Next Gen car providing parity so far, bigger than what’s on the surface too says Jones, Suarez, a deep look plus all the top storylines entering Sundays Race

Action-packed racing was the goal for the NASCAR Cup Series Next Gen car and through the first two races of 2022 season, it has passed the eye test. But what’s even more encouraging, is that the statistics are backing up the great on-track competition that the fans have come to expect at a NASCAR event.

The 2022 DAYTONA 500 produced 104 green flag passes for the lead, becoming just the fifth DAYTONA 500 to eclipse 100 GFPL mark since the inception of the Loop Data statistic in 2007; joining the 2014 (177), 2010 (170), 2017 (137) and 2019 (110). The event was also won by a Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate for the first time in the race’s history.

Auto Club Speedway also had some great action on-track this season. The Wise Power 300 produced the third-most lead changes (32) in the NASCAR Cup Series at Auto Club Speedway all-time; behind 2014 (35) and 2008 (33). The race also tied the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series race for the sixth most green flag passes for the lead at Auto Club Speedway with 33 GFPL.

“I think the playing field has definitely been leveled,” said Austin Dillon in his media availabilities leading up to Las Vegas this weekend.

He’s not wrong either. After two races, there’s 20 total spots in the top 10 available. 19 different drivers have taken them including drivers like Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez. Each had top 10s last weekend at that.

“I think what NASCAR did with this Next Gen car is something that in my opinion we’re already seeing the results,” said Suarez on Saturday morning from the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the site of this weekends race. “We are going to look back in a few years from now, five years from now, and we’re going to be all very, very thankful we did this thing called Next Gen car because it just brought opportunity for new players in the game.

“So yeah, I definitely think that the competition and the way that we are competing with the Next Gen car is way more level than before.”

Austin Cindric, a rookie, won the season opening Daytona 500. He then won the pole last weekend in Fontana. Jones, started alongside of him last week. He’s in his second season with Richard Petty Motorsports but this year, not only is the car different, so is the dynamic with the addition of GMS Racing as a partner.

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 20: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, Erik Jones, driver of the #43 FOCUSfactor Chevrolet, Noah Gragson, driver of the #62 Beard Oil/South Point Chevrolet, and Todd Gilliland, driver of the #38 First Phase Credit Card Ford, spin after an on-track incident Series 64th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 20, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

He led nine laps and had no top fives all of last season (36 races). In two races this year, he’s led 21 laps and has a top five and was a top five car in the final laps of the Daytona 500 before being collected in a late race crash.

“Obviously, your confidence goes up week-to-week,” said the 25 year old driver. “I think in racing, it’s a bigger thing than people realize. It’s easy to look at a sport like golf and see when somebody gets on a hot streak it’s easy to keep it going.

“Honestly, racing is very similar. When you got things rolling, it’s not just me, it’s the team, it’s Dave (Elenz, crew chief), it’s everybody. When you’re rolling on a confident hot streak, it’s easier to keep that momentum going.”

Jones, like Dillon and Suarez credits the new car for that too.

“The Next Gen car, I think, has been great for us so far, just two races in,” he continued. “Hopefully, we can continue it this weekend at Las Vegas. This is a lot different track than Fontana. It’s going to be a totally different challenge for the race car than what we saw last week.

“It’ll be a learning process, for sure, but the speed has been there at both Daytona and Fontana. We’re in a good spot in points right now and we’d like to keep that going. Being in contention to win last week, puts our mindset toward a win at this point. Hopefully, we can continue to chase that.

“With the Next Gen car, I think it’s opened so many doors for us. Having the same parts and pieces – we just have to take that wheel they’ve given us and make it a little bit rounder. Dave’s done a real good job at that.”

Jones notes that the opportunity of this parity may not last long though. The big teams are big for a reason and they have more resources to find more speed quicker. So, before they can do that, you need to capitalize and hope to be the one to learn and adapt faster.

