The 4 Perennial Contenders and 1 Surprise Contender Most Likely to Dethrone Joey Logano as Cup Series Champ
But in order for Logano to miss out on becoming the first back-to-back champ since Jimmie Johnson more than a decade ago, someone else is going to have to step up to the proverbial plate and dethrone The Team Penske wheelman.
Let’s take a look at five drivers — including one surprise contender — capable of doing just that in the season to come.
Widely considered one of NASCAR’s best all-time drivers to never win a Cup Series championship, Denny Hamlin is running out of time to, at long last, ascend the sport’s highest mountain.
Will 2023 be his year?
Despite being 42 years old and undoubtedly nearing the end of his career, Hamlin has given no indication of missing a beat with regard to his skills behind the wheel. A Championship 4 qualifier in three of the last four seasons, the Tampa native has come painfully close to winning the title on multiple occasions but ultimately always fallen a bit short of the mark. This despite capturing an impressive three Daytona 500s along the way.
The biggest obstacle to 2023 being the year that Hamlin celebrates the championship that’s so narrowly eluded him might be the almost inevitable distractions that will come from his ongoing contract negotiations with Joe Gibbs Racing, where his current contract — and the contract of longtime primary sponsor FedEx — are set to end after this season.
If Hamlin and FedEx can re-up with JGR fairly early in the year, uncertainties about 2024 and beyond shouldn’t have much impact on Hamlin’s performance. But if contract negotiations drag on until the later part of the season as they did last season with Hamlin’s now-former JGR teammate, Kyle Busch, Hamlin may not be able to put his best foot forward on the race track. And his chances of winning the championship he so covets could suffer majorly as a result.
Like Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott has become a virtual staple of the Championship 4, but —unlike Hamlin, who missed the cut in 2022 — Elliott has arrived at Phoenix among the quartet of championship finalists in each of the last three seasons.
Although Elliott has left the Valley of the Sun with the champion’s hardware just once, he’s bound to enter the 2023 season with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and a fire in his belly after coasting to last year’s regular season title and leading the series in wins, only to hit the skids big time when the 10-race playoff rolled around and let everyone know exactly how he felt about it.
If Elliott — NASCAR’s perennial most popular driver — can avoid a letdown in 2023 like the one he suffered in 2022, he has as good of a chance as anybody of standing between Joey Logano and another title.
Just one full season removed from a Cup Series championship, Kyle Larson proved in 2022 that he was no one-year wonder. Sure, Larson didn’t repeat as champion, and, in fact, he didn’t even return to the Championship 4, but the Hendrick Motorsports driver went to Victory Lane three times, recorded 19 top-10 finishes, and led a robust 635 laps along the way.
While these were nowhere near his numbers from a season earlier, they were solid, nevertheless. Moreover, they suggest that Larson has established himself as one of the sport’s elite drivers for the foreseeable future.
Does that mean he’ll be good enough to topple Joey Logano and everyone else in 2023? Well, not necessarily. But he certainly has the talent and the team to go all the way if good fortune smiles on him.
No stranger to Cup Series championships, Kyle Busch will be in a strange place, of sorts, this season when he makes his debut in the No. 8 Chevrolet of Richard Childress Racing.
Busch has spent the past 15 years in a Toyota fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing, where he amassed two championships and 56 of his career wins to date in NASCAR’s premier series. While it’s possible that he’ll will need some time — maybe even a whole year — to adjust to life with a new crew chief, new manufacturer, and new team, this isn’t the first time he’s changed employers, having done so in 2008 after three years with Hendrick Motorsports.
Back then, Busch hit the ground running as he went to Victory Lane a Cup Series-high eight times in Year One at JGR. That’s unlikely to happen in his first season with RCR, but far more likely is the possibility that Busch will contend for a championship right out of the gate and even be the one who puts an end to the reign of Joey Logano — one of his fiercest rivals.
You have to go all the way back to 1980 for the last time a driver won a championship in his second full season as a NASCAR Cup Series driver. And that driver — eventual seven-time champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt — was a rare breed indeed.
Given all this, the odds would appear to be stacked heavily against second-year Cup Series driver Austin Cindric doing what Earnhardt last did over 40 years ago. Then again, Cindric already defied the odds one time when — in shocking fashion — he became the first rookie driver ever to win the Daytona 500.
The son of Team Penske team president Tim Cindric didn’t stop there, however, as he made it all the way to the Round of 12 in the Cup Series playoffs and easily claimed rookie-of-the-year honors over second-generation drivers Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland.
Cindric may not have the experience to beat Joey Logano or other veterans of the sport for NASCAR’s top prize in 2023, but he should have the equipment. After all, he and Logano drive for the same organization, which shares a host of resources among its three Cup Series teams.