The 2023 NASCAR season is officially underway. These five drivers are under the most pressure as the new year begins.
Pressure is a part of life for NASCAR drivers. They have to perform at an elite level while dealing with pressure from their teams, sponsors, fans, and the media. Especially with the growth of social media and the near-endless pool of young talent that is threatening to take their rides, today’s drivers may be under the most heat of any in NASCAR history.
Headed into 2023, there are a few NASCAR drivers that are feeling extra stressed. For some, it is because they are expected to finally take that next step. For others, this may be their last shot to prove they are worth a high-profile ride before they are replaced.
Here are the drivers that are under the most pressure in 2023.
5. Harrison Burton – Will he be ousted from the NASCAR Cup Series after year two?
This truly is a make-or-break year for Burton. Despite entering only his second season at age 22, Burton will have to show tremendous progress in 2023 or else he may be replaced in the #21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford.
In 2022, Burton had just two top tens and finished 27th in points. He also finished on the lead lap in just 18 of the 36 races he participated in.
There was speculation on whether or not Burton had been rushed to the Cup Series last year. Although he had four wins across two full-time seasons in the Xfinity Series, all of those wins came in 2020 and he never finished higher than eighth in points. Many believed he would have benefited from additional seasons in Xfinity, similar to how Noah Gragson spent extended time in the series to work on his craft before moving to Cup.
The other negative towards Burton is the fact that he is driving in solid equipment but failed to have anywhere near the success his predecessor had in the same car. In his two seasons with Wood Brothers in 2020 and 2021, Matt DiBenedetto averaged three top fives and 10 top tens per season. He made the Playoffs in 2020 and finished 13th in points, while also nearly winning a handful of races.
DiBenedetto was replaced by Burton due to a lackluster 2021, but that season (9 top tens, 18th in points) was lightyears better than Burton’s 2022. Burton will need to turn his potential into results if he wants to avoid a similar fate to DiBenedetto. This is especially true because of the up-and-coming talent in the Ford system, namely Zane Smith and Hailie Deegan.
4. Kyle Busch – Is the grass truly greener with RCR?
2022 was by and large the worst of Busch’s career. He fluked into his only win of the season at Bristol Dirt and had just eight top fives, the lowest mark of his career. This continued a downward trend for Busch as he has just four wins since winning his second title in 2019. This is after Busch averaged five wins per season from 2015 to 2019.
The bad season, along with sponsorship issues and a deteriorating relationship with owner Joe Gibbs, eventually cost Busch his ride with Joe Gibbs Racing. He will now be behind the #8 for Richard Childress Racing in 2023.
Regardless of how the rest of his career goes, Busch will be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. However, several believe that Busch’s best days are long behind him. With a growing skepticism surrounding him, Busch enters this season under immense pressure to prove his doubters wrong.
Despite the decline in performance and the slight downgrade in equipment, Busch still has plenty going for him.
RCR is also exactly what Busch needs. He no longer will have to deal with the drama or politics that befell him during his last years at JGR. Richard Childress is a racer and Busch should connect with him immediately.
JGR also may be the better team, but the #8 is still one of the best cars in the garage. They won three races last season with Tyler Reddick. The entire team, including crew chief Randall Burnett, is back for 2023.
Their potential has been on full display so far this season. At the Busch Light Clash, Busch was one of the fastest cars all night and finished third. Then, at the Daytona 500, Busch was three laps away from claiming the crown at the Great American Race before the late race chaos led to him finishing 19th.
Busch has the pressure to perform and prove he is still one of the best drivers in the Cup Series, but he is in a great situation to surpass everyone’s expectations.
3. Alex Bowman – Does he deserve his ride with Hendrick?
When champions like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson are your teammates, you inevitably will be under pressure to live up to their performance. Such is the case for Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman.
Bowman will likely never surpass his superstar teammates, but he will need to improve upon a mediocre 2022 season to eliminate doubts about whether he deserves his high-profile ride.
It seems that people have been trying to replace Bowman since he took over for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2018. This is mainly because the driver of the #48 has been accused of fluking into wins and only succeeding because he drives for Hendrick.
However, it is unclear what more Bowman needs to do to silence his doubters. He has never missed the Playoffs while driving for Hendrick. He has won in four straight seasons, including four wins in 2021 as well. Although his 2022 season (one win, four top fives, 12 top tens) was an overall disappointment, he still easily made it to the Round of 12. He could have gone farther if not for his concussion that essentially eliminated him from the Playoffs.
The problem with Bowman is that he is not flashy and rarely displays the potential to be a true title contender. He recently signed an extension to stay with Hendrick through 2026, but, if he wants to legitimize his spot amongst NASCAR’s elite, he will need to win multiple races and make a deep playoff run.
2. Ryan Blaney – Will he finally become a title threat?
Entering his eighth season, Ryan Blaney has been one of the most consistent drivers in the Cup Series during his career. He has seven wins, including three in 2021. He has also finished inside the top ten in points every year since 2017.
However, Blaney has just left a lot to be desired on the track. Despite driving in great equipment with Wood Brothers Racing and Team Penske, most of his wins have been on superspeedways or are the result of immense luck. He rarely goes out and just dominates a race. When he does lead laps, he often ends up not winning the race because his car falls off, he wrecks, there are pit road issues or some other form of misfortune.
His consistency is definitely a strong suit, but consistency only gets you so far. While he always finishes inside the top ten in points, the driver of the #12 has never made it to the Championship 4 and has never finished higher than seventh in the standings.
Shortcomings aside, Blaney has a lot going for him. He is one of the best personalities in NASCAR, helping the sport to grow through his accessibility to fans. He is also probably the second most popular driver in NASCAR, behind only Chase Elliott. In addition to his great consistency, he is widely considered one of the best at superspeedways. Team Penske also has immense faith in the 29-year-old as they recently signed him to a long-term contract extension.
Blaney’s future with Penske and in NASCAR is not in doubt, but this is a make-or-break year of sorts for him. Can he finally take that next step and win multiple races to be a true title contender? Or will he forever be nothing more than a good driver that is just a tick below the true superstars of the sport? 2023 will go a long way in determining what type of driver Blaney truly is.
1. Bubba Wallace – Playoffs or bust for the 23 in ’23?
Wallace has made tremendous progress across his first two seasons with 23XI Racing, especially during the latter part of 2022. During the second half of the season, Bubba had eight top tens, including his win at Kansas in the Fall.
He was one of the hottest drivers in the Cup Series. Yet, it was still not enough to make the Playoffs. This was in part due to his win not happening until after the Playoffs started. It was also due to his rough start to the year. Bubba had just two top tens in the first 18 races because of pit crew issues, wrecks, and lapses in judgment by the driver of the #23. This continued a trend of lackluster starts to the year that started in 2021.
Although Bubba signed a contract extension with 23XI last season, he has to at least make the Playoffs and win another race this year to legitimize his place near the top of the sport. He has the speed, the experience, and 23XI improved their pit crews in the offseason. There are no more excuses.
The key to Wallace’s improvement will be getting off to a better start to the season. The team finally found its rhythm down the stretch last year. Wallace was much more focused, calm, and confident. There were no more lapses in judgment on the track or angry tirades to his team over the radio. All of this greatly improved his performance and should help the #23 not fall into as deep of a hole.
Despite the upward trend, Bubba still has to go out there and get it done. If he does, he will finally silence his doubters and take his place amongst NASCAR’s elite. If he fails, those questioning his talent will only get louder. The stage is set for this to be a must-watch season for Wallace and the #23.