By Logan Morris
As we come off the only off week of the 2023 NASCAR Season, It’s hard to fathom we are nearly halfway through the season. Summer has officially begun and we are quickly approaching the playoffs. But there are still plenty of questions that need to be answered for this season and beyond. It’s a good time to look at where all the full-time teams stand and where they could be heading. Let’s get started!
If the season was dominated by one team in the early months, it was undoubtedly Hendrick Motorsports. Right now they have five wins on the season and have 296 all-time victories. If there was any doubt about William Byron’s ability to be an elite talent in NASCAR, those doubts have been shattered. He has three of the team’s wins, and it feels like he could have more than that. It has brought back memories of Jeff Gordon’s dominance. If Byron can sustain this kind of run in the second half we could see one of the better seasons in recent memory.
Elsewhere at Hendrick, Larson has the two other wins, and beyond that, injuries to Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman tell the story. The biggest question now is whether Chase Elliott can get into the playoffs. After Chase’s one-race suspension, it’s starting to look uncertain that he will compete for a championship this season. The NASCAR playoffs without Chase Elliott are tough to fathom, but his return to the track has left a little to be desired. While he’s finished no worse than 12th (except for the Denny Hamlin incident at Charlotte), since his return he seems a little up against it and isn’t fully back into the swing of things. Alex Bowman is firmly on the bubble and is looking for that breakout win. Hendrick feels destined to crack the 300-win mark this season - if that happens, it’ll be tough to understate the greatness of that moment.
Joe Gibbs Racing
A few weeks ago, the outlook for the top Toyota team in NASCAR was much different. Martin Truex Jr. was in a long winless drought coming into the season. Now, he feels like a contender every single week. He’s on the type of run that could lead him to the Championship Four. Any thought of Martin Truex Jr. retiring at the end of the season feels far-fetched at this point. He dominated Sonoma in a way that is exceedingly rare in this era of NASCAR. Denny Hamlin snapped a lengthy winless streak of his own at Kansas. Christopher Bell became the first driver with a dirt background to win the Bristol Dirt Race. Suddenly Joe Gibbs Racing is giving Hendrick Motorsports a run for their money. Ty Gibbs seems to be cruising to Rookie Of The Year. He sits 18th in the point standings and is just 21 points below the cutline.
Joe Gibbs Racing recently announced they sold a minority stake in the team to Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment and received what they described as a “significant investment.” An influx of new cash is a good thing in today's sport. Any thoughts of JGR slowing down appear to be unlikely. While Denny Hamlin still hasn’t signed a new deal for next season, they appear to be close. Until a deal is done, though, you just never know.
It’s fair to say it’s been a less-than-stellar start for “The Captain” & Company in 2023. Joey Logano does have one win at Atlanta. Beyond that, there haven’t been many standout performances. The defending champion did finish second in the Daytona 500. He had another runner-up finish at Martinsville. However, he also has two last place-finishes. Talk about evening things out. Ryan Blaney has been a bright spot. He ended his 59-race winless streak at the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, and currently sits third in the standings. Blaney has had two second-place finishes, and a third-place finish at Dover. He’s been the most consistent in the Penske camp thus far. Now that he’s won again, any pressure he may have been feeling should have faded and he could be a Championship Four contender.
Elsewhere, 2022 Daytona 500 Champion Austin Cindric has struggled in his sophomore season. Following in the large footsteps of Rusty Wallace and Brad Keselowski is a tall order, to say the least. The downturn in performance is likely just growing pains. Cindric is still just 24 and in just his second full-time Cup season. Don’t be surprised if he comes on strong in the dog days of summer - the talent is there. The Penske slump is real, but there’s no reason to panic yet.
Richard Childress Racing
The addition of Kyle Busch has paid off in a hurry. “The Rowdy One” already has three wins this season after only winning once in his final season with Joe Gibbs Racing. Not only are the results improving on track, but he’s also behaving differently outside of the car as well. What was once a chorus of boos is now mostly cheers. Busch is still blunt, but he’s been a little more kind, a little more humble in the process. However, the question will be can Busch and RCR sustain that success? I think it’s fair to say the cream is beginning to rise to the top regarding teams adjusting to the next-gen car. Busch isn’t with one of the “super teams” anymore. It’ll be interesting to see how that factors into the future.
