For the 2nd consecutive year, Phoenix the end of one era to the next, why this year’s race ushers in the “New NASCAR” for 2022

AVONDALE, AZ — Last year’s NASCAR Cup Series race at the Phoenix Raceway felt like we were ushering in the start of a new era on the driver side. This would be the final race of seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson. It would also be the first championship for teammate Chase Elliott who also happened to be the two-time reigning defending Most Popular Driver in the sport.

I can’t help but to reflect on Elliott and Johnson sharing a special moment at the start/finish line in each of their cars after last year’s race. It was almost signifying the moment the baton was passed fully from Johnson to Elliott.

I mean, we went from Richard Petty to Dale Earnhardt and from Earnhardt to Jeff Gordon and from Gordon to Dale Earnhardt Jr. then from Earnhardt Jr. to Johnson. This championship last year for Elliott and the way he won it with the way Johnson was going on, this was like NASCAR saying, this is your baby now to Chase Elliott.

It just felt right.

Now, we have that moment back this weekend at the west valley racetrack. This time, it’s not on the driver side. This time around, it’s on the sport of NASCAR as a whole.

The Car

Sunday will mark the final race of this current car. Next year, the Next Gen car will take over which starts on Feb. 6 in the Busch Clash which also occurs at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. More on that in a bit.

But, this weekend is the 324th and final race for the Generation 6 car. It debuted in the 2013 Daytona 500 (Feb. 24, 2013) and ends at Phoenix (Nov. 7, 2021).

This car was prepared for more safety as well as more speed in hopes that it would give more grip and speed to the drivers and more action for the fans. Obviously, several changes have been made to the car over the last eight years, but now we end one era this weekend and begin another next February.

This new car though is completely different than the one from now. From some changes to the aero and downforce, to a spec chassis, to a sequential transmission, to an independent rear suspension, to a new tire design and fueling system, it’s going to forever change the way we not only race on track, but produce pit stops too.

Everything we’ve known in the past in terms of the on track product is going to change. Setups will change. The way the drivers inside the cars race will change. Braking points to driving style to everything in between is going to be altered. The pit crews will change too.

“We don’t know what to expect,” Denny Hamlin said. “It’s going to be a bunch of changes. To me it’s going to be like the Car of Tomorrow. The bigger car change we’ve had in years past.

“I don’t know how we’re going to prepare. I’m trusting the team to really kind of guide the ship in the right direction.”

Does he throw away his past notebooks?

“Oh, all of it. There won’t be much that will correlate from that car to this one.”

Chase Elliott agreed.

“Yeah, I don’t know until we kind of get going and see how the dynamic works,” he said. “But to me there’s a lot of unknowns about the car and I haven’t really spent a lot of time reading into it yet, so we’ll see.”

Nothing will be the same. NASCAR President Steve Phelps though said that despite that, the concerns are low that this car will flop. He said they’ve spent more time on developing this Next Gen than they ever have in the past.

“What I would say is that this car has been tested, run, more collaboration than any other new car in the history of this sport,” said Phelps. “Not even close. The Gen-5 car that came out, we ran a test in January before we raced it at Bristol for the first time.

“I am confident, and we check all the time on supply chain issues. As of now there are no issues. We’ll continue to monitor that because it’s important. If you got 30 major components to the car, you only have 29 of them, you have a problem. Until the car is on the racetrack, we’ll continue to give it all the attention that it deserves, which is a lot.

“With respect to issues with the car that we’re working through, right now it’s really down to two things that we see, which is steering, which you guys have talked about, and getting that right, the other is the heat in the car. We’ve got some solves for that that the drivers I believe are feeling more satisfied with.

“Listen, until it comes out and we’re actually at the L.A. Coliseum, we’re at the 500, with race cars on the racetrack, I’ll continue to be concerned. But I would say Steve O’Donnell, Probst, Brandon Thomas, that group, working with our teams, working with our OEM partners, have done an incredible job getting us to this point.

“I’m super proud of the group. I think this is a really important milestone for NASCAR. We have to get it right.”

The other part is the movement of the numbers forward so not only will the car look somewhat different, the numbers being moved forward will completely change the way these things look visually overall.

It’s completely a new era.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 14: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Wurth Ford, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 14, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Schedule

Do you want to be on a future NASCAR schedule? Better pay attention. If you hold a date on the circus, you better bring the juice. You better bring the energy. You also better bring the crowd. If you don’t, someone else will and NASCAR has sent a clear message the last two years now, that they’ll go where they’re wanted.

