NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Group Grand Prix (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN)

How Long Will Parity Last?

Five races, five winners from three different teams have broken down the gates of victory lane. In fact, through the first three races of the year, we saw 25 different drivers having scored at least one top 10 this season which is the most after three races to start a season since 1973. Teams like Trackhouse Racing (3 top 5’s in the last 4 races), Richard Childress Racing (runner-up in Fontana, 7-11 in Vegas, 3rd in Phoenix), 23XI Racing (3 top 10’s in 5 races) and Petty GMS Racing (Should have been 3 straight top 10’s to start the year off) have shown up and made some noise.

“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. 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 the first five races this year, he’s led 21 laps (all coming in the 1st three races) 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. He was in the top 10 in Las Vegas before a crash. Being in the top 10 inside of 10 laps left in the first three races is eye opening.

Chase Briscoe led 18 laps all of last year. He’s already led 126 this season. Tyler Reddick led 73 combined laps in his first two Cup seasons. He’s led 95 in five races this season. Ross Chastain led 75 laps in his previous 115 starts prior to 2022. In five races this year, he’s already amounted 125 laps led.

“Obviously, your confidence goes up week-to-week,” said Jones said. “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 noted 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.”

See, in past years, the parity would be like this, maybe not as much, but still had some parity through the west coast swing. But, it was at this point where the contenders and pretenders started to take shape.

That’s because most of the cars are already built and ready to head west. This year was no different. You have a 2.5-mile superspeedway, a 2-mile fast oval, a 1.5-mile track and a 1-mile short oval in the first four races. Then, you come back east like we have.

Last year and in years prior, due to the nature of 4 different types of tracks, you could alter and make adjustments moving forward. The trip back east allowed everyone to adjust to what they’ve learned.

This year though, that adjustment may take even longer. As parts are still hard to come by and teams are still learning this car, the parity may last longer which means the ones who learn the fastest may be the ones who stand out and that won’t matter if you’re a big team or small.

That’s what’s different between now and the past. In the past, the big teams have all the resources to plug in the info to decipher through it quicker. The quicker you can do that and the amount of manpower they have to make those adjustments allow them to speed to the top of the charts in every session.

They may not have that luxury yet.

Also, the races back east so far have been different as well. Atlanta is a different track than it was ever before. We’re at COTA this weekend for just the second time ever. Then, we go to two short tracks next week before Bristol dirt and Talladega.

Does that mean these teams can learn and implement before the end of April?

Still, while we’ve seen parity the big teams keep winning. Penske won the season opener. Hendrick Motorsports won the next two weeks via the defending series champion and the second winningest driver since the start of last season before Stewart-Haas Racing (Phoenix) and back to HMS in Atlanta. Penske won the Fontana pole where Hendrick won the one the week prior in Daytona. Now Gibbs Racing wins the pole in Vegas but from Christopher Bell who’s never won a pole before, Penske again in Phoenix and SHR for Atlanta.

So, while parity is high, the big teams are taking the trophies still. Does that change this weekend?

HMS has been the most dominant team on road courses the last couple of years, so this is a big test in the eyes of parity.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 06: Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 ACM Awards Chevrolet, and Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Ethel M Chocolates Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 06, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Is Trackhouse and 23XI Racing For Real Now?

At some point, we have to start taking Trackhouse Racing for real. For the fourth straight week, Trackhouse nabbed a top five. This time though, they put two cars in the top five in Atlanta. Daniel Suarez was fourth in Fontana and again last Sunday while Ross Chastain was third in Vegas and runner-up at both Phoenix and Atlanta too.

This team is legit. Are they now ready to make the next step forward via a win?

23XI Racing has something to say for it too. They’ve had a top 10 in 4 of the 5 races themselves including Bubba Wallace running second for most of the closing laps in Atlanta and Kurt Busch having scored 3 top 8’s in his last 4 including 2 straight in the top 5 (5th, 3rd). Parity is high but these teams are standing out too.

Is It Panic Time Yet for Joe Gibbs Racing?

