CONCORD, N.C. – The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway marks the start of the second half of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series regular season.
The race is a fitting start to the 13-race push to the playoffs – a test of driver, crew and machine in a 400-lap, 600-mile race that pushes every aspect of a team to its limits.
"It is a long, hot race and day and the drivers have got to be in great shape to be able to handle what is going to be thrown at them not only physically but mentally because it is a grueling race," team vice chairman Jeff Gordon told HendrickMotorsports.com. "You are going to have ups and downs throughout the race and it is never going to just going perfectly. It can, but that’s highly unlikely."
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The first 13 races of the season have seen strong showings for Hendrick Motorsports in the results. The organization has posted series-best marks in wins (five), poles (five), top-five finishes (17), top-10s (25), laps led (1,262) and stage wins (nine). The laps led are the most in the series by 515 circuits and the eighth-most for the team all-time at this point in a season. In fact, there is only one race that the squad has not led in. The nine stage wins are tied for the third-most all-time through 13 races.
Gordon, a four-time Cup Series champion, has been impressed by what he has seen.
"Performance-wise it has been one of the best starts to the season that we’ve ever had," Gordon said. "Our cars have been really, really good every weekend."
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In particular, the 2023 season has been a big one so far for William Byron with victories at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Phoenix Raceway and Darlington Raceway. The 25-year-old leads the series in wins (three), top-five finishes (six), laps led (596) and stage wins (six). Byron’s third win of the season was also the 100th victory for the iconic No. 24 in the Cup Series. His pit crew currently holds the second-fastest average four-tire stop time at 11.128 seconds.
"You could look at this at the breakout year for the 24 team," Gordon said. "I feel like William Byron’s confidence is high. The laps led and the wins are showing. He and Rudy (Fugle, crew chief) and the way that they have connected, the chemistry that they have and the whole team, pit stops, everything. They just seem to be a real complete team right now."
Kyle Larson is coming off a dominating All-Star Race victory in the exhibition event at North Wilkesboro Speedway. His two points-paying wins on the season have come at the short tracks of Richmond Raceway and Martinsville Speedway. The team has been knocking on the door of additional victories as they led on the final lap at Kansas Speedway before last-lap contact ended a shot at a victory. A similar situation occurred at Darlington as Larson was running second before contact with the leader in the closing laps once again cost the team a trip to the winner's circle. That said, Larson's 582 laps led are second only to teammate Byron.
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With the speed shown, though, the opportunities should continue to be there. The No. 5 HendrickCars.com team has been the fastest under green-flag conditions, according to NASCAR’s loop data.
"We’d like to think we have some momentum going our way," No. 5 crew chief Cliff Daniels said during a Monday appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. "Obviously, the finishes haven’t always been there the last handful of weeks. Certainly, we’ve been upfront. We’ve been contending. It’s been one of those things where we’ve had to put the blinders on and focus on making sure we are doing our best every week to maximize our gains."
The season has also seen its share of adversity with two drivers missing time due to injuries. Chase Elliott was sidelined for six races with a fractured tibia. In his five races back, the 27-year-old has not finished outside the top 12 and has shaved 71 points off his deficit to the provisional playoff bubble. The driver of the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 now sits 63 points below the cutline and is coming off his best result since returning (third at Darlington). Hendrick Motorsports received a medical waiver that allows Elliott to remain eligible for the playoffs.
CHARLOTTE PAINT SCHEMES: No. 5 team | No. 9 team | No. 24 team | No. 48 team
Alex Bowman has missed the last three points-paying races and the All-Star Race due to a fractured vertebra suffered in a sprint car accident last month. He will return this weekend at Charlotte. With new crew chief Blake Harris, the 30-year-old was enjoying the best start to a season in his six years at Hendrick Motorsports. In the first 10 races of 2023, the driver of the No. 48 Ally Racing Chevy had three top-five finishes, six top-10s and a series-best 10.30 average finish. Hendrick Motorsports was granted a medical waiver that will allow Bowman to remain eligible for the playoffs.
Josh Berry has served as the team’s fill-in driver for all but one of the races missed by a full-time driver. Jordan Taylor drove at Circuit of The Americas, while Elliott was out.
Each team was without its crew chiefs for four races following a NASCAR penalty from the race weekend at Phoenix, in which the points infractions were overturned. The Nos. 24 and 48 teams were penalized as well coming out of the Richmond race weekend and docked 60 points as well as five playoff points.
"There have been challenges this year," Gordon said. "From the penalties to the injuries to the races that have gotten away, those have been tough to manage and deal with.
"I’m hoping that we can get through that, learn from it, grow from it and in the second half of the season we can continue to improve. You have to improve. Your competitors are going to get better. We’ve already seen it and we’ve got to continue to get better to stay on top. I do think that right now that Hendrick has all the ingredients to go all the way and win the championship this year."
Tune in to watch the start of the second half of the regular season on Monday, May 29, at 3 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.