*Turn 2 Blog is a regular feature on InsideCircleTrack.com. Here, site operators Michael Moats and Richard Allen take turns offering their thoughts on the NASCAR and pavement short track racing topics of the day.
Is the Daytona 500 still the most prestigious race on the NASCAR schedule?
Richard: There are some who will argue that the Daytona 500 has lost some luster over recent years because of the fact that it has the randomness that comes along with the pack racing generated by restrictor plate/tapered spacer type of action but I disagree with that. This race has always been and always will be the sport’s shinning crown jewel.
No matter what happens over the rest of a driver’s career, he will always be recognized as a Daytona 500 champion. That is not true for those who win at tracks such as Richmond or Michigan. And yes, there have been some ‘out of nowhere’ winners like Trevor Bayne, Michael McDowell and even 2022 champion Austin Cindric but that doesn’t mean this race is somehow less important historically than before.
Whenever I rank the careers of NASCAR drivers, the two things that immediately go into my thought process are how many championships that driver earned and how many Daytona 500 trophies he hoisted. Certainly, I consider wins in other big events such as the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500 but those are secondary to ‘The Great American Race’.
There is a reason why the sport’s legendary figures talk about how awestruck they were when they first drove through the tunnel at Daytona International Speedway rather than the first time they entered Pocono Raceway or Kansas Speedway.
Without a doubt, the Daytona 500 is the most prestigious race on the NASCAR schedule.
Michael: The Daytona 500 is still the most prestigious race on the NASCAR schedule. Nothing comes close to it. I don’t think the randomness of it has taken all that much away from it.
I do think the race has lost a little bit of luster for a couple of factors. One, it’s no longer a two weekend event. When the first weekend had the Clash and qualifying, there was so much anticipation. There were a few days of practice and then the Duels. And two, there are very few spots non-charter teams can race for to get into the 500. Seeing drivers having to fight and claw their way into the race was a big deal. Again, it was excitement. That went away with the charter system several years ago.
I still like the day of the race and the excitement. I think everything else has lost a little over time.
What driver and/or team has the most to prove in 2023?
Richard: The first name that pops into my mind when answering this question is the one driver at Hendrick Motorsports who does not have a long-term contract in place- Alex Bowman. This is a driver who has shown that he has a knack for finding ways to win races but just never seems to be thought of in the same way as teammates Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and William Byron. There aren’t many drivers with seven career wins who get as little recognition as he does.
Further, I don’t think the Hendrick organization did him any favors by having him step into the No. 88 right after the popular Dale Earnhardt Jr. left then move to the No. 48 right after seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson moved on from NASCAR.
All that said, Bowman needs to come out early and do something noteworthy such as winning one of the early races on the schedule. Then, he and new crew chief Blake Harris need to remain consistent throughout the season. If the Arizona native is to get a contract extension with HMS or land at another top level team he must perform well in 2023.
Michael: I’m not sure of his contract situation, but one name that comes to mind for me is Ryan Blaney. He’ll be entering his 8th season as a Cup driver and has 7 wins. While those aren’t bad numbers, it seems a lot of people are waiting for him to have that breakout season. He won 3 races in 2021 but had no wins last year when so many other drivers did win a race. Considering one of his teammates won last year’s championship and the other won the Daytona 500, people will be looking for more from him at some point soon.
What driver and/or team will be able to carry the momentum built up from last year into this season?
Richard: To me, the obvious choice here is Christopher Bell and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team. They ended the 2022 season on a high note by performing well in the ‘must win’ situations they found themselves in during the NASCAR Playoffs. Now they need to carry that momentum into the early part of 2023 to help assure themselves they are not in those ‘must win’ situations so often over the course of this campaign.
Bell is my pick to win the the NASCAR Cup Series championship this season because of the way he finished out last year.
Another driver and team that finished out 2022 on a strong note and could carry that momentum into 2023 is Erik Jones and the No. 43 Legacy Motor Club operation. He picked up a win in the Southern 500 last year and was in the top-15 more often than not over the final third of the schedule. With the addition of Jimmie Johnson as a partner and part-time driver, I believe this organization is trending in the right direction.
Michael: I know this driver was eliminated in the second round, but was in contention for wins after elimination, and that is Kyle Larson. I feel like the driver and team had some growing pains with the new car last year. It seemed like they had a better feel for the car during the second half of the season.
Another one I would look at is Brad Keselowski. His teammate, Chris Buesher, got a win at Bristol and was really the strongest RFK car all season. But Keselowski really picked things up in the second half of the season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 6 car win a couple of races in 2023.
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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.
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