By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Nearly three months have passed since the checkered flag waved at Phoenix to close out the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season, but it’s that time of the year again when a new season beckons.
After the debut of the Next Gen car last year brought about a record-tying number of winners, teams have had the offseason to get their cars ready for another lap around the country that will take them to some familiar places and some new ones as well.
As we gear up for another season to start, here are some of the things to keep an eye on as the season plays out.
The Prodigal Son Returns
Following a two-year stint in open wheel racing, Jimmie Johnson is back behind of the wheel of a stock car in 2023, having acquired a partial ownership of Petty GMS over the offseason and rebranding the team to Legacy Motor Club.
In addition to his new ownership role, Johnson will run selected races this season in the No. 84 Chevrolet, beginning with the Daytona 500. Johnson’s other races are yet to be announced, but during Rolex 24 weekend at Daytona, Johnson was named as one of the three drivers to pilot the NASCAR Garage 56 Next Gen car at Le Mans this summer.
“I love driving cars. I want to experience it,” Johnson said of getting to drive a Next Gen car in his return to NASCAR.
“Hearing from the current drivers on the performance and braking…the ability to shift, which is something I’d try to do a lot with the old style car. NASCAR started changing the gear ratio rules to not allow people to shift. I had a thing, one of my final races, downshifting to third. Nobody was doing it yet, so I think there are elements of this new car that I’m excited and eager to experience.
“Again, I just love driving cars and being in the marquee events.”
Harvick’s Last Ride
As one former champion makes his return, another is saying goodbye.
When the checkered flag waves on the 2023 season in Phoenix in November, Kevin Harvick will be hanging up his helmet and stepping out of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford for the final time.
In the 22 years that Harvick has been competing at NASCAR’s highest level, he has remaining a consistent title contender season after season, winning 60 races along the way and capturing the 2014 series championship.
He’ll make one final run at the title this season and then ride off into the sunset.
“There is absolutely nothing else in the world that I enjoy doing more than going to the racetrack, and I’m genuinely looking forward to this season,” said Harvick. “But as I’ve gone through the years, I knew there would come a day where I had to make a decision. When would it be time to step away from the car?
“I’ve sought out people and picked their brains. When I asked them when they knew it was the right time, they said it’ll just happen, and you’ll realize that’s the right moment. You’ll make a plan and decide when it’s your last year.
“It’s definitely been hard to understand when that right moment is because we’ve been so fortunate to run well. But sometimes there are just other things going on that become more important and, for me, that time has come.”
New Faces, New Places
A new season brings a shake-up among the driving corps and 2023 will certainly have a lot of changes with new drivers coming in and familiar faces wearing new colors for the upcoming season.
Here is a team-by-team breakdown of the drivers that changed rides for 2023:
23XI Racing – Tyler Reddick moves from Richard Childress Racing to take over the No. 45 car, formerly driven by Kurt Busch.
Richard Childress Racing – Kyle Busch switches from Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota to RCR and Chevrolet in the No. 8 car.
Joe Gibbs Racing – Fresh off his Xfinity Series title, Ty Gibbs moves up to the Cup Series to drive a renumbered No. 54 car after Kyle Busch leaves for RCR.
Kaulig Racing – A.J. Allmendinger is back in the Cup Series full-time after a stint in the Xfinity Series, piloting the No. 16 Chevrolet
Legacy Motor Club – Noah Gragson advances up to the Cup Series from the Xfinity Series to drive the No. 42 Chevrolet at the team now co-owned by Jimmie Johnson.
Stewart-Haas Racing – The No. 41 Ford that had been driven by Cole Custer will now have Ryan Preece in the driver’s seat for 2023.
Spire Motorsports – After his departure from Legacy Motor Club (formerly Petty GMS) in the middle of last season, Ty Dillon joins Spire in its No. 77 entry.
The 2023 schedule looks very similar to the 2022 schedule, but there are a couple of notable additions this go-around that will be must watch events.
First comes the All-Star Race in May, which will be held at the once defunct North Wilkesboro Speedway, but has been resurrected from the ashes to once again play host to NASCAR’s premier division. Tickets for the event sold out in record time, but there is no doubt this race will be a spectacle to see.
Next is the July 4th weekend race, which moves from its host of the past two years in Road America to the streets of downtown Chicago in a first of its kind NASCAR street course race. Other series, like IndyCar and IMSA, have run on street courses for years, but in 2023, it’s NASCAR’s turn. Should the event be a success, the sky’s the limit on where this type of event could go in the years to come.