The Clash lacked the punch it once had. Teams spent a lot of money to wad up a bunch of race cars while no one wanted to show up to watch in person. So, they moved it to LA in a football stadium instead.

No one wanted to come watch the Brickyard anymore. The race was moved to the road course at IMS. Kentucky and Chicago lacked the atmospheres and were part of the old cookie cutter layouts that are since moving away from.

That makes it clear. Want to be a part of the NASCAR schedule, you better provide a track with good racing and hope fans come. If not, you’ll be left behind because NASCAR’s found that fresh blood bring fresh eyes and fresh eyes bring eagerness and anticipation.

It’s a time where tracks are going to be held more accountable. They need to create an atmosphere where people want to come. In turn, the tracks are going to hold NASCAR more accountable. They’ll argue that they can’t put butts in the seats unless they have a preferred date and a good on track racing product for fans to want to come to witness.

They’ll work together on race weekends in terms of practice, qualifying and race schedules.

Combine all of that in one potion and you get what both sides hope will make fans want to show up. As a result, you the fans get a win.

But, if you bring new tracks on, existing tracks have to drop off too.

“We’re always looking at both our existing tracks and our new tracks,” Ben Kennedy said. “As we shifted over to St. Louis, ultimately those shifts come from somewhere. Last year Chicagoland and Kentucky came off the schedule.”

NASCAR has found that they had to change the schedule up. You can’t go to the same tracks, in the same places, in the same weekends each year. It gets dull and stagnant. Sometimes you need to change it up. We’ve seen how these new tracks are receipted by fans. NASCAR notices too.

“I think the biggest takeaway that we’ve seen is in particular with some of these new venues that we’ve introduced to the schedule, some of the changes in the schedule, is the amount of excitement and engagement we have for a lot of these new tracks,” Ben Kennedy said.

He cited the new events at Nashville and Road America this past year as reasons as to why.

“Take Nashville Superspeedway as an example in the 2021 season. To have a sold-out crowd, so much energy around that event, I think it really speaks to the decisions that were made, again, how many fans we have in that Nashville area. Same thing goes for Road America, as an example. A ton of great fans out there.

“I don’t know if it is eye-opening, but one of the neatest things to see is kind of the reception we’ve had from the fan base and from the industry for a lot of these changes we’ve made within the schedule.”

So, what’s next then? What’s the next venue or venues to host NASCAR races? Well, I think NASCAR has a clear vision on the future schedules now. The aim is bigger markets. In saying that, how do you bring fans in big metropolitan areas to your sport?

That answer they’ve now found simple – you come to them.

“To your point, exactly. I’m sitting in downtown St. Louis right now. I’m only a five-minute drive from World Wide Technology Raceway,” Kennedy said. “I think to your point, it’s an opportunity to bring the racing action to our fans and to bring some new fans out to the track to sample our sport and sample the Cup Series that haven’t had the opportunity to do so before. I think that’s part of the calculus.

“On top of that, as well, going to the Los Angeles market, we’re excited to be back out in Fontana Auto Club Speedway again in late February of next year, but also going to downtown Los Angeles, which is another five- to 10-minute drive from the Los Angeles Coliseum.

“I think it brings an opportunity to really bring the racing action to the fans that are in these larger markets where you have a lot of fans and give them the opportunity to not only come out and experience the race but also come out for the first time to even see what it’s like.”

Los Angeles in a football stadium. St. Louis in a race track. They’ve been flirting with street races, most notably in maybe Chicago. The next drastic change moving forward is going to be finding spots in downtown areas to race.

NASCAR is also showing a trend and that’s when visiting tracks for a second time, you better differentiate between the two or they’re likely coming to get one of your dates. Pocono, Michigan, Dover and Loudon have all found out the hard way. They didn’t adapt. They had two races each and both looked similar.

Same track. Same distances. Nothing really all that different between the two. They each lost one of their dates.

Now, we’re left with 12 tracks that we visit twice a year on the schedule. Among them, seven are owned by NASCAR (Daytona, Talladega, Phoenix, Martinsville, Richmond, Kansas and Darlington). The other five (Las Vegas, Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte and Texas) are SMI run. But, when looking at this, it’s clear, SMI is the one thinking outside of the box here and likely doing so to keep butts in the seats and dates on the calendar as a result.

Among their five tracks they visit twice, three of them they changed it up. Texas moved their first date to hosting the All-Star race. Bristol switched their first date to a dirt race. Charlotte altered their second race to a ROVAL. Should Atlanta and/or Las Vegas feel threatened?