“It’s so early-on with this car. We don’t totally know everything – right or wrong – with it. We have ideas on it but we don’t truly know what’s going to be better or what’s going to be worse for this car right now,” he said.

“I think if the rules continue to be enforced the way they are right now with the parts and the pieces, I think that parity will last a while. I think eventually guys will begin to figure out what makes these cars better, what makes them tick. And the big teams will have some sort of advantage there.

“For sure, right now we’re on track to have at least somewhat of a leg up at this point of the season. I would say the gap is about 90 percent closer than what it’s been the last few years.”

That’s why we’ve seen parity but the big teams winning. Penske won the season opener. Hendrick Motorsports won last week via the defending series champion. Penske won last weeks pole where Hendrick won the one the week prior in Daytona. Now Gibbs Racing wins the pole on Saturday but from Christopher Bell who’s never won a pole before.

So, while parity is high, the big teams are taking the trophies still.

FONTANA, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 26: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 Wheaties Toyota, prepares to practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway on February 26, 2022 in Fontana, California. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace off to best season start of Cup career

Mobile, Alabama’s Bubba Wallace is off to the best start to a season in his NASCAR Cup Series career. The 23XI Racing driver rallied to his second career runner-up finish in the DAYTONA 500 to start the 2022 season, and then followed it up with a 19th-place finish after a wild Auto Club Speedway to find himself ninth in NASCAR Cup Series driver standings heading to Las Vegas this weekend.

Now the 28-year-old, Wallace, is a mere 20 points back from the series standings lead and is looking to roll the dice at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to keep his good luck this season alive.

Wallace has made eight starts at Las Vegas in the NASCAR Cup Series amassing one top-10 finish.  

FONTANA, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 26: Austin Cindric, driver of the #2 Menards/Quaker State Ford, drives during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway on February 26, 2022 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Team Penske’s Cindric becomes first rookie to hold Cup points lead more than one race

Records are meant to be broken and Team Penske’s Austin Cindric is well on his way to etching his name into the record books.

With his out-of-the-box win in the season-opening DAYTONA 500 and then his 12th-place finish last weekend at Auto Club Speedway, the Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate has become the first rookie in series history to hold the points standings lead for more than one race (Daytona, Auto Club). Prior to this season, seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson was the only rookie to hold the NASCAR Cup Series driver points standings lead during their rookie season but did so following just the Kansas Speedway race in 2002. Cindric currently holds an eight point lead over second place Joey Logano in the NASCAR Cup Series driver standings.

Cindric also leads the 2022 Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings over second place Todd Gilliland (-55) and third place Harrison Burton (-72).

Cindric now turns his attention to Las Vegas Motor Speedway where he will be making his NASCAR Cup Series track debut this weekend. He has made eight NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at Las Vegas putting up three top fives and five top 10s.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 05: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, walks the grid during practice for NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 05, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Hendrick sits Larson and Elliott down

I wrote earlier this week that Rick Hendrick needed to get a quick grasp on this Kyle Larson vs Chase Elliott potential drama before it got out of control. 

See, Hendrick Motorsports was very open to the fact last year that a large part of their new found success was a new culture that was being established within their North Carolina walls. While they had four separate teams within the organization, they would operate as one. 

One team, one goal. One for all. No moving pieces in opposite direction. HMS wasn’t the 5 team (Kyle Larson), the 9 team (Chase Elliott), the 24 team (William Byron) and the 48 team (Alex Bowman). They were one. 

Unfortunately, all that mantra was being threatened by a run-in last Sunday between Larson and Elliott at Fontana. Towards the end of the race, Elliott had a run on Larson and Joey Logano for the lead and while Larson was moving to side draft Logano coming across the finish line, he moved up to break the air and push him forward. While doing so, he inadvertently pushed Elliott into the wall. 

Larson says that he didn’t know Elliott was there. His spotter even took the blame in saying he was focused on Logano and didn’t alert Larson that Elliott was outside until it was too late. Elliott, wasn’t very happy with Larson and rightfully so. 

