NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Before the book on the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season is finally closed and committed to the archives, a year's worth of celebration for the sport's 75th Anniversary has earned one more. This week, NASCAR's champion drivers and teams are being honored with the annual Champion's Week in Nashville, culminating in the 2023 NASCAR Awards ceremony on Thursday evening.
In the spirit of Champion's Week celebration, and in commemoration of another remarkable season of racing, CBS Sports has a number of its own awards to (informally) hand out for some of NASCAR's best. Here is a look at CBS Sports' assessment of the top performers, top moments and more from the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.
Driver of the Year: William Byron
While he fell just short of his first Cup Series title after fading in the second half of the Championship Race, there was no doubt William Byron was NASCAR's best driver from start to finish in 2023. In a breakout season for the Charlotte, N.C. native, Byron led the Cup Series with six wins on the season while also leading the way in top fives (15, tied with Kyle Larson), top 10s (21) and average finish among full-time drivers (11.0).
While Byron's quick rise through the ranks to Cup always illustrated he had exceptional driving talent, Byron's 2023 season took his status as a rising Cup star to the next level. The only thing missing for Byron was the championship, as he finished third in the final championship standings.
Crew Chief of the Year: Rudy Fugle
Byron's breakout was made possible in large part by the performance of crew chief Rudy Fugle. After dominating the Craftsman Truck Series together in 2016, Fugle and Byron were paired back together at Hendrick Motorsports in 2021, and their third season together at the top level marked their best work yet.
The greatest testament to Fugle was that several of Byron's six wins came on days where he didn't have the fastest car, as Fugle either gradually improved the car to be at its best when it mattered or made the right pit call at the right time -- such as a late two-tire call that wound up getting Byron his second win of the year at Phoenix. Fugle's finest moment came in the penultimate race at Martinsville, when he aggressively worked to get an ill-handling racecar performing well enough for Byron to be able to hang onto a spot in the Championship 4.
Fugle oversaw what was the best season for Hendrick's No. 24 team in over 15 years. Byron's six wins were the most for the No. 24 car since NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon won six times during a statistically dominant 2007 season.
Team of the Year: RFK Racing
The term "rebuild" isn't used often in auto racing, but it's the model Brad Keselowski followed when he became co-owner of RFK Racing in 2022. Setting much of the executive direction, Keselowski set to revitalize the once-dominant Roush Fenway Racing, which had fallen behind and on tough times over the 10 years prior to his joining the team. And in Year 2, Keselowski's process paid great dividends.
RFK Racing experienced its best season in many, many years, with both of their teams earning their way into the playoffs. Chris Buescher in particular excelled, winning three times during a late summer hot streak while shattering his career-high marks in top fives (nine), top 10s (17) and average finish (12.1) on his way to a seventh-place finish in the final standings. Keselowski finished behind him in eighth, just missing out on Victory Lane but earning two runner-up finishes including a second to Buescher at Daytona in August.
2023 marked RFK Racing's best season in a decade, and the first time two of their drivers have finished in the top 10 in the standings at year's end since 2012. More is sure to come from RFK's renaissance in 2023 as the team enters its third season under Keselowski's ownership.
Race of the Year: AdventHealth 400 at Kansas
If there was any one race in 2023 that encapsulated the very essence of what makes NASCAR like no other motorsport in the world, it was the barnburner the spring race at Kansas was. An extremely competitive affair from start to finish, this race saw 37 lead changes among 12 different drivers before a thrilling finish that saw Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin slip around and into each other, with Larson nosing his car into the backstretch wall as Hamlin drove past to win.
This was also a very physical race in more ways than one. Not only were there 11 caution flags, but post-race saw Noah Gragson -- angry about the way Ross Chastain raced him -- get in Chastain's face. Chastain ended up winning the ensuing fight, warning Gragson to back off before a well-executed punch in the face when Gragson didn't oblige. Quite simply, this race had just about everything stock car racing has to offer.
Best Finish: YellaWood 500 at Talladega
While the last lap at Kansas was one of the best finishes of the year, another classic Talladega finish in the fall ended up taking top honors in our book. Not only for the quality of the finish, but also for the implications it had for the way the season ultimately culminated.
Looking for a way past Kevin Harvick on the outside lane on the final lap, Ryan Blaney seized his chance on the backstretch by cutting to Harvick's inside as the 2014 Cup champion -- trying to earn one last win for his Hall of Fame career -- went to block Blaney's run up top. It was then a match race between the two back to the checkered flag, with Blaney prevailing by inches over Harvick as the snarling pack disappeared in a big wreck behind them.
The win ended up being enormously consequential: It sparked a hot streak that propelled Blaney from what was a somewhat average season to a legendary run in the final five races, which also saw him win at Martinsville before prevailing in the Championship 4 to earn his first Cup title.
Most Dominant Performance: Kyle Larson in the All-Star Race
There were two major points of consensus following the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway in May. One, the very fact that North Wilkesboro was hosting a Cup race again was extremely special (more on that in a bit). Two, the race itself wasn't much of a show -- Kyle Larson made sure of that.
