2023 NASCAR Preview: “Wreckless” Youth

…or should that be wreck-ful?

The 2022 season ended with another exciting race at Phoenix, an up-and-down, back-and-forth affair that saw Joey Logano come away as the Champion. He was the old man of quartet, ready to apply for AARP at the ancient age of 32. He outpaced Ross Chastain (age 30), Christopher Bell (age 28), and NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Chase Elliott (age 27). Kevin Harvick (age 47) squeaked into the Playoffs with little flair while Denny Hamlin (age 42) squeaked out of the Playoffs before the Championship race after Chastain’s “videogame move” at Martinsville. Brad Keselowski (age 38) had his hands full with the role of part-owner for Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing, former DAYTONA 500 winner Michael McDowell (age 38) was sniffin’ around the Playoffs all season but couldn’t break in. A similar fate for 2017 Champion Martin Truex Jr. (age 42), missing the cutoff by 3 points! Aric Almirola (age 38) drove what we thought was his final full season (later announced that he’ll be back in 2023) as Kurt Busch (age 44) spent the last half of his unbeknownst final full season on the sidelines with concussion protocol. Kyle Busch (age 37) begrudgingly finished his tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing, seeming very unhappy for very long; he’ll slide over to Richard Childress Racing for 2023. On this quick list, we’ve got our Championship 4 right around 30 years of age and rampant struggles for every other driver here even in the realm of 40. What happened? Where have all the [old man] cowboys gone? That’s what NASCAR is, isn’t it? Old, southern dudes? Think again.

Ross Chastain (age 30, Alva, FL. #1 Trackhouse Racing Chevy) caught a ton of eyes last year, made a lot of fans…and lost a lot of fans! Seeking his first Win, he would do whatever it took to get there. His devil-may-care attitude at times was REFRESHING to many people, attracted to a driver putting it all on the line for the glory and trophy, like the old days! That was, of course, until his newness leaked through and he ended up wrecking one of their favorite drivers. If somehow you haven’t seen it (above), this is Ross Chastain FLOORING it along the wall at Martinsville on the final lap of a must-advance situation. He edged all-year-long rival Denny Hamlin to break into the Championship 4 with that “videogame move,” a happening that had people LOVING the most exciting thing they’ve ever seen in their lives, or HATING a complete lack of talent and bush league antics. As a NASCAR driver, THESE are the ingredients that set the stage for a successful future. Dale Earnhardt masterfully crafted this his entire career, though Chastain (a watermelon farmer away from the track) has successfully tapped into this without needing to rattle anyone’s cage..yet. Love him or hate him, you’re talking about him. He’s only going to get better; #1 could be #1 in 2023.

Austin Cindric (age 24, Columbus, OH. #2 Team Penske Ford) kicked off the season with a DAYTONA 500 victory, just the second time ever by a Rookie (Trevor Bayne, 2011). Rookies typically don’t take top billing on their teams, and for Cindric especially, if his goal is “be the biggest start on my team,” he’s going to have a tough climb. Teammates Joey Logano (2022 Champion) and Ryan Blaney are more than capable, and will no doubt elevate Cindric as they continue to perform well themselves.

Kyle Larson (age 30, Elk Grove, CA. #5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy) already has a Cup Series Championship his belt, capturing the title back in 2021. He spent a year away (read: suspended / fired / dropped by sponsors) from the motorsport after dropping a slur on an open iRacing mic during the initial COVID break, but Rick Hendrick gave him the keys to the #5 for ’21. After being reinstated in October of 2020, Larson became his comeback and picked up 10 Wins en route to his first Championship. His mother is a Japanese-American, making Kyle the most successful driver with Asian heritage in Cup Series history. In fact, the previous most prolific NASCAR Cup Series driver was Japanese born Hideo Fukuyama who last ran four races in 2003. (Ryan Ellis is another Japanese-American who last started for Rick Ware Racing in the 2021 Fall Kansas race; he placed 36th.)

Chase Elliott (age 27, Dawsonville, GA. #9 Hendrick Motosports Chevy) is teammates with Larson, and he, too, already has a Cup Series Championship. He grabbed the trophy in 2020, and doesn’t show any signs of slowding down. He’s got that racin’ blood in him, son of Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, Bill Elliott. Elliott is a fixture in the Championship 4, and looks like he’ll continue to be NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for many years to come (though a smear campaign– see below…): he cleans up nice, moms love him, girls love him, dudes love him, and companies love him, too. Everyone loves Chase Elliott.

