New NASCAR Cup season features several changes

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While NASCAR looks back in celebrating its 75th season, there’s plenty new for the sport heading into the 2023 campaign.

Driver moves and schedule changes and are among some of the big changes this year. Here’s a look at some of the changes this season in Cup:

Drivers

— Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch has a different look, as he moves from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Tyler Reddick. 

— Tyler Reddick goes from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Kurt Busch, who was injured in a crash last summer and has not returned to competition.

Ryan Preece goes from being a test driver and backup at Stewart-Haas Racing to taking over the No. 41 car formerly run by Cole Custer, who moves to the Xfinity Series. 

— Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson returns to Cup after running the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. He’s now a part owner of Legacy Motor Club and will run select races for the Cup team. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500, driving the No. 84 car.

Ty Gibbs goes from Xfinity Series champion to Cup rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Noah Gragson goes from Xfinity Series title contender to Cup rookie for Legacy Motor Club (and teammate to Jimmie Johnson).

Crew chiefs

— Keith Rodden, who last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne, is back in that role for Austin Dillon at Richard Childress Racing, as Dillon seeks to make back-to-back playoff appearances. Rodden comes to RCR after working with the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors.

— Chad Johnston, who has been a crew chief for Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth, will serve as crew chief for Ryan Preece at Stewart-Haas Racing.

— Blake Harris goes from being Michael McDowell’s crew chief at Front Row Motorsports to joining Hendrick Motorsports to be Alex Bowman’s crew chief. 

— Mike Kelley, who served as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief when Stenhouse won Xfinity titles in 2011 and ’12, returns to the crew chief role with Stenhouse this season at JTG Daugherty Racing. 

Races

— What’s old is new. The All-Star Race moves to North Wilkesboro Speedway in May, marking the first Cup event at that historic track since 1996.

— July 2 marks debut of the street course race in Chicago, marking NASCAR’s first street race for its premier series.

— The spring Atlanta race and playoff Texas race have both been reduced from 500 miles to 400 miles.

Rules

Ross Chastain’s video-game move on the last lap at Martinsville will no longer be allowed, NASCAR announced this week. 

— Stage breaks are gone at the road course events for Cup races. Stage points will be awarded but there will be no caution for the end of the stage.  

— If a wheel comes off a car while on track, it is only a two-race suspension (last year it was four races) for two crew members. The crew chief is no longer suspended for the violation. 

— Cup cars have a new rear section that is intended to absorb more energy in a crash to prevent driver injuries after Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman each missed races last year because of concussion-related symptoms.

— Elton Sawyer is the new vice president of competition for NASCAR. Think of the former driver as the new sheriff in town for the sport.

Achievements 

— With a win this season, Kyle Busch will have at least one Cup victory in 19 consecutive seasons and become the all-time series leader in that category, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.

Denny Hamlin needs two wins to reach 50 career Cup victories. That would tie him with Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 13th on the all-time list. 

Kevin Harvick, running his final Cup season, is 10 starts away from 800 career series starts. That would make him only the 10th driver in Cup history to reach that mark.

Friday 5: Legacy MC seeks to stand out as Trackhouse did in ’22

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While the celebration continued after Erik Jones’ Southern 500 victory last September, executives of what is now Legacy MC already were looking ahead.

“(September) and October, decisions we make on people are going to affect how we race next (February), March and April,” Mike Beam, team president, told NBC Sports that night.

Noah Gragson had been announced as the team’s second driver for 2023 less than a month before Jones’ win. 

But bigger news was to come. 

The team announced Nov. 4 that Jimmie Johnson would become a co-owner, lifting the profile of a team that carries Richard Petty’s No. 43 on Jones’ cars.

As February approaches and racing resumes, a question this season is how far can Legacy MC climb. Can this team mimic the breakout season Trackhouse Racing had last year?

“I think everybody looks for Trackhouse for … maybe the way of doing things a bit different,” Jones told NBC Sports. “Obviously, starting with the name. We’ve kind of gone that same direction with Legacy MC and then on down from there, kind of how a program can be built and run in a short amount of time.

“There’s some growth in the back end that we still have to do to probably be totally to that level, but our goal is definitely to be on that same trajectory that Trackhouse was over the last two seasons.”

Trackhouse Racing debuted in 2021 with Daniel Suarez. He finished 25th in the points. The organization added Ross Chastain and several team members from Chip Ganassi Racing to form a two-car team last year. Chastain won two races and finished second in the points, while Suarez won once and was 10th in the standings. 

Legacy MC co-owner Maury Gallagher purchased a majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports in December 2021 and merged the two teams. Jones won one race and placed 18th in points last year. Ty Dillon was winless, finishing 29th in points and was replaced by Gragson after the season. 

“Legitimately, we were a pretty new team last year coming in,” Jones said. “There were a handful of Richard Petty Motorsports guys who came over, but, for the most part, it was a brand new team.

“I think what we built in one year and done is similar to Trackhouse in their first year. I think maybe even we were a step ahead of where they were in their first year.”

Legacy MC looks for more with Jones, Gragson and Johnson, who will run a limited schedule this year. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500 field.

