Will Upcoming Stretch Throw The Playoff Field Upside Down
The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season is one that’s as unpredictable as they’ve come. We reached 14 different winners heading to Indy this weekend. Do we see more? However, over the last 6 races though, we’ve seen 3 different 1st time winners this season including 2 of which being 1st time winners of their Cup careers. Both of those 2 were on road courses.
I wonder if this upcoming stretch of races that will take us to the conclusion of the regular season will turn the playoff standings upside down again.
Over the final 5 races of this regular season push, you have 2 road course races and Daytona. Michigan (Aug. 7) and Richmond (Aug. 14) could play out to someone who’s won already but with Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. being winless still, they also may not.
Sunday’s Verizon 200 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, IMS Radio Network) will mark the 4th road course event of the 2022 season. In the previous three, each were won by a first time Cup Series winner. Ross Chastain picked up his 1st career Cup win back in March in COTA. In June, his teammate Daniel Suarez won in Sonoma for the first Cup win of his career. Earlier this month, it was Tyler Reddick’s turn at Road America.
If this trend continues, Indy and Watkins Glen (Aug. 21) could produce two more unlikely winners which would put us to 15 winners. Then you have the Coke Zero Sugar 400 (Aug. 27) that is always a crapshoot race that could see any one win at Daytona.
That’s why Sunday’s race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an important one.
Why The Chevy Dominance?
Chevrolet has always had a leg up over the competition in Indianapolis. From the inaugural race in1994 through 2014, a bowtie was found in victory lane an astounding 16 times in a 21 year span including 12 straight.
However, it was more of a competition from then on out. Toyota won in 2015 and 2016, Chevrolet went back to victory lane in 2017 before Ford scored the final 3 wins on the oval in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Now, the race was moved to the 2.439-mile road course layout. Chevrolet won again last year for their 17th win with NASCAR’s premiere series at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They’re going to be the favorites again on Sunday for more than just their Indy dominance.
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See, Chevy has a leg up on the competition on the road courses. If you go back to the 2019 race at Watkins Glen and end at Road America on July 3 of this year, Chevy has won 13 out of the last 14 Cup Series races on road courses including 9 straight.
They’re 3-for-3 this year. They won the final 6 of 2021. They won both in 2020 (Daytona, Charlotte) and the final 2 of 2019 (Watkins Glen, Charlotte).
Can they show more dominance this weekend?
Trackhouse Racing is 2-for-3 this year with Richard Childress Racing taking the other. Kaulig Racing won this race a year ago. Can Hendrick Motorsports get back on the wagon again?
Heading into COTA back in March, it was an early test to the Next Gen’s parity. We’ve seen it prior, but would it also end Hendrick Motorsports’ road course reign. Prior to COTA, HMS had accumulated 9 road course wins in the last 11 tries including being 1-2 on that very track in 2021.
Throw in JGR into the road racing equation of the past car and you get out of the last 18 road course races run entering this season, they or a satellite team (Furniture Row Racing) had won 14 of them.
They’re since 0-for-3 with this new car in going 2-3-4-7-12-18-28-29-32-38 in COTA, 8-9-15-16-18-26-27-30-31-36 in Sonoma and 2-4-12-13-16-17-18-27-29-35 i Road America.
Hendrick went 1-2 in COTA, 1-2 in Sonoma, 1-2 in Watkins Glen and 3-4 in Indy just last year. Chase Elliott had won six of the last 11 road course races in general at that point 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 and now has just 1 top 10to show for it in 2022.
Does the Next Gen car take away their past advantages though and spread it evenly around the bowties or did Road America show Hendrick Motorsports has found something back again?
Did Toyota Get Things Figured Out?
Part of Chevrolet’s dominance in 2022 on road courses is that Toyota has went backwards. Out of 6 drivers, none of them had a top 15 in Sonoma (18-26-27-30-31-36) and their top finisher in Road America was 13th. They went 13-17-18-27-29-35. With having Indy this weekend, Watkins Glen next month and the Charlotte ROVAL in the playoffs, is this a concern for them?
They’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure this deficit out and from what it sounds, there’s not much that they can do about it.
So, how do you approach Indy this weekend then? Do you have to go off strategy and hope for some good luck while doing so? Do you elect for stage points and punt on track position in the final stage? Or, do you just temper your expectations and strive for top 15’s instead of top 5’s or 10s?
They’re coming off of what they thought was a 1-2 result in Pocono and their 199th win. That was later confiscated after 2 DQ’s.
1st Time Winner?
All 3 road course races in 2022 were won by a 1st time winner. Factor in AJ Allmendinger’s win here last year which was his 2nd Cup win and Christopher Bell’s in Daytona in February (2021) and you get 5 of the last 10 road races being won by a driver scoring their 1st or 2nd win on them.
Do we see another one on Sunday?
Winless drivers entered for this weekend’s race? Ty Dillon (0-for-187), Corey LaJoie (0-for-185), Harrison Burton (0-for-22) and Todd Gilliland (0-for-21).
Dillon has finished 20th, 23rd and 20th in the 3 road course events in 2022, LaJoie was 36th, 34th and 34th himself while the 2 rookies fared: 17-28-22 (Burton) and 16-24-25 (Gilliland).
You do have some winless droughts though too.
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 104 races ago. Buescher’s only win came 216 races ago. McDowell was 1-for-463 after his Daytona 500 win but 0-for-56 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 (76 races ago). Keselowski hasn’t won in his last 47 races but the team he’s driving for hasn’t reached victory lane in the last 184 races (July 2017) which is the last time Stenhouse Jr. won.
Points Race Or Go For The Win?
Road course races area always an interesting event because they’re not like ovals to where it’s pretty much a straightforward event. On a road course, strategy comes into play. You can elect to pit right before the stage ends to punt on stage points like they all did last year and position yourself with track position for the win instead. However, you’re giving up massive amounts of points though on a season to where you could use them.
On the flip side, you also needs wins on a season to where you can use them too. With 14 different winners already this season, there’s a very real chance we could see all the playoff spots taken by winners. We could potentially have more winners than playoff spots available too.
I mean what if Ryan Blaney goes winless but tops the regular season points standings. He gets those 15 playoff points and gets a guaranteed spot. That leaves 15 other spots left. We already have 14 winners. All it’s going to take is 2 more winners not named Blaney if he wins the regular season title and someone who’s won isn’t making the postseason.
With there being 3 road course races this season and all 3 producing a 1st time winner, doesn’t Indy this weekend and Watkins Glen next month make some guys nervous? Then you have Daytona to close things out.
That’s a potential for 3 more new winners right there.
At that point, it’s a race to stay off the bottom in terms of points accumulated for the season among race winners. That’s because if you get 17 different winners, the 17th driver in points among them is out.
So, what do you do on Sunday at Indy then? Most of the drivers with wins can’t swing for the fences now. The ones with multiple wins can but there’s not many of them. Even among the ones that have more than 1 win, some like Denny Hamlin are going for stage wins and playoff points.
That’s why this race is an interesting one for strategy plays. A race win does get you 5 playoff points and for a driver who’s won already, it gets you a 2nd win and basically a guaranteed spot now.
Strategy is going to be the name of the game on Sunday.