For all three NASCAR series, will the champion win the race, or will someone else take the final checkered flag of 2023?
Mark Kristl: The respect the field has for the Championship 4 drivers plays a massive role in those races’ outcomes. That said, Sammy Smith impressed with his first NASCAR Xfinity Series win at Phoenix Raceway earlier this season. Smith is really good at that racetrack and he doesn’t feel like he has any teammates at Phoenix after his run-in with John Hunter Nemechek at Martinsville Speedway. Joe Gibbs Racing is also good at Phoenix, so Smith will win the race. He’ll be the only one outside of the respective series’ Championship 4s to win at Phoenix.
Andrew Stoddard: On championship weekend, the cream tends to rise to the top, and 2023 will be no different. It will take a race win to score a championship in all three series at Phoenix.
Caleb Barnes: Every year I wonder: Is this the year we see the NASCAR Cup Series champion not win the race? But every year, the eventual champion takes the victory. This year’s Cup Championship 4 looks stout as well. In the Xfinity Series, the winner and champion have remained the same since the finale moved to Phoenix, and this year’s cast of contenders will likely lock out the rest of the field. The Truck Series will be the one to have a different winner and champion. While the final four have shown speed all year at a variety of tracks, the overall Truck field has been unpredictable as to who will show up with speed each week. Additionally, since the playoffs made its way to the Truck Series in 2016, every odd-numbered year has resulted in a differing race winner and champion.
Luken Glover: It’s hard to see a non-playoff contender winning the Cup finale, considering it has never happened. This year’s group will be strong, too. William Byron is the most recent winner at Phoenix, Kyle Larson led the most laps in that race and won there in 2021, Ryan Blaney has four straight top fives in the desert, and Christopher Bell will be out to prove something. I expect the same thing with the Xfinity race, especially with drivers such as Nemechek, Justin Allgaier and Cole Custer in the hunt. The Truck Series has the best chance of a non-championship contending winner, as I am keeping an eye on Zane Smith and Christian Eckes. But even then, the Championship 4 in that series has a good shot of winning, too.
Taylor Kornhoff: None of the Truck Championship 4 have won at Phoenix and none of them have run particularly well there. Ben Rhodes leads in stats only because he’s been racing the longest. In the Cup and Xfinity series, however, the champion wins the race.
NASCAR will use a different tire for the Cup season finale at Phoenix than it used in the spring. Is using a different tire a good move?
Glover: It is the right move, but don’t expect drastic changes. The tire was used at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the summer, a solid race that saw 13 lead changes. However, there are a lot of unknowns between New Hampshire and Phoenix, so there are questions to be answered. Phoenix has provided rather mediocre racing in the Next Gen car, so a softer tire is a step in the right direction. However, there are more aerodynamic and mechanical adjustments that need to be made for a better race.
Barnes: A different, softer tire is always a good move, but will serve more as a Band-Aid. Last week’s tire at Martinsville certainly seemed to improve the racing, but tires can only wear so much. A better way to get tires to wear is to give the cars more horsepower. The more engine drivers have to potentially spin tires, the more tires can wear, hopefully leading to a variety of tire conservation strategies by drivers and teams.
Stoddard: The short track product in the Cup Series has lost some luster with the Next Gen car, so a change in the tire compound is a good start. More tire wear could mean more passing and more comers and goers on long runs, which equates to better racing for the drivers and the fans.
Kornhoff: Well, the product at Martinsville with the new tire was better than the previous Next Gen races there, and it’s starting to look a little bit more like the Gen 6 out there. So based on that, there is reason to be optimistic that this will be a good move.
Kristl: While the intent is to make tire conservation more important, bringing out a different tire combination at Phoenix is not wise. It’d be the baseball equivalent of using worn baseballs; teams prepare to play the World Series with the same baseball they’ve played with all season. Teams likely prepared for Phoenix with the tire used in the spring event. So now NASCAR changes something when there weren’t tire issues in the spring event. It appears to be NASCAR wanting to add even more drama to its winner-take-all Game 7 moment.
Denny Hamlin advocated for NASCAR to increase racecars’ horsepower to 750 at short tracks. Do you agree with Hamlin?
