The calendar has turned to 2023, so all attention is on the upcoming NASCAR Cup Series season. It’s time to predict the 16-driver playoff field that will battle for the biggest prize in American motorsports.
Predicting the playoff field prior to the 2022 season was quite the task considering that no one knew how the teams would perform with the Next Gen car. With 19 drivers reaching Victory Lane in the first year of this new era, the process has become infinitely more difficult.
There are some locks in Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman, and Chase Elliott. Kyle Busch joins this list even after he moved to a different organization and took over the No. 8.
|Playoff Field Prediction|
|Joey Logano||Team Penske|
|Martin Truex Jr.||Joe Gibbs Racing|
|Denny Hamlin||Joe Gibbs Racing|
|Kyle Busch||Richard Childress Racing|
|Ryan Blaney||Team Penske|
|Kyle Larson||Hendrick Motorsports|
|Chase Elliott||Hendrick Motorsports|
|Alex Bowman||Hendrick Motorsports|
|William Byron||Hendrick Motorsports|
|Tyler Reddick||23XI Racing|
|Brad Keselowski||RFK Racing|
|AJ Allmendinger||Kaulig Racing|
|Ross Chastain||Trackhouse Racing|
|Christopher Bell||Joe Gibbs Racing|
|Kevin Harvick||Stewart-Haas Racing|
|Bubba Wallace||23XI Racing|
2022 marked the first time that Heavy predicted the playoff field. We nailed 12 of the 16 picks by highlighting Ross Chastain and Tyler Reddick. We also predicted that Harvick would snap the winless streak.
This number dropped to 11 correct picks after Kurt Busch withdrew from the playoffs. We certainly whiffed on Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Justin Haley, Martin Truex Jr., and Brad Keselowski.
There Are Multiple Safe Bets for the Playoff Field
One driver that bears mentioning is Alex Bowman. The Arizona native has not missed the playoffs since his first full season with Hendrick Motorsports (eight). He has also delivered seven wins for the team, including a career-high four in 2021.
Bowman will now return to the No. 48 in 2023, but he will have a new crew chief in Blake Harris. This move has the potential to pay dividends considering that the former Front Row Motorsports crew chief guided Michael McDowell to career-best marks in their lone season together. If the addition plays out as Hendrick Motorsports expects, Bowman could turn in another career year while seeking a new contract.
Another name worth mentioning is AJ Allmendinger. The veteran will return to the Cup Series for his first full season since 2018. This time, he will be in control of the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet, a car that he took to Victory Lane in 2021.
The Dinger only made 18 Cup starts in 2022, but he proved he was still competitive with eight top-10 finishes and three top-fives. Now he will take on a schedule that includes four road courses in the regular season, as well as the Chicago Street Race.
There is a very good chance that Allmendinger will win one of these races, especially considering that he finished second behind Kyle Larson at Watkins Glen International in 2022.
Let’s Address the Missing Drivers
There were some big names missing from the playoff prediction. This list includes winners in Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher, and Daytona 500 champ Austin Cindric.
The absence was not a slight against any of these drivers. The field is just that stacked heading toward the 2023 season. It seems that any driver could realistically win on any given day.
Dillon sits in a unique situation. He will have a new teammate in Kyle Busch who will likely boost the performance level across the board. However, the driver of the No. 3 will also enter the year with a new crew chief, Keith Rodden, after Justin Alexander stepped down from the pit box.
Dillon has four career wins, all of which were with Alexander as his crew chief. He won the Coca-Cola 600 in 2017, the Daytona 500 in 2018, the Texas Motor Speedway race in 2020, and the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona in 2022. Every other season in which he has had a different crew chief, he has gone winless.
There will be an opportunity for Dillon to change this trend during the 2023 season as he works with Rodden. However, questions about his prospects will remain as the Daytona 500 approaches.
Suarez, for comparison, was one of the more difficult drivers to leave off of the list. He won his first career race in 2022, and he posted career-best marks across the board. Ultimately, he missed out on one spot due to Brad Keselowski.
The main reason is that the RFK Racing driver-owner has 35 career wins and a consistent history of success at NASCAR’s top level. Keselowski will also enter his second campaign with the organization after showcasing improved speed near the end of the 2022 season.
Jones, Buescher, Justin Haley, and Ryan Preece are all wild cards entering the 2023 season. They have all turned in strong performances in the past, they have dealt with stretches where they struggled to consistently contend, and they could all realistically win a race in 2023 while knocking another driver out of the playoffs.
Preece, in particular, will have the best equipment of his career as he takes over the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. He will just have to capitalize on this opportunity as he returns to full-time competition.
What about Cindric? After all, he won the Great American Race and locked up Rookie of the Year. There is no denying that Cindric achieved success during his first full Cup Series season. He also drives for a powerhouse organization in Team Penske.
The future is certainly bright for Cindric, but Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick both seem to be stronger picks entering 2023 as they potentially close out their championship-winning careers. That’s the benefit of extended runs of consistency.
All Eyes Will Remain on the No. 23 Toyota
Bubba Wallace? Yes, Bubba Wallace. The driver of the No. 23 Toyota Camry is entering his third season with 23XI Racing, and he is fresh off a career year. He won his second Cup Series race and posted career-best marks across the board. He has continued to improve every season with the Denny Hamlin-led team, and he has two wins to show for it.
The biggest hurdle standing in Wallace’s way is the mental part of NASCAR. 2022 was a learning experience for the Alabama native, especially during trips to Nashville Superspeedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and Michigan International Speedway.
Wallace snapped at his team over the radio at Nashville Superspeedway, received criticism from analysts, and he put his emotions on full display at Michigan International Speedway after finishing second behind Kevin Harvick in what was his best shot to make the playoffs. He also received a one-race suspension after wrecking Kyle Larson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Wallace has put in considerable work on the mental part of Cup Series racing, which has resulted in some success on the track. If he continues to work with his team, it’s realistic to expect him to win during the regular season and reach the playoffs after near-misses in the Daytona 500 and at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.