Traditionally, everyone at this time of the off-season publishes their list of memories from the past season. Some list the Top Surprises. Others, Best Races. A few, the Top Performances. More still, the Best Finishes or Best Drivers.. On December 28, 2023, Matt Weaver of Sportsnaut.com wrote the article – NASCAR’s 50 most memorable moments of 2023.
I found Matt’s to be quite a compilation and triggered a few more moments that didn’t make Matt’s list. Maybe they weren’t as memorable as his original entries. Or maybe they were but the list just had to be cut off somewhere. Still, these had an impact on the 2023 season.
These are not numbered as to indicate some level of importance. Nor are they listed in any order of importance, just how they popped up in my dusty old hard drive as I was going through this off-season stream of consciousness, exercise while counting down the days till the 2024 season starts.
I tried to keep the descriptions to a minimum, but some took a bit more space to explain than others so remember description length is not indicative of the importance.
See if any of these jars your memory banks for 2023.
• Single car JTG Daugherty Racing, with driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wins Daytona 500. To win the sport’s “Super Bowl” is tough enough but to do so with a single car team only elevates that accomplishment. Stenhouse and Co. were the first ones to do it since Trevor Bayne and the Wood Brothers did it in twelve years earlier. Is this race win, Exhibit A for Next Gen’s field-leveling characteristics?
• JTG Daugherty Racing’s Co-owner, Brad Daugherty Becomes the first African American co-owner to win the “Great American Race.” The former UNC basketball standout, NBA standout and long-time stock car racing fan, driver and now Cup Co-owner broke the color barrier as a car owner when driver Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. put the #47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet in Victory Lane. Daugherty, one of five co-owners of color in the seventy-five-year Cup series became the first to win the sport’s “Super Bowl”.
• HMS’ Engine Program scores it’s eighth Daytona 500 win. Not much to add to this significant accomplishment.
• FOX’s Mike Joy takes on “keyboard warriors”. An early season flair up occurred after folks went to social media to complain to FOX about what was perceived as an inordinate number of commercials. Near the end of the next race, Joy uncharacteristically called out the “keyboard warriors” before announcing to them that this would be the final round of commercials for the event. That was not taken well. Things settled down a few races later, but it was a rocky start to the viewing season.
• After “Louver-gate”, NASCAR modifies Appeals process. After the NASCAR Appeals Panel upheld NASCAR’s allegation that Hendrick Motorsports installed illegal hood louvers on William Byron’s car but then failed to assess any monetary or points penalties a result, coupled with Kaulig Racing fiasco for identical violations, NASCAR modified its appeals process. Modification including increasing the number of witnesses who could participate and limiting the power of the Appeal Board.
• NASCAR fines Denny Hamlin after confessing on his Podcast he intentionally wrecked Ross Chastain at Phoenix, Will such repercussions produce a chilling effect on podcasts futures? Only time will tell.
• For the First Time in the 10-year Cup Playoff Elimination format a Champ Four driver won the Championship without winning the Final Race. Eliminated Playoff driver Ross Chastain won the season Finale, while 2nd Place Ryan Blaney was crowned Champion. Basically, blown off as no big deal, it still crowned a worthy Champion, in today’s level-playing field NEXT GEN world could a winless Champion be far behind?
• TrackHouse Racing’s Ross Chastain free falls from points lead after public criticism leveled by Hendrick Motorsports owner, Rick Hendrick at Chastain. Immediately after the Spring Darlington Dust Up between Chastain and Hendrick’s driver, Kyle Larson and the subsequent call out of Chastain by Hendrick, the 2022 Top Chevrolet Driver and then current Points leader, Ross Chastain immediately went into free fall. His qualifying, average positions, finishes and Stage Points won started to tank. Within two races, Chastain would find himself no longer atop the points standing, a position he had held for 7 of the first 14. He left Darlington with a 27-point lead and then started a massive drop that would see him finish the Regular Season in 10th, 167 points from the lead. Chevrolet sat atop the Points standings 10 of the first 14 races, but once Chastain dropped from the top, they would only see the top one more race in the Regular Season. Even with 2 post-dust up wins at Nashville and Phoenix, Chastain would struggle to finish 9th in points by season’s end. Were the two related? The stats are point to yes, but only a few people know the whole story and none of them are telling.