Along with the additions of North Wilkesboro and Chicago, there are some slights alterations to existing races on the schedule for this season. The summer races at Atlanta and Nashville, which were held under the blazing afternoon sun last year, will now be held as night races.
Safety, Safety, Safety
After a splashing debut, the Next Gen car heads into its sophomore season in 2023 looking to build on the standard set by the first year.
The revolutionary new car had its growing pains in 2022, while delivering a level playing field for drivers to compete on, safety was a big issue for the car last season that NASCAR and the teams hope will be resolved this year.
Hard hits by Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch led to concussions that sidelined both drivers and eventually forced Busch to step away from full-time racing at season’s end. In addition to the concussions, fires were a common issue with the car throughout the season.
NASCAR made some changes to the car’s rear bumper to allow it to give more in impacts, thus lessening the force of those impacts translating through the car’s rigid structure into the driver.
Along with the revisions to the rear of the car, NASCAR has also made changes to the car to make it less susceptible to fire going forward.
As with any new piece of equipment, there will no doubt be more bugs to work out with the car, but hopes are that NASCAR and the teams can quickly collaborate and fix any further issues that may come up down the road.
New Rules for 2023
Ahead of the season-opening exhibition race in Los Angeles this weekend, NASCAR announced a number of rule changes that will be in place for 2023 in addition to the previously covered safety updates.
Those changes include:
- Stage cautions will be no more at Cup Series road races this season. Points will still be awarded at the pre-determined stage ends, but the race will continue on as normal, allowing the teams more option for strategy throughout the race.
- All the talk about Ross Chastain’s “Hail Melon” move at Martinsville being replicated elsewhere is now a moot point after NASCAR disallowed the move on Tuesday. Should a move like Chastain’s be determined to be intentional, a time penalty will be handed out.
- No longer will teams be assessed a four-race penalty for wheels that fall off of cars in 2023. Instead, NASCAR will take into account where the wheel comes detached from the car. If it happens on pit road, a pass-through penalty or restart at the tail end of the field will be the result. Should the wheel come off on track, a two-lap penalty will be handed out and two crew members will be suspended for two races.
- Should wet weather impact a race at certain oval tracks, NASCAR will employ the use of existing wet weather equipment on the cars in an effort to keep racing. Those tracks include: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Martinsville Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, North Wilkesboro Speedway for All-Star weekend, Phoenix Raceway, Richmond Raceway, The Milwaukee Mile and Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.
- Drivers no longer have to be in the top-30 in points to be able to make the Playoffs. Just run full-time and win a race and you’re in.
- The choose rule will be employed at all tracks in 2023, with superspeedways and dirt tracks being added to the mix this season.
- Time allotted for the Damaged Vehicle Policy has been increased to seven minutes.
2023 NASCAR CUP SERIES SCHEDULE
|Date||Race / Track|
|Sunday, February 5||Clash (L.A. Memorial Coliseum)|
|Thursday, February 16||Duel at Daytona|
|Sunday, February 19||DAYTONA 500|
|Sunday, February 26||Auto Club|
|Sunday, March 5||Las Vegas|
|Sunday, March 12||Phoenix|
|Sunday, March 19||Atlanta|
|Sunday, March 26||COTA|
|Sunday, April 2||Richmond|
|Sunday, April 9||Bristol Dirt|
|Sunday, April 16||Martinsville|
|Sunday, April 23||Talladega|
|Sunday, April 30||Dover|
|Sunday, May 7||Kansas|
|Sunday, May 14||Darlington|
|Sunday, May 21||North Wilkesboro (All-Star Race)|
|Sunday, May 28||Charlotte|
|Sunday, June 4||World Wide Technology Raceway|
|Sunday, June 11||Sonoma|
|Sunday, June 25||Nashville Superspeedway|
|Sunday, July 2||Chicago Street Race|
|Sunday, July 9||Atlanta|
|Sunday, July 16||New Hampshire|
|Sunday, July 23||Pocono|
|Sunday, July 30||Richmond|
|Sunday, August 6||Michigan|
|Sunday, August 13||Indianapolis Road Course|
|Sunday, August 20||Watkins Glen|
|Saturday, August 26||Daytona|
|Sunday, September 3||Darlington|
|Sunday, September 10||Kansas|
|Saturday, September 16||Bristol|
|Sunday, September 24||Texas|
|Sunday, October 1||Talladega|
|Sunday, October 8||Charlotte Roval|
|Sunday, October 15||Las Vegas|
|Sunday, October 22||Homestead-Miami|
|Sunday, October 29||Martinsville|
|Sunday, November 5||Phoenix (Championship)|