The NASCAR season has arrived. The real season. After the stock car equivalent to a department-store soft opening at the LA Coliseum on Sunday night, the next time that we see the stars and cars of the Cup Series hit the racetrack, it will be for real. When the battle for starting positions in the Daytona 500 begins this weekend, so shall the longest calendar march in professional sports, a paddock packed with championship hopefuls, seeking to stand atop the big stage at Phoenix in mid-November.
Once NASCAR's 75th season indeed does drop the green flag, prepare yourself to be inundated with historic facts and figures to commemorate the milestone. We should also brace ourselves for what we will not see coming around the next turn, the surprise storylines that inevitably pop up like an ill-timed debris caution. See: last fall and the Next Gen safety issues (more on that coming up).
Before that happens and before the history lessons begin, though, let's take a beat to ponder what we need to keep our eyes on as the flagman prepares to drop the green on the 2023 season.
The Next Gen car is still a work in progress
Yes, yes, I know, all race cars are a work in progress, but the Next Gen's much-ballyhooed rollout to start 2022 was supposed to be the launch of a baseline model that met major change and alterations with the same staunch powers of resistance with which it met retaining walls. However, by the time the postseason had arrived, the new car's lack of crash crushability was sidelining drivers with concussions and the images of Next Gens engulfed in smoke and flames were beginning to cloud our collective view of what was undoubtedly one of the most incredibly competitive seasons seen over NASCAR's first 74 years.
Flames in the No. 54 car. Ty Gibbs is out safely. pic.twitter.com/rSxQfta1PV— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) February 5, 2023
After drivers started saying publicly that they had tried to warn the sanctioning body earlier in the year but it wouldn't listen, NASCAR president Steve Phelps first confessed shock that the lines of communication between himself and the racers had become so disconnected, and he admitted that, yes, the new car had to be overhauled in the name of safety. The 2023 model features altered rear clips and bumpers, removing some metal bars and perforating others with holes so they will collapse and absorb energy away from the cockpit. The cooling vents in the hood of each car have also been enlarged.
"We started having regular meetings during the fall, like every week, and those have pretty much continued ever since, and I am thankful for that," driver Chase Elliott said to ESPN two weeks ago. "But it's the broken record of auto racing, right? We have to let stuff get bad before we fix it. Alex [Bowman] had to miss races. Kurt Busch had to retire. Then we start talking about changing the car? It's up to all of us to change that. I think we are. I hope we are. But we'll see."
Unfortunately, the first practice day of the season was marred by a familiar sight, a fire that erupted inside the framework of a car, in this case the Toyota of Ty Gibbs. But that might have something to do with a new rule being tried out ...
You need to update your rulebook
NASCAR kicked off February by sending out a stack of amended pages to its rulebook for 2023. The headliner was the elimination of the "Hail Melon," aka the legendary wall-riding move made by Ross Chastain at last season's penultimate event at Martinsville Speedway. That strategy landed him in the Championship Four, but it also landed him in hot water with his colleagues, who complained that the move was unsafe and expressed fears that it would spawn copycat maneuvers. Now that won't happen because NASCAR has made it illegal, judged at the discretion of Race Control. "Altering the race" in a similar fashion will now result in a time penalty.
The reality is that it will be the other, less splashy rule changes that are most likely to have a greater and certainly much more frequent impact. Those include the elimination of stage cautions at the six road course events (they take too long on those longer tracks) and awarding stage points at predetermined laps but not slowing the race. Also, steeper penalties for loose tires on pit road, which will now result in a pass-through penalty under green, being sent to the end of the back of the field under yellow, and a two-lap penalty with a two-crew-member two-race suspension if the tire is lost on the racetrack. And rain tires will now be in play at short tracks (we'll see if they actually get used ... signed, a guy who has watched them unloaded at road courses for 25 years and used sparingly at best).
When the NASCAR playoffs arrive, now there is no longer a so-called "top-30 rule" that required any race winner to also be ranked 30th or higher in the championship standings to qualify for the postseason field of 16. However, drivers will still be required to race a full-time schedule (in other words, a road course ringer can't win their only start of the season and run for the championship) or have an approved waiver from NASCAR (aka the injury rule).
Also, NASCAR used a new muffler at the LA Coliseum to quiet the cars a little. It plans on doing the same this summer in Chicago. The idea is to give fans a better chance to chat during races and a worse chance for people in big cities to complain about the noise. But as the post-fire investigation is beginning on the Gibbs incident, many are concerned the new muffler, located right under the most intense fire damage, might have been the culprit.
