Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Southern 500 at Darlington Marks First Battle in Ultra-Competitive Cup Series Championship Fight

The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs are here, starting with Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Things are wide open, with a number of fantastic storylines heading into the final 10 races of the season. Photo Credit: Tyson Gifford, Racing America

After an intense and grueling seven-month off-season, the NASCAR Cup Series has finally made it to the Playoffs – a 10-race high-stakes contest that concludes with a winner-takes-all showdown at Phoenix Raceway in November.

But, as the series approaches its final batch of races for the season, there hasn’t been a single driver to emerge as a clear-cut championship favorite for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship.

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Sure, the oddsmakers have their title favorites – which venture along the lines of William Byron, Denny Hamlin, and regular-season champion Martin Truex, Jr. Then, there are those considered to be sentimental favorites, like underdogs Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Michael McDowell, and Bubba Wallace.

For those trying to make sense of an ultra-competitive playoff field, matters are made even worse when you consider how tight the field is on a weekly basis – and that’s not limited to the playoff-eligible drivers, either.

“Going to Darlington, you don’t know who is going to show up and be the fastest,” said Ross Chastain during NASCAR Playoff Media Day. “You don’t know who is going to be fifth-quick and who is going to be 25th-quick. Any of us 16 could easily be either of those on the practice sheet.”

If you’re skeptical about that claim… don’t be. In Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series practice from Darlington, the entire 36-driver field posted laps within one second of the quickest time, with post-season drivers scattered throughout the top 25.

So, what does that mean? For the drivers who have been strong all season, one wrong adjustment could cost you positions that could ultimately be the difference between advancement and elimination.

But, for the drivers widely considered as “underdogs,” that closeness brings with it an opportunity, and at least reasonable doubt to drop that title, which suggests that certain drivers and teams don’t have a significant chance at winning the title.

Stenhouse, McDowell Over the Title of ‘Underdog’

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael McDowell have been labeled as the ‘underdogs’ in their battle to capture the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series title, which both drivers think is a mistake, considering their ability to move through the rounds of the playoffs. Photo Credit: Tyson Gifford, Racing America

According to oddsmakers, both Michael McDowell and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. are the two biggest longshots when it comes to the NASCAR Cup Series championship. Though, realistically, that isn’t the goal of those two smaller teams.

For Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and JTG Daugherty Racing – who locked into the playoffs with a victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 – the 2023 season has been one of the most consistent in each of their tenures at NASCAR’s top level.

While the single-car organization hasn’t been loud or over the top – since their victory at Daytona, of course – the consistent nature of the No. 47 Chevrolet has drawn attention from fellow playoff drivers, including Kyle Larson, who cited the team as one that could fly under the radar.

“I look at Ricky [Stenhouse] because he has probably had his best season by far to date,” said Kyle Larson. “He has been super consistent and has had a lot of speed at times, and those races that have had speed, he’s finished up there too. You can’t overlook those guys at all because they are going to be consistent, and they are going to do a good job.”

Stenhouse, making his first post-season appearance since 2017, agrees with Larson’s assessment, saying Thursday: “I feel like our team and I have a lot more confidence than probably a lot of people have in us, which is fine. I was at the shop yesterday and my guys were saying ‘So-and-so says we’re going to be out’, and I’m like, ‘Let’s go prove them wrong’.”

“I’m not worried about proving people wrong, but I want to make sure I prove that to our guys and our supporters,” Stenhouse continued. “There are plenty of people who think we’re going to make the next round. It’s about proving those people right. I told them ‘Don’t worry about who didn’t pick us, let’s just do our job, and let’s go perform the way we know we can perform’. If we do that, I feel like we can make it out of the first round of the Playoffs.”

Michael McDowell sits in a very similar position but says that even though people have predicted he and Front Row Motorsports would be first-round exits, he believes his No. 34 Ford Mustang has what it takes to advance beyond the Round of 16.

“I think we are going to be able to advance and move on,” said McDowell. “Why I have that confidence, I have my own reasons, based on speed and performance, and I know the nuances of did we miss it this week or hit it this week.”

Ultimately, McDowell, a veteran of the NASCAR Cup Series, feels like it will come down to continuing along the path of consistency that he and Travis Peterson have paved this season, adding: “I just feel like we gotta do what we’ve been doing and we’ll be okay, I don’t think we have to crush it.”

A Championship Battle Between Hendrick and Gibbs?

Martin Truex Jr. is one of three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers considered some of the favorites to win the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series title. However, they’ll all have to fight against William Byron, with Hendrick Motorsports. Photo Credit: Tyson Gifford, Racing America

William Byron, Denny Hamlin, and Martin Truex Jr. have emerged as the three frontrunners for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship, with all three drivers coming from powerhouse teams Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.

Hendrick, which also fields an entry for playoff-eligible driver Kyle Larson, only had two of its four full-time drivers qualify for the post-season, after both Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott failed to win after being sidelined due to injuries.

