Cup Series starts season with new champion, driver and track changes

Ryan Blaney won Team Penske its second straight title

Ryan Blaney (12) and Joey Logano (22) have won back-to-back Cup Series titles for Team Penske. (Colin E. Braley / AP Photo)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The NASCAR Cup Series launches its new season with rivals attempting to dethrone Team Penske.

Ryan Blaney is the reigning Cup champion after a late-season surge helped him follow Penske teammate Joey Logano with back-to-back championships for Roger Penske. Blaney’s title was somewhat surprising largely because Ford teams struggled last year with just eight wins in 36 races.

But Blaney held off Hendrick Motorsports drivers Kyle Larson and William Byron, as well as Christopher Bell of Joe Gibbs Racing, to win his first career championship.

Blaney is NASCAR’s dream champion, a blue-collar driver from a family of racers rooted in the mill country of northeastern Ohio. He seems soft-spoken but showed he’s got the internal fire to be a champion, and he delivered down the stretch last year.

He was beaten by good buddy Chase Elliott in the fan-voted most popular driver contest, but Blaney is the one guy many believe — if marketed correctly — is stock car racing’s next star.

Ford, meanwhile, introduced a remodeled Mustang for Cup competition this season. Ford will use the Dark Horse model as it attempts to pick up its performance with top teams Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing and RFK Racing.

Toyota, meanwhile, has been looking to add more teams to its stable and does so this year with Legacy Motor Club, the team co-owned by Jimmie Johnson. The move keeps Toyota development drivers Erik Jones and John Hunter Nemechek with the automaker, as well as nine races for Hall of Famer Johnson, who starts his season with the Daytona 500.

Toyota always expects all four of its Gibbs entries to make the playoffs, and 23XI saw both Tyler Reddick and Bubba Wallace make the playoff field last season.

Like Ford, Toyota also rolled out a new design for its Camry and the XSE will race in 2024.

Hendrick Motorsports will celebrate its 40th year in NASCAR hoping for a comeback year from Chase Elliott.

Elliott missed seven races last year — six with injury after a snowboarding accident and one for a suspension — and it led to the worst season of his career. He was winless and missed the playoffs for the first time. Elliott has vowed to be better and back among the title contenders come November.

Kevin Harvick is the latest veteran to retire and made his debut as NASCAR on Fox’s new full-time analyst with the exhibition Clash. He has been replaced at Stewart-Haas Racing by Josh Berry, a journeyman who finally gets his shot with a Cup team and joins Noah Gragson as SHR newcomers.

Shane van Gisbergen, winner of the street race in Chicago in his Cup Series debut last season, has now moved from Australia and embarks on a multi-series season that begins with ARCA and Xfinity races this week in Daytona.

Zane Smith and Carson Hocevar are both moving from the Truck Series to Cup with Spire Motorsports, Smith under a development deal with Trackhouse Racing.

RFK Racing has introduced a program that will allow the team to field a third Cup entry at select races. First up? David Ragan will attempt to make the Daytona 500 this week.

Changes to who’s driving on the track are coupled with changes to the tracks that will host races. North Wilkesboro returned to the schedule for the All-Star Race last year, and the series’ first street race was held in downtown Chicago.

This year, NASCAR takes the Cup Series to Iowa Speedway for the first time. Atlanta Motor Speedway and the road course at Watkins Glen in upstate New York were added to the playoffs. Bristol Motor Speedway is removing the dirt for its spring race and Indianapolis Motor Speedway is returning NASCAR to its historic oval. The season ends once again at Phoenix Raceway, where the Cup champion will be crowned on Nov. 10.