5 things I’m watching for the 2nd half of the NASCAR Cup Series season

Next Gen Continuing To Make The Racing Better

No one can dispute the fact that the Next Gen has dramatically increased the racing package in the Cup Series. We’ve not seen parity like this in years.

A total of 13 different race winners through the first 18 races of the 2022 season is approaching records.

Of the 13 different race winners this season, five are first-time Cup Series winners: Team Penske’s Austin Cindric (Daytona 500), Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe (Phoenix), Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick (Road America) and Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain (COTA) and Daniel Suárez (Sonoma). That ties the NASCAR Cup Series record for the most first-time winners in a single season in the Modern Era (1972-2022) as it’s occurred four times now – 2001, 2002, 2011, 2022.

As of a couple of weeks ago, the average Margin of Victory of the first 16 races ran of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season was 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 18 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).

At the midway mark of the season, I don’t think there’s a clear cut favorite to hoist the championship trophy in Phoenix this November. It’s that wide open and that’s a byproduct of his new race car.

The intermediate package has been a hit. The road courses are wide open again while the superspeedway’s are the superspeedway’s. The only room for improvement is on the short tracks. With the final 2 races of the year on them and short tracks literally setting and awarding the championship to someone, we need to see an improvement there or we’re shaping up to see an anticlimactic finish to what is arguably the best season yet.

You have New Hampshire and Richmond left during the regular season to make adjustments. Bristol in the 1st round is another too.

LEBANON, TENNESSEE – JUNE 26: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway on June 26, 2022 in Lebanon, Tennessee. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Points Battles

With the 18th race now behind us do we eclipse the 2021 drivers win number total of 17? Last year we saw the first seven races with a different driver being victorious. In fact, by time we got to the Month of May, we saw 10 different drivers already having won a race in the first 11 events of the 2021 season.

It slowed down after.

We’re getting close to that boat again now. We saw 7 different winners in the 1st 7 races run this season and 11 in the 1st 13. We’re seeing an uptick in new winners again.

Right now we have 13 drivers locked into the postseason, or so they think, unless we get more than 3 more winners in the next 8 weeks.

I’m starting to wonder if we may have some drivers sweating things out now as the last guy in points that has a win.

So far, 17th and 20th in points have won a race this year but 20th is Hamlin who’s won twice. 17th is Suarez who’s 2 points behind Briscoe who’s also 2 points back from Kurt Busch for being the last guy in points as a winner. The race between these 3 to stay off 16th will be a wild one.

So is the wildcard race. In fact, we’re starting to see some distance made between guys on the good side and guys on the wrong side.

The wildcard teams at the moment is a Penske car who’s 2nd in points right now and a pair of JGR cars.

Ryan Blaney (+114), Martin Truex Jr. (+61) and Christopher Bell (+20) hold the final 3 wildcard spots into the postseason. Kevin Harvick (-20), Aric Almirola (-47), Erik Jones (-85) Austin Dillon (-94), Michael McDowell (-115), Chris Buescher (-143), Justin Haley (-155), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-172), Bubba Wallace (-177), Ty Dillon (-198), Cole Custer (-204), Harrison Burton (-222), Todd Gilliland (-225) and Brad Keselowski (-260) are all on the outside looking in.

So does anyone new bump their ways in?

Among the 14 below the cutline, 11 of which have reached victory lane on the Cup level before. However, a lot of the 14 are going in the wrong direction.

Almirola has 1 top 10 in the last 10 starts on the year and hasn’t won in his last 32 starts.

Austin Dillon has 1 top 10 in his last 8.

Jones has 1 top 10 in his last 7.

Buescher has been 16th or worse in 4 out of his last 6. The only two not? Road courses.

Haley, Wallace and Ty Dillon each have 1 top 10 all season. Custer, Burton and Gilliland have none.

The best chances could reside from someone like Harvick, Keselowski, Stenhouse Jr. or McDowell but 2 of the 4 have a combined 3 wins in their careers.

Harvick (62 races winless streak) is the best option to get back in on points as he’s had 7 top 10’s in his last 9 starts on the season. He’s never missed the playoffs before.

On the flipside, the guys on the good side of the bubble are starting to heat up. Blaney has 3 top 6 results in the last 4 races. Bell has 6 top 10’s in his last 9. Truex has cooled some but the speed is there despite the finishes not being so.

However, Truex is riding a 27 race winless drought. Blaney’s is up to 29. Bell’s is 53. Do any of them win or are they in danger now?

