The 10 Biggest Surprises of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Season

By | December 18, 2023

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The 10 Biggest Surprises of the 2023 NASCAR Cup SeasonMeg Oliphant – Getty Images

The phrase “we didn’t see that coming” was uttered more than once during a wild 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season that saw a first-time champion, a first-time Cup starter win his first race, and a perennial championship contender fail to to win. even make it to the Playoffs.

Before we turn the page to 2024, let’s take a look back at the biggest surprises of the 2023 season:

Legacy Motor Club says it’s leaving Chevy

It’s not unusual for a team to switch OEMs, but to announce a manufacturer change for next season before the halfway point of the current season is an astonishing move. Legacy Motor Club had been a Chevrolet team since it was founded as Petty GMS Motorsports in 2022. GMS Racing had also fielded Chevrolets in NASCAR’s Xfinity and Craftsman Truck series. When LMC announced in early May that it would switch to Toyota in 2024, the team was immediately cut off from some of Chevrolet’s help. This meant, among other things, that the drivers no longer had access to Chevrolet’s simulator.

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Michael McDowell wins at the Brickyard

Michael McDowell’s expertise in road racing is no secret, but he was still considered an underdog entering the race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. With one lap remaining in the race on the track’s road course, McDowell led Chase Elliott by 1.394 seconds. He held off the hard-charging Elliott to claim a 0.937-second win over the Georgia native.

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RFK Racing roars back to the play-offs

In RFK Racing’s second season, both drivers made the play-offs and finished in the top 10 of the standings. It was the first time the Jack Roush-founded organization had been in the playoffs since 2019 and the first time since 2014 that two cars qualified for the postseason. Team co-owner Brad Keselowski had hoped RFK Racing would make the playoffs in his first year involved with the operation, but he had to wait until his second. Keselowski described the 2023 performance as a “high-water mark” for the team.

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Regular season champion Truex Jr. stumbles in the playoffs

After Martin Truex Jr. took his third win of the season in New Hampshire in July, he said everything felt like it did in 2017, when he won the series championship. Although Truex won the regular season championship, he never challenged for the title. He advanced to the playoffs thanks to the points he earned as a regular season champion. Truex had just two top-10 finishes in the playoffs, a ninth in Las Vegas and a sixth in the season finale. He wasn’t in the Championship Four.

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Chris Graythen – Getty Images

A team with one car wins the Daytona 500

In an era of multi-car teams, JTG-Daugherty Racing showed that there is still a place for single-car use in the sport. With Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as a driver, the team of Tad and Jodi Geschickter and former NBA star Brad Daugherty shocked the motorsports community by winning the Daytona 500.

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Chris Graythen – Getty Images

Stewart-Haas Racing goes winless in Cup Series

Ford struggled all season, but Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cup efforts were even more dismal, failing to win a race for the first time in the organization’s history. Tony Stewart joined Gene Haas in 2009 to form Stewart-Haas Racing and they started their first year with four wins. Since then, the team has recorded at least one win every season with two double-digit win seasons: 2018 and 2020. This year, however, none of SHR’s four drivers visited victory lane. The team’s success came in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, where Cole Custer won three races and the championship and Riley Herbst recorded his first-ever victory in the series.

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Kevin Harvick’s inability to win a race in his final season

After a two-race winning season, Kevin Harvick was expected to earn at least one victory in his final year as a full-time NASCAR Cup driver. He led 157 laps during the season, the most since 2021, but could not seal the deal with a win, even though he came close at Darlington in May, finishing second behind William Byron by less than a second. In 23 years, Harvick had just five winless seasons.

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Ryan Blaney earns his first NASCAR Cup championship

Entering the ten-race playoffs, Ryan Blaney was not expected to advance beyond the first round. After his victory in the Memorial Day weekend Coca-Cola 600, Blaney failed to achieve a top five finish in the next twelve regular season races. He had just four top-10 finishes during that three-month stretch over the summer. William Byron, with five wins on the season entering the play-offs, was the title favorite. However, Blaney recorded two wins in the playoffs, while Byron secured only one. In the championship round, Blaney outperformed the other three title contenders with a second-place finish in the season finale in Phoenix. Byron, who won in Phoenix in the spring, finished fourth.

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Chris Graythen – Getty Images

Chase Elliott Winless for the first time in seven years

Although Chase Elliott missed six races early in the season after breaking a leg snowboarding and then one race in June when NASCAR suspended him for intentionally wrecking Denny Hamlin, no one expected him to go winless in 2023. The last time Elliott had a winless season was 2017. That was his second full-time season in NASCAR’s Cup Series. Since then, Elliott has won at least two races annually and has two five-win seasons to his name.

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Shane Van Gisbergen wins in Chicago in first cup start

Shane Van Gisbergen was not included by anyone in the pre-race picks to win the Grant Park 220. However, the driver of Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 Chevrolet left everyone in shock as the three-time Supercars champion won NASCAR’s first road race. Van Gisbergen’s victory made him the first driver to win in his first NASCAR Cup Series start since Johnny Rutherford accomplished the feat 60 years ago in the second qualifying race of the Daytona 500.

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