On the other side of the coin is Austin Dillon. Dillon currently sits 28th in the points standings, but that’s deceiving. Much of that hole is due to a penalty that he had no control over. He does have three top tens on the season and a top-five. He will always be a factor at superspeedways and he’s known to get a win when you least expect it. Don’t count out Austin Dillion in 2023 just yet.
Stewart-Haas Racing feels like they’re in the midst of some confusion, at least on the surface. Kevin Harvick will retire at the end of this season, and what a huge hole that creates for the organization. JR Motorsports’ full-time Xfinity driver Josh Berry is graduating up to Cup to take over the ride. Harvick sits 5th in the point standings and has been far and away the only genuine bright spot. If he finds a way to win a race this season, he has a chance to have a storybook ending to his career.
Chase Briscoe feels poised to become the face of the organization, but so far this season he hasn’t shown the ability to take that next step and become an elite force every week. One has to wonder if it’s due to struggles outside of his control. His season has been tanked by the major penalty he received following the Coca-Cola 600. The reality is that SHR has had a few lacklustre seasons for whatever reason and has lagged behind Team Penske as the top Ford team in the sport. Given the crew chief changes that SHR announced this week, you can tell that the team knows changes are needed. Ryan Preece started out looking like the better choice for the No. 41 over Cole Custer. However at this juncture, it may be a wash. Preece currently sits 25th in the point standings. Custer finished last season 25th.
Aric Almirola announced his intention to retire last season then was lured back with a two-year deal. 2023 has been less than stellar for the veteran driver - he has just one top-ten finish this season. It’s fair to wonder whether or not Almirola will be calling it a day at the end of this season if his tough luck continues, as he’s been very open about the fact he wants to spend more time with his family. If he continues to struggle, the lure of his family may be tough to ignore. He’s admitted that his status for next season is fluid. If he does step away after this season, the biggest question for the team may be whether Smithfield stays? If they leave, sponsorship concerns could become very real for the team. Tony Stewart already made clear this week that sponsorship for the No. 4 is wide open. Having two new drivers could be a major challenge going into 2024.
Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing
As far as year-to-year turnarounds go it doesn’t get much better than RFK. Both drivers sit comfortably in the playoffs. They are a case study of the type of patience it sometimes takes to get where you want to go. This sport doesn’t have a ton of it, but RFK proves sometimes time is all you need. You could make an argument they’re currently the second-tier Ford team and that says a lot about how far they have come in a relatively short amount of time. If they can find themselves in victory lane, don’t be surprised if wins start coming in bunches.
Talk about a smaller team on the upswing. Tyler Reddick moved over from RCR a year earlier than initially announced, and has already won this season at COTA. He currently sits 13th in points. His teammate Bubba Wallace is in the midst of his most consistent season ever at the Cup level. His recent top-five streak has him firmly in the playoff picture as we enter the summer stretch. Bubba has shown that he has the speed to win, and he is always a factor when it comes to tracks like Daytona and Talladega. Being a Toyota team and giving Joe Gibbs Racing a run for its money is a tall order. Their momentum is treading in the right direction.
Coming into 2023, not much had changed when it came to Ross Chastain’s driving style. It felt like we hardly went a week without a controversy involving Ross in some form or another. After a recent sit down with team owner Justin Marks, Chastain seems like he’s lost his edge. He’s still sitting fourth in the standings, but one has to wonder if he’s still a championship threat? However, as Rick Hendrick pointed out, winning a championship is difficult when you don’t have many friends. Going forward this season it’ll be interesting to see if Chastain finds a balance between being ultra-aggressive and dialing it back some.
Chastain’s antics kind of overshadow his teammate Daniel Suarez, who sits 17th in points. Trackhouse Racing is one of the teams looking to get back into victory lane, but one wonders if they're falling behind the major teams who have found an edge with the next-gen car.