You also need to update your scorecard
What was supposed to be a relatively quiet Silly Season ended up with more action than a Marvel movie, with no fewer than eight major driver changes.
Both Busch brothers are in the mix, as Kyle Busch, who once angered Richard Childress so much that the team owner told someone to "hold my watch" as he intended to punch him out, will now drive for RCR in the No. 8 Chevy. "Rowdy" has been replaced by Ty, the aforementioned Gibbs, the No. 18 changing to 54. Meanwhile, Kurt has retired, replaced by Tyler Reddick at Team 23XI.
Another Ty, Childress's grandson Ty Dillon, leaves RCR affiliate Petty GMS, which isn't Petty GMS anymore, to drive the No. 77 of Spire Motorsports. AJ Allmendinger takes over the full-time gig in the No. 16 at Kaulig Racing, Josh Bilicki will drive part time for Live Fast Motorsports in the No. 78, and Stewart-Haas drew some odd looks in reaction to its decision to replace Cole Custer with Ryan Preece in the No. 41, although Preece's strong performance at the LA Coliseum likely made those doubters lighten up a bit.
As for that Petty GMS name change, it's actually a lot more than that. The team is now co-owned by Jimmie Johnson. Yes, that Jimmie Johnson, and has been renamed Legacy MC, as in Motor Club. Noah Gragson will now drive the No. 42, while Erik Jones remains in the legendary 43, which won't be Petty Blue and orange but will still be those famous stylized digits. Johnson is unretiring, as the seven-time Cup champ had looked into running the No. 44 but will instead utilize 84, which is his old number (48) flipped and also the career wins number he hopes to reach in the Daytona 500 two weekends from now.
The generational shift is officially underway
Kurt Busch has retired, Johnson is still mostly retired and Kevin Harvick has already announced that 2023 will be his last season behind the wheel of Cup car before he moves to the TV booth. All three are future NASCAR Hall of Famers. So are Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, who are still racing but also making the transition into team ownership. Martin Truex Jr., winner of Sunday's Clash, is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through this season.
The average age of this year's Cup Series grid is threatening to dip below 30 for the first time in the modern era. In the 1990s, Jeff Gordon was the only driver keeping that number below 40. When Gordon's generation retired, old-school NASCAR fans said, "Who are these new guys?!" Now they are saying the same about those guys retiring. Because as Nietzsche said, time is a flat circle. Or as Burton Smith said, it's a roval.
"I'm 32 and now I look around and think, 'Wait, am I one of the old guys now?" said defending Cup champ Joey Logano. He made his first start in 2008 at the age of 18. "I think race fans should really pay close attention this season. It's a chance to see a lot of guys who will be in the Hall of Fame before it's too late."
North Wilkesboro is back on the schedule
Speaking of Burton Smith, when he purchased the North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1996, he took the two race dates from the track that was on NASCAR's original Strictly Stock schedule in 1949, shipped them off to a pair of his new facilities and immediately shuttered North Wilkesboro. Years later, when asked for an update on the status of the beloved 0.625-mile lopsided oval, he replied, "I believe it's returning to the earth."
Now, against all racing odds, North Wilkesboro is back, thanks in large part to the efforts of Smith's son Marcus. Now the place that was covered in rust and weeds just a few years ago will host the NASCAR All-Star Race on May 21. There are logistical mountains to scale, from local roads that didn't handle race traffic well in '96 to plumbing and electrical work that is being completely replaced. No matter what works or doesn't this May, though, it will be a day that no one thought would happen.
There are already July Fourth fireworks over the new Chicago Street Course
Take the last sentence from the previous paragraph -- "No matter what works or doesn't ... it will be a day that no one thought would happen" -- and copy/paste that into this spot in all caps. A NASCAR street course race? Like, really in the streets, not a city park or on an airport tarmac, but on Lake Shore Drive, Michigan Avenue and along the north side of Soldier Field? Stock cars loose on the streets is an idea that has been kicked around forever, but always in a general, "You really think this would work?" sense, usually followed immediately by, "Well, they'll never try that anyway."
Well, now they are, despite concerns expressed by the drivers (Elliott: "It needs to be an event. I think as long as it's that, and it's done well, it will be a success whether the drivers like the track or not") and Chicagoans (the Chicago Art Institute has questions about 40 race cars rumbling past its building and its valuable contents). For now, it's all been pretty, er, quiet ... but expect the noise levels to increase again as the July 1-2 event approaches. But also give NASCAR credit for its willingness to give street racing a shot.