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Several noteworthy changes will take effect in the second year of the NASCAR Cup’s Next Gen era.
A series-first street course, wet tyres on short ovals, a returning seven-time champion, a retirement tour for a Daytona 500 winner and former champ, as well as big driver moves and the arrival of two red-hot rookies should provide all the ingredients for fireworks.
Here’s how NASCAR is getting wild for its 75th season in 2023, ahead of the Daytona 500 that kicks off the championship this weekend.
1. New rules and regulations
NASCAR racing in the wet – on ovals? It seems unthinkable, but so did racing on dirt and street tracks until very recently. Series officials have approved the use of specially designed wet tyres for “limited use” on several of the shorter ovals, including Phoenix, which hosts the series finale. The package will include windshield wipers, rain lights and mud flaps, as per the road courses, but NASCAR has made it clear that it will not race in full-blown rain, more likely in light drizzle, damp or drying conditions.
NASCAR has ruled out a repeat of Ross Chastain’s ‘Hail Melon’ Martinsville wall-ride move, when he charged the barrier at full speed to gain places on the final corner of last year’s race. In future, any “unsafe manoeuvre” will be penalised by a time or lost-lap sanction, to prevent it from being attempted again.
Chastain’s now-famous move to secure qualification to the Cup final four at Martinsville won’t be permitted again
Photo by: Lesley Ann Miller / Motorsport Images
“It just felt like that we needed to make a move,” says senior vice-president of competition Elton Sawyer. “We needed to step in, and we will officiate that differently as we move into the 2023 season.”
Another significant issue that was raised last year was the rear-impact crashes that led to concussions for Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman, which has led NASCAR to revise the rear-end ‘clips’ and bumper structure of the cars. This has been designed to allow for more “crushability” in rearwards impacts, to avoid the force being transmitted directly to the driver.
Revised mufflers for the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Chicago Street Race have been adopted, while the sport’s three manufacturers – Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota – have been allowed to redesign their cooling vents on the hood, as well as implement new nose designs.
Road courses will no longer feature stage breaks, to add an extra element to race strategies, although points will continue to be awarded mid-race. Charles Bradley
2. Chicago Street Course
Continuing with its trend of new venues, NASCAR this season will conduct the first street-course race in its 75-year history. On 2 July, the Cup Series will run on a 2.2-mile, 12-turn course in downtown Chicago, anchored around the area of Grant Park and the iconic Buckingham Fountain. The layout mirrors the one developed by iRacing in 2021.
The street-course race, combined with the pre-season Busch Light Clash held on a custom-built quarter-mile oval inside the LA Coliseum for the second consecutive season, opens the door to potential new venues for future Cup Series schedules.
NASCAR has also championed efforts to improve inclusion and diversity within the sport in recent years, and the addition of a street course in downtown Chicago is seen as a chance to embrace those ideals while also exposing its product to a new audience. Julie Giese, the president of the Chicago Street Course, says the race is being marketed more as an ‘event’, which NASCAR hopes will help expand its reach.
NASCAR will go street racing in downtown Chicago in 2023
Photo by: NASCAR Media
“This is a two-day racing and music festival,” she says. “We’re having full concerts, full sets, down in the footprint of where Lollapalooza hosts its main concerts. It’s racing but it’s also so much more.”
NASCAR has added several road courses to its Cup series schedule in recent years – it only ran on two annually until the 2020 season. This year, outside of Chicago, the Cup Series will compete on five road courses.
The closest the Cup series has ever come to this was the Daytona Beach and Road Course used in the sport’s infancy, which used the A1A highway towards Ponce Inlet before circling back along the beach.
“To me this is the continued evolution of where we want to take the race experience for our fans,” Giese says. “Ultimately, it’s a race weekend but with a lot of other things to allow people to experience it how they want.” Jim Utter
3. Johnson is back! But Harvick is going
Two huge NASCAR Cup stars with eight Cup titles between them have provided major headlines already this year for very different reasons: Jimmie Johnson is returning to NASCAR competition, just as Kevin Harvick prepares to make his exit.
Johnson will contest a part-time campaign after joining the team ownership of Legacy Motor Club, the new name for the Petty GMS Motorsport operation. His first outing is in this weekend’s Daytona 500 in the #84 Chevrolet Camaro, which will be his 20th appearance in NASCAR’s biggest race that he’s won twice, alongside the team’s full-time drivers Erik Jones and Noah Gragson.
The seven-time champion hasn’t raced in NASCAR since the 2020 season finale at Phoenix. Since then he’s had a two-year IndyCar campaign with Chip Ganassi Racing, as well as selected IMSA events for Cadillac. Although he’s not revealed the full scope of his programme, he will contest the inaugural Chicago Street Course event in July.
Johnson is now a part-owner of the renamed Legacy Motor Club team formerly known as Petty GMS
Photo by: NASCAR Media
As Johnson rejoins the NASCAR fray, Harvick makes his full-time exit at the end of 2023. At the age of 47, he’s going to move into the TV commentary booth with FOX Sports next year, while mentoring his son Keelan’s racing career as well as his athlete management business interests.