• RFK Racing’s turnaround. RFK scores first multiple race win season since Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s 2 wins in 2016. Chris Buescher‘s 3 wins was the most wins by an RFK driver since Matt Kenseth’s 3 wins in 2012. RFK’s three-win season was the most since they won three races in 2013 with Carl Edwards winning 2 races and Greg Biffle winning 1 race. The 2022-2023seasons were the first back-to-back winning season for RFK since the 2013-2014.
• The two-car teams of 23XI Racing and RFK Racing put both of their cars in the Playoffs. In addition, both teams had their drivers finish Top Ten in the Final Points which is quite an accomplishment for two car teams.
• Uproar from Jimmie Johnson’s not receiving a unanimous vote into the Hall of Fame results in a social media cancel culture blow up. When voting results showed that not everyone voted for Johnson’s first round induction into the NHOF, voters and fans took to social media and called for the names of those voters who did not vote for the seven-time champion and demanded the offending voters be removed from future NHOF voting. Johnson was class through it all, focusing on the honor of getting into the HOF and the greater honor of doing so on the first ballot. The fact that it wasn’t unanimous, and the resultant ugliness wasn’t NASCAR’s finest hour there is a strong likelihood this issue will reappear as induction time draws closer.
• The NASCAR Hall of Fame may need to redefine its eligibility requirements considering the Jimmie Johnson flap. Currently, to be eligible for nomination into the NHOF a prospect must have participated in NASCAR for 10 years and must be retired for two years. There was speculation that some voters did not vote for Johnson because he was still running in selected Cup races without receiving an Exemption from the NHOF (like Jeff Gordon did when he filled in for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.). Was he retired or not and if not, was he truly eligible? The fact that his Crew Chief, Chad Knaus was going in with this Class and the two needed to go in together seemed to be driving things more than any rules or procedures. With Kevin Harvick retiring and rumblings are already emerging that he may go racing again in lower series. Future NHOF’er Kyle Busch has already outlined his post-Cup plans that include returning to Trucks full-time. Since so much of his body of work includes wins in that series at what point will he be “retired” in the NHOF eyes and when will the clock start for his eligibility? Continued use of the blurry term “retirement” as the eligibility trigger for the NHOF is only going to create future controversy. NASCAR can choose to head this one off through redefinition of “retirement” or more consistent use of “Exemptions” or they can stick their heads in the sand and act surprised when it blows up again in two years. Ball is in their Court.
• Easter Race Date continues but shifts to a different track. The Series had avoided racing on this date, but the Cup moved back to it in 2021 racing the last two Easters on Bristol Dirt. TV ratings showed some improvement, but attendance still wasn’t what had been hoped that a Dirt race would produce. Was it the date? Was it the Dirt? Was it both? 2024 will still race on Easter but it will be a different short track-Richmond. Removing dirt from the equation, 2024 will go a long way to determine the impact of racing on Easter.
• NASCAR puts illegal parts on display for the world to see. Bold move to add transparency to the inspection process. We catch you, we’re going to show the world what is wrong and why. A move for a heightened level of transparency.
• NASCAR releases 2024 Schedule without a signed contract with the City of Chicago for the Street Race. After an inordinate delay in the release of the 2024, the word finally came out that NASCAR and Chicago “are in agreement” for the upcoming race, but a signed contract was not in place. As the parties work to hammer out the details, hopefully all works out for 2024. Unfortunately, for a race touted as the biggest thing to happen to the sport in forever and was reported as such a win for the city, these are not the optics many would hope for.
• Bubba Wallace becomes the first African American to qualify for the Cup Playoffs. After late season wins the previous two seasons, Wallace went winless this season and had to rely on consistency to point his way into the Playoffs. Doing it the “old-fashioned way”, Wallace made it into the second round before being eliminated, finishing the season in 10th the highest finish in his Cup Career.
