By Ethan Miller ‘23
After one month of NASCAR Cup Series racing in 2022, where do things stand? Prior to the season, many questions were had about the brand new race car, up-and-coming drivers, and the exciting new schedule. Now, many of those questions have been answered, but new ones have been created as well. One month in, here are the biggest storylines so far for the season.
NASCAR’s NextGen car, which has been in the works for the past 5 years, hit the track at the Busch Light Clash at the LA Coliseum in February and immediately impressed fans and competitors. Sure, the short track racing on a ¼ mile track helped, but the cars shined in the exhibition event. Nearly every team was competitive and had at least one car in the main event, which featured close racing, tempers running high, and enough incidents to keep the 60,000-strong fans in attendance on their feet (60 percent of whom were attending their first NASCAR race). Many of the concerns for the durability of the car (and drivers’ ability to beat and bang on other cars during the race) were answered after dozens of crashes and spins that drivers were able to continue racing afterwards.
After the Clash, the teams headed to Daytona for the first Daytona 500 with the Gen 7 car. Worries of a boring race were quelled when the cars took the green in the Great American Race, as the racing was the same it has been for decades- tight, fast pack racing, with a few wrecks and flips sprinkled in. Amplifying the quality of the race was a photo finish between rookie Austin Cindric and fan-favorite Bubba Wallace that put Cindric and his #2 Ford Mustang in victory lane. So far, so good for NASCAR, as no safety issues or recurring parts failures happened to start the year.
The real highlight of the first month was the car’s performance on the intermediate tracks- D-shaped ovals 1 to 2 miles in length. Historically, and especially in the past 4 years, racing at such courses was often lackluster at best. The NextGen car has elevated the quality of racing at intermediates so far, and it doesn’t appear that it’ll change anytime soon. Both races at Fontana and Las Vegas featured multi-groove racing that led to lots of passing and side by side racing, and both events ended in a close finish. In Phoenix for the fourth race of the year, the racing took a step back, but most of that was due to Phoenix being a historically boring track regardless of the car. With most of the racing coming at intermediate race tracks this season, there’s reason for optimism for a wildly exciting year.
The New Young Guns
20 years ago, NASCAR had a youth revival. Drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, and Tony Stewart all joined the Cup Series, as did a dozen of other superstars in the same 5 year window. By 2007, the old guard had been basically replaced- gone were the days of Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton, Bobby and Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace, and more. Fast forward to 2022, where a majority of the previous youth revival has retired. The last 2 championships were won by drivers under 30 years old (Chase Elliott 2020 and Kyle Larson 2021), but a large-scale domination in not only wins but top 5s and top 10s by young drivers was yet to be seen. That script has been changed this season. Rookie Austin Cindric won the Daytona 500, followed by defending champion Kyle Larson winning at Fontana and teammate Alex Bowman winning at Las Vegas (29 and 28, respectively). At Phoenix, 27-year-old Chase Briscoe won for the first time in his young career after a hard-fought journey to the Cup Series. William Byron grabbed his 3rd career win at Atlanta Motor Speedway in race 5 to complete the…quinfecta? All 5 drivers to win points races in 2022 are under 30 years old; Byron, already in his 5th full-time Cup Series Season, is only 24 years old. The streak can be traced back to last season too, as the final 5 races of that year were won by 20-somethings as well, extending the list to 10 straight NASCAR races. Young drivers like Ross Chastain, Tyler Reddick, and Daniel Suarez, while winless, have also shown tremendous speed. On the flip side, the “old guard” has struggled thus far- drivers such as Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Kevin Harvick are all outside the top 10 in points (Hamlin is in 26th). After 5 races, it appears that the new young guns have officially arrived, and are here to stay- the old guard’s days are numbered.
Atlanta Motor Speedway has been on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule since 1960, but Sunday’s race was its first in a brand new iteration. In 1996, the track was converted from a traditional 1.5 mile oval to a 1.5 mile D-shaped trioval, and stayed in that format until last summer. It was then announced that the track would be repaved with added banking, going from 24 degrees to 28 degrees, with the hopes of recreating the superspeedway pack racing seen at Daytona and Talladega. Suffice it to say, fans and drivers were not impressed with the plans. For the past 5 years, NASCAR has been trying to force that type of racing; racing that requires minimal skill and creates pointless crashes. All of their previous attempts had created boring racing that made it nearly impossible to pass, and many fans dreaded that this would be yet another snoozefest. However, despite the low expectations, NASCAR and SMI (Speedway Motorsports Inc, the owner of Atlanta Motor Speedway) nailed it. They succeeded, somehow, in recreating the polarizing pack racing that fans are used to seeing at Daytona and Talladega, complete with crashes and airborne race cars (one of which recovered to finish 5th). Given SMI’s lackluster history of reconfiguring and repaving tracks, the immediate success of the race is even more shocking. A thrilling race on Sunday immediately makes Atlanta a hot ticket once more. Hopefully NASCAR doesn’t repeat their favorite mistake: overdoing it, by trying this reconfiguration with every 1.5 mile track on the schedule. 6 superspeedway races is plenty, to go along with 6 short tracks and 6 road courses. William Byron got the win, his first of the year, in what was essentially the inaugural race at new Atlanta. The Cup Series will return to the track in July- and this time, fans will be excited to see what that race has to offer.