What about the seven owned by NASCAR?

Kansas, Vegas and Richmond are ones that I question on if we need to come to twice anymore. It’s basically the same race twice and NASCAR is trying to get away from that. Kansas got exposed this past year when no one really showed up to the playoff race. While I don’t think they’ll necessarily take a date away from Kansas because of their deal with the casino outside of Turn 2, I often wonder why we need to go there twice.

NASCAR is showing that they’re open to visiting other tracks that aren’t on the schedule now. They’ve added COTA, Road America, World Wide Technology Raceway, Nashville, etc. Indianapolis moved to the road course.

I don’t see them changing around any of the Daytona or Talladega races and as long as Phoenix hosts the finale, they’re set. Martinsville is switching it up with a night race in the spring while Darlington has a day race in the spring and the Southern 500 under the lights on Labor Day weekend. Their only three tracks in question is Kansas, Vegas and Richmond.

They’re also willing to go back to being on Sunday’s again. Richmond went from a pair of night races annually to half day half night to now all Sunday afternoon’s. Kansas will be a day race against the NFL next Fall. Why Sunday’s and not utilizing Saturday night’s anymore?

“I think from a fan perspective our fans, again, are accustomed to tuning in on Sunday afternoon and seeing NASCAR Cup Series racing. For a fan going out there to the track, to have the biggest event of the weekend on that Sunday afternoon I think gives them something to look forward to and builds anticipation around the weekend.

“I would say a lot of our fans, myself included, are accustomed to turning racing on, NASCAR racing in particular, on Sunday afternoon. I think we all have that habit. Certainly helped us kind of drive the decision to move that there.”

In 2009 and 2010 we had 10 scheduled night races on the schedule. They were at Phoenix, Richmond (x2), Darlington, Charlotte (x2), Daytona, Chicago, Bristol and Atlanta. Next year, that number is down to six (Martinsville, Bristol (x2), Charlotte, Darlington and Daytona). Out of those 6, half will take place on a Sunday night at that. That’s down from 8 of 10 in 2010.

Plus, among the past tracks with lights, Phoenix, Richmond and Atlanta doesn’t use theirs anymore for Cup with both visits now being day races. Chicago is also gone. The shift is clear. Lights are basically a backup plan now for tracks for the event rain pushes them to night to complete.

More Sunday afternoon races, less visits twice to each track annually and now a change up to the playoffs. I thought 2021 was a damn good schedule in terms of the 10 race postseason but the way that they’re doing 2022 now, well it’s as close to perfect as it will ever be.

Texas this year leads off the Round of 8. Kansas has moved to the middle race. Martinsville stays the same. Did NASCAR land this right too?

See, Kansas has typically been in the second round or at the start of the Round of 8. They keep moving further and further back on the schedule to now it’s the third to last race of the season. For the first time ever, Kansas will host the penultimate race of the third round.

Is his a better spot for them? Next year they move up to the first round, so which is it?

Texas shifts up from the spot that Kansas is now in and will now be the opening race of this round.

Selfishly, it’s great for the track like Kansas in a sense that it even more decides the championship. But, is there more attention on the opening race of the round or even the final race? Does it get lost in the shuffle though as the middle race when you want to start off great and have all the attention in the first round of the final eight or even the last race?

Neither had big crowds this year so a change was needed.

NASCAR has changed up the playoff schedule over the last few years but one things certain, the cutoff races we now know are in perfect positions. Bristol as the last race of the opening round and Martinsville as the final race of the Round of 8 spark enough drama for short tracks to give us what we want to see in elimination races. Now, the ROVAL showed that they deserve to remain as the Round of 12 cut race too.

This race is always unpredictable and for another year, it provided the excitement that it takes to show us that this race should remain for the future.

Most drivers aren’t happy about that as not too many in the garage like the ROVAL. They feel like we’re racing on a parking lot. They’re kind of right. But, by having a road course inside of a 1.5-mile oval makes this track so challenging too and that’s great action and excitement for the fans. There’s no room for error. It’s like a high speed street race with walls all around you and no margin to get off course because a wall is waiting for you if you do.

In turn, that makes setting the car up rather difficult because you have the banking and the oval to deal with high speeds but the infield section is slower. Which do you prefer to be good at and where can you get by on?

I mean, if this race was on just the oval, I don’t think we get the unpredictability of what we saw for 109 laps of action last Sunday. It may have been too straightforward without the drama. We had the same eight advance on as they entered Sunday’s race but it took a lot of wild and tense moments for each to get there too.

