For all three of NASCAR’s series, will the champion win the race, or will someone else take the final flag for 2023?
Mark Christel: The respect that Championship 4 drivers have plays a big role in the results of those races. However, Sammy Smith impressed with his first NASCAR Xfinity Series win at Phoenix Raceway earlier this season. Smith is really good at this race track and he I don’t feel it He has all his Phoenix teammates after his showdown with John Hunter Nemechek at Martinsville Speedway. Joe Gibbs Racing is also good at Phoenix, so Smith will win the race. He will be the only one outside of Series 4s to win at Phoenix.
Andrew Stoddard: On championship weekend, the cream tends to rise to the top, and 2023 will be no different. It would take a race win to record a championship in all three series in Phoenix.
Caleb Barnes: I wonder every year: Is this the year we see the NASCAR Cup Series champion not win a race? But every year, the ultimate champion wins. This year’s Cup 4 tournament looks strong as well. In the The Truck Series will be the series that will have a different winner and champion. While the final four have shown speed all year long at a variety of tracks, the truck field overall has been less predictable in terms of who will show speed each week. Additionally, since the Truck Series playoffs arrived in 2016, each individual year has resulted in a different race winner and champion.
Luken Glover: It’s hard to see a non-playoff contender winning the Cup Final, considering that has never happened. This year’s group will be strong as well. William Byron is the most recent winner at Phoenix, Kyle Larson has led the most laps in this race and won there in 2021, Ryan Blaney has four straight top-five finishes in the desert, and Christopher Bell is out to prove something. I expect the same thing with Xfinity racing, especially with drivers like Nemechek, Justin Allgaier and Cole Custer in the hunt. The Truck Series has the best chance for a contender winner outside of the championship, and I’m keeping an eye on Zane Smith and Christian Eckes. But even then, Championship 4 in that series has a good chance of being won as well.
Taylor Kornhoff: None of them won Truck Championship 4 at Phoenix and none of them did well there. Ben Rhodes tops the stats only because he’s been racing longer. But in the Cup and Xfinity Series, the champion wins the race.
nascar we will use A different setting for the Cup season finale in Phoenix than it was in the spring. Is using a different framework a good move?
Glover: It’s the right move, but don’t expect radical changes. The tire was used at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the summer, a strong race that saw 13 lead changes. However, there are a lot of unknowns between New Hampshire and Phoenix, so there are questions that need to be answered. Phoenix has offered fairly modest racing in the next-gen car, so the softer tire is a step in the right direction. However, there are more aerodynamic and mechanical adjustments that need to be made for better racing.
Barnes: Using a different, softer tire is always a good move, but it will act as a band-aid. Last week’s tire at Martinsville certainly improved the race, but tires can wear out a lot. The best way to make tires wear is to give cars more horsepower. The more drivers have to rotate their tires, the more likely they are to wear tires, leading to a variety of tire conservation strategies by drivers and teams.
Stoddard: The short track product in the Cup Series has lost some of its luster with the next-gen car, so a change in tire compound is a good start. More tire wear can mean more passes and more comings and goings in the long run, which equates to better racing for drivers and fans.
Kornhof: Well, the product at Martinsville with the new frame was better than the previous next-gen races there, and it’s starting to look more like the sixth generation out there. Accordingly, there is reason for optimism that this will be a good move.
Crystal: While the goal is to make tire maintenance more important, rolling out a different set of tires in Phoenix isn’t wise. This would be the baseball equivalent of using worn-out baseballs; Teams are preparing to play the World Series with the same baseball they’ve played all season. Teams will likely have prepared for Phoenix with the tire used in the spring event. So, now NASCAR is changing something when there were no tire issues in the spring event. It seems like NASCAR wants to add more drama to the winner-take-all moment in Game 7.
Denny Hamlin Call NASCAR increased the power of race cars to 750 horsepower on short tracks. Do you agree with Hamlin?
Barnes: Not just on short tracks, NASCAR should consider giving teams 750 horsepower or more on all tracks. While more horsepower won’t necessarily fix all aerodynamic deficiencies, more engines dilute the racing momentum we’ve known in recent years. Going back and watching old races, when a driver was nervous in the aero, he had to lift but could still recover well and not lose too much ground, and was even able to drive deeper into the next turn and go back once. Now, when drivers have to lift the car into the wake, they lose a lot of ground, and even some positions. My only concern about adding horsepower — or any other changes to a next-gen car — is that if all the cars were still going at the same speeds and lap times, passing would still be just as difficult on single-track racetracks.
