NASCAR 2023 awards: Best driver, top rookie, biggest surprise, most improved

The 2023 NASCAR Awards Ceremony will be Thursday night in Nashville as NASCAR honors its three national series champions.

But why wait until then for some awards? 

Here are 20 “awards” for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season as decided by an esteemed panel of one (me). Note this is focused on the Cup Series only.

Driver of the Year: Kyle Larson

Larson didn’t win the most races and came up one spot short of winning the championship. But the guy was week in, week out, one of the fastest drivers, if not the fastest, on the track. Sure, part of that is Hendrick Motorsports. And a big part of that is crew chief Cliff Daniels. But a good part of that is Kyle Larson.

Closer of the Year: Ryan Blaney

Yeah, I heard you. The 2023 Cup champion isn’t the driver of the year? I’m going to give him “Closer of the Year” status, and it isn’t just because he won at Martinsville in the next-to-last race of the season and then won the title with a second-place finish at Phoenix. He consistently got the most out of his car.

Why Ryan Blaney deserves the 2023 Cup championship

Why Ryan Blaney deserves the 2023 Cup championship

Crew Chief of the Year: Jonathan Hassler

Hassler was Blaney’s crew chief and did a wonderful job in making sure Blaney was at his best at the right time. I don’t know what it would be like to have Roger Penske on the radio and helping guide my driver during the championship race, but Hassler handled it and seemed to thrive.

Owner of the Year: Brad Keselowski

Keselowski is a minority owner in RFK Racing (he is after all, third on the list of names as the K in RFK), but he is the face of the organization and his competitiveness and vision have helped the organization make a huge turnaround. Having drivers finish seventh and eighth in the standings and earning three wins is a big deal.

Biggest Surprise: William Byron

Yes, we knew Byron was really good. And, yes, we knew Byron could be poised for a breakout season. But six victories for Byron and crew chief Rudy Fugle was even beyond most predictions for 2023. His making it to the Championship 4 and finishing third in points was predictable, but the way he got there? No way. And don’t forget, he won some of the biggest races for Hendrick, including at Las Vegas the weekend Chase Elliott got hurt and at Texas to mark the 300th win for the organization.

William Byron on what it means to earn the 300th Cup win for Hendrick Motorsports

William Byron on what it means to earn the 300th Cup win for Hendrick Motorsports

Personality of the Year: Denny Hamlin

This isn’t to say Hamlin didn’t have a great year on the racetrack. He finished with three victories and was fifth in the standings (the best playoff driver who didn’t make the Championship 4). But away from the track, Hamlin shined with his new podcast in giving insight to fans. And then at the track, who can beat his swagger? More on that later.

Rookie of the Year: Ty Gibbs

Gibbs might not just be rookie of the year, he might be the rookie of the decade. He didn’t win, but 18th in the standings with four top-5s and 10 top-10s is impressive for a rookie. Plus, he started in the top-10 in 15 of the 36 races (including nine of the last 27), showing he has speed.

Retirement Tour of the Year: Kevin Harvick

Harvick didn’t have many competitors in this category (Aric Almirola announced his retirement from Cup racing with just a couple weeks left in the season), but he and Stewart-Haas Racing did more than just an OK hashtag (I personally am not going to miss #4Ever) to recognize the moment. Running the 29 at the all-star race was brilliant and bringing back the old Budweiser scheme for the race at Homestead was solid. Plus, the team’s content on social platforms was well done and brought back memories. 

Kevin Harvick on his final race and the emotions of Phoenix

Kevin Harvick on his final race and the emotions of Phoenix

Most Improved Driver: Chris Buescher

Buescher had won two races in the first 278 races of his career. In the last 15 races of 2023, he won three races. And he didn’t just do that. He had nine top-5s this season — after having 10 in his first seven seasons. He had 17 top-10s this season — after having 38 in his first seven seasons. He led 255 laps — after leading 351 in his first seven seasons.

Underrated Driver of the Year: 23XI Racing

I know, I know, that’s a team, not a driver. But what Tyler Reddick (two wins, sixth in the standings) and Bubba Wallace (10th in the standings) did this year probably should have gotten more attention for how impressive that was. They are still young drivers — Reddick is 27 and Wallace is 30, and they compete for a team in just its third year of existence.

Bubba Wallace discusses what his playoff berth says about his legacy

Bubba Wallace discusses what his playoff berth says about his legacy

Biggest Frustration: Chase Elliott

It had to be frustrating to be a Chase Elliott fan in 2023 — from him breaking his leg to his one-race suspension for wrecking Denny Hamlin. Oh, and also the fact that he didn’t win. It wasn’t a horrible season as Elliott finished 17th in the standings as the driver with the most points who didn’t make the playoffs — a pretty decent accomplishment considering he missed seven races — and the No. 9 team finished 10th in the owner points.