• Chase Elliott goes winless for the season for the first time since 2017 and misses Playoffs for the first time since going Cup full-time. His 17th place Points finish was the tops among Playoff non-qualifiers but was the lowest in his career. Recovery from injuries is no small task but they had ramifications that extended far beyond the walls of HMS as his absence and missing the playoffs adversely affected viewership.
• Hendrick Motorsports scores it’s 300th Cup win and 500th Series win. William Byron’s Texas win was HMS’ 300th Cup win. The team closed the season at 301 with the next closest Petty Enterprises’ 268. Kyle Larson’s Southern 500 win was HMS’ 500th Series win. Two significant milestones in NASCAR’s 75th Season.
• Toyota expands footprint in Cup by adding Legacy Motor Club to their fold. Drivers Erik Jones and Carson Hocevar will compete full time, while team co-owner Jimmie Johnson will drive select races. Both showed flashes in an ugly lame duck season that saw them set further adrift with no support from Chevrolet. Hopefully, being able to hook up with their new manufacturer, Toyota will make for a successful 2024.
• Race Team Alliance (RTA) reps boycotted their quarterly meeting with NASCAR leadership alleging NASCAR was not negotiating in “good faith”. There was a time in the history of the sport where owners boycotting NASCAR on anything was unthinkable, but this a no longer those times. With much needed TV monies and Charters renewals on the line to stop the reported “hemorrhaging” of money that is threatening the teams’ survival, it’s now hard ball. Instead of meeting with Management, the RTA took their concerns public. These are tactics common in negotiations in other industries but are new here. This points to a major change within the sport. Hopefully, the signing of the 2025 TV deal will improve the climate between the teams and Sanctioning Body going forward as the teams’ cut of the new “TV pie” and the status of Charters are still up in the air.
• Charters-Stay or Go? Simply, the Charters are set to expire at the end of 2024. Teams want them to continue. NASCAR Chief Executive Officer, Chairman and Executive VP, Jim France doesn’t. Who is going to win? This could shape up to be a “win the battle, lose the war” scenario. It’s another contest to watch.
• Garage 56 NEXT GEN is a hit at Le Mans, earns attention and awards-Built on the GEN 7 platform, the lighter weight, higher horse powered, head-lighted and carbon-fibered brakes (and some aero tweaks) version of the NEXT GEN took to the streets of Le Mans to compete in the world-famous 24-Hour endurance event. Using the slot Garage 56 reserved for a single innovative entry outside the rules, the NEXT GEN derivative was originally proposed with a hybrid powerplant. It was soon reverted to the more conventional and reliable but tapered-spacerlessversion of the NASCAR engine. Design began before the NG turned the first competitive Cup laps in 2022 and under the watchful direction of Chad Knaus the team of GM, Dallara, Goodyear, NASCAR R & D and Hendrick Motorsports turned the NEXT GEN into a loud, lean and mean racing machine, that soon became a fan favorite. With the driver team of NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson, F1’s Jenson Button and endurance racer Mike Rockenfeller the car performed well until the gearbox went out in the last quarter of the race. After replacement, they reentered and finished the race, bringing the car home in 39th position out of a field of 62. Declared a success with the fans, it turned the heads of competitors alike. The HMS pit crew, using NASCAR-style stops including mechanical jacks won the Pit Stop Challenge. And the collaboration team took home the prestigious Dino Toso Racecar Aerodynamicist Award presented by the Race Tech World Motorsports Symposium in Switzerland. Such collaboration shows how the NEXT GEN platform can perform over the long haul as well as its appeal among foreign fans. Could a solution to the Short Track Package woes be far behind?
• Changing of Guard visible at the 2023 Finale. This year’s Championship Four brought in a collective total of 49 wins over 28 full time seasons in Cup. Kyle Larson accounted for 10 of those seasons and 23 of the wins. Compare that to the 2019 Championship Four who had a total of 62 full time seasons in Cup with 158 wins under their belts. The least experienced of that group was 14 seasons. The Champion in 2019 was Kyle Busch with 15 seasons. Ryan Blaney is in his 8th Full Time Season. With Kevin Harvick retiring, Martin Truex, Jr. on a year-by-year basis, Denny Hamlin as one of the senior drivers now and Kyle Busch in his draft, the Changing of the Guard is underway and picking up speed.
