadn’t won at Daytona or Talladega since his first year running for JGR back in 2008. To put that in perspective: William Byron was a sixth-grader and Ty Gibbs had just graduated kindergarten. Those are racetracks the veteran also admittedly runs conservative after fracturing both legs in a nasty NASCAR Xfinity Series crash at Daytona back in February 2015.
When a series of late wrecks gift-wrapped the race for Busch’s No. 8 team, it allowed him to win with just three laps led. Even one of NASCAR’s best admitted the truth:
“Just being in the right place at the right time,” Busch said afterward. “Sometimes, you just got to be lucky.”
Driver on the Hot Seat: Harrison Burton
Man, Burton has to be sweating after winning this award two years in a row. Improvement hasn’t happened during his time at Wood Brothers Racing, scoring one top-10 finish this year while sitting 30th in points, 99 points behind the cutline at halfway.
It’s easily the worst among Ford’s full-time driver contingent and leaves Burton vulnerable. His only saving grace is the limited number of drivers in position to replace him: Josh Berry seems already spoken for, and others, like John Hunter Nemechek, in position to move up are currently in line for rides with other manufacturers.
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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