Career comebacks, pleasant surprises, underachievers, rivalries, teammate drama and an unlikely champion. There were a lot of great stories throughout the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity Series season.
At the beginning of the season it seemed like John Hunter Nemechek, Josh Berry and Cole Custer would make up the latest iteration of the Big 3. As it turned out, the top three drivers in the season was a fluid situation, with a rotation of others joining Nemechek and Austin Hill.
Chandler Smith looked strong early in the year. Sammy Smith got an early win and looked ready to run neck and neck with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Nemechek. Custer was a top 10 machine and Sam Mayer came on with a late surge. Justin Allgaier was always a factor. Even Riley Herbst enjoyed his moments near the beginning and end of the season.
But some drivers — and storylines — stood out above the rest, and here are biggest ones of the 2023 season.
5. Cole Custer’s Redemption
Custer was relegated to the Xfinity Series after three years at the NASCAR Cup Series level, where he had scored one win, two top fives and 12 top 10s.
Custer set out to prove he still had Cup-level talent. But six races into his Xfinity redemption tour, that was in question. Custer had just one top 10 and was routinely getting outrun by teammate Herbst.
Fortunately for Custer, the slow start didn’t last. Starting with the seventh race of the season, he became a model of consistency. In the final 28 races, Custer scored three wins, 14 top fives and 20 top 10s.
As the playoffs went on, Custer appeared primed for elimination at Martinsville Speedway in the penultimate race of the year. On the last lap, all hell broke loose and many cars were collected in a last lap crash, including Custer. His car was destroyed in the wreck, but he was able to crawl over the finish line in reverse in 19th. His perseverance was enough to move on to the championship.
The following week at Phoenix Raceway, Custer led the most laps and held off the field on numerous late race restarts to capture the title.
There was no time during the season where Custer might’ve been deemed the favorite to win the championship. That honor was reserved for Nemechek, Hill and even Allgaier. But in the playoff era, one race can make all the difference, and with a win in the finale, Custer scored his first NASCAR title.
Custer is set to defend his title in the Xfinity Series in 2024.
4. Mixed Bag for JR Motorsports
An entire column could be written to recap the rollercoaster that was 2023 for JR Motorsports. Allgaier, Berry and Mayer all kept their rides from 2022, and Brandon Jones came over from Joe Gibbs Racing to drive the No. 9 that Noah Gragson had driven to eight wins in 2022.
Allgaier ran well, scoring four wins, 15 top fives and 20 top 10s. For the second time in his career he finished second in points. Allgaier was the steady and consistent veteran presence for JRM.
Berry turned some heads at the Cup level filling in for injured or suspended drivers, but his results in Xfinity regressed from 2022. Berry still had 18 top 10s but went winless on the season when he was expected to compete for a championship.
Mayer had only one top five through the first 12 races of the season but came on strong in the summer and into the fall, finishing with 13 top fives and a surprising third in the standings. Mayer had clutch wins along the way to stave off playoff elimination and even got some revenge against his old rival Ty Gibbs en route to a win at Watkins Glen International.
Jones went winless and had a meager three top fives and 10 top 10s. His average finish was 17.1, and he led just 48 laps on the season. For the No. 9, this was a giant step back compared to its results with Gragson in 2022.
Team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. put on a dazzling and nostalgic show in both of his races. At Bristol Motor Speedway, Earnhardt led 47 laps and was contending for a win before a fire in the cockpit ended his day early. A few weeks later at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he finished fifth.
At 49 years old, it seems we won’t get to see Earnhardt behind the wheel of an Xfinity car too many more times. Seeing him run up front was a sight for sore eyes; that old dog can still hunt.
In 2024, Jones, Allgaier and Mayer will return to the fold, while Sammy Smith joins as the new driver of the No. 8. Time will tell if the team will regain some consistency or if next year will be another on-and-off year for the longtime Xfinity stalwart.
3. A New TV Deal
The new Xfinity TV deal doesn’t take effect until 2025, but that hasn’t stopped discussion about what’s to come — even if we’re still over a year away from the move to The CW.
For years, fans have grumbled about having to pay for cable or streaming services to watch the series. The new deal will largely eliminate those complaints — and for many years to come, too, with The CW retaining rights through 2031.
The CW boasts a reported nearly 100% household penetration figure through over-the-air (free) television. Even more impressive in today’s climate, the deal is said to include free streaming on the CW app.
Compared to the existing deal, sources in the garage told me this new deal would nearly triple the funds for the series. This should mean larger purses and less dependency on sponsorship to put drivers in seats and to keep teams in the black.
For years, your humble author and others have applauded the Xfinity Series for having the best racing in all of motorsports. This new TV deal should only improve upon the current product and offer it up to many more viewers than ever before.
2. John Hunter Nemechek Wins Seven Races, Completes Comeback to Cup
After two seasons in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series with seven wins and nearly 1,000 laps led, Nemechek moved up to the Xfinity Series in 2023.
The expectations were high, but Nemechek was up to the task. He scored seven wins, 17 top fives, 24 top 10s, had an average finish of 9.5, had only three DNFs and led over 1,000 laps.
The only goal Nemechek didn’t achieve? The elusive championship, won instead by Custer.
Flourishing in the Xfinity Series — even with a top team like Joe Gibbs Racing — was important for Nemechek. After dropping to the Truck Series after a 2020 Cup rookie season, his seven-win season reiterated that the 26-year-old is still a NASCAR prospect with whom to be reckoned.
Nemechek’s gamble on himself has paid off, and in 2024 he’ll return to the Cup Series to drive for Legacy Motor Club.
1. Richard Childress Racing’s Good Season Gone Bad
Richard Childress Racing’s Xfinity program seemed to take a big step forward in 2023. Hill had four wins compared to just two in 2022. He also tied Nemechek for the series lead with 24 top 10s.
Sheldon Creed was also much improved. After missing the playoffs in 2022, Creed nearly advanced to the championship. He lifted his average finish from 17.5 to 13.5 and had seven fewer DNFs.
As Creed improved, the teammates found themselves racing one another more frequently and began to tangle on the track. The devolving dynamic hit a boiling point at Martinsville. In one lap, RCR went from having both drivers in position to advance to the championship to neither making it, thanks to a wreck they caused on the last lap while racing for the win.
After the race, Richard Childress had some tough words for Creed, who is now reportedly moving on to JGR for 2024. RCR, meanwhile, locked up Hill for another season in Xfinity and signed Jesse Love to run the second car.
Hill figures to be a threat for the title again in 2024 — and if he can keep it clean with his new teammate, perhaps he’ll make it to Phoenix with a shot at the ultimate goal.
About the author
Steve Leffew joined Frontstretch in 2023, and covers the Xfinity Series. He resides in Wisconsin and has been a NASCAR fan as long as he can remember. He has served honorably in the United States Air Force and works during the week as a Real Estate Lender.
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