• HMS’ Jeff Gordon pushes for more emphasis on Owner’s Points instead of Driver’s Points. After Chase Elliott’s elimination from the Drivers Points Playoff but his car still in the Owners’ Points, Gordon made a pitch for more coverage of the Owners Points Race. It never gained traction but during that effort the importance of Owners Points, not Drivers Points sets the amounts of post-season payouts.
• Kyle Larson was involved in most cautions and led Playoff Drivers in DNF’s. Although he finished the season in the Cup Points Standing, Larson was involved in 19 cautions, two more than Championship Four driver, Christopher Bell. Larson had eight DNFs all a result of accidents. This was the highest among Playoff Drivers, and second overall behind Austin Dillon, who had 10 DNFs.
• 2023 saw 50 fewer DNFs than 2022. This is the lowest number of DNFs since 2016.
• Sport-changing events increase TV numbers but not producing sellouts. First, it was Dirt at Bristol, followed by the Clash at the Coliseum, then the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro and finally the Chicago Street Race. Going in, all were touted as Sport-Changing events, yet none reported any sellouts. Bristol Dirt is no more. This is the last year of the Coliseum contract. Is an extension in the works or is the Busch Clash coming to a stadium near you? The 2024 Chi-Street Race is on the schedule, but the contract for the second year is still unsigned. Hopefully, year two will have better weather and produce better results, but could next year see the Series racing in Streets somewhere else? North Wilkesboro just went through a repave in the off-season, which is the most positive sign of the three remaining. Time will tell.
• Critical post season test at Phoenix to improve the NEXT GEN Short Track package was severely modified producing “direction” but no immediate resolutions. When the test was announced, NASCAR President Steve Phelps said “everything was on the table” for this test, including more horsepower. A week later, Phelps took HP “off the table”. Come test time, even more test items were dropped so it eventually resulted into a tire, muffler, and driver comfort test. How successful was the test in solving Next Gen’s Short Track woes? Depends on who you talk to. As they say, proof will be in the pudding come March 10 when the Series returns to Phoenix.
• A reported 50% increase in Sellouts from 2022 to 2023. That’s the good news. Does anyone know how many sellouts that equates to for 2023 and which tracks reported sellouts? 2 in 2022 to 3 in 2023 is a 50% increase. 20 in 2022 and 30 in 2023 is a 50% increase. Big difference between the two. In 2021, NASCAR President, Steve Phelps reported these sellout raw numbers for 2020 (5 sellouts) and 2021 (9 sellouts). Forbes reported 8 sellouts in 2022. Using some basic math that should mean 12 sellouts for this season. Is that correct and if so, which tracks are they? To date the info hasn’t been readily apparent… or not like prior seasons.
• Bolstered by large viewership numbers for the Daytona 500 and the Chicago Street Race, NASCAR still saw a 5% overall drop in viewership, resulting in the lowest viewership numbers in history. That’s the bad news. The good news is that even in the wake of declining numbers, NASCAR closed a record breaking “TV deal” for 2025 and beyond.
• Penske Racing’s Ryan Blaney ends a 59-race winless streak and finished the season tying RFK’s Chris Buescher as Ford’s winningest driver with three wins each. Blaney bounced back nicely from his long dry spell with a World 600 win and followed it up with two Playoff wins that propelled him to the 2023 Cup Championship. The three wins tied him with Chris Buescher for Ford’s winningest drivers. They were the only multi-win Ford drivers this season.
• Spire Motorsport’s Corey LaJoie is the only driver to finish the season with 0 DNFs. LaJoie was involved in numerous incidents throughout the season but none serious enough to keep him from finishing the events, earning him this unique distinction.
