There’s no doubt about it, the Next Gen has done it’s job and then some to start the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season off with. In the first five races of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season the fans have seen five different pole winners, five different race winners and four different driver point standings leaders.
Chase Elliott took over the reigns leaving Atlanta this past weekend. He did so on the heels of a sixth place result on his hometrack. He wrangled it away from Joey Logano who leaving Phoenix, was latest of the four driver point standings leaders taking the top spot following his eight-place finish in the Arizona desert. Elliott and Logano join Austin Cindric and Kyle Larson as the four drivers to hold the point standings lead this season.
2021 series champ Larson (Daytona), Cindric (Auto Club), Christopher Bell (Las Vegas), Ryan Blaney (Phoenix) and Chase Briscoe (Atlanta) have all won a pole this season, granted Briscoe’s was due to points. Still, Briscoe, Cindric and Bell were first-time pole winners in the NASCAR Cup Series becoming the 241st, 242nd and 243rd different drivers to win a pole in the series, respectively.
Rookie Cindric (Daytona), Larson (Auto Club), Alex Bowman (Las Vegas), Briscoe (Phoenix) and William Byron (Atlanta) have all won a race this season. Cindric and Briscoe were first-time winners in the series. Briscoe became the 200th different winner in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Through five races the 2022 season has also seen 17 different drivers post top-five finishes – the second-most through the first five races of season behind the 2020 (17) in the last 10 years (2013-2022).
Prior to last weekend, the first four races of 2022 have produced an average number of different leaders per race of 10.75 – the most since 2014 (12.0) – and an average of 26.0 lead changes per race – the most since 2011 (35.0). That number will grow in a positive way with Atlanta featuring a record of 46 lead changes among 20 drivers.
And to boot, all five of the NASCAR Cup Series races have concluded with a Margin of Victory of less than a second and the season’s average Margin of Victory the closest since 2016.
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. For Fontana, Kyle Larson topped Austin Dillon by just .195-seconds. That was the second closest finish in 31 tries at the Auto Club Speedway. In Vegas, Alex Bowman beat Larson by .178-seconds for the third closest finish in 29 races on the 1.5-mile Nevada race track. For Phoenix, Briscoe beat Ross Chastain by just .771-seconds.
Finally in Atlanta, William Byron topped Chastain again by .145-seconds which ranks fourth all-time in 116 races on the Georgia race track.
This all bodes well for the new car. The only gripe has been the tire situation and how to deal with it. On Sunday in Atlanta, we saw several more incidents of cut tires, with most of them happening to drivers that were leading. The thing is, I feel like this is an isolated incident. The common consensus is they were all part of the same manufacturer (Chevrolet) and that the fact that they were leading is a common denominator here.
Was Chevy playing with air pressures too much? Also, the load while leading was significantly higher than those not because to stay in the lead, you had to be at 100% throttle. That’s more wear and loading on your car. Those behind, well you could run in a draft and get away with being 60-70% throttle and not lose any ground.
That plays a big role in tire life as well as wear.
Now, we head to the first road course test of the season. NASCAR has pivoted to more of these on the schedule in recent years in going from 2 annually until the Charlotte ROVAL debuted in 2018. In 2020, we had to see the Daytona road course as a filler but that was in place of Watkins Glen. Sonoma wasn’t run that season.
2021 saw a record setting seven road courses. You got the standard ones out of Sonoma, Watkins Glen and the new ROVAL as well as the Daytona road course, the Indy road course, COTA and Road America.
This year, we have the same with the exception of Daytona. 6 of 36 races where we’re turning left AND right. This time though, it’s with a car made for it. We’ve seen what the Next Gen car can do and how much parity it strikes. This weekend, will be a true test to see how much of a gap, if any, this car will allow for the field to catch up to Hendrick Motorsports.
HMS has won each of the last two championships. 1 of their 4 drivers is leading the points right now. Ironically enough, he’s the only one of their four not to win a race this season.
HMS has won 3 of the 5 races in 2022 including all coming in the last four weeks. If you go back to last season, they’ve won 8 of 10 in general with the only exceptions being a superspeedway and Phoenix.
On road courses though, is where they’ve been at their absolute best.
Sunday in COTA marks the first road course race of the season. If you base stats/trends off of the past few years, this would be Hendrick Motorsports’ to lose. They went 1-2 here last year and have combined to win 9 of the last 11 road course races in general. That plus 8 of the last 10 races overall from last season to this has them thinking big.
