August 12, 2022

This season more than any other, the NASCAR Cup Series has been a marathon. The Cup Series has been nonstop since the Daytona 500 in February now, as Saturday and Sunday mark the only weekend of the 2022 season. After that, it will be nonstop action from Nashville in late June until the race championship in Phoenix in November.

This reprieve alone means it’s the only chance for pilots and crews to reset and revitalize. There are now ten races left until the end of the regular season, and then the season will be determined by the 10-race playoffs in the fall. With that in mind, let’s review the season so far, including some of its main themes and how they might help shape the rest of the season ahead.

Parity prevails

Getty Images

Usually a selected rider or group of riders would have stood out from the rest of the field and started racking up wins at this point. But in 2022, there was a break not just from that trend, but also from Victory Lane’s familiar cast of frequent visitors.

  • 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 seemed like a natural result of moving away from an emphasis on points races and towards an emphasis on winning. Getting a win and earning a playoff berth is more important to the Cup Series championship than storing the top five or top 10, and drivers and teams have adjusted accordingly in the nine seasons since the adoption of the current playoff format in 2014.

Admittedly, last season was also very competitive at this stage – 11 drivers had won 16 races in 2021 – but what makes this year different is the drivers who won a race … and an even greater variance among drivers who fought for a victory.

Displacing familiar faces like Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski in the winner’s circle were the first four 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 been vying for victories in the final laps of races this season.

Considering a select round robin of drivers monopolized the winner’s circle not so long ago – remember the ‘Big Three’ season in 2018 or Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin dominating 2020? – So far, 2022 has shown a dramatic departure from what the competitive balance of stock car racing used to be.

The rise of Trackhouse

Speaking of disrupted competitive balance, the winner’s circle is no longer the exclusive domain of names like Hendrick, Gibbs and Penske. After being a promising upstart in 2021, Trackhouse Racing took a huge leap forward in year two.

The forward-thinking racing 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 second place. The rise of Trackhouse marked a complete departure from the status quo, as it had been a very long time since a new organization had risen to the level of a top team so quickly. What makes this even more impressive is how Trackhouse did it with Chastain and Suarez – two other upstarts – as drivers.

Trackhouse has taken the lead in a new generation of racing teams that have capitalized on NASCAR’s Next Gen platform. Sophomore team 23XI Racing also won this year, with Kurt Busch driving one of their cars to the win at Kansas. Meanwhile, Kaulig Racing found itself less than a bump away from winning the Circuit of the Americas with AJ Allmendinger at the wheel.

What is 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 for the then-car of tomorrow by saying “I don’t can’t bear to drive them, they suck”. Fifteen years later, the reception for the latest and greatest in stock car technology couldn’t be more different.

The Next Gen car was widely praised in its debut season with multiple thrilling races on a wide variety of circuits, validating the work NASCAR has done to develop the car and its corresponding technical program. Compared to the very stable but highly aero sensitive Gen6 (a derivative of the car of the future), the Next Gen car created a tougher car for drivers and more exciting races for fans, especially on the mile and a half. tracks, which suddenly became action-packed affairs.

However, the Next Gen car’s performance on short tracks – particularly at Martinsville – was not satisfactory. And in the interest of racing better on short tracks, NASCAR may end up making some changes to the car by removing the rear diffuser for short tracks, an idea that is being tested on the track next week. In theory, this should make following cars less susceptible to turbulent air and improve drivers’ ability to overtake and race in close quarters. This is especially important in Martinsville, which hosts both the penultimate race of the season and the playoff elimination race that determines the 4 championship.

Playoff anxiety

Getty Images

Historically, drivers well above the playoff line on points and points alone could usually earn a playoff spot even if they didn’t win in race 26. This year, no driver in this position cannot or should think of it as a guarantee.

With 12 winners so far, drivers who are currently in the points playoff feel increasingly insecure. Despite being fourth and sixth respectively in the points standings, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. are 13th and 14th on the playoff grid because they didn’t win. And Daniel Suarez’s win in Sonoma meant Kevin Harvick, the regular season champion two years ago, went below the cut line.

Considering the number of different winners this year and the quality of the drivers who have yet to win, it is expected that winning will be the only way for anyone to secure a playoff spot. In the event that there are more than 16 different winners, even that might not be enough, which would make July and August nervous for drivers like Chase Briscoe, Suarez, Austin Cindric and Kurt Busch – all of whom left Sonoma with less than 400 dots.

For record-keeping purposes, the record for the most different winners in a Cup season was set in 2001, when a total of 19 drivers visited Victory Lane. That season, 14 different drivers won Race 26, which would have meant only two spots available on points in a playoff format.