• NASCAR implements the “Corey LaJoie modification” to qualifying for the Playoffs by removing the requirement that a winning driver must also finish in the Top 30 in points to qualify for the Playoffs. By removing this original “fine print” requirement that winners must finish in the Top 30 in Points to qualify for the Playoffs, the Playoffs finally becomes the “Win and You’re In” that it had always been touted. Unfortunately, not everyone got the memo on the change as it was still referred to as Chase Elliottand Alex Bowman tried to overcome their 2023 difficulties to qualify for the Playoffs.
• NASCAR experiment with larger restart zones did not produce the desired results. Restart Zones reverted to the smaller 2022 dimensions after 5 races… except for the Craftsman Trucks Championship race, where the larger zone used in the Spring race was not reduced before the Series return. Xfinity and Cup Finales used the correct, smaller dimensions.
• NASCAR’s experiment with Caution Flag-less Stage Breaks on Road Courses was terminated before season’s end. After Watkins Glen produced a sub-two-hour race and did not produce the competition expected, the Caution Flag returned for Stage Breaks at the Charlotte ROVAL Road course Playoff race. The Caution Flag is expected to fly for all Road Course Stage breaks for 2024.
• Employee Burnout and difficulty in finding help hits teams-At the conclusion of the second season of NEXT GEN, teams reported burnout and difficulty finding help. In an industry that once had people lined up to get in, teams are now having to go out and recruit, even resorting to posting jobs on social media. Hopefully this is just another adjustment as the sport continues to transition to the next level.
• Finally, and sadly, Friends Lost. We lost too many this year. Here are just a few…
o Ken Squier-motorsports broadcaster who launched NASCAR into the TV age with his famous words at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500…
“And there’s a fight!” Squier impacted motorsports in more ways than could ever be described here but a short list includes, convinced CBS to do “flag-to-flag” coverage of the Daytona 500, was lap-by-lap commentator for CBS and TBS for over 20 years, did pre and post-race coverage for FOX, co-founder and lead broadcaster for the Motor Racing Network (MRN), co-founder of World Sports Enterprise the first TV production company to specialize in motorsports that was later sold to The Nashville Network (TNN), introduced the in-car camera into racing, was a track owner, promoter and co-founded the American Canadian Tour for late models, has won nearly every broadcasting award and honor. He is inducted into every Hall of Fame there is, including the NASCAR Hall of Fame and NASCAR’s Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence is named for him and Barney Hall. In a little over a month, “common men doing uncommon things” will return to Daytona for “The Great American Race”, both phrases coined by Squier.
o Cale Yarborough-the tough as nails NHOF driver from Timmonsville, SC. Won three Cup Championships in a row, is tied for sixth on the all-time Cup win list with seven-time Champion, Jimmie Johnson with 83 wins. Four-time winner of the Daytona 500 and Darlington Southern 500. In addition to being a central figure in the Daytona fight above, also known for these two crashes, 1965 Southern 500 and 1983 Daytona 500 Cale also ran in four Indy 500’s and raced in a season of open wheel as well.
o J. T. Lundy–Thoroughbred horse breeder and Cup co-owner with Harry Ranier. Ranier-Lundy Racing entered Cup in 1967 and fielded cars for drivers that included Lennie Pond, Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, Benny Parsons, Bobby and Davey Allison. Lundy left the team in 1987 after three Daytona 500 wins with Baker and Yarborough and 22 wins overall.
o Paul Call-The sole employee at North Wilkesboro Speedway through the 25-year closure. During that time was groundskeeper, tour guide, historian, and ambassador always keeping the faith that Cup would one day return to Wiles County. Paul got to see his dream come true at this year’s All-Star Race.
o Sherry Pollex-former long-time partner of Martin Truex, Jr., co-founder of the Martin Truex, Jr. Foundation, and creator of SherryStrong.org to help women understand early detection and treatment options for ovarian cancer, lost her 10-year battle to the disease.
Did you see anything that sparked a memory? Something that made you say, “I had forgotten all about that”?
2023 had its moments for sure. Buckle up… 2024 is coming down to one to go. Its moments are coming, so hang on! Should be fun.
Thunder On… and Stay Safe!
Photo Credit (cover): Chris Graythen / Getty Images)