Despite a schedule that is very similar to last year’s, the NASCAR Cup Series will race both toward a new future and an interesting past in 2023.
Last season, the most intriguing race on the schedule was the opener — the Clash at the Coliseum. No one knew what to expect on the purpose-built track inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and the unknown — plus the debut of the Next Gen car — made LA a hot topic for weeks leading to the race.
The Clash was a major success.
This year, the two most alluring races are at new (the streets of Chicago) and old (North Wilkesboro Speedway) locations.
Here’s a look at five intriguing races as the countdown to the new season continues:
Streets of Chicago — July 2
You want different? This is different.
NASCAR will journey into entirely new territory on the Independence Day weekend, molding a race course from the streets of downtown Chicago.
Numerous series have raced on street courses, of course, but it’s a new animal for NASCAR and its big stock cars. Some drivers have voiced concern about passing zones on what necessarily will be a tight course, and there also have been questions about accidents in or near turns blocking the course and creating nightmare logjams.
Part of the intrigue.
Much like last year’s Clash at the Coliseum, the Chicago race has its share of doubters. LA resulted in a big hit for NASCAR. A similar result in Chicago could increase the likelihood that NASCAR will consider other major-city visits.
North Wilkesboro Speedway — May 21
The revival of one of the Cup Series’ original race tracks, in the shadow of the Brushy Mountains in North Carolina, has been one of the sport’s major stories over the past year.
North Wilkesboro’s renovations and rebuilding will be on display May 21 as NASCAR holds its annual All-Star Race at the .625-mile track. Cup cars last raced at North Wilkesboro in 1996.
Although touches of the old track, which sat in disrepair for years, remain as nods to its past, fans attending the May race will see a newly configured infield, refurbished suites and a state-of-the-art lighting system.
The All-Star Race is being moved from Texas Motor Speedway, where it hasn’t been quite the spectacle many fans associate with the event. North Wilkesboro will give it a new/old look.
Daytona International Speedway — Feb. 19
The Daytona 500 — a race that always is intriguing.
Even before NASCAR decided to make its biggest race the season opener for points competition, the 500 was generally the sport’s most anticipated event. When NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. opened the monster track in 1959, stock car racers were suddenly thrown into a wild new world of very high speeds and pack-like racing previously unknown to drivers used to short dirt tracks.
The sport has changed and evolved in many ways across the decades since DIS opened, but the track remains NASCAR’s cathedral, a place where the unexpected is expected and great careers are begun.
In part because of the stature of the track and the race, and in part because of the quiet of the off-season, February race dates in coastal Florida always will be red-letter days on the racing calendar.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course — Aug. 13
This year’s Indy road-course race will be interesting if for no other reason than to see if it can be completed without many laps of overtime.
In last year’s race, the first turn, in which drivers left the oval-course front straight to dip onto the infield road course, became calamity corner. On green-flag restarts, there was little give and take as the field sailed into the narrow turn, resulting in crashes and confusion and overtime.
On what turned out to be the final restart, Ross Chastain bypassed the first-turn chaos and continued on the front straight to rejoin the field along an access road, thus taking the lead from Tyler Reddick. NASCAR soon declared this move a no-no, returning Reddick to the lead.
Reddick finally won the race, 17% of which was run under caution.
It’s possible that NASCAR will attempt to avoid some of the first-turn chaos by adjusting the course this year.
Darlington Raceway — Sept. 3
After years of being a movable toy in NASCAR’s evolving scheduling, Darlington’s Southern 500 appears to have found a permanent home at its original spot — on or near Labor Day weekend.
The fact that NASCAR’s oddest and toughest track now also hosts the first round of the Cup playoffs adds to the intrigue Darlington brings to the table. It’s 500 miles of hard road with advancement into the next round of the playoffs the prize awaiting any driver in the playoff field who finishes first.
On a normal day, Darlington is rough. On a late-summer day/night with temperatures soaring into the 90s and South Carolina humidity cloaking the track, it can be a brutal test.