Front Row Motorsports
Michael McDowell continues to be solid as he sits comfortably in the top 20 in points. He’s able to get the most out of his car and he remains a threat at both superspeedways and road courses. His teammate Todd Gilliland has been impressive, even in a very uncertain season for him. Zane Smith feels destined for a Cup ride in 2023 for FRM, so Gilliland could be the odd man out.
JTG Daugherty Racing
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is having nothing short of a career-defining season. Winning the Daytona 500 wasn’t a huge surprise given his well-known ability at superspeedways, but it’s the consistency since that has been most impressive. With only three finishes outside the top 20, what this race team is doing is incredible - especially being a single-car team with limited resources. How far they can go in the post-season remains to be seen, but they feel like a dark horse to make the Round of Eight in my view.
For a team that has made their name off of being trophy hunters, Kaulig feels like they’re spinning their wheels a bit. AJ Allmendinger returning to full-time Cup Racing felt like a huge deal at the start of the season. Some even thought he might compete for a championship. Thus far he’s underperformed in my view. It’s not that he’s having a bad season, but so far he hasn’t really competed for wins. Perhaps only having two road courses on the schedule so far plays a factor in that, but it just feels like he’s been an overall non-factor.
His teammate, Justin Haley is quietly having another consistent season. Though he’s having a slightly worse statistical season than his teammate, Haley has been consistent since the moment he got there. It’s going to be interesting to see if Kaulig can break out and make a run toward the playoffs.
Corey Lajoie has stacked pennies in a big way this year. Currently sitting 22nd in the standings, he’s on pace to have a career-best season. It’s been impossible to not be impressed with his season so far. His one-off race in the No.9, filling in for a suspended Chase Elliott was underwhelming, but outside of that, he’s been making things work at the much less-funded Spire Motorsports. Could he sneak into the playoffs? Daytona still remains, as does Atlanta. Don’t be surprised if he finds his way in.
Legacy Motor Club
No organization has undergone more significant changes in the last 2-3 seasons than Legacy Motor Club. 2023 began as a year beaming with optimism. After Erik Jones got Richard Petty’s iconic No. 43 back in victory lane last year, and the addition of Jimmie Johnson as a co-owner and part-time driver, expectations were lofty. With Johnson’s addition, the team was rebranded to Legacy Motor Club. The season has been one of growing pains from the outset. Team Ambassador Richard Petty made headlines the weekend of the Daytona 500, talking candidly about adjusting to his new role on the rebranded team and just how little of a direct say he has in the day-to-day operations.
Rookie Noah Gragson replaced Ty Dillon coming into the season and it’s been a struggle. He sits dead last in full-time standings after missing Sonoma with concussion-like symptoms. Jimmie Johnson has had a tough return to Cup Racing, with every one of his starts ending in a DNF.
Erik Jones hasn’t fared much better, especially after a penalty put him 30th in the standings. While the penalty is currently being appealed, Jones was still underwhelming before it, earning just two top-ten finishes this season. The changes will continue for Legacy Motor Club when they switch to Toyota next season, but that’s still a long way away from now. We know they’ll attempt to build much-needed momentum heading into next season, but how will they do it? It’s become obvious that they’re not receiving a lot of support from Chevrolet since they announced they’re moving to Toyota. However, they should be a factor at the superspeedways. Jimmie Johnson has taken a lot of heat from fans, but the jury should still be out if it’s fair. Time takes time.
Wood Brothers Racing
2023 has not gone according to plan for Harrison Burton. He currently sits 29th in the point standings. He did have a breakout race at Darlington finishing sixth and followed that up at Charlotte with a Top-20. But the last two races have left a lot to be desired. The big question will be whether he can have a strong second half to the season and justify getting a third year in the iconic No. 21 car? The Wood Brothers have been looking for that elusive 100th win in the Cup series for a long time. Burton very well could be running out of chances to be the driver that makes that history.
As we approach the halfway point, a lot of questions have been answered but even more remain. The summer is crunch time in the NASCAR garage. It’s going to be incredibly interesting to see how strategy changes as we go deeper into the season. One thing is for certain beginning with Nashville, the heat is on!