Cup Series cometh: NASCAR returns at Daytona 500

The 2023 season begins with new and old drivers, others in different rides and a return to one of racing’s classic N.C. tracks

The NASCAR Cup Series returns for the 2023 season with the the crown jewel of stock car racing, the Daytona 500, on Sunday. (Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP Photo)

The green flag waves on the 2023 Cup Series season Sunday with stock car racing’s crown jewel, the Daytona 500. Joey Logano will begin defense of his 2022 championship as one of only two active drivers with multiple titles. The other, Kyle Busch, will drive for the first time for his new team.

He’s not the only new face in a new place. Joe Gibbs Racing has replaced Busch with the latest brash rookie to come through the ranks, while 23XI Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing brought in new drivers. There’s even the start of a farewell tour for a former Cup champion who will retire following the season.

The 75th season of NASCAR racing should have plenty of intrigue, especially since one of its legendary North Carolina tracks makes its return.

Know your contenders

Penske Racing’s Logano enters the season as the de facto favorite after winning the second championship of his career. He has 31 career victories, including at least one in each of the last 11 seasons, and four last year. He also won the 2015 Daytona 500.

The other three drivers who raced for the title in November at Phoenix — Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell and Hendrick Motorsport’s Chase Elliott — all deserve mention. Denny Hamlin, the JGR driver still seeking his first title, two Hendricks drivers — William Byron and 2021 champ Kyle Larson — and Logano’s teammate Ryan Blaney all figure to be competitive again this season.

New rides

Silly season saw several drivers land in new seats, including a three-team shuffle that sees a two-time champion in a new ride and last year’s Xfinity Series champ joining the Cup Series full time.

Busch jumps to Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 after 15 seasons driving the No. 18 for Joe Gibbs Racing, where he won two titles (2015 and 2019). His new ride opened up when Tyler Reddick made the move to the Hamlin/Michael Jordan-owned 23XI Racing. The 27-year-old Reddick picked up his first career win last season and then added two more with RCR but will now pilot the No. 45, joining Bubba Wallace with 23XI.

Those two moves also cleared the way for 20-year-old Ty Gibbs, last year’s controversial Xfinity champ, to get a ride with his grandfather’s team. The Charlotte native will drive the No. 54, the same number he had in NASCAR’s second-tier series, for JGR, and he is poised to be the Cup Series’ top rookie and also its newest villain after several run-ins with fellow drivers due to his aggressive style.

At Stewart-Haas Racing, a bit of a power struggle between the two namesake owners ended with Tony Stewart getting his way as Ryan Preece will take over the No. 41 previously driven by Cole Custer.

Ty Dillon is the other bigger name moving on, going from Petty GMS (now Legacy Motor Club) to Spire Motorsports, where he’ll drive the No. 77.

Graybeards exiting, coming back

Kevin Harvick, the 2014 Cup Series champion, announced on Jan. 12 that he will retire following the 2023 season. It will be a soft landing for Harvick, who will enter the Fox broadcast booth in 2024 as an analyst. Harvick has dabbled in broadcasting before, working Xfinity and Truck races several times since 2015.

While Harvick is exiting, Jimmie Johnson is returning — a little, anyway.

The seven-time champion, who retired from the Cup Series after the 2020 season but raced the full IndyCar schedule last year, will drive a part-time schedule for Legacy Motor Club in the No. 84 — the inverse of the No. 48 he drove during his career with Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson will attempt to qualify for this week’s Daytona 500 and also enter the Cup Series’ first street course race, scheduled for downtown Chicago on July 2.

Get ready for North Wilkesboro

The most intriguing date on the Cup Series schedule is May 21 when NASCAR’s top series returns to North Wilkesboro Speedway for the first time since 1996 for the All-Star Race. The track, which slowly fell into disrepair over the past quarter century, received funds in the 2021 North Carolina state budget to spruce it up.

“The allocation toward North Wilkesboro provides the starting capital needed to rebuild the infrastructure of the historic facility,” Marcus Smith, president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, said in a statement regarding the funding. “With state budget amounts now finalized, we can zero in on project priorities and determine work schedules. The goal will be to modernize the property so that it can host racing and special events again in the future.”

On Sept. 8, 2022, the first “special event” was announced when NASCAR revealed the All-Star Race will be held on the 5/8-mile track this spring. It will be the first time the Cup Series will race there since Jeff Gordon won the Tyson Holly Farms 400 on Sept. 29, 1996.