Ryan Blaney (age 28, Hartford Township, Trumbull County, OH. #12 Team Penske Ford) is our second straight “son of a driver” (third generation, in fact) on this list. He is the son of the “Buckeye Bullet,” Dave Blaney, and a surefire way to feel really old as a viewer. When I saw Antoine Winfield Jr. get drafted, I drew a heavy sigh. Being a Bills fan, I saw his father drafted back in the 90’s, and it was sort of a “..what” moment. Now I’m seeing sons of drivers from my childhood; Bill Elliott was a fixture in the 80’s and 90’s, sure, but Dave Blaney was active in the 2000s! This whole article, if you can’t tell, is how the field is getting younger and younger. And Dave Blaney was no spring chicken while driving the #07 Jack Daniels car in 2005. But his son is! And a handsome devil. When we were down for the 2020 DAYTONA 500, we bought pit passes and got pretty close to some drivers. Ryan Blaney walked by and a girl in her early 20’s was SQUEALING in delight; hopping up and down, fanning herself, and I’m no expert but I think that qualifies as “the vapors?” It’s probably pretty similar to the way every single person reacts to Josh Allen nowadays, ya know? Back to Blaney. He’s been “close but no cigar” so far (where “cigar” is “Championship”), but he’s our defending 2022 All-Star Race winner, a feat that is not easily managed. With teammate Cindric winning the 2022 DAYTONA 500 (Blaney – 4th), and three Wins at Talladega/DAYTONA for Blaney, shall we pencil him in for the ’23 race Win? Sure!

-Chase Briscoe (age 28, Mitchell, IN. #14 Stewart-Haas Ford) is the youngest of the four Stewart-Haas drivers (Harvick 47, Almirola 38, Preece 32), and won the Spring Phoenix race to earn him entry in the Postseason. He actually had a crack at the 2022 DAYTONA 500 trophy, finishing 3rd by less than one-tenth of a second. Briscoe begins his third full-time season in 2023.

Chris Buescher (age 30, Prosper, TX. #17 Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing Ford) had more success than team owner / teammate Keselowski this year, winning the Bristol Night Race for his second career victory, and the first that wasn’t called because of fog (Pocono, 2016). Some absolute growing pains for RFK throughout the season, but now they’ve got a full-fledged Win to build off of.

Christopher Bell (age 28, Norman, OK. #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) was the definition of “clutch” in the 2022 Playoffs, maybe more than any other driver. Two different times he was facing elimination in a Win-or-go-home situation and managed to capture the flag. First at the ROVAL to break into the Round of 8, and again at Martinsville (“the Ross Chastain race” from above) to make the Championship 4. There isn’t much room for him to do better in 2023, but is he ready to hoist the Cup yet? I’m not so sure, but I do know that he’ll be a fixture in the Cup Series for years to come. Talented driver.

Harrison Burton (age 22, Huntersville, NC. #21 Woods Brothers Racing Ford), son of former NASCAR driver Jeff Burton (and nephew of Ward Burton), is one of the youngest drivers in the Cup Series today, holding the wheel for one of the oldest teams in NASCAR. He’s still chasing that first Win, but only has one full season to his credit so far. As the trend goes, 2023 should be better for him, maybe sneaking out a Talladega victory or something like that? Stay tuned on Burton.

Bubba Wallace (age 29, Mobile, AL. #23 23XI Racing Toyota) drives for a team owned by Michael Jordan (the 23) and Denny Hamlin (the 11), and is the most successful Black driver since Wendell Scott, who only had one Win way the heck back in 1964 at the Jacksonville 200. Even worse, Scott was not announced the winner of that race, the honors awarded to 2nd place Buck Baker. As the story goes, believe what you want (consider the times), two hours later race officials discovered that Scott had actually won the race, and by two full laps. It would then be two years until NASCAR awarded him the Win…and the trophy finally delivered in 2021; that’d be 58 years after the race, and 31 years after Wendell Scott had passed away. Things have absolutely changed in this country since then, and especially in NASCAR. At our very own Watkins Glen last year, a record was set for NASCAR having seven different countries represented in a single race. The complexion has been changing for some time, and Bubba Wallace is the face of the sport of for many NASCAR fans. A similar story with Briscoe’s first Win, Wallace’s first taste of victory came with a rain-shortened Talladega race in the Fall of 2021. Less than a year later, he’d win a fully ran Kansas race in the Fall of 2022. It is only up from here for Bubba and 23XI.

