Ranking the 5 Drivers With the Best Opportunity to Capture the Cup Series Title In 2023
The official start of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season is still several days away, but is it ever too early to pick the drivers most likely to hoist the Cup Series champion’s trophy come November?
In the spirit of stepping out on a limb, here’s one veteran NASCAR writer’s prediction on the drivers with the best chance to win the title, starting with the least likely champion among the five most likely champions and working my way down to No. 1.
5. Kevin Harvick
In this, his final season as a NASCAR Cup Series driver, Kevin Harvick is bound not to ride off into the sunset quietly. After all, when has the 2014 Cup Series champion ever been quiet about anything?
Harvick has made it abundantly clear since announcing his retirement plans last month that he plans to give it all he’s got and hold nothing back in his farewell campaign. Will a no-holds-barred, go-for-broke approach be enough to give Harvick his second championship at NASCAR’s top level?
The last couple of seasons have been tough on the Stewart-Haas Racing driver — and SHR as a whole — but Harvick has remained competitive nevertheless and went on a two-race winning streak near the end of the 2022 regular season that proved to everyone that he still has what it takes to go to Victory Lane.
Whether Harvick ultimately finishes his illustrious Cup Series career with another championship will likely come down to no more than whether SHR has made the performance gains necessary to make him a contender. If Harvick is still in the hunt by Championship 4 weekend at Phoenix — a track where he’s the Cup Series’ all-time wins leader with nine victories — he’s going to be almost impossible to beat.
4. Denny Hamlin
Hands down one of the best drivers in NASCAR history to never win a Cup Series championship, Denny Hamlin hopes 2023 will be the year he finally reaches the Promised Land.
After qualifying for the Championship 4 in three of the last four seasons and only narrowly missing the cut in 2022, Hamlin certainly has the experience, the desire, and the team to get back to Phoenix with a shot at the title.
Whether it will actually happen, though, is another matter entirely, especially since Hamlin is in a contract year with Joe Gibbs Racing. If things start to go south with his contract negotiations as they did last season with former teammate Kyle Busch, the distraction will almost inevitably be too great for Hamlin to overcome — and with that will go any realistic shot at the championship Hamlin hardware has long coveted but never been able to bring home.
3. Kyle Larson
A season after winning the Cup Series championship on the strength of an impressive 10 victories, Kyle Larson failed to repeat in 2022 but nonetheless remained a force to be reckoned with by winning three races and finishing seventh in the standings.
If Larson can somehow manage to avoid upsetting teammate Chase Elliott, whom he angered multiple times last season with his late-race aggression, it’ll go a long way toward the driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet returning to the top of the NASCAR world just two years removed from it.
More than anything, Larson just needs to learn how to choose his battles and perhaps cut Elliott a little bit of slack the next time the two end up locked in another fight for the win. Playing nice just once would likely go a long way toward healing the wound that exists between the two drivers, and it would likewise probably ease any lingering tensions that still exist between the drivers’ respective teams within the walls of Hendrick Motorsports.
So the biggest barrier to Larson winning the championship in 2023 is in-house, and he’s the only one who can fix it.
2. Martin Truex Jr.
After sputtering through the kind of 2022 season that he’d prefer to put behind him forever, Martin Truex Jr. seems hell-bent on returning to his typical front-running ways in 2023.
So far, so good.
Truex won this past weekend’s preseason Clash at The Coliseum exhibition race in convincing fashion and appeared to be a driver on a mission to completely forget about last season — a season when he both failed to win a race and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
In the Clash, Truex looked a lot more like the driver who, from 2015-2021, went to Victory Lane 29 times, captured a championship, and solidified his status as one of the sport’s elite drivers.
If the Clash is any indicator of what’s in store for Truex in 2023, which could be his last year as a full-time Cup driver, he’ll be well-positioned to capture his second career title and first since 2017.
1. Chase Elliott
Last year’s regular season champion and a Championship 4 qualifier in each of the past three seasons, Chase Elliott has been the Cup Series’ best overall performer since 2020, when he secured his first title in his fifth season at NASCAR’s highest level.
Elliott entered the 2022 playoffs with a bundle of playoff points amassed during the regular season that made him a virtual lock for the Championship 4, but NASCAR’s most popular driver never really seemed to find his regular season mojo in the playoffs.
Sure, he won a playoff race at Talladega and ultimately did make it to the Championship Round, but he seemed frustrated at times over the 10-week playoff stretch about the speed — or lack thereof — in his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports cars, and he ended up finishing last at Phoenix among the four championship-eligible drivers.
Still, there’s no reason to think Elliott won’t factor heavily into the championship mix again in 2023, and if he can keep the pressure on all season this time, the big trophy may well be his to lose.