Top 5 takeaways from the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season

AVONDALE, AZ — We’ve crowned a champion. won the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series title on Sunday at the Phoenix Raceway. Here are my top 5 takeaways from a wild and unexpected past season.

This May Be The New Era

Prior to the 2020 season, in order to win a NASCAR Cup Series championship, the road went through Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. Combined, that trio had won 4 of the 6 championships under this new format.

Harvick has five final round appearances in eight years at that but none in the last three including a first round defeat this season.

Busch had five championship 4 appearances in the last 8 years but none in the last three. He too was an opening round exit this year. Busch has only scored 5 wins in his last 130 starts. 

Truex also has had five Championship 4 appearances in the last 8 years. He didn’t even make the playoffs last year. He’s also entered 2020 having only two wins in his last 43 races run too. Then came a four win season and all the momentum back. That was lost in a winless campaign in 2022 to give him 6 wins in his last 115 tries.

While their reign appears to be ended, maybe this is the new norm. Chase Elliot, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney have since emerged.

Elliott has 3 championship 4 appearances in the last 3 years. He also has 6 straight Round of 8 appearances.

Hamlin has 3 final round appearances in 4 years.

Larson was surprisingly eliminated in the Round of 12 this year but just won the title on the heels of a 10-win season in 2021.

Logano has 5 straight Round of 8 appearances and 8 in 9 tries. He also has 2 Championship 4 appearances in the last 5 years including 5 overall and two titles.

Blaney has 4 Round of 8 appearances in the last 6 years too.

Combined 2 of the last 4 series champions made up the Round of 8. The only ones missing was Busch and Larson…

The 4 drivers in the final round are all 32 years of age or younger with 3 of them in their 20’s.

This is the future and maybe it’s now…

FORT WORTH, TEXAS – SEPTEMBER 25: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, spins into the wall after an on-track incident that Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, avoids during the NASCAR Cup Series Auto Trader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on September 25, 2022 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Conservative Approach

We see it all the time in stick-and-ball sports and that’s finding ways to capitalize on others misfortunes and in the meanwhile not shooting yourself in the foot. In professional sports, everyone is good. In order to take being good to great, well that gap is dwindling too.

The biggest difference in either direction?

Being sure you’re doing what you need to do to survive and maximizing in areas to where you’re good in.

That’s especially true in NASCAR for this season. In a year of parity (19 different winners in 36 races) and 4 of the first 5 postseason races being won by non-championship eligible drivers, the best way to advance from one round to the next is maximize stage points and limit mistakes.

Just look at who was alive in the Round of 12 still and who’s not and why each are in the position that they’re in right now.

Chase Briscoe went 14 straight races without a top 10 finish and that included all 3 races in the 1st round. He was still alive. Austin Cindric had 1 top 10 finish in his last 8 races before Talladega. In the opening round, he had 1 finish better than 15th and that was 12th. 7 of Daniel Suarez’ last 10 finishes entering the Round of 12 elimination race had been 12th or worse including 6 of those 7 being 18th or worse at that. They were all 3 in great positions to move onto the Round of 8.

It just goes to show you that you have to just get by and if you’re not too aggressive, you likely will move on.

In the playoffs, Kansas, Bristol and Texas each saw drivers too aggressive on their tire air pressures. It cost them. Same was true for similar races in the regular season as well.

We’ve seen cars catching fire for no reason. We’ve seen a lot of mechanical failures. The ones that have kept it more in the box than pushing a limit were the ones still fighting for a championship.

“Yeah, I mean, I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” Chase Elliott said back in October at Talladega. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race.

“I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

It was that type of season. Elliott rode that wave this past summer in scoring 5 straight top 2 results. 5 of his next 7 would see him finish 11th or worse. He then had 2 top 2’s in 3 weeks though. Then in the playoffs in total, he’s had 2 top 10’s. He made the final round.

Joey Logano saw it too. It ebbs and flows these days to where it was more ebbing than flowing in years prior. Logano had 4 top 3’s including a pair of wins in an 8 race span this past spring. He had 1 top 10 in his next 6 including 4 straight finishes outside the top 20 entering the final weekend of July. Then he rattled off 4 straight top 6’s. Then he had 3 finishes in a 4 week span of 12th or worse. 2 of his first 5 playoff finishes had been in the top 4. The other 3 have been 17th or worse including a pair of 27th place finishes in the last 3 weeks heading to Charlotte last month. 5 of his last 8 playoff finishes were 18th or worse. He made the Championship 4 too.