That’s a win for NASCAR as well as the ROVAL.

But, it also begs the question, are the playoff tracks in perfect spots. I mean, the Round of 12 is the ultimate wildcard. You get a superspeedway in Talladega followed by the ROVAL. Really, you don’t control your own destiny in this round outside of Vegas.

Next year, Texas moves up to Vegas’ spot to open the Round of 12 which makes an even bigger added importance on that race now. Kansas in turn goes to the opening round sandwiched between Darlington and Bristol. That gets importance as you don’t want to go to Bristol needing a win. Really, between Bristol, Talladega and the ROVAL, those three races in a five week span are mostly out of your control. So, Kansas and Texas have prime real estate again while the cut races mixed with Talladega gives us the drama we’re searching for.

I get the drivers and teams despise the Round of 12. I mean, why wouldn’t you if you were in their shoes. The odds of trouble are greater here than the odds of not getting caught up in something not of your doing. For a driver, you want to control your own destiny and the Round of 12, you really can’t outside of Vegas this year and Texas next.

This round can easily take out championship favorites.

Then for the Round of 8, you get things back in your hands a little more with Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville.

2020 and 2021 have shown great progress with the playoff schedule with 2022 looking at perfection.

The schedule makers have a clear vision and path. It’s completely different than we’ve ever seen too. There’s still going to be more to come though as well.

“As we look to the schedule in 2022, going to the L.A. Coliseum to kick off our debut with our Next Gen car as a proof point frankly to we’re going to be bold in what we’re doing, whether it’s the schedule or the car, all of it, we’re going to take calculated risks,” Phelps said.

“I think the schedule variation was very important. The reason why we’re able to do schedule variation frankly is the two public companies that dominated the Cup schedule, they had responsibilities to their shareholders. Those shareholders wanted to see a return on the investment they were making in those public companies.

“NASCAR merging with International Speedway Corporation and Speedway Motorsports going private were things that people don’t think about what that were very, very important to the success of this sport and will be for decades to come.

“I don’t know what the ’23 schedule is going to look like, but I know it’s not going to look like the ’22 schedule.”

The Playoffs

NASCAR is changing. This isn’t your grandad’s NASCAR anymore. Heck, this isn’t even your dads sport anymore either. NASCAR, has transitioned into a new era of stock car racing over the last couple of decades and with some upcoming moves on the horizon, they will further drift apart from where they started.

First off, that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. Some of the new changes may seem radical, but most of them were needed. As someone who knows the business world well, I can tell you that most businesses can’t sustain success as the years pass by while also operating the same way that they did year after year. You have to adapt and evolve as time passes. While systems are put in place for the profitable businesses, you have to tweak them to the day and time that you’re in while also having an eye towards the future. The ones that stay ahead of that curve, well they’re the ones that are always on top.

NASCAR, well they’ve tried to stay ahead of the curve all along. Some moves (Car of Tomorrow), moving out of the southeast, cookie cutter tracks) failed in a long term outlook, while others have transcended the sport.

With this regime running NASCAR right now, well they’re steering this car down the right path again. They’re finding a mix of the past with a mix of new and blending it all together is helping shape a new NASCAR for the now and the future times as well.

I mean, just look at how a season is raced. Denny Hamlin had no victories in the 26 races regular season but there he is this weekend fighting for a championship. Kyle Larson was the top driver in the regular season but here he is too.

But, there’s a 50-50 chance that the two guys who combined to win six of the nine playoff races thus far and have combined to lead 60% of the playoff laps may not win the title despite being over 100 points clear for the season ahead of the next best.

That’s this new era for you.

The paths to a championship are greatly different than the past and it continues to evolve. The days of points racing for a full season are gone. Hamlin and Larson this year and both he and Kevin Harvick last year have proven that.

Harvick won nine times in 2020 and didn’t even have a shot at a championship come Phoenix. Hamlin won seven times last year himself but didn’t take home the crown either. He had no wins in his last 31 races entering this year’s postseason but now is as good as ever for his first title.

Coming into this weekend, Larson and Hamlin have combined to win six of the nine playoff races and 55% of the laps led but there’s a 50% chance neither of them will win the title on Sunday. Nothing is guaranteed anymore.

Chase Elliott hasn’t won since July 4 and that came on a road course. His last oval win came a year ago this very weekend. Martin Truex Jr. has just seven top fives in his last 23 starts. Either one of them can win the title still too.

The nine races to get to this point proved that you take nothing for granted and can’t be afraid to use your bumper.

