Wild NASCAR season heads up to 2nd half marathon to the finish starting in Nashville

The lone off weekend came and went for the NASCAR Cup Series garage as the stars of the series heads to the 2nd annual Ally 400 (5 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) at the Nashville Superspeedway on Sunday. It begins the NBC Sports’ portion of the schedule as their predecessor Fox Sports witnessed 12 different winners in the 16 races run including 4 of the 12 being 1st time winners, tying the 2000 and 2012 seasons for second-most winners through 16 races in the Modern Era (1972-2022); behind only the 2003 season with 13 different winners.

The record in the Modern Era (1972-2022) for the most first-time Cup Series winners in a single season is five first-time winners and it has happened three times – 2001, 2002 and 2011.

First-time Cup winners 2001: Michael Waltrip (Daytona), Kevin Harvick (Atlanta), Elliott Sadler (Bristol), Ricky Craven (Martinsville) and Robby Gordon (New Hampshire).

First-time Cup winners 2002: Kurt Busch (Bristol), Jimmie Johnson (Auto Club), Ryan Newman (New Hampshire), Jamie McMurray (Charlotte) and Johnny Benson (Rockingham).

First-time Cup winners 2011: Trevor Bayne (Daytona), Regan Smith (Darlington), David Ragan (Daytona), Paul Menard (Indianapolis) and Marcos Ambrose (Watkins Glen).

Since inception of the Playoffs in 2004, the most different winners the NASCAR Cup Series has seen during the 26-race regular season was 15 different winners in 2011. Currently, the 2022 season has produced the most different winners (12) through the first 16 races of any Playoff Era season (2004-2022), and with 10 races left in the regular season, 2022 could be the first to reach 16 or more different winners heading into the postseason.

A total of 10 different pole winners through the first 16 races of the 2022 season are the most since 2014 (11 poles winners).

From Austin Cindric’s exciting win in the new Next Gen’s debut for February’s Daytona 500 to Chase Briscoe being a 50-1 winner at Phoenix a month later. A few weeks after that, Ross Chastain scored his first win by knocking AJ Allmendinger out of the way in COTA. The last time out, Daniel Suarez finally broke down the doors to victory circle in Sonoma as a 30-1 longshot.

It’s been that type of season. A year after Hendrick Motorsports dominated the season and at this point of the year we were wondering if they’d sweep the Championship 4 that Fall, we’ve seen parity at its finest with all but 2 winners being lower than 12-1 odds.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 06: Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, and Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, 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)

That’s had this championship wide open going to Nashville for which last year saw Kyle Larson lead all but 36 laps in a dominating victory. He’d later win the title that season.

At this moment, I’m not wondering how many guys HMS has eligible to win the championship at Phoenix, I’m instead pondering how many will be in the running a week prior at Martinsville as a member of the Round of 8.

Larson has just 1 top 5 in his last 6 races. Alex Bowman only has 1 top 5 in his last 10. Chase Elliott has 2. William Byron hasn’t had a top 5 since his Martinsville win (8 races).

They’re reeling.

Trackhouse Racing may be the top Chevrolet team right now with both of their drivers now victors in 2022. The problem is, while Daniel Suarez won in Sonoma, is he safely in?

We only have 4 wildcard spots available with 10 races left in the regular season. This may be the year we get more than 16 race winners in the 26 race regular season which would mean the lowest in points among the winners gets left out.

Right now, that’s Suarez. He trails Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric by only 11 though as Cindric just scored his 1st top 5 of the season since his Daytona win in Sonoma as well. Kurt Busch (Kansas winner) is next up on that list.

Kevin Harvick is 13th in points and has never missed the playoffs but is below the cutline right now. He’s not won a race since Bristol (2020) and has not won a stage since 2020 either. However, he’s starting to heat back up. Harvick has 5 top 10’s in the last 7 races including 3 top 4’s in the last 5.

He’s chasing his SHR teammate of Aric Almirola who only has 1 top 10 in his last 8 starts. The RCR duo of Tyler Reddick (-42) and Austin Dillon (-47) had a span of a runner-up in 3 races in a 4 week span but have since cooled with Reddick finishing 30th, 6th 16th and 35th respectively the last 4 races and Dillon 13th, 22nd 15th and 11th himself. Can they turn this back around again?

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. may be one to watch with being in the top 8 in 4 of the last 6 races and also having a top 5 at Nashville last season. Can he steal a win on Sunday?

What about Ryan Blaney (+95), Martin Truex Jr. (+65) or Christopher Bell (+28) as the other 3 wildcard drivers. Blaney is 4th in points and the top wildcard driver and comes to Nashville with a 4th in Gateway and 6th in Sonoma. That ended a streak where the All-Star race winner had 5 straight races outside the top 10.

Truex has 2 top 5’s all year and struggling with his future in this sport. Does he come back in 2023 or not? Until he comes up with that decision, I think this is what you get. Bell saw his hot streak end in Sonoma but he can easily pick it back up in Nashville (9th last year).

Toyota has won each of the last 2 races on intermediate tracks and and could prevail this weekend. If so, I look to Kyle Busch who has a pair of Xfinity Series wins (2009, 2021), a pair of Truck Series wins (2010, 2011) and arguably one of the hottest drivers on the season (3 top 3’s in the last 4 races).

The average Margin of Victory of the first 16 races of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season is 0.710-second; the second closest average Margin of Victory through the first 16 races of a season since advent of electronic scoring in 1993; the closest is 2014 with 0.691-second. The first 16 races of the 2022 season have produced a Cup Series record of 12 races concluding with a Margin of Victory of less than a second.

A total of 35 different drivers have led laps in the NASCAR Cup Series through the first 16 races of the season with an average of 10.31 leaders per race; up from last season’s 8.90 (+15.3%). The most average leaders per race since 2014 (11.50). 

The average number of lead changes through the first 16 races of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season is 21.0; up from last season’s 17.9 (+17.4%) – the most average lead changes per race since 2014 (25.4).  

The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season has also produced 786 green flag passes for the lead; the series-most through the first 16 races of a season since the Loop Data statistic was initially tabulated in 2007 (the last 16 seasons). The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season is averaging 49.1 green flag passes for the lead per race – up +35.3% from the 16-year average of 31.8 per race.

A total of seven tracks have set records in green flag passes for the lead this season; including Circuit of The Americas (30 GFPL), Atlanta Motor Speedway (141 GFPL), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (57 GFPL), Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt (20 GFPL) Darlington Raceway (28 GFPL), Kansas Speedway (41 GFPL) and Charlotte Motor Speedway (64 GFPL). Previous best GFPL totals were  – COTA (14 in 2021), Atlanta (44 in 2015), Las Vegas (56 in 2021), Bristol Dirt (8 in 2021), Darlington (tied previous record in 2008), Kansas (tied previous record of 41 in 2019) and Charlotte (48 in 2012 Playoff race).

Plus, the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season has produced 55,452 total green flag passes throughout the field; the seventh-most through the first 16 races of a season since the Loop Data statistic was initially tabulated in 2007 (the last 16 seasons). The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season is averaging 3,466 total green flag passes per race – up +2.53% from the 16-year average of 3,378 per race.

Three tracks this season have set track records in total green flag passes – Atlanta (6,439), Richmond (3,072) and Bristol Dirt (2,703).

Nevertheless, the battle is wide open as attrition is going to be a big factor the rest of the way as we have no weeks off from now until the finale on Nov. 6 in Phoenix. It’s 20 straight weeks to the finish. This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon that will look like a dash.

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