Biggest Letdown: Legacy Motor Club

This is more from a fans’ perspective than from my perspective. I didn’t think Jimmie Johnson coming in as a co-owner to what was then Petty GMS Racing was going to immediately turn around the program. But fans likely had higher hopes than teams that finished 27th and 32nd in the owner standings. Granted, the No. 43 team would have been 23rd if not for a 60-point penalty. Still, many felt Erik Jones would be better than one top-5 and seven top-10s this year, although the one bit of good news is the improved performance later in the season. Some will say the season was over once the team opted to leave Chevrolet after this season for Toyota. Guess fans will find out in 2024 if that was a big difference.

Biggest Feel-Good Moment: Big Wins By Stenhouse, McDowell

It is hard to distinguish between these two moments. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and JTG Daugherty Racing winning the Daytona 500 was a feel-good moment for a driver and team that have toiled for several years with limited success. And then Michael McDowell’s win at Indianapolis showed just how good a road-course racer McDowell is and just how much Front Row Motorsports has improved.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wins the 2023 Daytona 500 after a wild overtime finish

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wins the 2023 Daytona 500 after a wild overtime finish

Best Move: Kyle Busch to RCR

Busch won three races in his first year at RCR, and that was a success as he showed that he can still win and RCR can still win. The overall season was quite up-and-down, but 10 top-5s and 17 top-10s showed there is promise and his move wasn’t a mistake.

Most Unpredictable: Martin Truex Jr.

Truex won three races and the regular-season title and used those points to advance throughout what was mostly a miserable playoffs for him as he was knocked out in the Round of 8. He finished 11th in the standings after being a championship favorite going into the playoffs. Even off the track, no one seemed to really know if Truex would come back for 2024. Finally in August, he made his decision that he would return.

Best Paint Scheme: Reddick-Wallace’s Homestead hamburger schemes

Using its relationship with sponsor McDonald’s, having Grimace and Hamburglar schemes was fun. Fans of all ages could enjoy those schemes, and they were colorful and distinguishable on the track. Yes, many of the Nike/Michael Jordan brand schemes were cool (and the Star Wars schemes, too), but none were as fun as the dueling hamburger ones. 

Best Quote: Denny Hamlin

Yes, he’s back. We told you. His post-Bristol win comments to fans of “I beat your favorite driver” and then when asked who that would be, he said “All of Them” were ROTFLMAO moments. Even a Hamlin hater had to at least appreciate the cockiness of the comments.

Best Race: Fontana

The last race on the 2-mile oval didn’t disappoint at California Speedway as it featured plenty of drama and 28 lead changes. And it showed that Kyle Busch was going to be a force to be reckoned with during the season. 

Best Sight: Ryan Preece Exiting Car at Daytona

Preece’s horrible wreck at Daytona made one think the worst might have happened as he flipped and spun several times. To see him get out of the car was the best news of the season.

Ryan Preece takes off his sunglasses to show reporters his eyes as he talks about his crash at Daytona

Ryan Preece takes off his sunglasses to show reporters his eyes as he talks about his crash at Daytona

Best Image: Cars on Chicago Streets

This race could have been the best race if not for the crazy rain, but just the images of NASCAR Cup Series cars with iconic Chicago buildings in the background was so freaking cool. And so rare, as NASCAR had never raced on a street circuit with its top series.

Thinking Out Loud

NASCAR does have to compete with Formula 1 and IndyCar for the attention of the motorsports fan and the dollars of potential sponsors. So is the theory feasible that a rising tide lifts all boats?

Yes. After the F1 roller-coaster ride of running a race that included the Strip in Las Vegas, there have been some wanting to make comparisons to NASCAR, what is better, what is worse. There were some bemoaning that NASCAR has way more passing but not the flashiness of F1.

In this day and age when car culture seems to become more and more niche, it is imperative for NASCAR that there are as many fans of motorsports as possible. And then it’s up to NASCAR to prove why those motorsports fans should watch and follow NASCAR.

And the way to prove that? It isn’t dismissing the other forms of motorsports but instead wants to make NASCAR a can’t-miss product from a fan and sponsor standpoint.

NASCAR can’t match Formula 1’s current ties to manufacturer and country loyalty. It needs to find other ways for fans to feel passionate about their drivers.

Whether that’s taking the sport to new markets, creating a better path for talented drivers to make it into the national series and/or creating a car that showcases driver talents, that’s what will increase interest in the sport. 

Social Spotlight

Stat of the Day

The Cup driver who led the most laps won 14 times in 2023. That is the most in the past three seasons.

They Said It

“I don’t know if I’ve been the guy who always has the most talent really. I think I can drive a car, but I feel like if you just work at it enough, you can go out and if you have a good group around you, you can go out and make some stuff happen.” —Cole Custer after winning the Xfinity title

Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.

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