As the new season inches closer and some of the last major pieces of the upcoming year’s roster start to come together, it gets easier to interpret the way in which the field will stack up for the 2023 NASCAR season.
For a small group of drivers, the end goal is hoisting the championship trophy after Phoenix. While everyone would like to be there, some drivers have more modest goals, like scoring a top-five or finishing top-20 in point standings.
Among the extremely talented crop of drivers in NASCAR’s top-three divisions, which drivers are poised to exceed expectations, and have a breakout season? Joseph Srigley, TobyChristie.com’s Managing Editor, gives his thoughts:
#1 – SHELDON CREED
Sheldon Creed is the first, and probably most obvious, choice when it comes to drivers poised for a breakout season. The 25-year-old will once again return to Richard Childress Racing to drive the No. 2 in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
The Alpine, California-native’s first season was filled with several bumps along the way, coupled with tough luck, and rookie mistakes, which ultimately left him out of the Xfinity Series post-season.
However, in the final 10 races of the year, Creed began to find his footing, picking up a pair of runner-up finishes at Darlington and Martinsville. This trend is nearly identical to his time in the NASCAR Truck Series, where he won a title in his second full-time season.
While it may be difficult to picture, considering Creed’s 14th-place points finish in 2022, expect the Richard Childress Racing pilot to contend for victories consistently in 2023, and potentially even the Xfinity Series title.
#2 – AJ ALLMENDINGER
After four seasons away from competing full-time in the NASCAR Cup Series, AJ Allmendinger has returned to NASCAR’s top division, piloting the No. 16 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing, the final step in a career resurgence for the Los Gatos, California native.
It’s been a pretty popular move amongst fans, also, after Allmendinger continued to deliver stellar results for Kaulig Racing over the last four years, including 13 NASCAR Xfinity Series victories, and the team’s first win in the Cup Series at Indy’s Road Course in 2021.
In fact, over the last two seasons, the 41-year-old has competed in 23 NASCAR Cup Series events for Kaulig Racing, in which time he scored a victory, five top-five, and 11 top-10 finishes. All three of those numbers match or exceed his previous single-season highs.
While Kaulig Racing may not be of championship caliber in the NASCAR Cup Series yet, it’s possible that Allmendinger could bring the organization a berth into the Playoffs – for the first time ever – and potentially even a couple of wins.
HONORABLE MENTION: JUSTIN HALEY
Justin Haley, who returns to Kaulig Racing in 2023, was able to put together a solid debut season for the team last year, with three top-five and four top-10s. The addition of Allmendinger full-time is likely to elevate the entire team, putting Haley in a delectable spot for a breakout year.
#3 – TAYLOR GRAY
Even though Taylor Gray cannot compete in every NASCAR Truck Series event this year – he doesn’t turn 18 until March – the TRICON Garage driver is poised to have a breakout season, amidst a number of major changes.
Gray, who has put his talent level on display in his limited starts in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, will pilot the No. 17 Toyota Tundra TRD Pro for TRICON Garage – formerly known as David Gilliland Racing.
The Denver, North Carolina-native has had a couple of near-wins in the Truck Series, despite his limited experience, including an event at IRP where the No. 17 was in a position to score the victory, before getting turned by John Hunter Nemechek.
Should TRICON Garage be successful in avoiding some first-season manufacturer change struggles, there is no real reason why Taylor Gray couldn’t find himself in victory lane before the season ends at Phoenix Raceway.
#4 – PARKER RETZLAFF
As Parker Retzlaff enters his first full-time season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series – driving for Jordan Anderson Racing – his experience level is pretty low, even compared to other rookie contenders, with only 10 NASCAR National Series starts.
Despite his limited experience, Retzlaff has the benefit of solid performances, having only finished worse than 21st-place on one occasion, while scoring three top-12 finishes with RSS Racing, including a top-10 at Richmond.
In the team’s two-season tenure in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Jordan Anderson Racing has recorded three top-fives and 10 top-10s, with a team-best second-place finish coming at Portland International Raceway this year.
So, what would make 2023 a success for Retzlaff? While it’s probably unrealistic to expect the No. 31 to visit victory lane, a season where the rookie driver can run all of the laps, score a couple of top-10s, and potentially a top-five, would be a stellar effort.
#5 – LAYNE RIGGS
It isn’t clear where, or how much, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series will play host to Layne Riggs in 2023. Despite Halmar Friesen Racing (HFR) publicly saying it would field the No. 62 full-time for Riggs, it comes down to being able to find the funding necessary.
The 20-year-old made three NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series starts for HFR in 2022, scoring a single top-10 result at IRP, as well as two top-five starting spots at Richmond and Phoenix. Early in the race at Phoenix, Riggs led his first NASCAR National Series laps.
Should the North Carolina-native find the funding required to compete full-time for Halmar Friesen Racing in 2023, the bigger tracks will likely be an adjustment but expect Riggs to be in contention for a couple of victories by season’s end. But, as is the norm in modern motorsports, funding is a necessity.