Lemasters Jr, Ron

LEMASTERS: Who Is The Cup Series Favorite?

CONCORD, N.C. — The long winter slumber has been shattered by the roar of racing engines and that’s always a good way to get the blood pumping and the juices flowing as the slow 10-month boil picks up momentum.

The new NASCAR Cup Series season has an advantage over last year’s in that the Next Gen cars are a year older, the teams have had a full season to dial them in and the strategy and tactics have been honed to a finer point.

The new car did well for itself during the season-opening Clash inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, both in showing speed and taking a beating. Far fewer teething pains and much more root-hog-or-fall was the result.

So, who are the favorites this season?

February 5, 2023:   

at the LA  Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, CA. (HHP/Harold Hinson)
Kyle Busch sits inside his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. (HHP/Harold Hinson photo)

The four-car Hendrick Motorsports stable looks primed as always, with Chase Elliott, William Byron, Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson up. Losing out in the finale last season stung and the four-car team will be out to get some of their own back.

Prime on that list will be Joey Logano, who won the title with a thrilling race in the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway. He, Ryan Blaney and Austin Cindric will be back for Team Penske.

Joe Gibbs Racing has a very different look with no Kyle Busch and no No. 18 Toyota. That’s the biggest news of the offseason, and Busch is now at RCR with Austin Dillon, while Tyler Reddick left RCR for 23XI Racing.

The fact that Busch won’t be in the Gibbs camp this season is quite … unsettling. It was always assumed the Las Vegas native would wind up his career there, but that’s not how it will happen. Sure, his longtime sponsor Mars left, and there was a need to get Ty Gibbs into a car for 2023 after he won the Xfinity Series title, but it never seemed like there would be a split.

There was, and it ends up with Busch going to RCR. Reddick and Dillon had been fast at particular tracks and both made the playoffs, but Busch to RCR is a game-changer. The two-time series champion is also a boon to the Chevrolet camp, as he has been with Toyota since 2008.

That’s a ton of experience gone from Gibbs and onto RCR, which already has a ton of experience as a six-time Cup Series team champion.

It’s also going to hurt Toyota at the grassroots level, as Kyle Busch Motorsports switched all its equipment to Chevrolet Silverados in the Craftsman Truck Series, and Busch will now campaign five NASCAR Xfinity Series events for Kaulig Racing, another Chevrolet team.

Toyota is not without star power, counting Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Bubba Wallace, Christopher Bell and others. Its development programs are brimming with candidates to be the Next Big Thing.

But losing Busch has to hurt.

Hendrick, RCR and Kaulig headline the Chevy camp, while JGR and 23XI are the leaders in the Toyota hierarchy. The Ford contingent includes Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing, RFK Racing, Wood Brothers Racing and Front Row Motorsports.

It will be interesting to see how they all stack up after the deck is reshuffled a few weeks into the season.

Change at the top of the driver lineups is always a big thing, and Kevin Harvick’s retirement announcement will mean more of it in 2024. Harvick will call it a career at the end of the season, leaving a hole at SHR and in the sport.

You’re seeing a talent drain not felt since the retirements of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. NASCAR survived those, but this one seems to be just starting.

Johnson, after a couple of years in IndyCar, bought into the Richard Petty/Maury Gallagher team at Petty GMS, which is now known as Legacy Motor Club. That’s a new wrinkle too, combining two of the three seven-time NASCAR champions in Petty and Johnson.

Every year, there are new storylines, new wrinkles and new hope. We’ll see how this one plays out.


This story appeared in the March 8, 2023 edition of the SPEED SPORT Insider.

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