If that’s the case, do you trust anyone below the cutline to win?

July is the month to do so. Among the 10 who’ve won, 5 of them have seen their last win come in the month of July.

Almirola and Austin Dillon each only have 3 career wins a piece with Almirola last coming in July of last year and Dillon’s last coming in July of 2020 (Texas). Jones’ last win came 101 races ago. Buescher’s only win came 213 races ago. McDowell was 1-for-463 after his Daytona 500 win but 0-for-53 again since. Haley’s 1 and only Cup win came at Daytona in July of 2019. Custer’s lone win came in July 2020 at Kentucky (73 races ago). Keselowski hasn’t won in his last 44 races but the team he’s driving for hasn’t reached victory lane in the last 181 races (July 2017) which is the last time Stenhouse Jr. won.

Ty Dillon and the 2 rookies are winless.

On the flipside, you have the top of the standings to watch too. This is something we’re ironically not talking much about. I mean how can we? No one has really gotten hot enough to look like a legitimate championship favorite. Right now, Chase Elliott leads the points standings by 33 a winless Blaney. Ross Chastain (-35) is 3rd with Kyle Larson (-71) and Joey Logano (-73) rounding out the top 5.

The question remains, who will be on top leaving Daytona in August and not only taking a guaranteed playoff berth with 15 playoff points with them for winning the regular season title?

Can Chastain realistically do it? He has 7 top 8 finishes over the last 9 races including 5 in the last 7. Blaney has 4 straight top 11’s with 3 in the top 6. Logano has 2 top 5’s since late April, both being wins.

Points racing and playoff points racing is key. Some drivers that won’t get a regular season title will go for stage wins and a guaranteed playoff point. Others will punt on stage points and go for track position for wins.

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – APRIL 17: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Mars Crunchy Cookie Toyota, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 17, 2022 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Silly Season

Around this time last year, Silly Season was starting to heat up. You had the Brad Keselowski leaving Team Penske news to buy into Roush Fenway Racing and making that RFK Racing. You had Austin Cindric shifting over to Penske to replace Keselowski and leaving the Wood Brothers seat open. Harrison Burton took that. You had the shock news of Trackhouse Racing buying out Chip Ganassi Racing. Kaulig and GMS were coming into Cup. 23XI Racing had their eyes on Kurt Busch.

This time, it’s been a lot quieter. Nashville saw a quick uptick but none of the announcements were moves to new teams. They were really just signing new contracts with their existing teams.

So, what’s still ahead?

We know Aric Almirola is retiring from Stewart Haas Racing at seasons end but no replacement has been named. I keep hearing this is Ryan Preece’s ride. What about Cole Custer who’s not won a race in his last 73 starts and sits a disappointing 27th in points. He’s failed to score a top 10 all year and has finished outside the top 20 11 times. His dad is high up with SHR so I can’t see him getting fired.

We also are wondering what Kyle Busch does. They’ve not secured sponsorship for the No. 18 Toyota yet either and the Toyota brass said it would be a large disappointment if they can’t keep Busch. I also can’t see him leaving either but as of now, this is the top domino ahead of SHR’s No. 10 Ford.

Hendrick Motorsports is set. Team Penske is set. The Wood Brothers are set. Unless Trackhouse can find a 3rd charter, they’re set. I don’t see RFK Racing replacing Chris Buescher already. 23XI Racing is likely set with Bubba Wallace and Kurt Busch is on a multiyear deal. I don’t think RCR expands to a 3rd car and I don’t think they’ll let Tyler Reddick go and you know Austin Dillon isn’t leaving.

It just leaves the 1 at JGR, 1 at SHR and both at Petty GMS Racing. Then you have the Niece Motorsports moving up to Cup rumor, does Kaulig find a full time driver for the 2nd car, what does Spire do with their 2nd car and can The Money Team show up more in 2023?

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)

Will Anyone Dethrone Hendrick Motorsports?

Parity has never been higher. That’s not just this season. That’s for the championship too. With Jimmie Johnson now gone from the sport on a full time basis, Kyle Busch (2015, 2019) is the only driver left with more than one championship to his credit. Kurt Busch (2004), Keselowski (2012), Harvick (2014), Truex Jr. (2017), Logano (2018), Elliott (2020) and Larson (2021) each have one. That’s it. That’s the list. Combined, that’s nine championships in the Cup Series driver lineup in 2022. Johnson, had seven all by himself.

