Hendrick Motorsports had a surprisingly strong start to the 2022 NASCAR Cup season, especially considering so much was unknown about the new Next Gen car.
Hendrick drivers won three of the first five point races of the year, an accomplishment that no team had achieved since car owner Carl Kiekhaefer’s Chrysler 300s won three of the first five in the 1956 season.
Kyle Larson won at Auto Club Speedway in the second race of the year. Alex Bowman scored at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and William Byron won at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Hendrick Motorsports drove on to lead all teams with 11 wins last year, although Team Penske grabbed the championship with Joey Logano. Still, Hendrick’s hot start was noteworthy for scoring a bit of history and demonstrating once again that the Chevrolet team remains one of the sport’s giants.
Can anyone duplicate Hendrick’s fast start in 2023?
The first five points race of the year are at the same locations as last season — Daytona International Speedway (Feb. 19), Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (March 5), Phoenix Raceway (March 12) and Atlanta Motor Speedway (March 19).
In the second year of the radically different Next Gen vehicle, with a long season of trials and troubles behind them, teams are likely to have a much better grip on the car’s wants and needs as 2023 opens. In theory, that should make this year more competitive than last, but it won’t be surprising if Hendrick or another power team has several winning runs in the first weeks of the season.
Hendrick’s strong driver lineup — Chase Elliott, Larson, Byron and Bowman — returns. All four won races last year, and Elliott, Byron and Larson finished in the top 10 in points. The depth of mechanical knowledge and experience on the Hendrick Motorsports campus near Charlotte Motor Speedway is among the most impressive in international auto racing. Hendrick typically has the fastest cars in Daytona leading to the 500, and few would be surprised to see a Hendrick car win in the 500 and more success over the first weeks of the schedule.
Can the new version of Richard Childress Racing be tough early? Many will look for Kyle Busch to inject new life — and a real chance at a championship — into one of the sport’s oldest teams. He could shine early, if only to prove the doubters wrong. And Austin Dillon is a former Daytona 500 winner.
Team Penske is a threat every week. Logano finished last season racing with style and ultimately sitting in the throne room. Ryan Blaney will look to end a punishing winless streak in points races, and, by the way, Austin Cindric won the Daytona 500 last year.
Joe Gibbs Racing was the second biggest winner — with six — last season but didn’t click until Denny Hamlin won at Richmond in the seventh race. Martin Truex Jr., typically fast at Daytona, went winless last year, and Ty Gibbs is new to the Cup operation. Christopher Bell and Hamlin will give JGR its best shots at early-season success.
Trackhouse Racing, to the surprise of many, notched three wins last year, but none came in the first five weeks of the year. Ross Chastain remains on board, however, so all bets are off at Daytona.
Tyler Reddick, one of the sport’s best young drivers, should add new fire to 23XI Racing and could give the team one or more wins early. Bubba Wallace has threatened in the past at Daytona but hasn’t scored.
Perhaps the most intriguing entry in the early part of the season is returning seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who is scheduled to make his debut with Petty GMS at Daytona. Johnson, who has said he will run a partial schedule this year, knows the ins and outs of 500 week and could be a threat there. Erik Jones scored a win last year and figures to be improved, and newcomer Noah Gragson will give the team a quirky and talented component.
Stewart-Haas Racing put only one driver — ninth-place Chase Briscoe — in the top 10 in points last year but has veteran input from Kevin Harvick and a new, eager face in Ryan Preece.
Although its landscape is distinctively a one-off, the Feb. 5 Clash at the Coliseum should provide a few hints as to which teams might have made gains during the short off-season.
Last year’s Clash, won by Logano, saw only three teams lead laps. Logano led 35 for Team Penske, Kyle Busch was in front 64 laps to start his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing, and Tyler Reddick foreshadowed what would be a surprisingly strong season for Richard Childress Racing with 51 laps out front.
Although Hendrick won three races early last year, after 10 races the competition thread had lengthened. Hendrick won four, Joe Gibbs Racing and Trackhouse Racing two each and Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing one each.
Eventually, five drivers scored their first Cup victories during the season, emphasizing the fact that the new car opened the door for surprises. More could come early this year.