Barnes: Not just at short tracks, NASCAR should consider giving teams 750 hp or more at all tracks. While more horsepower won’t necessarily fix all aerodynamic deficiencies, more motor mitigates momentum racing we’ve come to know in recent years. Through going back and watching old races, when a driver got aero tight, they used to have to lift but could still recover nicely and not lose too much ground, even able to drive in deeper the next corner and make it all back up at once. Now, when drivers have to lift in the wake of a car, they lose a lot of ground, even some positions. My only concern with adding horsepower — or any other changes to the Next Gen car — is that if cars are still all running the same speed and lap times, passing will still be just as difficult on single-lane racetracks.
Kristl: Absolutely! What’s the worst that would happen, short track racing with no on-track passing? We already had that in the Martinsville 2022 spring race. Nobody wants that outcome again, and Denny Hamlin, a knowledgeable team owner and veteran driver, wouldn’t be so passionate if he thought it would be a step in the wrong direction. Martinsville was good, but NASCAR could make short track racing more of what fans desire with Hamlin’s suggestion.
Kornhoff: I agree. The Next Gen car is too planted, even with downforce and tire changes. Increased horsepower for drivers to play with is very likely the best move.
Glover: Absolutely, let’s make it 850! Seriously, 750 hp is definitely needed, and something Roush-Yates Engines CEO Doug Yates advocated for in a Zoom press conference in the spring. It decreases the margin for error, allowing cars to pass more easily. Is it the biggest issue? No. Hamlin also made a valid point in saying that the gearing needs to be fixed. All of these things add up in either a small or big way: the tire size and structure, the horsepower, the drop gear and the ride height. Tweaking them to find the right combination is something NASCAR needs to do.
Who has been the biggest breakout driver in NASCAR in 2023?
Kornhoff: Nemechek. I don’t see a lot of people talking about it — maybe it’s because he drives for Joe Gibbs Racing in the best equipment out there — but his season deserves some respect. He has the most wins of any driver in all top three series this year, he’s led well over 1,000 laps and finished within the top 10 in almost 80% of the races this year. Those are legendary stats in any series with any car. Legacy Motor Club will have a tough time out of the gates with Toyota, but it will probably end up very happy with the No. 42 car next year.
Glover: Two drivers have stood out to me. One is Sam Mayer. When Mayer won just his seventh Truck start at age 17, the expectations and optimism immediately rose. Since joining JR Motorsports full time, those expectations had not been fulfilled. Throughout the first half of the season, Mayer had good results, but he was still a tick off from the leading drivers. But since his Road America triumph, he has flipped the script and shown everyone that he has the ability to get it done. The other is Blaney. We all knew Blaney could win races, but could he do it consistently, finish the job and overcome mistakes? Since the playoffs started, he has answered the call and looked like every bit of the driver people were excited about when he entered the Cup scene. Now both have a shot to win a championship.
Kristl: Chris Buescher burst forth into a three-time winner, made the Round of 8 and notched career highs in all statistical categories. What really caught my attention, though, is he was not flashy. He did not cause any controversy, he did not say anything that made headlines and he stayed the course en route to winning three races at three different styles of racetracks. Moreover, he spent the whole season inside the top 16 in points. He did not win or wreck; he ran consistently and restored RFK Racing to its winning ways.
Barnes: Over the course of this season, Carson Hocevar went from an irresponsible kid tearing up equipment to a trusted young driver behind the wheel of a Cup car. Yes, Byron’s six wins came as a surprise to many, and Nemechek proved an inevitable contender on a weekly basis in the Xfinity Series. Just this spring, Hocevar won his first race at Texas Motor Speedway, then turned around and tried to wreck Taylor Gray at Martinsville. Over the next few weeks, Hocevar faced plenty of criticism, but it seems a conversation with Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the summer really had an effect on the driver of the No. 42. After notching his first Truck win, Hocevar impressed in his first Cup start in the No. 7. That race, as well as his great runs in the Xfinity Series throughout the summer, placed Hocevar in the No. 42 Cup car in this back half of the season. While we’ll see what Hocevar is able to do as a full-time Cup driver next year, he’s made a lightning-fast leap from Truck pretender to a possible Cup contender in 2024.
Stoddard: The 2023 season was a coming-out party for Buescher. After just two wins and one playoff appearance in his previous seven full-time Cup campaigns, Buescher has captured three checkered flags and advanced to the Round of 8 in the playoffs. Buescher’s surge in performance could be the start of something big at RFK in the coming years. It is still a long way from its 2005 peak, but RFK could become the top Ford team moving forward, and Buescher is a big part of that.
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