You’d also notice that a recent theme in the playoff format that we’ve had seven different champions in the eight year era. No longer does the driver with the most wins necessarily take home the title. Just three times in the eight year playoff era format has the driver with the most wins actually won the title in the same season including this season. Right now, no one has more than 2 wins on the season.

Kevin Harvick won nine times in 2020 and 13 times over the 2020 and 2019 combined and didn’t take home any championship hardware to show for it. Denny Hamlin had also won 13 races, two of which being the 2019 and 2020 Daytona 500’s, in the same span and he also is 0-for-3 in championships won since the start of the 2019 season.

It’s all about positioning yourself for the playoffs and getting hot at the right moment. Hamlin did that last year. He was 0-for-26 in the regular season then 2-for-4 to start the postseason to march all the way back to the Championship 4.

Also, Harvick, Busch and Martin Truex Jr. are getting more and more company for the Championship 4 spots now too. Prior to 2020, it was basically a shoe in to include this trio and a fourth into the final round. In 2020, neither made it while 2 of the 3 missed out again this season. Last year was just the second time ever that Harvick and Busch each failed to make the Championship 4 as Harvick’s only other year that he didn’t was in 2015 and Busch’s 2014. Truex missed the Championship 4 for the first time since 2016.

Elliott, meanwhile had won 14 times in four years and went from three straight Round of 8 exits to the final round and a championship in 2020 and in 2021.

Joey Logano, has two Championship 4 appearances (2018, 2020) in four years and Round of 8 (2019, 2021) in the other two. Hamlin has three final round appearance in as many years. Ryan Blaney showed flashes of speed in 2020 and 2021 with him now having made the Round of 8 in 3 of the last 5 years. Alex Bowman and William Byron are improving while Kyle Larson is a true threat now.

The past years of Busch, Harvick and Truex being a Sharpie to the Championship 4 are gone. It’s why NASCAR is more wide open than ever before with a changing of the guard occurring.

One could make a case that Elliott, Larson, Byron, Bowman, Logano and Blaney are here to stay. But are they the favorites now?

It’s been a wild year to where no one really gets hot and stays that way. You may have a good week or two or maybe even 3 but having a solid month of finishes hasn’t happened. It’s ebbed and flowed to where no one stands out as a clear title favorite. That’s rare air for this time of the year. Normally by now, someone has distanced themselves but not this year.

Not only as I mentioned early has no one won more than 2 races this season, no one has also won consecutive races at that. In a playoff format to where you win and advance, winning has never been harder and with no one distancing themselves in playoff points either, the postseason could be wild.

I mean this time last year we were wondering if Hendrick Motorsports would sweep the entire Championship round and would be racing each other for the title. This time around, while no other team has won as many races at HMS (6), one could question on how many will even get to Phoenix with a shot at a championship this year.

Elliott has 2 straight top 2’s and Larson 2 straight top 4’s. They’re the most likely candidates again.

Bowman and Byron are sliding backwards. Bowman has 1 top 5 in his last 12 including recent finishes of 13th, 16th, 36th and 12th respectively. Byron hasn’t scored a top 5 since his Martinsville win (10 races) with 5 out of his last 6 finishes being outside the top 15.

That’s a far cry from a record setting year of 2021. HMS has won each of the last 2 titles and if they want a third straight, they have some work to do.

The door is open for whomever can find the consistency and take it.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 12: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Maytag Ford, prepares to qualify for the Ruoff Mortgage 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 12, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Breakout For Ryan Blaney?

I wondered when Ryan Blaney would finally come along as a legitimate championship contender on a consistent basis. He has always shown flashes but never fully emerged on the scene. Then he rattled off 5 top 5’s in a 6 race span entering the playoffs last year including 3 straight top 2’s to close out the regular season. Blaney easily marched through the opening round of the playoffs and advanced all the way to the Round of 8 before being eliminated. Was this the start of what we all expected?

He began the 2022 season with a 4th place run in the Daytona 500. Blaney jumped out to 6 top 7 results in the opening 9 races to the year. Then the slump came. Over the next 5 points paying race, he had no top 10’s with 3 of the 5 outside of the top 15 at that.

However, he’s since gaining steam again. Blaney was 4th in Gateway, 6th in Sonoma, 3rd in Nashville and now 11th in Road America. This week, it’s to Atlanta to where he won a race there last year and is one of the best speedway racers in the game today.

Blaney is set for a nice run here. Is he going to continue a new trend of 1st time champions, all being under the age of 30 following Elliott and Larson?

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