NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.
Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.
With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.
Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:
February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).
March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.
April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.
May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.
June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.
July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.
August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.
September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.
Kyle Busch and Tyler Reddick — among the key storylines this season — got their first days on track with their new teams this week.
Busch, Reddick and Austin Cindric participated in a tire test Monday and Tuesday at Circuit of the Americas. The session marked Busch’s first official laps with his Richard Childress Racing team. It also was Reddick’s first laps with his 23XI Racing team.
Busch, a two-time Cup champion, joins RCR after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing. Lack of sponsorship led to his move.
Busch heads into this season having won at least one Cup race in each of the past 18 seasons, tying him with Richard Petty for the all-time Cup record.
Busch, who estimated he ran 200 laps during the two days at the 3.41-mile road course in Austin, Texas, was pleased with the session.
“Had a lot of fun,” he told NBC Sports. “Was able to work with the guys and really (have) good communication, give good feedback and have that opportunity to have dialogue of ‘Let’s do this. Let’s do this. Let’s try this. What do you think about this?’
“(Was) able to talk about the car in ways I’m used to and have them hear me describe things in certain ways, so they can get a better understanding where, as you go on, you can say less words and they get what you’re saying.”
Reddick said the session was helpful to get settled in the No. 45 Toyota.
Reddick told NBC Sports that a goal at the session was to “try and close the gap Toyota feels like they’ve had on the Chevys and some of the other competition last year on the road courses. I think we made some gains, but certainly, we’re going to work hard on that.”
“Some of the things they’re learning (have) started to trickle on to our side,” Graves said of the Garage 56 car. “They’ve done some things on the underbody.
“As NASCAR is looking to make short tracks in particular a little bit better, we’re trying to be less dependent on the outer body with aero and get more of it with the underbody — with the theory that it’s going to be less affected by traffic.”
Graves said that the plan is for the rear spoiler to be smaller at the Phoenix test with the underbody of the car generating more of the car’s downforce. NASCAR also is looking to better channel the air underneath the car with the diffuser.
Graves explained how having more of a car’s downforce generated underneath it could impact the race:
“When you look at the lap times, the guys that are up front have a huge advantage, but when they get to the back of the pack, they run the same speed.
“That’s what everybody in the pack is doing the whole race, running the same speed and having a hard time getting around each other. Hopefully, this will help with some of that, where it’s not so dependent on the outer body. You get into turbulent air, dirty air (in traffic) the (aero on the) outer body really goes away. The theory is that the underbody is still going to have that air underneath the car, so it will keep it a little bit better.”
Could he be joined by Kyle Busch? Busch has expressed an interest in also doing the double — something his brother Kurt did in 2014.
“I think that’s great that Kyle (Larson) has been able to kind of button that up early and get that done for himself to run the Indy 500 in 2024,” Busch told NBC Sports.
“I wasn’t so fortunate (in the past). We had a couple of deals kind of right there, right to the sign phase almost I guess you would say. It just didn’t really materialize. Teams got other deals that were more important to them that kind of didn’t want to give me the chance, or they didn’t want to go from three cars to four cars, whatever it might have been.
“A lot of discussions happened behind the scenes, but nothing materialized. I would say that our industry, both NASCAR and IndyCar is just short on people, having the right amount of people and good people to go and do these ventures. Yeah, you could go do it and go run circles and make laps, but is it going to be a winning effort was the question. That’s just kind of why it never materialized.”
Asked if he felt the door was closed to him to running the Indy 500, Busch said: “Yeah, I would say 2023, the door’s closed. I would say 2024, with Kyle (Larson’s) announcement, the door closed because that’s probably about the only team that could do it. Given the nature of who he’s racing with, but just with other teams trying to stretch too thin and not have enough people. Again it comes down to the people part. So, you just never know. See what happens.”
4. Looking into the future
As NASCAR celebrates its 75th anniversary season, it’s a chance to look back at many of the memorable moments on and off the track.
When NASCAR celebrates its 100th season and others in the future, Chastain’s move is likely to be among those memorable moments.
“I’m proud that I’ve been able to make a wave that will continue beyond just 2022 or just beyond me,” Chastain told NBC Sports. “There will probably be people that will learn about me because of that. I’m good with that. I’m proud of that.
“I don’t think it will ever happen again. I don’t think it will ever pay the reward that that paid off for us. I hope I’m around in 35 years to answer someone’s question about it, and I probably still won’t have a good answer on why it worked, or why I did it.”
5. A celebration
NASCAR takes time tonight to honor its past and induct three people into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Grandstand seating and camping spots are sold out for the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway announced Tuesday.
The sellout is the eighth consecutive for the 500, which opens the NASCAR Cup Series regular season.
Tickets remain available in the infield Fanzone and in hospitality areas.
“Our fans know there’s nothing better in sports than attending the Daytona 500, and they will help us kick off NASCAR’s 75th Anniversary by filling the facility,” said speedway president Frank Kelleher in a statement released by the track.
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.
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.
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.