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 hasn’t stopped for the Daytona 500 in February now, with Saturday and Sunday the only weekend outside of the 2022 season. After that, it’ll be non-stop action from Nashville in late June all the way to the championship race in Phoenix in November.

This one time limit means it’s one chance for drivers and crews to reset and activate. There are now ten races left until the end of the regular season, after which the season will be decided by the 10-race playoffs in the fall. With that in mind, let’s revisit the season so far, including some of its key themes and how they can help define the rest of next season.

parity prevails

Getty Images

Usually the chosen driver or group of drivers will distinguish themselves from the rest of the field and begin to store the gains at this point. But in 2022 there was a break not only from this trend, but also from the staff familiar to regular visitors of Victory Lane.

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

The season so far seems like a natural result of the shift away from the focus on the points race and towards the focus on winning. Achieving a win and earning a playoff berth is more important to a Cup Series championship than storing a Top Five or Top 10, and drivers and teams have adjusted accordingly over the nine seasons since the current supplement format was adopted in 2014.

Sure, last season was very competitive at this point as well – 11 drivers won over 16 races in 2021 – but what makes this year different is the drivers who won a race… arguing for the win.

Putting off familiar faces as Martin Truex Jr. And Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski in the winner’s circle were four first-time winners Austin Cendrick, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez. Furthermore, drivers such as Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Bubba Wallace, Tyler Riddick, Austin Dillon and Eric Jones competed for victories in the last laps of the races this season.

Given that a select round of drivers monopolized the winner’s circuit not too long ago – do you remember the ‘Big Three’ season in 2018 or did Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin dominate 2020? 2022 has thus far presented a dramatic departure from the competitive balance of motor racing.

Track House Rise

Speaking of competitive imbalance, the winner’s circle is no longer the exclusive domain of names like Hendrick, Gibbs and Penske. After being a rookie who showed some hope in 2021, Trackhouse Racing took a huge leap in year two.

The forward-thinking racing team, owned by former driver Justin Marks and world star Pitbull, has already won three races this season, tying them up with Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske in second place. Trackhouse’s rise was a complete departure from the status quo, as it’s been a very long time since a new organization rose to the level of a higher cup team so quickly. What makes that even more impressive is how Trackhouse does it with Chastain and Suarez – two budding teammates – as drivers.

Trackhouse has taken the lead among a new generation of racing teams that have benefited from NASCAR’s Next Generation platform. His second teammate of the year 23XI Racing also won this year, with Kurt Busch driving one of their cars to victory in Kansas. Meanwhile, Kaulig Racing came close to winning the Circuit of the Americas with AJ Allmendinger.

What’s next for the next generation?

The last time NASCAR debuted an all-new race car was in 2007, and Kyle Busch reacted to winning the first-ever race of the Cars of Tomorrow then with his famous declaration “I can’t stand to drive it, it’s bad.” 15 years later, the reception of the latest and greatest automotive technology available couldn’t be more different.

The next-generation car was widely praised in its first season with several exciting races on a variety of racetracks, validating the work that NASCAR did to develop the car and its corresponding technical programme. Compared to the highly stable but highly flight-sensitive Gen6 (derived from the Car of Tomorrow), the next-generation car made for a more challenging car for drivers and more exciting racing for fans – especially over the mile and a half. The tracks, which suddenly became action-packed affairs.

However, the performance of the next-generation car on short tracks – especially Martinsville – was not satisfactory. And in order to improve racing on short tracks, NASCAR may end up making some modifications to the car by removing the rear diffuser for short tracks, Idea being tested on the right track next week. In theory, this should make rear cars less sensitive to turbulent air and improve drivers’ ability to pass and run in close quarters. This is especially important in Martinsville, which hosts both the penultimate race of the season and the elimination race that determines Championship 4.

match anxiety

Getty Images

Historically, drivers who significantly exceed the qualifying line in points and points alone can earn a watershed point even if they do not win 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 qualifying on points are being made to feel less and less safe. Despite being fourth and sixth in the points standings respectively, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr are 13th and 14th on the qualifying grid by virtue of their lack of wins. And Daniel Suarez’s win at Sonoma meant that Kevin Harvick, the regular season champion two years ago, crashed under the cutting line.

Given the number of different winners this year and the quality of drivers who haven’t yet won, there is an expectation that winning would be the only way for anyone to secure a playoff place. If there are more than 16 different winners, it may not be enough, which could lead to nervousness in July and August for drivers like Chase Briscoe, Suarez, Austin Sendrick and Kurt Busch – all of whom left Sonoma with less than 400 points.

For note-keeping 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 26 race wins, meaning there were only two spots available on points in the playoff format.