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It should come as no surprise that winning is the name of the game in any racing series, but that’s particularly true in NASCAR where all race winners are near locks to qualify for the 16-driver playoff field.
If there are fewer than 16 unique race winners, the driver with the highest points total that hasn’t won a race qualifies, so top-five and top-10 finishes are also of vital importance. In 2022 the field was very competitive, as there were a record-tying 19 different race winners -- including five first-time race winners.
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Early on in 2023, we haven’t seen that same type of parity. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (JTG Daugherty Racing) won the Daytona 500 to kick off the points races, also marking his eighth career win. Kyle Busch (Richard Childress Racing) leads all active Cup Drivers with 61 wins and added to that total in the second race of the season by taking the checkered flag at the Pala Casino 400. Both drivers should be locked into a playoff spot as a result of their victories.
NASCAR HITS HENDRICK HARD
After that duo, the season had been dominated by a trio of Hendrick Motorsport drivers -- until NASCAR leveled the team a hefty penalty after its hood louvers (aka air vents) were confiscated after practice in Phoenix on Friday. The allegation isn’t necessarily that the part was giving Hendrick cars an unfair advantage, but instead it’s a violation of NASCAR rules to alter parts in any way after the sport went to a single source for its machinery with the idea of placing teams on a more level playing field.
NASCAR penalized each of Hendrick Motorsports’ four Cup Series teams, along with the No. 31 team of Kaulig Racing, with L2-level penalties. Each crew chief was fined $100,000 and suspended for four races, and each team was further penalized with the loss of 100 team and driver points and 10 playoff points (with the exception of the No. 9, which did not lose driver points because it had a substitute driver who earns Xfinity Series points).
Prior to the penalty, Alex Bowman and the 48 car currently was atop the points standings before the NASCAR penalty. He has finished top-10 in all four races and the top-five twice, but he’s led only 31 total laps and has zero stage victories. But he’s run well enough early on to suggest he’ll collect a race win at some point this season.
Next up among Hendrick drivers is William Byron, who had been fourth overall prior to the penalty. He arguably has been the most dominant Cup driver early in the season. Not won back-to-back races in Las Vegas and Phoenix and is second in the field with 240 laps led.
Another Hendrick driver, Kyle Larson, has also yet to win a race but ran into some tough luck at Las Vegas when Byron passed him in an overtime finish to conclude the race. It’s only a matter of time until Larson takes the checkered flag as he has paced all drivers in laps led with 270.
DOOR OPENS FOR TRACKHOUSE
In addition to the NASCAR penalty, Chase Elliott – the fourth driver of the team’s star-studded lineup -- suffered a broken leg while snowboarding roughly one week ago. He is set to be sidelined indefinitely and will likely have a relatively limited number of races to try to win in order to qualify for the playoff field. Josh Berry has replaced him in the nine car, and he delivered a solid 10th place finish in Phoenix after struggling in his first race in a next gen car in Las Vegas the weekend prior.
The NASCAR penalty could open the door to some of Hendrick’s top competitors. Kevin Harvick and Ross Chastain of Stewart-Haas and Trackhouse Racing, respectively, stand to benefit. Harvick is wrapping up his Hall of Fame career with one final season, though he’s proven plenty capable of still putting together excellent performances in his 23rd year.
He led for 36 laps in Phoenix and lost out on a strategy call late in the race when he opted for four fresh tires as opposed to only two on a caution flag with 10 laps to go. Nevertheless, Harvick managed his second top-five finish of the season and is only three points off pace of Alex Bowman to sit atop the driver standings.
Finally, Chastain is currently in third in the driver standings and has led 98 laps this season – the third-highest mark among drivers – which has helped him boast three stage wins without taking down an overall race.
CAN KESELOWSKI BOUNCE BACK?
Rounding out the top 10 is a trio of Joe Gibbs drivers in Christopher Bell, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. Bell’s early-season resume stacks up with the best of the field, as he’s tallied two top-five finishes and three top-10 finishes. Hamlin has actually had a disappointing start to the season, as he’s moved down the field from an average start of 11.25 to average finish of 14.25 and has been inside the top-10 only once. After winning the Busch Light Clash at Coliseum, Truex has had a fairly unremarkable start to the season as well.
One driver who could be in for a bounceback performance is Brad Keselowski. He hasn’t won a race since the 2021 season and had a disastrous 2022 campaign after switching from Penske to Roush. He’s shown some hints of increased form in 2023, already leading 50 laps while also boasting both a top-10 finish and a stage win.
Photo Credit: IMAGO / ZUMA wire