Early in the race, a pit road speeding penalty sent Larson to the back of the field, but it didn't matter. With prohibitively the fastest car in the field and just the right feel for North Wilkesboro's 40-plus year old surface, Larson drove from the back to the front and then was never seen again. At one point, Larson had a half-lap lead on the entire field, and he would end up leading 145 of 200 laps on his way to his third All-Star Race win.
Gutsiest Performance: Ryan Preece is one tough customer
Plenty of drivers have had big wrecks at the Daytona International Speedway since the track opened in 1959. Then, there's a select few who have had absolutely massive, unforgettable wrecks -- and then not only climbed out, but went on to race the next week.
With five laps to go in the regular-season finale in August, Ryan Preece's car got turned into the infield and then took flight, flipping in mid-air before biting and violently rolling through the grass a total of 10 times in a wreck rivaling some of the most violent rollovers in NASCAR history. Preece's accident earned him a permanent place on the highlight reel, but his toughness would take both him and his accident to the next level.
Like Ricky Rudd and Davey Allison before him, Preece showed up at Darlington the next week with badly bloodshot eyes, but nonetheless got back in his car and got right back to racing. It earned Preece a great amount of attaboys, building on the level of respect the Connecticut driver has built since coming out of the NASCAR Modified Tour.
Top Underdog Performance: Shane van Gisbergen wins in his debut
Considering the complete unknown of the Cup Series' first-ever street course race in Chicago, it wasn't outside of the realm of possibility that V8 Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen -- who had been used to street courses from racing in Australia and New Zealand -- could be moderately successful in his Cup debut. What almost no one expected was what the driver called SVG did the very first time he climbed in a stock car.
After getting everyone's attention with a third-place qualifying effort, Van Gisbergen would put on a masterclass in street course racing in the final laps, running down Justin Haley for the lead and executing a winning move that would allow him to cruise to victory over the final eight laps. Driving for Trackhouse Racing's Project91, Van Gisbergen became the first driver in NASCAR's modern era to win in his Cup debut, and the first to do so since Johnny Rutherford in 1963.
Van Gisbergen followed his Chicago showstopper up with a 10th-place finish at Indianapolis, and there's more to come: Van Gisbergen will move to the United States in 2024 to pursue NASCAR full-time and will race throughout the sport's top three national touring series.
Pit Road Moment of the Year: William Byron's crew in the Coke 600
Usually when a pit crew gets its flowers, it's because they executed the perfect pit stop at the exact right time to get their driver out front late in the race. But it's very rare that a pit crew performs at the sort of level William Byron's crew did in the Coca-Cola 600 in May.
From the first stop of the day to the last, Byron's No. 24 crew was on it. The 24 crew executed flawlessly time and again, getting their driver the lead six different times and gaining him a net total of 18 positions on pit road. Byron would take advantage of the performance, leading 91 of 400 laps on the day before finishing second, but there was little doubt to anyone that his pit crew were the MVPs of NASCAR's longest race.
Sound-bite of the Year: "I beat your favorite driver! All of them!"
NASCAR is always more interesting when there's a villain who draws the wrath of the grandstands, a role Denny Hamlin has come to accept and embrace over the past several years. Never one to shy away from talking, Hamlin took his shots at a jeering crowd at Pocono after running Kyle Larson into the fence while racing for the win, and then found the absolute perfect words to say amid the always-electric atmosphere of the Bristol Night Race.
After leading 142 laps on his way to winning, Hamlin put on his black and his showman hats as he celebrated on the front-straightaway, taunting a loudly booing crowd with a boastful proclamation: "I beat your favorite driver! All of them!"
Hamlin may not win Most Popular Driver for 2023, but he had yet another season that saw him go deep into the playoffs as he still seeks an elusive first Cup championship. The Bristol Night Race, paired with Kansas and Pocono, marked the third of Hamlin's three wins during the year.
Moment of the Year: The return of North Wilkesboro
Chief among the themes of NASCAR's 75th Anniversary was the celebration of the sport's rich history and colorful heritage, which physically manifested on one magical night in the foothills of North Carolina and the Moonshine Country where the sport began during Prohibition. That area was once a part of the very fabric of NASCAR, with the North Wilkesboro Speedway hosting races every year from NASCAR's first season in 1949 until 1996, when the track was shut down and left behind as NASCAR sought to build new tracks in richer and more lucrative markets.
But North Wilkesboro was never forgotten -- not by the local community, not by racers, and not by those who sought to preserve the track and keep it alive. Against all odds, the hard work and prayers of many were answered. Not only did North Wilkesboro reopen to be revitalized for racing in 2022, but it was named the new site of NASCAR's All-Star Race and welcomed the Cup Series back in an event that many thought would never be seen and wasn't even possible.
Although the race ended up being a drubbing on Kyle Larson's part, even that couldn't spoil the collegiate, joyful atmosphere that permeated All-Star Weekend. And the best part of it all is North Wilkesboro is here to stay: The track will once again host the All-Star Race in 2023, and it has once again been designated as a premier facility for grassroots racing across the Southeast and beyond.