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 last weekend.
Well, Las Vegas delivered too. The racing in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 was a good as its ever been on the 1.5-mile track.
When NASCAR adopted the 550 package, I think they hoped to see a Vegas race like we saw on Sunday. Instead, the high downforce, low horsepower package created too much dirty air to do anything with it. When everyone is going the same speed and your car has so much downforce it basically saves itself, you get ho-hum races.
We saw 6 cautions for 30 laps in this race last year. There was 9 for 37 laps in 2020 but three were for stage breaks or the comp caution. The others were for single car incidents. That equates out to last year seeing 89% of the race run under green flag conditions. The 2019 race saw two caution flags fly — both for stage breaks. In the race in 2018, we saw only four cautions fly for just 29 laps. The spring race has been tame in nature lately.
We had 12 cautions for 60 laps. That comes after being 12 cautions for 59 laps a week prior. There were 7 cautions for 37 laps in the Daytona 500. That’s 31 cautions for 156 laps in three races run this season. With 675 total laps turned, that’s 23% of the season run under caution.
In saying that, all these incidents are due to this new car being so much harder to drive which in my opinion is a very good thing.
After three races, there’s 30 total spots in the top 10 available. 25 different drivers have taken them which is most since 1973.
“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 a week later in Fontana. Erik Jones started alongside of him in Fontana and finished in the top five. 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.
He led nine laps and had no top fives all of last season (36 races). In three 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 and a top 10 car last week in Vegas before another 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. “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.”
Another thing this car is producing is tight finishes.
The margin of victory in the season opening Daytona 500 was .036-seconds. That was the third closest in the 64 year history of the race. Last week, Kyle Larson topped Austin Dillon by just .195-seconds in Fontana. That was the second closest finish in 31 tries at the Auto Club Speedway. On Sunday, Alex Bowman beat Larson by .178-seconds for the third closest finish in 29 races on the 1.5-mile Nevada race track.
We saw close finishes last year in Phoenix. Larson beat Truex Jr. By just .398-seconds last Fall. Hemric beat Cindirc in the Xfinity Series race a day prior last November by .030-seconds.
In saying that, the big teams are still winning. Penske won the season opener. Hendrick Motorsports won the next week via the defending series champion and again last week. 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.