William Byron (age 25, Charlotte, NC. #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy) has off to one of the quickest starts this season, bagging two victories by Week 8. That would actually be the high point of his season, achieving just one more Top 5 throughout the year, and that came way the heck in Week 29. Gotta be a letdown for Byron and his team, looking primed to be a big-time player in the Playoffs. Byron hasn’t yet tapped into the prestige that Jeff Gordon brought the #24 for so many years, but he’s got plenty of time. He’ll get it all gathered up and make another run for it in 2023.

Justin Haley (age 23, Winamac, IN. #31 Kaulig Racing Chevy) actually broke into the Win column without driving a full-time season. In just his third career start, Haley took the checkers (under rain) at the 2019 Coke Zero Sugar 400 at DAYTONA. He hasn’t yet been back to Victory Lane, but he’s logged a few Top 5s including a pair in in the 2022 Playoffs. He finished 22nd in the Standings last season, and looks to build on that for 2023.

Todd Gilliland (age 22, Sherrills Ford, NC. #38 Front Row Motorsports Ford), son of David Gilliland, has just completed his Rookie season in the Cup Series. He got his best finish at the Indianapolis Road Course (4th), and then tacked on another 7th at Talladega’s YellaWood 500 during the Playoffs. Front Row Motorsports doesn’t have the firepower that a lot of these other teams do, but they can absolutely win here and there (especially “DAYTONA” or “Talladega”), and Wins get you into the Playoffs.

Noah Gragson (age 24, Las Vegas, NV. #42 Petty GMS Motorsports Chevy) ran a few races in 2022 in the Cup Series (and previously), but will make his full-season debut in 2023. He finished 2nd in the Xfinity Series, but he definitely knows how to find his way to the front and win races. In just 135 starts over five years, he picked up 96 Top 10s and 13 Wins.

Erik Jones (age 26, Byron, MI. #43 Petty GMS Motorsports Chevy) has shown flashes of brilliance in his first few years of NASCAR, notching his third Win on his career this past September in Darlington (I was there!). That was the first race of the Playoffs, and as we know / have learned, a Win in the Playoffs advances you to the next round. #ThatJonesBoy wasn’t eligible this season (no “regular season” Wins), but had he been, that would have slid him to the Round of 12. The seeds are definitely there for a great 2023, teaming with Noah Gragson in the #42.

Tyler Reddick (age 26, Corning, CA. #45 23XI Racing Toyota) was the best example of a “leaf on the wind” we’ve seen in some time. He drove for Richard Childress Racing last year, but was signed to a contract for the 2024 season before the 2022 season even ended. “What about 2023?” Good question. Welp, Kyle Busch left JGR, and RCR scooped him up for the #8. “What about Tyler Reddick?” Good question. He was released from his contract, so now he’ll replace Kurt Busch in the #45 (Michael Jordan’s second number, ‘member?) for ’23. Reddick is a good dude. Mild mannered. That doesn’t typically jive well in today’s NASCAR, but he’s also proven that good things come to those who wait. Patience. He finished 2nd numerous times, including a horrible finish at the Bristol Dirt Race on Easter Night. Reddick would finally break into the Winner’s Circle at Road America, and then the Indianapolis Road Course, and his first Cup Series oval Win at Texas. He finished 14th this season — can he top that in 2023? Count on it.

Alex Bowman (age 29, Tucson, AZ. #48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy) — “All Luck, No Skill” — wasn’t as lucky as he needed to be in 2023. He earned berth into the Playoffs with a Win at Las Vegas in Week 3, but a concussion sustained at Texas in Week 30 effectively eliminated him from contention. He’d be eliminated via Points two weeks later. Bowman inherited Jimmie Johnson’s #48 (as William Byron did, in effect, with Jeff Gordon’s #24) and neither of them have matched their output just yet. Johnson is a 7-time Champion, so to match him would be…well, legendary. The only other drivers with seven championships are Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. Speaking of Johnson (since we’re on the topic), he’ll actually be back for a few races this year for Petty GMS (see: #42/#43). He’s been out of a stock car for a few years so we’ll see if he can pick it back up. As for Bowman, America (and NASCAR) loves a comeback story. Eliminated via concussion in 2022, look for him to drive deeper than last time in 2023.

