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

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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, as Saturday and Sunday mark the only bye weekend of the 2022 season. After that, there will be nonstop action from Nashville in late June. until the championship race at Phoenix in November.

This lonely breather means it’s the only chance for drivers and crews to reset and reinvigorate. Now there are ten races left until the end of the regular season, and then the season will be determined through the 10-race playoffs in the fall. With that in mind, let’s run through the season so far, including some of its main themes and how they might help shape the rest of the upcoming season.

parity prevails

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

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  • Across 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.

So far, the season has felt like the natural outgrowth of a shift from an emphasis on points racing to an emphasis on winning. Getting a win and earning a playoff berth is more important to the Cup Series championship than racking up the top five or top 10, and drivers and teams have adjusted accordingly over the course of nine seasons since that the current playoff format was adopted in 2014.

Of course, last season was also very competitive at this point – 11 drivers had won in 16 races in 2021 – but what makes this year different is the drivers who have won a race… and an even greater variance in the pilots who have competed for a victory.

Familiar faces like Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski in the winner’s circle have been replaced by four first-time winners in Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez.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 battled for wins in the closing laps of this season’s races.

Considering a select group of drivers monopolized the winner’s circle not too long ago, remember the “Big Three” season in 2018 or Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin dominating 2020? — 2022 thus far has featured a dramatic departure from what had been the competitive balance of stock car racing.

The Rise of Trackhouse

Speaking of disrupting the competitive balance, the winner’s circle is no longer the preserve of names like Hendrick, Gibbs, and Penske. After being an upstart that showed some promise in 2021, Trackhouse Racing has made a huge leap 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 Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske for second place. Trackhouse’s rise has marked a complete break with the status quo, as it has been a long time since a new organization rose so quickly to the level of a top Cup team. What makes it even more impressive is how Trackhouse has done it with Chastain and Suarez, two fellow upstarts, as its pilots.

Trackhouse has taken the lead among a new generation of race teams that have capitalized on NASCAR’s Next Gen platform. Sophomore 23XI Racing also won this year, with Kurt Busch driving one of his cars to win at Kansas. Meanwhile, Kaulig Racing came one step closer to winning the Circuit of the Americas with AJ Allmendinger at the wheel.

What’s next for the next generation?

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

The Next Gen car has been widely praised in its debut season with multiple exciting races on a wide variety of tracks, validating the work NASCAR has put into developing the car and its accompanying technical program. Compared to the highly stable but highly aeroresponsive Gen6 (a derivative of the Car of Tomorrow), the Next Gen car has become a more challenging car for drivers and more exciting racing for fans, particularly at mile-and-a-half. clues, which have suddenly become action-packed affairs.

However, the Next Gen car’s performance on short tracks, particularly at Martinsville, has not been satisfactory. And in the interest of improving short-track racing, NASCAR may end up making some tweaks to the car by removing the short-track rear diffuser, an idea being tested on the track next week. In theory, this should make lagging 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 Championship 4.

playoff anxiety

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Historically, drivers well above the playoff cutoff in points and points alone could usually earn a playoff spot even if they didn’t win before Race 26. This year, no driver in that position can or You must think that it is a guarantee.

With 12 winners so far, the drivers currently in the points playoffs are feeling less and less confident. 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 not having won. And Daniel Suarez’s Sonoma victory meant that Kevin Harvick, the regular-season champion two years ago, was pushed below the cutoff line.

Considering the number of different winners this year and the quality of the drivers yet to win, there is an expectation that winning will be the only way to secure a playoff spot. In the event there are more than 16 different winners, even that might not be enough, creating jitters in July and August for drivers like Chase Briscoe, Suarez, Austin Cindric and Kurt Busch, who all left Sonoma with under 400 points.

For scoring 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 earned a win in Race 26, which would have meant only two available points spots in a playoff format.

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