Meanwhile, Joe Gibbs Racing has placed three-quarters of its full-time roster into the post-season, with the exception of rookie Ty Gibbs. Christopher Bell, who finished third in standings last year, is the third entry in the post-season for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Bell, despite finishing fourth place in regular-season standings, has flown massively under the radar, in comparison to his teammates Hamlin and Truex. But, could that be an advantage for the Norman, Oklahoma native?

“I hope so, because I don’t feel like I’m rated very highly,” Bell said when asked if he was underrated coming into the post-season. “That’s fine. It doesn’t really matter to me.”

One thing that Bell has going for him in the Playoffs, is the decision made by Joe Gibbs Racing to move the No. 54 pit crew, which has been the fastest all season, onto the No. 20 Toyota Camry TRD for the final 10 races.

As for Hamlin and Truex, Jr., who swept the top two spots in the regular-season championship, both drivers are under the impression that their toughest competition could come from their teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I think so. I think Martin [Truex, Jr.] is certainly — he’s a talented dude,” Hamlin said. “He can sometimes put in about a quarter of the work I do and still outrun me. He’s just a gifted race car driver and he’s always tough. That’s why he’s a champion.”

While Truex is confident in his Joe Gibbs Racing team, the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion believes it still may be too early to know for sure if his only competition will come in the form of Bell and Hamlin.

“A lot can happen in the Playoffs, which we have seen in the past,” said Truex. “We just have to worry about ourselves and be consistent and try to execute and we will be fine. The other guys – the 11 and 20 are fast. It is always tough to race with your teammates, because you all have the same thing and you share everything during the week, so how to you find that extra little bit.”

William Byron is the only Chevrolet-backed driver at the forefront of the conversation, as far as the championship goes, but lacks that real-world experience of a previous berth into the final round of the Playoffs.

The 25-year-old driver, who has been heavily named the so-called favorite for the championship, isn’t ready to think about the opportunity that lies in front of him though, but is more concerned with getting the No. 24 through the subsequent rounds.

“Yeah, I don’t want to think about that until we get to that point,” said Byron. “I feel like we have to work our way through the rounds and do the best job we can at all the opening tracks. It’s nice to have good bonus points and it’s nice to have that in our back pocket. But I’ve seen how the playoffs have played out over the last few years, and you can’t get ahead of yourself. We have to do a good job in each round and take it one race at a time.”

However, Byron explains that the battle isn’t necessarily going to be restricted to himself Hamlin and Truex, and that several different drivers – from many different organizations – could play spoiler on what many believe is a sure thing between the top-three drivers.

“It’s a Gibbs-Hendrick kind of battle,” said Byron. “RFK is getting in there. Penske always shows up in the playoffs. [Harvick] could show up strong, they’re really consistent. There’s not really a weak line in the playoffs that I look at. Front Row has a good road course package and a good superspeedway package. It’s anybody’s game, right now.”

RFK Racing: Potential Title Darkhorses?

With three victories in the last five weeks, Chris Buescher and RFK Racing have the momentum to be contenders for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship, but do they have the all around speed to beat Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing? Photo Credit: Tyson Gifford, Racing America

It’s no secret that RFK Racing has continued to find speed in recent weeks, scoring three victories at three different track types – Richmond, Michigan, and Talladega – all with Chris Buescher and the No. 17 Ford Mustang.

That streak of fantastic runs catapulted the Prosper, Texas native from barely being into the post-season based on his points position, to being the fourth-place seed heading into the 10-race stretch, with more than 20 Playoff Points.

Buescher, who has scored more victories in the last six weeks than he had in his previous seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series combined, has now penetrated the bubble of drivers considered to be the favorites for the title.

The question when it comes to Buescher, and even Keselowski for that matter, is whether or not the surge from RFK Racing in recent weeks is sustainable throughout the final 10 weeks of the season.

“Not a whole lot different. It’s very similar to last year, honestly, is trying to figure out how to make these as good as possible,” said Buescher about his approach to the post-season. “Try not to let what happened last year – and part in our doing is not let non-playoff drivers rack up wins and make it successful for everybody in the playoffs.”

Last year, Buescher and Keselowski both showed major strength in the series’ annual trip to Bristol Motor Speedway, with the No. 17 Ford Mustang scoring the victory, which has ultimately kickstarted the team’s revival into being a consistent top-10 threat.

“Like I said, we’ve been doing good things. We’ve been very consistent all year long,” Buescher continued. “We’ve been very close to wins a lot throughout the beginning of the season and have been able to capitalize and execute really well when we’ve had very good opportunities ahead of us as of late, but I think we’re gonna just stick with that and see what we can do knowing those things and take both of our cars and keep moving forward.”

One thing about RFK Racing that could be a benefit – or a detriment – to the organization in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, is that they usually tend to perform close to each other on track, which means if they hit the setup, they likely both will, and vice versa.

Sitting in a stellar spot, with some great momentum, if Buescher and/or Keselowski can move through a couple of rounds, it only takes one good run at Phoenix Raceway to hoist the championship trophy a the end of the year.

2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Standings – Entering Darlington:

Joseph Srigley
Joseph Srigley
University of Windsor | Business Administration - Supply Chain & Data Analytics Editor at

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