HMS officials and Larson said then that they’d all sit down with Elliott and his team to clear the air. Sounds like that happened and the big boss man led the talks. 

“Rick called a meeting with all four teams and just kind of reiterated his expectations with us drivers, so it’s good to get those reminders every now and then,” Larson said Saturday from Las Vegas.

“We’ll continue to race good in the future with each other, so I’ll catch up more with Chase here in a little bit and we’ll be good.”

He said that they didn’t get to meet in person, but it was the first time since he’s been at HMS that Hendrick himself led the meeting. 

“(Hendrick’s) been to competition meetings and stuff like that, and we’ve had multiple meetings about different things,” Larson said. “But as far as racing and stuff, that’s the first one I can remember him getting involved in.

“I think we all know his expectations and after the incident last weekend, it was good for him to get involved again and tell us what the expectations are.”

That’s good because until they all talked HMS wasn’t operating as one team. There’s separation there. All the focus on Vegas prep was being interrupted by this. Discussions and meetings are being had to address it which that time could be spent preparing for Vegas. 

It’s a distraction and one that the quicker they can move on and have no ill wills towards each other, the quicker HMS gets back to 2021’s success. 

The 2021 season was extra special with what the Hendrick Motorsports organization was able accomplish. They took home their second straight championship via Larson’s triumph in Phoenix. It was their 17th win of the season.

Hendrick Motorsports’ second-most in a single season and third-most by any team in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972-Present). 2021 was the organization’s 36th straight season with a victory; longest-ever streak by a team in the series and its 37th season overall with a win; the most-ever by a team in the series. Plus, Hendrick Motorsports swept first and second in seven races last season; tied for the second-most all-time and most by a team in NASCAR’s Modern Era. They also became one of two teams in Cup Series history to finish 1-2 in four straight races (between Dover and Sonoma). And to top all of that, the organization became the all-time wins leader in the NASCAR Cup Series with 279 total Cup wins – lead all other teams by 11 victories. Kyle Larson’s win in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway broke the all-time record previously held by Petty Enterprises (268 wins).

The Hendrick Motorsport’s foursome of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman also became the only team in NASCAR’s Modern Era to win six straight races (between Dover and Pocono) and the only team in Cup history to have all four Cup cars entered in a race sweep the top-four finishes positions (Dover). They also became the first team in history with four winners under age 30 in a single season.

Absolutely,” Hendrick said on if he thinks the organization is back where it needs to be in terms of dominance. “I mean, when you have a Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte, you won four championships in a row, you won a ton of races, then you kind of go through a rebuilding year, you don’t Jeff or Jimmie or Dale, and you’ve got Alex Bowman and William Byron and Chase Elliott.

“You watch Larson. He say, Hey, he’s got a tremendous amount of talent. Can he be a team player? Can he come in an organization and have an impact, really help the other guys? The answer to all those is yes.

“I’ve been amazed with William Byron, his year. You work at where he was, if he had gotten in the Roval, he looked like he was going to win that race. He could have been a player in the championship.

“Alex won four races. Chase is going for the back-to-back championship. When you have everybody working together, when you have the crew chiefs not trying to hide things but legitimately wanting to help each other and make all the cars better. Communication between the drivers where you don’t have a driver that’s upset with the other driver or jealous, just building a wall between them.

“Again, it’s the best we’ve ever had when you look at four crew chiefs and four drivers. We had Jimmie Johnson that won seven, won five in a row. The rest of the organization was running at that par.

“This has been a phenomenal year for us.”

CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – MAY 30: NASCAR Hall of Famer and team owner Rick Hendrick hugs Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Metro Tech Chevrolet, celebrating Hendrick Motorsports’ 269th Cup Series win, the most in NASCAR after Larson won the NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 30, 2021 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

They led the fifth-most by any team in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972)-Present); but set a new Hendrick Motorsports team record that stood for 12 years (4,017 in 2009). Junior Johnson and Associates holds the NASCAR Cup Series Modern Era organization record for the most laps led in a single season with 4,296.

