It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
It’s kind of too bad that line has already been taken because, in many ways, it’s a reflection of the 2023 NASCAR season. There’s a lot to like, but there are still some areas that need work. It’s hard to wade through 2023 without seeing a lot of positives, but it’s not all sunshine and roses.
A closer look at what’s right—and what’s not—this NASCAR season so far? So glad you asked.
Best of Times
The Next Gen has continued to provide very good racing on the intermediate tracks. It wasn’t that long ago that seeing tracks like Kansas Speedway or Las Vegas Motor Speedway coming up on the schedule was more likely to elicit a groan from most fans than anything, but the new car has done one thing well, and that’s make racing on the 1.5-mile and larger speedways better.
After one of the best Coca-Cola 600s in recent memory, fans were even calling for the fall race, currently run on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s infield road course (the fact that we even use ROVAL like it’s a word is definitely Worst of Times, but anyway), to return to the oval. That’s a pretty big departure from fan reaction to intermediate ovals before the Next Gen came on the scene.
Worst of Times
Unfortunately, the improved intermediate racing seems to have come largely at the expense of short track racing. The three tracks less than a mile in length (and a handful of flat miles) have picked up where the bigger tracks left off, with clean air being almost too much to overcome and at tracks where it didn’t use to mean much of anything. That’s a huge concern for the tracks that have been a part of racing tradition for decades.
To its credit, NASCAR is trying to fix it. At least sort of. A new short track package with a tiny spoiler and a different configuration under the cars helped a little but didn’t fix the problem. NASCAR is currently testing a different splitter designed to dirty the air around the lead car and help trailing cars improve downforce and catch and pass the leader. After the first day of a two-day test at Richmond Raceway, drivers weren’t enthused about the splitter, even with accompanying changes in ride height.
At least NASCAR is trying, but at the same time, it’s shying away from what most agree would make a real difference—more horsepower. Concerns about the expense and the durability of a higher-horsepower power plant that has to last more than one race seem to be at the core of NASCAR’s hesitation, but as good as it is to equalize costs for the smaller teams, it may be time to go with higher horsepower engines for at least tracks under a mile and a half and ditch the sealed engine rules at those tracks. Without a throttle response, catching leading cars is still out of reach.
Best of Times
After 24 races into the season, we’ve seen 13 different race winners in the NASCAR Cup Series. While we’ve only seen one first-time winner so far – as opposed to the four last year at this point – the one was a heck of a story; a driver in his first-ever Cup race on a brand-new street course after drenching rains (oh, and a bonus: that driver, Shane van Gisbergen, was enamored enough that he will likely race in NASCAR full time next year. New talent is good.). So, it may seem like a little more of the same old, same old, but the fact is there’s a shot at 17 winners by the time the playoffs start.
The sport benefits from a variety of winners because more fans are experiencing the ultimate feeling for a fan. And when not all of those winners are from the richest teams, or some of the drivers from those powerhouse teams aren’t among them, it adds an element of excitement, giving fans someone new to root for. This is where the parity the new car has achieved pays off: in victory lane.
Worst of Times
It seems like the teams that are behind this year are now way behind.
A year ago, just about any team could have a dud of a race one week and win the next and vice versa. In 2023, it seems like a few teams have struggled more often than not. Stewart-Haas Racing is the most notable; Kevin Harvick is having a decent year in his last time around, but his teammates’ woes seem to go on and on. Ryan Preece, who is a talented, hard-driving wheelman, cracked the top five (and top 10) for the first time just this week at Richmond. Chase Briscoe, who got his first win last year, is 31st in points with only Ty Dillon worse among drivers who have run every race. Ford in general has seemed a tick off, but SHR is where it really seems to show.
LEGACY Motor Club (this team name is also a definite Worst of Times), a team that had a solid year in 2022 and for whom things looked even better to kick off ’23 after seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson bought into the organization, has also struggled.
Part of that may be the Dillon effect; Dillon seems to bring better equipment, if not better driving, to the teams he races for, and his leaving for Spire Motorsports bears that out. Teammate Corey LaJoie is running pretty well for Spire, even if Dillon isn’t.
Erik Jones is starting to show signs of life, but he hasn’t looked like the driver who won last year’s Southern 500 and scored 13 top 10s. The team is in a position where it will change manufacturers next year, so it might not be investing in much new equipment, but it’s still a surprise it hasn’t shown more flashes of, well, anything.
Best of Times
As they often do in troubled times, the NASCAR community rallied behind Johnson after a terrible family tragedy. NASCAR and its fans may not agree on everything, but they usually come together when days are dark.
Worst of Times
I don’t think I like this. In fact, unless there’s something else to it, I’m sure I don’t.
It seems too much like a not-even-a-little-bit-veiled attempt to control the narrative. “Look, here’s a way to get them to say what we want them to…and like it!”
Drivers are already over-handled and rarely allowed to be themselves. This seems like one more attempt to keep them on the straight and narrow, not like something that will create good “spokespeople” for the sport.
Best of Times
Every single week, we get to witness a golden moment just before the green flag drops, when anything is possible and every bit of magic we saw in racing is still there. Every week, no matter what else happens, we get to witness a moment of perfection. It may not last, and it may not make up for the lean times, but we get to live that moment, over and over. We get to go racing every week.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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