This is how NASCAR wants it. It’s not going anywhere. I mean, look at how important these final 10 races have become and how aggressive in nature these races are now run. Do you think we get rivalry moments in a random October race with rewarding a champion based off a full seasons of points?

The playoff format and the intensity by it has created these moments.

I mean, desperation I guess,” Elliott said of the final 50 laps of hard racing at Martinsville and why it didn’t occur in the first 400+ laps prior. “Some people needing to win. Restarts. Guys might find themselves in a little different position than they’ve been in all day. I don’t know.

“I mean, I’d say the biggest thing is just the need to win for some guys I would have to think. I’m probably not an expert either.”

Elliott, said that he didn’t feel like what Keselowski did to him though was necessarily on purpose either and even blamed himself for being in that position anyways.

“I mean, it’s tough. I was racing him hard on the outside. I wasn’t super surprised that he made a mistake,” he said. “As hard as he hit me, I knew he just didn’t clean me out on purpose. I figure he wheel hopped or something. I haven’t seen it. Really moving on was all that mattered.

“I had made some bad choices on adjustments, kind of got us behind. The real reason that happened was because I made a bad decision on what to do to our car. We started playing defense. When you start playing defense, you typically start crashing a lot of times, especially when guys need to win.

“I blame myself for leading us down the wrong path more than anything. I didn’t think it was on purpose either, so all good.”

Keselowski agreed saying that he definitely didn’t want to get into Elliott but the contact was via him pushing too hard for his championship hopes on the line with a bad handling race car.

“Got really tight in the middle of the race,” he said. “Car started rolling at the end. Just super free. I was so loose. Got underneath the 9, got loose. Spun him out. All I could do to hold onto the car.

“We got it better, put ourselves in a position. Just wasn’t quite strong enough there at the end. Disappointing. All in all we gave it a great run here. Wish I could have last week at Kansas back, that’s for sure. Felt like I left the eight points we were short there with some mistakes I made.

“All in all, proud of our team. Proud of the efforts that everyone put in. Disappointed for Team Penske to not get through to the final round. We gave it our best. Feel bad for Chase, that he got caught up there. At least he’s still good for next week. Frustrating day.”

Bowman as a result took the checkered flag in Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway after sliding up into Hamlin’s race-leading Toyota on Lap 494 of 501 and knocking Hamlin’s car up the track and into the outside wall.

As Bowman tried to start a burnout to celebrate his fourth NASCAR Cup Series victory of the season and his first at the .526-mile short track, Hamlin drove to the frontstretch and expressed his displeasure by twice blocking the progress of Bowman’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 31: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, reacts after the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 31, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

“He’s just a hack,” Hamlin said of the race winner. “Just an absolute hack. He gets his ass kicked by his teammates every week. He’s (expletive) terrible. He’s just terrible. He sees one opportunity, he takes it.

“Obviously, he’s got the fast car of the week and he runs 10th. He didn’t want to race us there. We had a good, clean race. I moved up as high as I could on the race track to give him all the room I could—he still can’t drive.”

Bowman though admitted that he made a mistake. He drove deep into the corner but on older tires, you tend to get loose on the bottom of Martinsville. That caused him to slide up into Hamlin which in turn took Hamlin out and sparked those comments.

Is Bowman a hack? He won four times this season so I’d say he’s far from it. Is he getting his ass kicked by his teammates each race? He has won more times than Chase Elliott and William Byron combined this year.

Hamlin was frustrated and I get that. It was a move that Hamlin left the door open and Bowman still smashed into him by a mistake on his own.

“I just got loose in,” Bowman said of the accident that gave him the lead. “I got in too deep (into Turn 3), knocked him out of the way and literally let him have the lead back. For anybody that wants to think I was trying to crash him, obviously that wasn’t the case, considering I literally gave up the lead at Martinsville to give it back to him.

“He’s been on the other side of that. He’s crashed guys here for wins. I hate doing it. Obviously, I don’t want to crash somebody. I just got in, got underneath him, spun him out… Regardless, we get a free grandfather clock (trophy), which is pretty special.”

I mean, Hamlin got into Chase Elliott in a more egregious move back in 2017 in the same corner in a similar late race scenario too. Joey Logano did the same to Martin Truex Jr. in 2018. Hamlin and Logano had a run in for the 2019 race and now this.

That’s just Martinsville in this era. That’s going to happen.

It also happened with Busch vs. Keselowski on the last lap when Keselowski had to make a desperate move in hoping to go from third to first to get himself into the final round in his final season at Team Penske. It didn’t work. He drove through Busch to try to make it happen which left with some hurt feelings in wake of that.