Hendrick Motorsports 2021 dominance doesn’t end there, they also posted 33 finishes inside the top two; most in the Modern Era (since 1972), scored 83 top-10 finishes; the team’s second-most (84 in 2007, 82 in 2012), posted 55 top-five finishes; the team’s second-most (57 in 2007) and won 28 stages; had only won 33 prior to 2021.

Since the inception of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2004, the 2021 is the first time Hendrick Motorsports has placed two drivers in the Championship 4 Round (Elliott, Larson). Impressively, Hendrick Motorsports has won at least one Playoff race in each of the 17 Playoff seasons (since 2004) for a combined 53 postseason wins, most all-time.

Look this isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last time teammates get into each other. In fact, this is the second straight week. 

In the final lap of the Daytona 500, it was Austin Cindric vs. Ryan Blaney. Same thing happened in the final lap of the 2021 Daytona 500 between Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. 

“When you’re married to somebody, you have to figure it out,” Logano said last year of he and Keselowski talking about Daytona. “You’re married. You don’t just leave. You get married, it’s supposed to be forever. And so, when you have conflict or differences of opinion, you have to talk about it. You can’t just roll it up under the rug. It’s not going to work. It’s not healthy. It’s kind of the situation here.

“I will be forced, and he will be forced to work with me. We’re still teammates. We will have to figure this out. We may not have to agree on everything, but we at least have to find a way to move forward, and that is going to be the approach we need to do because going back to the 400 men and women who work at Team Penske, we owe it to them to figure this out and we will fix it. It’s fine. Like I said, you can look at this thing three different ways, and there are going to be six different opinions on how the last few laps went, and depending on what seat you’re in, you would pick differently.”

Logano noted last February that they didn’t talk until the next weekend. That was by design. He said that it’s best to cool your jets before meeting about it. You don’t want to meet and let things boil over still and say things you don’t mean and let this carry on further.

“It’s maybe not what needs to be said, but what is the goal moving forward,” Logano said. “The goal is to move on and not say, ‘You raced me hard, so I’m going to race you hard’ and now we’re going to beat the doors off each other and it grows and grows and grows and grows.

“That’s the goal that you can’t have. You can’t seek revenge or just, ‘Well, you made my life hard, so I’m going to make your life hard.’ That’s childish. We’re adults. We’re not doing that. I’m not going to do that for a multiple of reasons. … If you do that, it’s the most selfish thing you can do because you’re not just hurting yourself or hurting him, you’re hurting all the people that work on that car and what did they do to you? They’re the same people that work on my car by the way, so it’s a matter of just saying how do we move forward, not you did this, you did this, you did this.

“It’s, ‘OK, that’s that.’ Start at zero. Clean slate. Never to bring up anything that’s happened six months ago, a year ago, five years ago. If you want to talk about it, that is the time. The best time to talk about it, bring it up, be honest, get it off your chest. If you need to get it of your chest because it makes you feel better, good. That’s going to be healthy, but after that it’s never being brought up again. Never. It’s got to start at zero.”

Logano said prior to the Busch Light Clash that the way this new car is and the situations that NASCAR is making with formats, track sizes, downforce levels, etc, is creating more of these tense moments on track for their to be more and more run ins with drivers. 

“There are moments on the race track that test your character,” he said. ‘It tests who you are and how you want to race and what are you going to do to win a championship now.

“NASCAR has all put us in a position to make challenging decisions on what is right. I’ll be 100% honest with you, I don’t even know what’s right. You try to play out all the scenarios in your mind before the weekend starts so you know what to do in the moment, but half the time, it’s something that comes up of maybe something that you didn’t think about or maybe you didn’t have the answer to yet but you’re forced to make a decision in a split second. That’s what we have to think about.

“That’s also very entertaining for you guys. That sucks for us sometimes. You just got to do what you’ve got to do. It’s something all of us drivers think about a lot.”