William Byron lived it. He had 4 top 5’s in a 6 race span earlier this season then just 1 top 10 in the next 18 races. That was to last race of the regular season. What’s he done in the playoffs?

4 top 8’s in 5 tries. The reason he was originally below the cutline? An unforced error by spinning Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. That cost him 25 points. Instead of being 11 points down, he could be 14 points to the good at the very minimum. He later got his points back but you get the point.

See where these errors can cost you?

Kyle Busch blew 2 engines in 3 first round playoff races. Kevin Harvick’s car caught on fire in Darlington, he crashes in Kansas and had a bad final spot in Bristol. Both former champions were eliminated in the opening round. Tyler Reddick finished 3rd in the Southern 500 but cut a tire and wrecked in Kansas and was collected in a crash at Bristol. His teammate Austin Dillon was 17th, 14th and 31st in the 3 first round races. Both he and Reddick joined Busch and Harvick on the sidelines.

How about the 2nd round?

Alex Bowman missed Talladega, Christopher Bell despite a top 5 in all three first round races, cut a tire and crashed twice in Texas and had a ho-hum day in Talladega. Byron was 12th in Talladega and has that points penalty.

The ones not making air pressure mistakes or having points penalties capitalized in the end.

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – SEPTEMBER 17: Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 Worldwide Express Chevrolet, and Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on September 17, 2022 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Fans Prefer Sunday Races Over Saturday

The ratings for this past year’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race wasn’t good. The race per Adam Stern of SBJ, which aired on USA, got a 1.07 ratings with 1.776 million viewers. That’s down 500k in the viewership category over last year which drew a 1.20 rating with 2.2 million viewers.

The main point here is simple – racing in primetime may be good for ticket sales and in track experiences, but for those at home, they’re just not watching.

It’s also why NASCAR and their TV partners have closed the door on more primetime races. Why schedule them when those folks not at the race track won’t watch?

Last year Ben Kennedy spoke on his vision for the NASCAR Cup Series schedule and he grew up with NASCAR on TV on Sunday afternoon’s. He and the TV partners at Fox Sports and NBC Sports agree with this philosophy.

2021 was a shift from Saturday night primetime races to Sunday afternoons. This 2023 schedule further exemplifies that shift in philosophy. Just 2 of the 36 points paying races in 2023 will be on Saturday night with 2 more on a Sunday night.

Yes, Sunday night.

NASCAR knows that it can be hot in the south in the summer. Letting fans roast in the grandstands in Atlanta isn’t wise. So instead of a day race in July, it’s a night race. The caveat? It’s a Sunday night race not a Saturday night event.

Same for Richmond. A shift up to the end of July can make fans swealter. Also they wanted to differentiate between the 2 stops. A day race and a night race. The summer races makes more sense to utilize the lights. Like Atlanta, they’ll race on a Sunday night.

This is all by design and one that the TV ratings show that racing on Sunday is way better for the viewer than on a Saturday night.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – APRIL 09: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 LLumar Chevrolet, leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Cup Series Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 at Martinsville Speedway on April 09, 2022 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Martinsville’s race this pasts year was further proof on why NASCAR has went forward with more Sunday races than Saturday night. A week prior to that race in April, NASCAR raced at Richmond on FOX. The Richmond race was a Sunday afternoon on FOX. The Martinsville race a Saturday night on FS1.

Nearly 4 million (3.958-million) people tuned into the Richmond race. The Martinsville race didn’t even get to half of that total.

From 3.958-million to 1.8-million. That’s a stark drop. Hell, the Truck race on dirt almost had as many people watching than the Cup race at Martinsville a week prior.

While some could say a race on FS1 will naturally drop off than one on FOX, you don’t lose 3-million people because of that and the Truck race was on FS1 too.

Early in the season, Atlanta had 4 million tune in, Phoenix had 3.991 million, COTA had 3.7-million. Richmond was 3.9 and now Bristol Dirt of all races got 4.5 million. Each race on FOX in an afternoon start.