“He drills my ass coming out of (Turn) 4 for no reason,” Busch said. “Where was he going? What was he going to do? Spin me out?

“He was trying to do a Harvick is what he was trying to do. For what? For second place? To do what? He wasn’t going to transfer through with that. Freaking (R-word). So stupid. I don’t understand these guys.

“I should beat the shit out of him right now is what I should do, but that doesn’t do me any good either.”

What he was referring to was Kevin Harvick purposely spinning Busch out on the last lap of last year’s race to try and gain that one extra point.

Truex wasn’t happy with being doored and moved up the track multiple times at the end of the race either.

The thing is, you see a common dominator? These drivers were being overly aggressive with cars that weren’t good enough to be making those moves.

Bowman got loose under Hamlin in Turn 3. Keselowski got loose under Elliott in Turn 3. Keselowski and Busch threw Hail Mary’s to get to the top three on the final restart.

When making moves with a non race winning car against cars that were, you’re going to get this at a short track like Martinsville in a position of having to win to get into the final round.

This all also begs the question, are the playoff tracks in perfect spots? I mean, the Round of 12 is the ultimate wildcard. You get a superspeedway in Talladega followed by the ROVAL. Really, you don’t control your own destiny in this round outside of Vegas.

Next year, Texas moves up to Vegas’ spot to open the Round of 12 which makes an even bigger added importance on that race now. Kansas in turn goes to the opening round sandwiched between Darlington and Bristol. That gets importance as you don’t want to go to Bristol needing a win. Really, between Bristol, Talladega and the ROVAL, those three races in a five week span are mostly out of your control. So, Kansas and Texas have prime real estate again while the cut races mixed with Talladega gives us the drama we’re searching for.

I get the drivers and teams despise the Round of 12. I mean, why wouldn’t you if you were in their shoes. The odds of trouble are greater here than the odds of not getting caught up in something not of your doing. For a driver, you want to control your own destiny and the Round of 12, you really can’t outside of Vegas this year and Texas next.

This round can easily take out championship favorites.

Then for the Round of 8, you get things back in your hands a little more with Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville.

“I mean, it’s just eight guys. It’s the eight best guys of the year trying to whittle it down to four,” Truex Jr. said on why the Round of 8 sparks more anxiety than the Championship 4. “You know it’s going to be tight, close, every spot is going to matter. Unless you’re Kyle Larson, you won 30 races this year, it’s going to be close. 29, sorry (laughter). I mean, you know it’s going to be close. You come down to Martinsville, you know it’s going to be a nail-biter, which it was.

“Next week it’s an honor and pleasure to get to race for championships. Only four of us get to do it. It’s a fun week. It’s definitely a lot less pressure than trying to go eight to four.”

2020 and 2021 have shown great progress with the playoff schedule with 2022 looking at perfection for what is an ever evolving new NASCAR.

Chris Gabehart, Hamlin’s crew chief, said that this is the way NASCAR wants it. They want this chaos and controversy. He’s right. The cutoff races and their spots on the schedule prove that and it’s giving NASCAR the added attention that they’ve been missing.

Boys have at it.

The “Chase” was adopted in 2004. They’ve tweaked this playoff format over the years with this recent one moving closer to stick and ball sports than ever before.

In 2014, they introduced the win and advance format. Win a race in the regular season and remain in the top 30 in points and you’re playoff eligible. Win a race in each round and you automatically move on to the next.

Yes, points can get you to a championship round, but you’re going to have to win at some point. Then, you have the championship race that offers no points for the Championship 4 drivers. The first driver to cross the finish line first in that race wins the title. Simple.

So, 35 races are run one way with the final another. That’s why winning a championship now is nothing compared to the way that Petty or Earnhardt did it. Just like in say the NFL or NBA, the team with the best record doesn’t always win their championship either. This is what NASCAR wants and they sounded pleased by the outcomes.

In turn, we get championship parity. Since this format started, only Kyle Busch has won multiple championships over the course of the eight years of its existence. He’s the only won with multiple titles in the sport now. Kurt Busch (2004), Keselowski (2012), Harvick (2014), Truex Jr. (2017), Logano (2018) and Elliott (2020) each have one. That’s it. That’s the list. Combined, that’s eight championships in the Cup Series driver lineup in 2022. Johnson, had seven all by himself.

Johnson is gone. So is Earnhardt. So is Gordon. So is Stewart. We have no Petty’s Yarborough’s, Allison’s, etc. This is a new era where no one has more than two career championships left.

