Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? A 2023 NASCAR Season Filled With ‘What Ifs’

Did You Notice? The second the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin, the regular season becomes a distant memory? Fans complain all the time drivers from 17th on back in points are forgotten by both media and television coverage focused on crowning a champion.

But the stories of the first six months still matter. Key moments during the regular season decide not only the fate of who makes the postseason but also what happens inside it. How many drivers through the years would have killed for an extra playoff point, two or five for a win in March that could have helped them advance into the next round?

Here’s a look back at several What Ifs that have shaped where we are in NASCAR 2023 heading into this weekend’s Southern 500.

What If? Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin never made contact in the Coca-Cola 600? Hamlin has been vocal the last couple of weeks about his 25-point penalty for acknowledging an intentional wreck of Ross Chastain on his podcast, a boost he could have used to challenge teammate Martin Truex Jr. for the regular-season title (Truex won by 48 points).

But what about this mess that happened at Charlotte Motor Speedway?

Without that wreck, Hamlin could have potentially won the race and garnered enough points to tie or pass Truex. (Remember, the Coke 600 has three opportunities for stage points: Hamlin missed out on up to 20 of them). He qualified fourth, led 20 laps early and finished sixth in stage one.

For Elliott, the one-race suspension took the air out of a promising comeback. After missing six races due to injury, he had five straight top-12 finishes, including a third at Darlington Raceway two weeks earlier. That cut down his gap to the playoff bubble from 134 points behind to a manageable 63.

After the suspension, Elliott surged forward with three straight top-five finishes but the damage was already done. Lady Luck eventually caught back up with him, leading to two finishes of 30th or worse in the final four weeks that kept the playoffs far out of reach. The driver of the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet never even cracked the top 20 in points.

What If? William Byron and Alex Bowman weren’t penalized for improper parts modifications found after post-race inspection at Richmond Raceway? Everyone remembers the Hendrick Motorsports 100-point penalties from earlier this season from Phoenix Raceway, the “louver-gate” that was eventually overturned on appeal and restored 10 playoff points to Byron’s total.

This second violation fell through the cracks, something HMS chose to simply accept and it has had an impact on the postseason. Byron lost five playoff points over this penalty, and without the 60 regular-season points, fell from second to third in the overall points standings. (Byron’s another one who could have put pressure on Truex down the stretch.)

Now, the No. 24 team starts the 10-race playoff tied with Truex, sitting with 28 bonus points apiece instead of a seven-point edge (or more) they could have had by simply passing inspection. And as for Bowman? Those 60 points would have pulled him within 36 of Bubba Wallace entering Daytona and perhaps even changed the way he tackled the race at Watkins Glen the week earlier (finished 23rd).

What If? Josh Berry doesn’t run second at Richmond back in the spring? Or gets tapped to drive for HMS and cover for Elliott’s injury? Stewart-Haas Racing claimed they’ve been talking to Berry for months about replacing Kevin Harvick in the No. 4 car, but entering the Richmond event, Berry hadn’t really helped himself.

He’d earned one top-10 finish for Chase and hadn’t led a single lap before the perfect tire and long-run strategy got him the right track position at the right time. Remember, Berry wasn’t a top-10 car most of the day.

Take away that top-five result and Berry looks less impressive. The NASCAR Xfinity Series has also been a struggle, Berry sitting sixth without a victory in 24 starts. Would things have turned out the same way? Who knows?

What If? Daniel Suarez has a better pit stop at Indianapolis Motor Speedway a few weeks ago? He, Elliott and Michael McDowell were fighting for the race win before an air hose got caught underneath the left front tire on the No. 99’s final pit stop. Suarez saw the victory slip away and the playoff berth went to McDowell and Front Row Motorsports instead.

Other drivers who were oh-so-close …

  • Brad Keselowski at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March (at least he still made the playoffs)
  • Justin Haley at the Chicago Street Course (SVG just too strong)
  • Harvick at Darlington (will that be the closest he comes during his final season?)

Did You Notice? Quick hits before taking off …

  • In our Happy Hour podcast this week, I didn’t advance my preseason championship pick, Harvick, past the first round. But I would argue he remains the most unpredictable of all 16 playoff drivers. We’re talking about someone with nothing to lose (retiring at the end of the season) and a decade-plus of understanding how to navigate NASCAR’s current playoff format. Only three times since the 2010 season has Harvick finished outside the top five in points (2012, 2016, 2022). Let that sink in. Just two years ago, he went through a winless year but still found a way to finish fifth, the highest placement of all drivers who didn’t qualify for the Championship 4. So keep an eye on him, especially with a track like Darlington Raceway up ahead that suits his skill set.
  • If Ryan Preece is truly OK after the barrel roll flip we saw at Daytona, so be it. I understand and appreciate his toughness, an old breed of racer in the mold of a Dale Earnhardt Sr. But without a playoff bid on the line, it seems silly to trot him out there for one of the sport’s most physically demanding races just seven days after he was kept in a hospital overnight. My hope is he sits out the Southern 500, rests up and Stewart-Haas Racing taps someone like Riley Herbst on the shoulder to run instead. Either way, the wreck should have no bearing on Dalton Hopkins’ Frontstretch report Preece was on the verge of being re-signed by SHR to drive the No. 41 car in 2024.

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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janice

i still can’t believe preece is going to race this coming weekend. but then, i don’t think it’s been noted that he’s cleared to race. after newman’s wreck and having to sit out for 3 weeks, i cannot imagine preece didn’t have any type of concussion. and for that matter blaney.

i guess a what if is if elliott wins a race this year. i’d think maybe the roval. if he doesn’t win this year, that snow boarding trip will be an very expensive one career wise.

dawg

I have Harvick transferring out of the first round, just on grit & determination. But I feel the next round will be a high hill to climb for any team W/O a win during the regular season.

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