Primetime TV for sports is declining in general. It’s a fundamental shift that NASCAR is working on again and they’re not hiding behind that fact either. Richmond and Atlanta as an example next summer will race under the lights on Sunday night instead of Saturday night. Kansas will be a day race against the NFL this Fall. Why Sunday’s and not utilizing Saturday night’s anymore?

“I think from a fan perspective our fans, again, are accustomed to tuning in on Sunday afternoon and seeing NASCAR Cup Series racing,” Ben Kennedy said last year on this topic. “For a fan going out there to the track, to have the biggest event of the weekend on that Sunday afternoon I think gives them something to look forward to and builds anticipation around the weekend.

“I would say a lot of our fans, myself included, are accustomed to turning racing on, NASCAR racing in particular, on Sunday afternoon. I think we all have that habit. Certainly helped us kind of drive the decision to move that there.”

In both 2009 and again in 2010 we had 10 scheduled night races on the schedule. They were at Phoenix, Richmond (x2), Darlington, Charlotte (x2), Daytona, Chicago, Bristol and Atlanta. This year, that number is down to six (Martinsville, Bristol (x2), Charlotte, Darlington and Daytona). Out of those 6, half will take place on a Sunday night at that. That’s down from 8 of 10 in 2010.

Plus, among the past tracks with lights, Phoenix and Atlanta doesn’t use theirs anymore for Cup with both visits now being day races. Chicago is also gone.

The shift is clear. Lights are basically a backup plan now for tracks for the event rain pushes them to night to complete. However, they’d prefer not to have to use them and get them all done in a Sunday afternoon window.

When Bristol Dirt on Easter Night gets over 4-million viewers but the night race that everyone boasts about gets less than 2 million, it goes to show the gap here.

Bristol dirt was up 28% over last year and the highest rated Bristol spring race since 2016. The number peaked at 4.5-million which at the time was the No. 2 watched race this season behind only the Daytona 500.

What’s that say?

Sunday night can do better than Saturday night which is why these ratings were kind of expected.

Chase Elliott hinted at this possibility in his Bristol press conference saying that he doesn’t see any value to racing against the NFL in the Fall. While he’s not wrong, this race wasn’t against the NFL being a Saturday night. If they ran it on a Sunday, the ratings would be higher, but not as high as they’d be in the summer.

It goes to what I’ve been saying lately that the only viewers of NASCAR races once the NFL season starts is just that, the fan base that’s already been established. You’re not going to get those casual fans anymore. They’ve tuned out and are into their NFL team.

In the summer, there’s not a lot of other options on so you get that casual fan, especially when you can get on network TV like FOX or NBC and not FS1 or USA.

So some may ask, why go so late in the season then? That’s what Elliott is asking too. The takeaway from that is, NBC or even other networks not named FOX or CBS don’t want to punt on the 1-7 p.m. ET window.

Yes, the NFL on FOX and CBS are going to produce massive ratings for each game. However, NBC doesn’t want to air 6 hours of infomercials.

A NASCAR race during the Fall on Sunday’s can still get you upwards of 2 million viewers if aired on NBC. If aired on USA, you see the drop off, even more so on a Saturday night.

Which is why I’m not worried at all by these ratings. It’s just the name of the game in the 21st Century. No one wants to be inside watching TV on Saturday night’s like they would on a Sunday afternoon or even at Sunday night….

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – SEPTEMBER 17: Chris Buescher, driver of the #17 Fastenal Ford, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on September 17, 2022 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Short Track Package Needs Work

The spring Martinsville race was abysmal. Very little lead changes (5) and no real action. Same for the Fall race (6 cautions and 8 lead changes). The shifting, the bigger tires, little tire fall off, the cooler temperatures all played a role they said. However, the other short tracks on the schedule suggest we need some work with this package.

Bristol featured the lowest amount of lead changes (12) since 2009. Richmond was ho-hum. Very little passing at either.

“It was pretty tough. We pitted in front of the 17, so just kind of the way the year has gone. Just went from having a chance to lead the parade to being a part of the parade,” Kevin Harvick said at Bristol. “Just difficult to pass. Parted it way too fast through the corners. Can’t race.”

With this new car, one part to it is an increase in tire size. That bigger tires lead to more grip in the turns and as a result, you get higher cornering speeds.