Come 2022, we could this even more parity. That’s what this sport is aiming for. We had 17 different drivers win a race this past season in 35 tries. Can we get an 18th in 36 races this Sunday?

Last year, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports won 34 of the 36 points paying races. They took all four of the Championship 4 spots too.

In 2019, the same four teams won 33 of the 36 races run. They also took all four Championship 4 spots again. In 2018, they won 31 of the 36 races. Furniture Row Racing with a JGR alliance won four times that year which if you count them in this mix, that’s 35 of 36 races.

This year, we had eight different organizations winning, three of which were their first time. We also saw three total first time driver winners and two more scoring their second.

Coming into this season, Chip Ganassi Racing had won three times since 2018. Kurt Busch won for them in Atlanta. Richard Childress Racing had won twice over the last three years too. Spire’s upset win in the 2019 Coke Zero Sugar 400 with Justin Haley is the only other team to have won in the Cup Series since the start of the 2018 season.

Now you get 23XI Racing, Kaulig Racing and Front Row Motorsports to this list.

Other than Martin Truex Jr’s title with FRR in 2017, you have to go all the way back to Kurt Busch’s championship with Roush Fenway Racing in 2004 as the last team not named Gibbs, Stewart-Haas, Penske, or Hendrick to win a Cup championship. That won’t change this weekend but very well could next year with a new car creating more parity.

Just twice in the eight year playoff era format has the driver with the most wins actually won the title in the same season. Kevin Harvick won nine times in 2020 and 13 times over the 2020 and 2019 combined and didn’t take home any championship hardware to show for it. Denny Hamlin also had also won 13 races, two of which being the 2019 and 2020 Daytona 500’s, in the same span and he also is 0-for-2 in championships won since the start of the 2019 season.

It’s all about positioning yourself for the playoffs and getting hot at the right moment. Hamlin did that last year. He was 0-for-26 in the regular season then 2-for-4 to start the postseason.

Also, Harvick, Busch and Martin Truex Jr. are getting more and more company for the Championship 4 spots now too. Prior to 2020, it was basically a shoe in to include this trio and a fourth into the final round. In 2020, neither made it. It was just the second time ever that Harvick and Busch each failed to make the Championship 4 as Harvick’s only other year that he didn’t was in 2015 and Busch’s 2014. Now, Harvick and Busch have missed it for two straight years. Truex missed the Championship 4 for the first time since 2016 a year ago with both now having five trips to the final round each.

Elliott, meanwhile has won 15 times in four years and went from three straight Round of 8 exits to the final round and a championship in 2020 and back to the Championship 4 in 2021.

Joey Logano, has two Championship 4 appearances (2018, 2020) in four years and a Round of 8 appearance (2019, 2021) in the other two. Hamlin has three final round appearance in three years. Ryan Blaney showed flashes of speed in 2020 and 2021 and has been in the Round of 8 in 3 of the last 5 seasons. Alex Bowman and William Byron are improving while Kyle Larson is a true threat now.

The past years of Busch, Harvick and Truex being a Sharpie to the Championship 4 are gone. It’s why NASCAR is more wide open than ever before with a changing of the guard occurring.

Parity is already at it’s highest among drivers winning races and winning championships. You like to see that.

Without past notes to go off of to start the year off with, I have a sense that 2022 will be just as wild as 2021 due to the fact that there’s no real advantage yet.

Toyota won 19 of the 36 races run in 2019 and took three of the four spots in the Championship 4. But, even with the same car back in 2020, they slipped. Teams adapted in the offseason. Toyota’s won just nine times in 2020 and put only one car in the final round this time around. It wasn’t the fact that they necessarily fell back, it was the fact that they didn’t develop further up and Chevrolet and Ford caught them.

Ford’s won 18 times in 2020, Chevrolet nine.

In 2021, Chevy took the advantage with earning 18 wins. Toyota was next with 9. Ford had 8.

Now, every team didn’t have to weigh on what areas to improve upon or not or even try to find places to get speed following a year that you had it. See, that’s another part of the equation in the sense that it’s hard to improve when you’re already on top. It’s easy to find speed when the only direction to go is up.

Plus, with the new car coming out for 2022, how do you decide previously what areas to spend your money in? Why develop more speed in a car that’s going to be obsolete by the end of 2021? Wouldn’t it be better to save the costs for the new car?

Teams had to decide that which I feel like all correlates to Toyota dominating in 2019, Ford in 2020 and Chevrolet in 2021.

