2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Drivers Set

NASCAR Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace speaks with the media during the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Media Day at Charlotte Convention Center on August 31, 2023 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
NASCAR Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace speaks with the media during the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Media Day at Charlotte Convention Center on August 31, 2023 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
NASCAR Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace speaks with the media during the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Media Day at Charlotte Convention Center on August 31, 2023 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

It’s time! For 16 drivers, only one thing matters for the next ten events, and that is the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Championship.

Last weekend, the regular season completed with 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace securing the last coveted spot in the Cup Series playoffs. Now, the intensity is set on 1,000 as they chase the ultimate prize come Championship Weekend at Phoenix Raceway in November.

Martin Truex Jr. was the regular season champion on the strength of three wins and several consistent finishes. However, he sits second in the standings entering the opening playoff race this weekend at Darlington Raceway behind William Byron, who had five victories.

Even though he’s not the number one seed, Truex knows momentum is on his side right now.

“Obviously, at the beginning of the year, you set out to be the best,” Truex said. “The regular-season championship’s a big deal. The 15 bonus points that come along with it are very important right now so I’m just really proud of my team and their hard work.”

Last season, Truex’s Joe Gibbs Racing #19 missed the playoffs. This year, they’re the regular-season champion. It’s a true testament to how much effort Martin and his team put into 2023 to turn things around.

“This wasn’t just the 19 team,” he said. “It was JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing), TRD (Toyota Racing Development) and Toyota as a whole. We’ve won a lot more races this year and had a lot more speed across the board with all of our cars. For me, to have my guys really buckled down and found a lot things that I need. The fact that they found stuff that stuck out that we could work on for me has been a huge help.”

Truex isn’t a very outwardly expressive but you the return of joy was apparent in his demeanor this season.

“It’s just fun to go to the track and know this team is going to give me something I can go out and win with almost every single weekend,” he said. “We didn’t have that last year but it’s a lot of fun to race that way and we’ve got it right now. Hopefully we can have it for ten more weeks and go out on top.”

Heading into Darlington, everyone will be chasing Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron who led the series with five victories on a multitude of tracks. From road courses, to mile-and-a-half’s and even short tracks, is Byron surprised by his team’s success in 2023?

“I think we knew that we could win and be a strong as we’ve been,” Byron said. “We knew we were capable. Last year was tough with the new car. We hit the ground running and had some good results early but then it seemed like the car evolved and we struggled to adapt. Then, in the fall, started to get some speed back.”

That speed led to Byron and his team being strong throughout the 2023 NASCAR regular season.

“Late last year, we saw a lot of potential,” he said. “I think, the start of this year, it started to roll really smooth and then we just got into a rhythm.”

Even though he’s only secured one win over the last five weeks, Byron still feels like he has a strong chance to chase his first career NASCAR Cup Series title.

“We’ve had a tough four or so races,” he said. “However, we’ve had speed during that time but that’s part of the ebbs and flows of the season. You want to be set on kill for 38 weeks but it’s really hard to be good every single week. Now, we’re focused on the playoffs.”

As good as Truex has been, and Byron with the most wins in the series this season, the driver heading into NASCAR’s post-season with the most momentum has to be Chris Buescher.

Buescher has won three of the last five races on the series and taken RFK Racing from a top 15 team, to a top 10 team and now a winner on a consistent basis, including last weekend at Daytona.

“This is just unbelievable at this point,” Buescher said. “After our second win that came at Michigan, we talked about hitting our momentum at the right time. Now, to win at Daytona, to close out the regular season this way, this is a big moment for us.”

Now, Buescher’s focus turns to the playoffs and several tracks that fit his driving style and what RFK has been building towards.

“We’ve got some really fun race tracks coming up for us,” he said. “They’re places we’ve been really excited about even before getting the win on Saturday night. I’m certainly pumped up for where we’re at as an organization with the momentum we’ve had, the consistency and the flexibility at all different styles of race tracks. Safe to say we’re going to be a contender as we head into the playoffs.”

With the wins that he’s been able to secure this season, does Buescher feel he’s one of the favorites to win the title in 2023?

“I think we’re a contender,” he said. “We still have work to do. I don’t think we’re under the illusion that the title has to go through us and us alone. We’ve got tracks we still need to be better at and we’ve still got work to do as a team to be in the hunt. I do feel confident about our ability to drive deep through the playoffs and be a contender but with the caliber of teams, I can’t say we’re the favorite.”

Probably the most relieved driver to be in the playoffs after Saturday night was Bubba Wallace. While the driver from 23XI Racing was in the last spot on points heading into the race on Saturday at Daytona, he was by no means safe.

“We survived,” Wallace said. “We saw the 54 (Ty Gibbs, his closest points challenger) and a lot of cars get taken out. We knew kind of where we were at but we just didn’t need a new winner.”

The last few laps had to be nerve-racking for Wallace.

“With about ten to go, I was like, oh, there’s a new winner,” he said. “Then, with eight-to-go, I was like, all right, let’s go. No new winners so it was an emotional roller coaster the last few laps.”

In the end, Wallace made his way in and qualified for the playoffs for the first time in his career.

“I’m mentally drained by all of this,” he said. “This was probably the hardest week I’ve had in a long time. I just wanted to stay hyper-focused. I was so stressed out to the max. We’ve put so much into getting here. We bust our ass so much to get here and it’s finally starting to pay off.”

In total, ten different organizations are represented in this year’s playoff. Led by Joe Gibbs Racing’s three entries (Truex, Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell), Hendrick Motorsports has two (Byron and Kyle Larson), RFK has two (Buescher and Brad Keselowski), 23XI has two (Tyler Reddick and Wallace), and Team Penske has two (Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney).

Richard Childress Racing (Kyle Busch), Trackhouse Racing (Ross Chastain), Front Row Motorsports (Michael McDowell), JTG Daugherty Racing (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) and Stewart-Haas Racing (Kevin Harvick) each have one driver a piece.

Speaking of Harvick, the 2014 Cup Series Champion is making his final run at his second title this season before changing his racing suit for a business suit and microphone as he heads to the FOX broadcasting booth next season.

Harvick wants to go out on top as a driver but has just been blown away by the support he’s received during his last year behind the wheel.

“For me, when you look out and see the ‘4Ever’ signs, you experience the things that each track on the tour has done and you listen to the fans, you get a great idea of how important coming back and doing this last year has meant,” Harvick said. “I may have thought it was silly when it all started but now I don’t have to worry about what people think. I’ve gotten to listen and realize that we’ve had a great impact on the sport and the fans appreciate our effort.”

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