Jones said Johnson has infused the team with energy. Gragson has been trying to soak up as much as he can from Johnson.

Gragson told NBC Sports that having Johnson as a teammate is “going to be an incredible opportunity for a young guy like myself, first year in the Cup series, a rookie, to be able to lean on a seven-time champion.

“Incredible person, friend, mentor that Jimmie has become for myself. He’s probably going to be pretty over me by the time we get to the Daytona 500 because I just keep wearing him out with questions and trying … pick his brain.”

2. Kyle Busch’s impact

Car owner Richard Childress says that Kyle Busch already is making an impact at RCR.

Busch joins the organization after having spent the past 15 seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch will pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR this year.

He took part in a World Racing League endurance race at Circuit of the Americas in December with Austin Dillon and Sheldon Creed. The trio won one of those races.

“I was down there for that, just watching how (Busch) gets in there and works with everybody,” Childress said. “He’s a racer. He wants to win. That’s what I love about him.”

Childress sees the influence Busch can have on an organization that has won six Cup titles — but none since Dale Earnhardt’s last crown in 1994 — and 113 series races.

“He brings a lot of experience and knowledge,” Childress said of Busch. “I think he’ll help Austin a lot in his career. I think he can help our whole organization from a standpoint of what do we need … to go faster.

Dillon told NBC Sports that the team has changed some things it does in its meetings based on feedback from Busch. Dillon also said that he and Busch have similar driving styles — more similar than Dillon has had with past teammates. 

“I think as we go throughout the year and he gets to drive our race cars, he’ll have some new thoughts that he’ll bring,” Dillon said of Busch. “I think we’re already bringing some new thoughts to him, too.”

3. New role for Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick, entering his final Cup season, has joined the Drivers Advisory Council, a move Joey Logano said is important for the group.

“Kevin is necessary to the sport, even post-driving career,” Logano told NBC Sports. “He’s necessary for our sport’s success. Kevin sees it and does something about it. 

“He’s always been vocal, right? He’s always been very brash, and like, boom in your face. That’s what people love about Kevin Harvick. Something I like about him as well is that you know where you stand. You know where the weaknesses are. 

“He’s going to push until something happens. That’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having him on the Advisory Council now for the drivers, his experience, but also his willingness to push, is important.”

Jeff Burton again will lead the group as Director of the Council. The Board of Directors is: Harvick, Logano, Kyle Petty, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Corey LaJoie, Kurt Busch and Tom Buis.

Logano, Petty, Dillon, Suarez, LaJoie and Busch all return. Buis, a board member of Growth Energy after having previously been the company’s CEO, joins the drivers group and provides a business background. 

4. Finding one’s voice

Chase Briscoe’s contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing means he could be the longest tenured driver there in the near future.

The 28-year Briscoe enters his third Cup season at SHR, but the landscape is changing. This will be Kevin Harvick’s final season in Cup. Ryan Preece is in his first season driving in Cup for the team. Aric Almirola was supposed to have retired last year but came back. How long he remains is to be determined.

Those changes could soon leave Briscoe as the team’s senior driver.

“It’s a role that is crazy, truthfully, to think about because that could be me in the next year or two, being I wouldn’t say that flagship guy, but being a leader as far as the drivers go in an organization,” Briscoe said.

“Truthfully, I feel like that’s something I want to be. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of leader, team building type of stuff. So, yeah, if that role is kind of placed on me naturally, then that’s one that I would love to have and try to do it to the best of my ability. I feel like that’s a role that you don’t choose, it kind of chooses you.”

Briscoe, who won the spring Phoenix race and made the playoffs last year, said that he’s becoming more comfortable speaking up in team meetings. 

“I look back, especially on my rookie year, we’d go into our competition meeting on Tuesday and, truthfully, I wouldn’t really talk much,” he said. “I would say kind of what we thought for the weekend, but outside of that I would just kind of sit there and listen.  

“This past year, I definitely talked a lot more, and I’d bring up ideas and kind of say things I wanted to get off my chest, where in the past I wouldn’t have done that. I feel like as I’ve gotten more confident in myself and my position, I’ve gotten to the point where I speak my mind a little bit more and, I guess, be a little bit more of a leader.”

5. Busch Clash field

NASCAR released the preliminary entry list for the Feb. 5 Busch Clash. No surprise, the entry list features only the 36 charter teams. Those teams are required to be entered.

With 27 cars in the feature — which is expanded by four cars from last year’s race — there’s no guarantee a non-charter car could make the field. That’s a lot of money to go across country and face the chance of missing the main event.

The Daytona 500 field has four spots for non-charter cars. With that race’s payoff significantly more, it will attract at least five cars for those spots: Jimmie Johnson (Legacy MC), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing), Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports) and Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing). Helio Castroneves confirmed Thursday that he will not enter the 500. He had been in talks with the team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather.

A look at Cup driver uniforms for 2023

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It won’t be long before cars are on track for the Feb. 5 Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Before the action takes place there, check out the driver uniforms for the 2023 Cup season.

Listed below are the drivers, based on their car numbers. Driver uniform pictures are not yet available for AJ Allmendinger, Noah Gragson, Erik Jones, Ty Gibbs and Ty Dillon. The rest of the drivers with chartered teams are displayed here.