He will end his career with over 800 starts, and with 60 Cup victories under his belt Harvick is in the top-10 all-time winners list. Along with his Cup success in 2014, he also has two second-tier Xfinity titles to his name. His ‘4EVER’ tour moves on to this weekend’s Daytona 500, which he won in 2007.
“It was as tough of a decision as I’ve ever had to make,” he says. “I had been contemplating it for the last five years probably. All signs just professionally pointed to 2023 and doing it the right way.” CB
4. NASCAR goes to Le Mans
NASCAR will make its return to the Le Mans 24 Hours this season after a nearly 50-year absence. In June, a modified version of the Cup Series’ Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 race car will compete in the famous enduro as the Garage 56 entry, which the Automobile Club de l’Ouest sets aside each year for the “technology of tomorrow and beyond” of innovative machinery.
The project was announced last March as an homage to NASCAR founder Bill France Sr, who first took NASCAR to the French classic in 1976, sending a Dodge Charger and Ford Torino overseas. The Chevrolet has been prepared in a collaboration between NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, IMSA and Goodyear.
Last month at the Daytona 24 Hours, NASCAR unveiled the driving line-up for its Garage 56 entry: seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and 2009 Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button. The three drivers took part in a two-day test last month on Daytona’s Road Course.
Project manager Chad Knaus says: “Our car is big, so we will be slower than the GT cars [in corners] for sure. How much? Don’t know yet. All the GT cars are usually maxed out on downforce, so their mid-corner speeds are pretty high, but at Le Mans they trim out a bit, so I expect they’ll get a bit closer to where we are. None of us will know until we get there.”
Garage 56 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
Photo by: Hendrick Motorsports
Johnson describes NASCAR’s entry to Le Mans as “a brilliant idea”.
“Kudos to [NASCAR CEO] Jim France for having this vision and the effort he’s put in to bringing this to life over the last few years,” he says. “I think the car is going to sound amazing, perform very well and truly be a memorable component to the centennial year for Le Mans and NASCAR’s 75th anniversary as well.” JU
5. It’s a driver merry-go-round
Among the raft of driver/team moves following the 2022 season, none is more notable than Kyle Busch’s switch to Richard Childress Racing after 15 years at Joe Gibbs Racing. Two-time Cup champion Busch, already considered one of the best drivers of his time, faces a new challenge as he joins an organisation that hasn’t won a Cup title in nearly three decades.
It will be a true test of Busch’s ability and his patience as he becomes acclimatised to RCR. But should the growing pains prove manageable, Busch is absolutely capable of returning RCR to its former glory as champions of the sport – and it started well with a podium finish at the LA Coliseum.
The man he has replaced is Tyler Reddick, a young gun who earned three victories last year, which is the most an RCR driver has managed in a single season since 2013. Reddick joins Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin’s 23XI, a fairly new organisation still trying to assert itself at the front of the pack – but it’s shown flashes of promise with Bubba Wallace.
Reddick’s transition should be less severe than Busch’s, and he could very well find Victory Lane quicker too. Either way, both of these drivers could be playoff-bound in 2023, and will be frequent threats for race wins.
Ty Dillon is likely facing a critical year as he moves to yet another different team, Spire Motorsports, with hopes of finally winning a Cup race after over 200 starts. And then there’s Ryan Preece, a driver who has fought hard for the chance he’s finally getting at Stewart-Haas Racing. Only time will tell whether he rises to the occasion or sinks, but his past record indicates that he may be just the person SHR needs behind the wheel of that #41 machine. Nick DeGroot
6. Two stars in rookie class
Xfinity champion Gibbs steps up with the family Joe Gibbs Racing team, replacing Childress-bound Kyle Busch
Photo by: Ben Earp / NKP / Motorsport Images
The NASCAR Cup Series’ 2023 rookie class is a small one, but it has the potential to produce some surprise results.
Going toe to toe for rookie honours will be reigning Xfinity Series champion Ty Gibbs, competing for Joe Gibbs Racing in the #54 Toyota, and Noah Gragson, an eight-time winner in Xfinity in 2022, driving the #42 Chevrolet for the rebranded Legacy Motor Club. Both drivers have showcased plenty of talent in NASCAR competition and are matched with organisations where they should be able to compete for wins.
They also have some experience in the Cup Series: Gibbs, 20, ran 15 races last season as a substitute driver for the injured Kurt Busch at 23XI Racing. His best finish was 10th at Michigan. Gragson, 24, competed in 18 races with three different teams – Beard Motorsports, Kaulig Racing and as a substitute for Alex Bowman at Hendrick Motorsports. His best finish was fifth at Daytona last August.
“Definitely a big jump for sure and [it’s all about] just getting more time in this car that’s so different,” says Gibbs. “And the more times I was in it, I feel like I was learning and getting more used to how it handles and how it is. I think all the time was progression and just keep moving forward.”
Gragson believes there’s a lot for him to learn on the track and off from Legacy MC owners Jimmie Johnson and Richard Petty, both seven-time Cup champions.
“They’re great mentors and leaders – there’s a lot of great qualities in those two guys,” says Gragson. “They’re obviously champions of the sport, but I think there’s more to the day-to-day stuff, learning how to become the best version of myself and the best driver that I can be.” JU
Gragson makes his full-time Cup bow with Legacy Motor Club
Photo by: Ben Earp / NKP / Motorsport Images