Cody Ware (age 27, Greensboro, NC. #51 Rick Ware Racing Chevy) hasn’t achieved success like a lot of guys on this list, and yes, he’s driving a car that is owned by his father, but he’s done a lot with the cards stacked against him. He is the only driver openly on the autism spectrum, and as someone who lives with somebody on the spectrum, I know how challenging that can be as an outside viewer. To experience it as he is something I can’t fully grasp, or imagine how he handles it while driving 180 miles per hour. 2022 was his second full-time season, and he finished 6th at Daytona in Week 26 for his best career finish. Ware completed the season in 32nd in the Standings, and a Win would no doubt be a very popular one in the garage. We’re right back at Daytona for the 500 in just 49 days, is another Top 10 in the cards?

Ty Gibbs (age 20, Charlotte, NC. #54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) will pilot the #54 (formerly the #18) for 2023, coming up to the Cup Series full-time off the momentum of a championship in the Xfinity Series. He got PLENTY of reps in a Cup car in ’22, filling in for Kurt Busch and driving 15 of the last 16 weeks. Gibbs’ best in that span was a 10th at Michigan, and we can buckle in for more of that as he’ll be driving his own car in February. He’ll have plenty of experience and talent to lean on, too!; Denny Hamlin in the #11, Martin Truex Jr. in the #19, and Christopher Bell in the #20. And he’s driving for his grandpa…Joe Gibbs!

Ty Dillon (age 30, Welcome, NC. #77 Spire Motorsports Chevy), younger brother of Austin Dillon, has been replaced in the #42 but slides over to the #77. Spire Motorsports — as we’ve mentioned about other teams on this list — doesn’t have the total firepower as some of these other groups, but they do receive engines from Hendrick Motorsports, and the 7/77 combo recently performed very well at Daytona. And that feeds right into Ty Dillon’s abilities; his best finishes have come at that Daytona/Talladega combo. It isn’t out of line at all to suggest that he finish in the Top 10 of the ’23 DAYTONA 500.

Daniel Suarez (age 30, Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. #99 Trackhouse Chevy) is the only Mexican born driver to win in the Cup Series. 2022 was his coming out party, finally breaking into Victory Lane at Sonoma, and piled on a bunch of other Top 10s, too. He finished 10th in the Standings for the first time (after driving for other big money teams like JGR or Stewart-Haas), and looks to pick right up where he left off. Both he and teammate Ross Chastain entered the season as second-tier drivers who have yet to break into that next echelon, and they both succeeded with a relatively new team. Trackhouse Racing is owned by former driver Justin Marks and world-renowned Latin rapper Pitbull. Suarez is a graduate of the Drive for Diversity program, and with Pitbull’s reach this team continues to bring in drivers from other parts of the world. In addition to the #1 and #99, Trackhouse runs a #91 as well — “Project91.” Aiming to bring in International Drivers, Watkins Glen saw Finnish F1 star “The Iceman” Kimi Raikkonen behind the wheel (1 was there!). Expect more great things out of Trackhouse Racing, and continued success from Suarez to leave Daniel’s Amigos muy contento.

Thanks for the long read, I hope you learned something! Happy to pass on the info, ya know? Before we know it, I’ll be back here posting weekly NASCARTICLES for everyone’s pleasure. In conclusion, the old guys aren’t going away just yet (not all at once, anyways..), but the young guys are absolutely putting the pressure on. They’re starting younger, know the tracks better because of videogames and simulators, and that success translates directly onto the racetrack. Logano is our most recent Champion, and north of 30, and he’ll have a wicked climb to defend this one. I’m sure he’ll manage better than the Los Angeles Rams and their Super Bowl defense — of that I’m positive!

And I also had the awesome opportunity to sit in on the Rochester Press Box this past week, getting to reach a different audience about this NASCAR stuff (Thanks, Bill!). I also got to flash a little football knowledge that helped me to a 2nd place finish in Mike Catalana’s Survivor Pool. (One of the highlights of my sports life, legit! So awesome! Also: thanks a LOT, Seahawks, ya jerks!) Really looking forward to the end of this season and the Playoffs, but first — Monday Night Football! Waiting on that one tomorrow, and then we’ll see how we get FLEXED for Week 18, and when our home games are ultimately going to start at The Ralph.

Go Bills!

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