 

1 – Ross Chastain

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

2 – Austin Cindric

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

3 – Austin Dillon

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

4 – Kevin Harvick

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

5 – Kyle Larson

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

6 – Brad Keselowski

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

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7 – Corey LaJoie

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

8 – Kyle Busch

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

9 – Chase Elliott

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

10 – Aric Almirola

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(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

11 – Denny Hamlin

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

12 – Ryan Blaney

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

14 – Chase Briscoe

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

17 – Chris Buescher

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(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

19 – Martin Truex Jr.

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

20 – Christopher Bell

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

21 – Harrison Burton

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22 – Joey Logano

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23 – Bubba Wallace

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24 – William Byron

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

31 – Justin Haley

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34 – Michael McDowell

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38 – Todd Gilliland

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

41 – Ryan Preece

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(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

45 – Tyler Reddick

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

47 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

48 – Alex Bowman

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(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

51 – Cody Ware

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78 – BJ McLeod

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99 – Daniel Suarez

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Dr. Diandra: Three reasons Kyle Busch will thrive in 2023

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Kyle Busch ended his 15-year relationship with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2022. The 2023 season brings a new owner in Richard Childress, along with a new crew chief and a new manufacturer.

Busch expects to be successful with RCR out of the gate. Three pieces of data support the expectation that Busch will thrive in 2023.

But there’s also one caveat.

Reason one: The Next Gen car didn’t cause Busch’s bad 2022 season

There is no debating that Kyle Busch had a disappointing 2022 season.

  • He posted his highest average finish (16.7) since 2014.
  • He had the most DNFs in a season  (7) since 2005.
  • He finished 13th for the season, tying his lowest finish since 2012.
  • He had more top-five finishes in 2015 when he ran only 25 of the 36 races than he did in 2022.

But Busch’s decline started in 2020.

  • Busch won five races in 2019, more than the next three years combined.
  • His average finish of 13.8 in 2020 was his worst since 2014.
  • Busch didn’t finish a season between 2015-19 ranked lower than fourth, including two championships. He hasn’t ranked higher than eighth in the last three years.

Excluding DNFs — more on why in a moment — Busch’s finishing averages are not that different from 2021. The table below breaks out average finishes by track type.

A table showing Kyle Busch's finishes in 2022 by track type compared to those of 2021Busch was similar or better in all categories except road courses and the three “other” tracks.

“Other” tracks — large tracks that are neither superspeedways nor road courses — are Busch’s second-best track type, with a career win rate of 10.1%. In 2022, he crashed at Michigan and was disqualified at Pocono.

Reason two: Many of Busch’s 2022 problems were not his fault

I excluded DNFs in the above analysis because they reflect on both driver and team. You might blame a driver for causing a crash, but it’s not the driver’s fault if the car gives out.

Busch had two engine failures. Both were in the first round of the playoffs while running at or near the front. He was leading at Darlington and in the top five at Bristol. He also started from the back twice due to engine changes.

A piece of tape wiped out a second-place Pocono finish when NASCAR disqualified Busch and teammate Denny Hamlin. Busch’s car overheated at Fontana.

Toyota teams took longer to come up to speed with the Next Gen car. For example, Christopher Bell had the best average finishing position at road courses (11.5, including one win) among JGR teams. But second-best Martin Truex Jr. had an average finish of only 17.8 and a high finish of seventh.

Busch does have to take responsibility for leading the series in spins; however, the number of spins in 2022 was three times the total in 2021, so he wasn’t alone there.

Reason three: Busch is a good match with RCR

Although Richard Childress Racing has an amazing legacy, none of its drivers has finished a season in the top 10 since Ryan Newman in 2014. Before 2022, they posted just four wins in eight years.

But RCR earned four wins in 2022, anchored by Tyler Reddick’s three checkered flags. Although Busch won only one race, he outperformed Reddick in all but road course and the “other” category of track.

A table comparing Kyle Busch and Tyler Reddick's average finishing positions (excluding DNFs) in 2022 by track typeReddick, who will race for 23XI in 2023, won two road courses and finished top eight in five of the six road courses in 2022. RCR knows how to build and set up road course cars.

Busch has a career win rate of 8.5% at road courses, third highest among track types for him. Look for Busch to return to form in road courses in 2023.

Busch’s perennial weakness is superspeedways. His career average finishing position is 20.0 with a 2.74% win rate. Superspeedway performance is even more important going forward given six superspeedway-type races per season.

RCR’s strength is superspeedways. Busch’s new teammate Austin Dillon has a 5.0% career win rate at superspeedways.

But …

Personality and culture collisions can torpedo driver-crew relationships, especially when the team isn’t winning.

Busch typically is not patient when things aren’t going the way he wants them. Crew chief Randall Burnett’s challenge will be managing the driver as much as the car. Burnett seems to understand this, but beginnings are often filled with friction.

If Busch and his new team can overcome the pitfalls of a new partnership, look for him to have a much better 2023 season.

Fast starts? Can another team duplicate what Hendrick Motorsports did last year?

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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.

MORE: Things to watch for in 2023

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.