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?

Martin 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.

SONOMA, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 06: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, wins the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 06, 2021 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Can Anyone Beat Hendrick Motorsports? 1st True Test For Next Gen

We’ve seen parity thus far with this new Next Gen. 28-1 Austin Cindric won the Daytona 500. 18-1 Alex Bowman won in Vegas while 50-1 Chase Briscoe was victorious in Phoenix and William Byron (18-1) last Sunday in Atlanta. Kyle Larson was only 4-1 in his Fontana win to resemble any sort of relevance this year.

I mean, for the ones that have won this season, why pick them in general? That’s why this year has been so unpredictable.

Well, that will be put to the test on Sunday in COTA. Sunday 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.

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’ dominace?

They went 1-2 in COTA, 1-2 in Sonoma, 1-2 in Watkins Glen and 3-4 in Indy just last year. Chase 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.

Kyle Larson won 3 of the 7 road course races 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.

How Do You Rank The 4 Hendrick Drivers Now?

There’s no doubt about it, Hendrick Motorsports is the top organization in NASCAR today. Since the start of last season, they’ve won 20 of the last 41 races. In fact, they’ve also taken each of the last two titles as well.

Now, among their four driver lineup, how would you rank them?

Chase Elliott won that 2020 championship on the heels of a 5 win, 15 top five, 22 top 10 and 1,247 laps led season.

Kyle Larson won last year though on 10 wins, 20 top fives, 26 top 10’s and 2,581 laps led. They should be the top two since they won titles, but what if I told you that Alex Bowman has more wins the last two years than Elliott?

So, how would you rank them?

So far, we’ve had fives races and five different winners. However, 3 of the 5 hail from the HMS camp. The only one missing?

Elliott. Ironically enough, he’s leading the points right now too.

Since the start of the 2021 season, Larson has won 11 times, has 22 top fives, 28 top 10’s and 2,640 laps led.

Bowman has 5 wins, 9 top fives, 18 top 10’s and 177 laps led.

William Byron now has 2 wins, 14 top fives, 22 top 10’s and 573 laps led.

Elliott has 2 wins, 15 top fives, 24 top 10’s and 1,043 laps led.

So, which do you prefer? Larson is the clear No. 1 driver now for them. Bowman has more wins than the other two combined. But, he pales in top fives, top 10’s and laps led. Byron, is consistent in top fives and 10’s with Elliott but he pales in laps led.

So, who’s No. 2?

I’d say you side with Byron since the fact he can win anywhere (Daytona, Homestead, Atlanta). Elliott, hasn’t won on an oval since that Phoenix day in 2020. He’s getting top 10’s, but just not winning like he should.

Bowman, he needs to take those top 15’s and turn them into top fives. He’s been a topic of conversation for a few weeks now with drivers seemingly taking shots at him after his wins. They feel like they’re flukes. However, a win is a win and to have the second most victories in the sport since the start of last season has Bowman feeling good about himself.

In saying that, an easy way to silence those doubters? Grab some top fives. He only had eight last year and six the year prior. Literally half of his top fives a season ago were wins. If he wasn’t winning, he only had four top fives in the remaining 32 races.

That’s where the gap is. If he wants to be taken seriously for a championship contender, that’s what he needs to do.

So far this season, he’s already a race winner as well as the Daytona 500 pole sitter. The problem being, we’re five races into the 2022 campaign and Bowman has just one top five (his win) and led just 16 laps. He won four times in 2021 but only paced the field in 161 of those laps for the entire year with 98 of those 161 coming in his Dover win.

So, while Bowman has big hopes and dreams, it’s clear what his next step needs to be. He needs to put his No. 48 Chevrolet in the top five consistently because if not, unfortunately his playoff stay may not last past the second round again.

Elliott, has now consistently gotten to the Round of 8 with two straight Championship 4’s. Byron and Bowman need to get to the Round of 8 to pass Elliott in my opinion.

  1. Larson
  2. Elliott
  3. Byron
  4. Bowman

That’s how I’d rank them.


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