Crystal: definitely! What’s the worst that could happen, short track racing with no on-track passing? We already had that at the 2022 spring race at Martinsville. No one wants that result again, and Denny Hamlin, the knowledgeable team owner and veteran driver, wouldn’t be too excited if he thought it would be a step in the wrong direction. Martinsville was good, but NASCAR could make short track racing more than fans would like with Hamlin’s proposal.
Kornhof: I agree. The next-gen car is very stable, even with downforce and tire changes. Increasing the horsepower that drivers can play with would very likely be the best move.
Glover: Sure, let’s make it 850! Seriously, 750 horsepower is definitely needed, which is what Doug Yates, CEO of Roush-Yates Engines, called for in a Zoom press conference in the spring. It reduces the margin of error, allowing cars to pass more easily. Is it the biggest issue? No, Hamlin also made a valid point when he said the gears needed to be fixed. All of these things add up in some small or large way: frame size and construction, horsepower, landing gear, and ride height. Tweaking them to find the right combination is something NASCAR will have to do.
Who was the biggest breakout driver in NASCAR in 2023?
Kornhof: Nemechek. I don’t see a lot of people talking about it — maybe because he’s driving for Joe Gibbs Racing with the best equipment available — but his season deserves some respect. He has the most wins of any driver in all three top series this year, has led more than 1,000 laps and finished in the top 10 in nearly 80% of races this year. These are legendary stats in any series with any car. The Legacy Motor Club will have a tough time out of the gates with Toyota, but will likely end up very happy with the No. 42 car next year.
Glover: Two drivers stood out to me. One is Sam Mayer. When Mayer won his seventh race in the truck at age 17, expectations and optimism immediately rose. Since joining JR Motorsports full-time, those expectations have not been met. Throughout the first half of the season, Mayer achieved good results, but was still far from the leading drivers. But since his victory at Road America, he has flipped the script and shown everyone that he has the ability to get it done. The other is Blaney. We all knew Blaney could win races, but could he do it consistently, finish the job and overcome mistakes? Since qualifying began, he has answered the call and looked every bit the driver people were excited about when he entered the Cup scene. Now they both have a chance to win the championship.
Crystal: Chris Buescher has won three times, reached the quarterfinals and set career highs in all statistical categories. But what really caught my attention was that it wasn’t flashy. He caused no controversy, said nothing that would make headlines, and went on to win three races on three different types of track. Furthermore, he spent the entire season inside the top 16 in points. He was neither victorious nor destroyed. He ran consistently and got RFK Racing back to winning ways.
Barnes: Over the course of this season, Carson Hocevar has transformed from an irresponsible kid tearing up equipment to a reliable young driver behind the wheel of a Cup car. Yes, Byron’s six wins came as a surprise to many, and Nemechek has proven to be an inevitable contender on a weekly basis in the Xfinity Series. Just this spring, Hocevar won his first race at Texas Motor Speedway, then turned around and tried to destroy Taylor Gray at Martinsville. Over the next few weeks, Hocevar faced a lot of criticism, but a conversation with Dale Earnhardt Jr. over the summer seemed to have a real impact on the driver of the No. 42 truck. After earning his first win with the truck, Hocevar shined in his first win. Cup start in the No. 7. That race, combined with his impressive runs in the Xfinity Series throughout the summer, put Hocevar in the No. 42 Cup car for the back half of the season. While we’ll see what Hocevar can do as a full-time Cup driver next year, he has made a quick leap from truck pretender to potential Cup contender in 2024.
Stoddard: The 2023 season was a coming out party for Boucher. After just two wins and one playoff appearance in his previous seven full-time Cup campaigns, Boucher captured three checkered flags and advanced to the last eight of the playoffs. Buescher’s uptick could be the start of something big for RFK in the coming years. There’s still a long way to go to reach the peak it reached in 2005, but RFK could become the best Ford team moving forward, and Buescher is a big part of that.
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