They all say that this new car will greatly improve the road course racing because this car has an emphasis on left and right hand turns. It changes everything. So, does that change HMS’ dominance?
They went 1-2 in COTA, 1-2 in Sonoma, 1-2 in Watkins Glen and 3-4 in Indy just last year. Elliott has won six of the last 11 road course races in general with the only four that he didn’t win being last February in Daytona when he led the most laps but was screwed for a caution being displayed for rain in which he was going to cruise to an easy victory. The other was a runner-up in Sonoma and Watkins Glen as well at Indianapolis to where he had a top two car that day before the last race chaos.
Larson won 3 of the 7 road course races all by himself last season.
Does the Next Gen car take away their past advantages though?
Counting Joe Gibbs Racing, them and HMS have combined to win 11 of the last 12 road course races
Throw in Furniture Row Racing (Martin Truex Jr.) who was aligned with JGR, these three teams have won 14 of the last 16 road course races. The only ones they didn’t win was when Ryan Blaney (Team Penske) was victorious in 2018 on the Charlotte ROVAL when Truex was crashed in the final turn on the final lap as well as AJ Allmendinger stealing the way at Indy last August when Denny Hamlin was spun while leading coming to the white flag or else it would be 16 straight.
The thing is, Joe Gibbs Racing hasn’t won in any of the last 11 races. They’re reeling right now. Can they turn it around?
I wrote heading back east if it’s time to start worrying yet for Joe Gibbs Racing. Now, I wonder if it’s time to start to panic. They’re 0-for-5 this season and ended 2021 0-for-6 too. They’ve won just 3 of the last 22 races. With how things have now gone in 2022, can the close this gap?
Truex Jr. has only led 17 total laps and while he swept the two stages in Daytona, was 13th, 13th, 8th, 35th and 8th on the season in finishes. Denny Hamlin had issues in the Clash, wrecked in the Daytona 500, had overheating issues in Fontana, made a costly mistake shifting after his final stop in Vegas, was plagued by pit road problems in Phoenix and crashed again in Atlanta. He has no top 10’s all season (37th, 15th, 32nd, 13th and 29th) with 32 laps led.
Christopher Bell was 34th in Daytona, 36th in Fontana, qualified on the pole in Vegas but spun while running third and finished 10th. He qualified fourth in Phoenix but spun again and came home 26th and while he crossed the finish line second in Atlanta, he was penalized for getting there by passing out of bounds. 4 of his 5 races being 23rdor worse with 48 laps led himself.
The best has been Kyle Busch and he should have won if not for that late caution in Vegas and while he’s led 98 laps, he’s not had a smooth season thus far. Still, he has 3 top 7’s in five races so when he does heat up, watch out.
They sit 8th (Truex Jr.), 11th (Busch), 26th (Hamlin) and 30th (Bell) in points heading to COTA. We’ve seen 5 different winners already this year so it may take a win to get into the postseason. JGR doesn’t look close yet.
Does that leave the door open still for another HMS victory?
Team Penske has been lurking but nothing more than just okay. Logano has 3 top 10’s in the last 4 weeks but hasn’t really been dominating. Blaney, has 2 top 15’s, both being fourth place runs, but 18th, 36th and 17th respectively in the other three. Cindric, hasn’t been very good at all since his Daytona triumph. His last four finishes have been 12th, 19th, 24th and 32nd respectively.
Cindric is great on road courses though, so maybe this is his best chance of a turnaround. Can he turn around and JGR reset?
23XI Racing and Trackhouse may be the ones to watch. Kurt Busch has 3 top 8’s in his last 4 starts and if you count Bubba Wallace’s runner-up in the Daytona 500, then they’d have 4 top 10’s in 5 races run this season.
Trackhouse got a double top five in Atlanta and has actually had a top 5 scorer in each of the last four weeks. Daniel Suarez has 3 top 10’s in his last 4 including two 4th place results. Chastain has three straight top three finishes including two consecutive runner-ups.
Maybe the door is open after all for these three sleepers.
Larson has either been first or second or outside the top 30 in the other three. Elliott, despite leading the points, has no top fives in 5 starts. Bowman has 1 top 5 (his win) but his other 4 finishes have been 10th or worse including 2 of which outside the top 20. Byron has 2 top fives in his last three but his other three finishes on the season have been 38th, 34th and 18th respectively.
That’s why maybe this weekend is more wide open than you’d think.
We’ve seen parity thus far with longer winners. Cindric was 28-1, Bowman 18-1, Byron 12-1 and Briscoe 50-1. What’s next?