NASCAR 2022: What we’ve learned this season and what to expect the rest of the way

This season more than any other, the NASCAR Cup Series has been a marathon. The Cup Series has been nonstop from the Daytona 500 in February now, as Saturday and Sunday marks the only weekend off of the 2022 season. After that, it’ll be nonstop action from Nashville in late June all the way to the championship race at Phoenix in November.

This lone reprieve means it’s the one chance for drivers and crews to reset and revitalize. Ten races are now left until the regular season ends, and then the season will be determined through the 10-race playoffs in the fall. With that in mind, let’s revisit the season thus far, including some of its major themes and how they could help determine the rest of the season to come.

Parity prevails

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Usually, a select driver or group of drivers would have distinguished themselves from the rest of the field and started stockpiling wins at this point. But in 2022, there’s been a break from not only that trend, but also from the familiar cast of frequent visitors to Victory Lane.

  • Through 16 races so far, a total of 12 different drivers have won a race.
  • Of the repeat winners — William Byron, Ross Chastain, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano — no one has won more than twice.

The season so far has felt like the natural result of a shift away from an emphasis on points racing and towards an emphasis on winning. Getting a win and earning a playoff berth matters more towards the Cup Series championship than stockpiling top fives or top 10s, and drivers and teams have adjusted accordingly over the course of nine seasons since the current playoff format was adopted in 2014.

Granted, last season was very competitive at this point too — 11 drivers had won through 16 races in 2021 — but what makes this year different is the drivers who have won a race … and an even greater variance in drivers who have contended for a win.

Supplanting familiar faces like Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski in the winner’s circle have been four first-time winners in Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez. And beyond that, drivers like Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Bubba Wallace, Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Erik Jones have all contended for victories in the final lapse of races this season.

Considering that a select round robin of drivers monopolized the winner’s circle not long ago — Remember the “Big Three” season in 2018 or Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin dominating 2020? — 2022 so far has presented a dramatic departure from what the competitive balance of stock car racing had been.

The rise of Trackhouse

Speaking of the competitive balance being disrupted, the winner’s circle is no longer the exclusive domain of names like Hendrick, Gibbs and Penske. After being an upstart that showed some promise in 2021, Trackhouse Racing has taken an enormous second-year leap.

The forward-thinking race team, co-owned by former driver Justin Marks and global superstar Pitbull, has already won three races this season, tying them with Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske for the second-most. The ascent of Trackhouse has marked a complete departure from the status quo, as it has been a very long time since a new organization has risen to the level of a top Cup team so quickly. What makes that even more impressive is how Trackhouse has done so with Chastain and Suarez — two fellow upstarts — as its drivers.

Trackhouse has taken the lead among a new generation of race teams that have capitalized on NASCAR’s Next Gen platform. Fellow second-year team 23XI Racing has also won this year, with Kurt Busch piloting one of their cars to the win at Kansas. Meanwhile, Kaulig Racing came within one bump-and-run of winning Circuit of the Americas with AJ Allmendinger at the wheel.

What’s next for Next Gen?

The last time NASCAR debuted an entirely new race car was in 2007, and Kyle Busch reacted to winning the first race ever for the then-Car of Tomorrow by famously declaring “I can’t stand to drive them, they suck.” A whopping 15 years later, the reception for the latest and greatest in stock car technology could not be more different.

The Next Gen car has been widely praised in its debut season with multiple exciting races on a wide variety of racetracks, validating the work that NASCAR has done towards developing the car and its corresponding technical program. Compared to the highly stable yet highly aero sensitive Gen6 (a derivative of the Car of Tomorrow), the Next Gen car has made for a more challenging car for drivers and more exciting races for fans — particularly on mile-and-a-half tracks, which have suddenly become action-packed affairs.

However, the Next Gen car’s performance on short tracks — particularly Martinsville — has not been satisfactory. And in the interest of making for better racing on short tracks, NASCAR may end up making some tweaks to the car by removing the rear diffuser for short tracks, an idea that is being tested on-track next week. In theory, this should make trailing cars less sensitive to turbulent air and improve drivers’ ability to pass and run in close quarters. That’s especially important at Martinsville, which hosts both the penultimate race of the season and the playoff elimination race that determines the Championship 4.

Playoff anxiety

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Historically, drivers well above the playoff cutoff line on points and points alone could generally earn a playoff spot even if they didn’t win by Race 26. This year, no driver in that position can or should think that’s a guarantee.

With 12 winners so far, drivers who are currently in the playoffs on points are being made to feel less and less secure. Despite being fourth and sixth in the points standings respectively, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. are 13th and 14th on the playoff grid by virtue of having not won. And Daniel Suarez’s Sonoma victory meant that Kevin Harvick, the regular season champion two years ago, was bumped below the cutoff line.

Considering the amount of different winners this year and the quality of drivers that have not won yet, there is an expectation that winning will be the only way for anyone to ensure a playoff spot. In the event that there are more than 16 different winners, even that might not be enough, which would make for a nervous July and August for drivers like Chase Briscoe, Suarez, Austin Cindric, and Kurt Busch — all of whom left Sonoma with less than 400 points.

For notekeeping purposes, the record for most different winners in a Cup season was set in 2001, when 19 drivers in total visited Victory Lane. That season, 14 different drivers had a win by Race 26, which would have meant just two spots available on points in a playoff format.

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