Logano says though in wake of these potential pitfalls, that you have to treat it like you would if you were the one on the other side of the coin.

“You have to be consistent,” he says. “What’s consistent? I’m going to win. I’m out there to win the race. That’s the goal and you do what it takes to do that. But, you have to have your moral code and know what is okay to do that. Is it dumping somebody is okay to win a race? I don’t think so. That’s not really in my cards. Now, bump-and-run? I’ve proven that I think that’s okay. The facts are that you have to be okay with that happening to you. Am I okay with being wrecked? No. Am I okay with being moved out of the way? I don’t have to be happy about it but I have to be okay with it if I’m going to do it. I feel like that should be the code. Whatever your happy with being done by you have to have be okay with it if it was someone else.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 05: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 DeWalt Toyota, poses for photos after winning the pole award during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 05, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Bell on the pole

Christopher Bell needed this. He entered Sundays Pennzoil 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox, PRN) last in NASCAR Cup Series points. Now, he has a good chance of significantly moving up. 

Bell (29.561-seconds) won his first ever Busch Pole Award on an overcast Saturday morning from the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver made note that he’s not had many opportunities to qualify in Cup competition since 31 of the 36 races of his rookie year were without it. So was 28 of the 36 last season. 

Bell, is the 18th different driver to win a pole in Vegas and second driver to win his 1st career pole there. Kasey Kahne (3/7/04) was the other. It was also JGR’s 6th Vegas pole, most ever, breaking a tie with Penske. 

The Oklahoma native finished seventh in last years races but only 34th and 36 respectively so far this season. The problem is, just once has someone won the pole and the race itself on the 1.5 mile track. 

He will be joined on the front row by Kyle Larson for his 39th career front row start. Larson, went 29.668 seconds in his No. 5 Chevrolet. 

Larson bested Bell in practice earlier and they flip flopped in qualifying. The California native started in the rear last week and won in Fontana. He also won this very race last year too. 

Last weeks pole sitter Austin Cindric (29.704 seconds) starts third alongside Chase Briscoe (29.714 seconds). 

Cindric has qualified fifth, first and now third this season. 

Chase Elliott (29.716 seconds) rounded out the top five. 

Trends shows that the guys up front would start there anyways. 3 of the top 4 is career best average starting spots in Vegas start in the top six. Larson, Joey Logano and Elliott are second, third and fourth respectively on the list. 

In practice prior to qualifying, Kyle Busch had a tire go down and couldn’t hold onto his No. 18 Toyota when entering Turn 3. As a result, the back end stepped out on him and caused his Joe Gibbs Racing entry to spin and make driver side contact with the SAFER barrier. 

Busch, would have to go to a backup car and start in the rear for Sunday’s race. This is the 1st time this season he won’t start in the top 10.

Top Stat

We’ve had 1st career pole winners in back-to-back weeks now.

Inspection failures

37 Cup teams are in Las Vegas competing in Sundays Pennzoil 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN) and 32 of them passed technical inspection on Friday without problems. Five of them though didn’t. 

Due to Cup practice and qualifying being on Saturday morning Nevada time, NASCAR conducted pre-qualifying inspection for teams Friday evening.

The cars of Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, Harrison Burton, Todd Gilliland and Josh Bilicki all failed inspection twice and due to that each team had a crew member ejected and will lose pit selection for Sunday’s race at Las Vegas, regardless of where they qualify.

Car chief Robert Smith (Harvick), car chief Matt Barndt (Elliott), car chief Cody Sauls (Burton), car chief Tony Manzer (Gilliland) and engineer Nicholas Sowa (Bilicki) left the premises. 

This affects Gilliland’s team the most as they are already without crew chief Seth Barbour as well as crew members Jourdan Osinskie and Tanner Andrews. All three were suspended four races on Tuesday after Gilliland’s car suffered a loose wheel in last Sunday’s race at Fontana.

FRM’s Truck team was disqualified from their second place finish last night too.

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