Now, it’s a blank slate again. Who’s going to come out on top?

The New Teams

With that parity said, we’re seeing a shift in new teams coming around. 2021 saw Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin form 23XI Racing. They joined Pitbull and Justin Marks (Trackhouse Racing) and BJ McLeod/Matt Tifft (Live Fast Racing) as the new teams on the block.

Next season rolls out a second team now for both 23XI Racing and Trackhouse. In fact, Trackhouse got a second team when they bought out Chip Ganassi Racing all together. Kaulig Racing moves up with one full time car and a second one that’s chartered but with multiple drivers sharing it. GMS Racing also moves up to Cup. So does Team Hezeberg with a partnership with Reaume Brothers.

That’s seven new Cup teams in a two year span. What’s next?

“The makeup is going to continue to change,” said Phelps. “You look at the Cup Series, you’ve got Kaulig that’s coming up, you’ve got Justin with two charters that he has bought. It’s going to continue. Lots of other things that are rumored to be happening with additional changes.

“I think it’s good for our sport, I really do. I think it’s healthy to infuse it not just with new fans but new ownership, new brands that are coming into the sport. We’re seeing all those things.”

Brad Keselowski has left Team Penske and bought into Roush Fenway Racing which could spark a new trend of veteran drivers buying into new teams. Hamlin, Tifft, Marks and Keselowski have all done it. Who’s next?

The reason they’re doing this is to control their future. These guys are racers and don’t want to go out of the sport. But, with new drivers coming through the ranks and it shifting to the need to bring money with you, it’s forcing these veteran drivers out. They’re having to take pay cuts when they should be getting raises. So, the next logical step?

Control your own destiny by having your own team.

With that said, I sense we’re going to have more turnover soon. I mean, who thought Chip Ganassi would sell himself completely out of the sport? He never thought it would happen either but the need that Trackhouse had and the money they had available, they made Ganassi and offer he couldn’t refuse.

Who else could be willing to follow Ganassi’s path?

These charters have allowed team owners like Ganassi and others to have a buyout price tag to at least recoup some money to take with them when they leave the sport. It has to have owners like Richard Petty or Richard Childress or even the Wood Brothers wondering if they should follow suit. I mean, what’s their next path?

We know Hendrick Motorsports now has Jeff Gordon and Chad Knaus up next. Joe Gibbs Racing as the Gibbs family to take over. Team Penske has Tim Cindric and others in place. Stewart-Haas has Tony Stewart, Greg Zipadelli and even Gene Haas is still young.

It’s these others that are searching for that next step or having to make the choice to sell or not. With new teams wanting to come into the sport and needing charters to really make it a viable option, if you ever thought of getting out and making a financial gain while doing so, nows the time.

I mean, on track for the drivers standpoint, the changing of the guard has already happened.

This is the new NASCAR. It’s one that appears to have a vision and a plan that’s working. They’re not just making changes to make them. They’re doing so with calculations and know how. This is one that guided us through 32 races during a global pandemic and the only major sport to complete their started season on time and crowned a champion in the midst of it all.

NASCAR is rising again and doing so by having a vision.

“The first time I had the opportunity to do this was in 2018 in Miami,” Phelps said Friday at Phoenix Raceway during his fourth end-of-season session with reporters. At that particular point, the sport was going through some challenges, some headwinds, right? Those were real. I think we felt that.

“I remember using the phrase that our best days are ahead. I’m not sure everyone in this room or folks around the country, (or the) world, believed that to be true. I did. I think the results that we have seen are more than encouraging. I’m very proud of them, right?

“It really took an industry coming together in order to make that happen. It took race teams, our broadcast partners, our sponsors, tracks that we own or tracks that we don’t own, that all came together to create an opportunity for our sport to grow, which is exactly what’s happening.”

Emblematic of that growth is the continuity of NASCAR’s presence on television, a reflection of the sanctioning body’s agility in completing a full 36-race 2020 NASCAR Cup Series schedule despite the complications of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are the most stable sport on television since 2018,” Phelps asserted. “No other sport—none—can match what NASCAR has done from a stability standpoint with our ratings. If you consider our share numbers since 2019 in our Cup Series, it’s up 18 percent, which is hard to do at this point. It’s just hard.

“Then you look at our ratings for Xfinity and our Camping World Truck Series, they’re up double-digits. The share in both of those series is up 25 percent to 30 percent. We are having a moment as a sport. It’s important that we keep it going, which is exactly what we’re going to do.”

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