Denny Hamlin said it felt like they were going quicker in the corners than they were on the straights. With minimal tire fall off outside of the ones that blew, it just doesn’t create for very good racing.

For a short track to work, you need slower corning speeds and more tire fall off. When you get neither, it makes for a tough night.

“Had good track position from our qualifying effort but passing was just impossible,” Hamlin said. “It was just a type of day where you needed to stay up front at all costs and we just couldn’t quite do it and ended up having a blown tire that set us back and we were trying to play catch up from that point. (The Next Gen car) was tough. I would like to see the racing improve overall. Some lap time variation a little bit. We’re just running around there and it’s like we’re running faster in the corners than we are on the straightaways. Just extremely hard to pass. Just seems like mechanical stuff with this Next Gen and wrecks are the X-factor in moving on so you just have to be really consistent.”

It’s not like the higher ups aren’t taking stock. Steve O’Donnell spoke on Friday of last weekend about a need to improve the package on these tracks.

“I think you have to start with really looking at a small sample size in terms of what we’ve been able to go out there and do, particularly on the short tracks,” said O’Donnell.

“For sure looking at some aero changes for both short tracks and road courses. We have a lot of dialogue going on with the drivers in terms of potentially looking at some power things. I think that’s a little more complicated. There are some things we’ve looked at even through Garage 56 that we found from an aero standpoint that could be put in place as early as next year for both short tracks and road courses.

“The good news is continuing to dial in on the intermediates which we believe we’re in a really good spot, but then really focus on the short tracks and road courses.

“A lot of work being done collectively to focus on both areas.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – OCTOBER 16: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, and Bubba Wallace, driver of the #45 McDonald’s Toyota, spin after an on-track incident during the NASCAR Cup Series South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Next Gen Car Produced Parity, Safety Concerns

As good as the Next Gen car was in terms of passing and different winners, it was also met with safety concerns as well. 19 different winners in 36 points paying races was a high. So was teams like Petty GMS Racing, Trackhouse Racing, RFK Racing and 23XI Racing finding victory lane.

Michael McDowell had more top 10’s this year (12) than he had than he had the last four seasons combined.

Chris Buescher had a career high in top 5’s (3), top 10’s (10) and laps led (194). Same for Christopher Bell who had 2 wins, 4 poles, 11 top 5’s, 18 top 10’s and 423 laps led. All single season career highs. Same for Bubba Wallace in top 5’s (5), top 10’s (9) and laps led (150). William Byron led 746 laps, which nearly doubled his next best season.

That’s the good.

Then there’s the bad. Between the tire problems we saw early, to the fires, to more tire problems late as well as the crashes that sidelined three drivers from a single race and saw Kurt Busch miss the final 16 races and Alex Bowman 5 of the final 6 himself, there was clearly a disconnect between the new car and the safety.

NASCAR has luckily, even late, has responded and making updates to the car before we come back in 2023. Does that take away the parity?

“I do think the car has been a major factor in the competition this year, and again,” said Team Penske’s Walt Czarnecki. “19 different winners. It’s really boiled down to, and we’re going to have to do this on Sunday, boils down to preparation, execution, strategy, and a driver who wants to win.

“The cars are relatively even. I’ve got to be careful what I say here because nothing is ever even. I realize that. But it’s the closest I’ve ever seen.

“I looked at the qualifying times at Martinsville last Sunday. What are they, from 1st to 36th it was two-tenths, three tenths of a second? It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I think that’s a testament to what NASCAR has done.”

Hendrick agreed.

“The car has made it super competitive on any given day, anybody can win,” he says. “You’ve seen all these different winners this year. Nobody has really just dominated the sport. The parity is really unreal.

“I think NASCAR got what they wanted. We’re all trying to figure it out a little bit better each and every week. But boy, you just look at the lead changes and how many people are up there running up front, and you always expect to see coach up there and Roger, and Trackhouse has done an unbelievable job.

“And you look at other teams like Petty and I think Brad and his team, they’re going to be contenders next year.

“So I think it’s leveled the playing field, and it’s good for the sport. I think the fans love it.

“I sometimes look back and like the old way, but it’s good for the sport.

“I look at Trackhouse and any other competitor that comes into the sport. I think the 23 crowd has shown a lot of muscle. They’re going to be competitors and fierce competitors next year.

“I think you’ve got to race everybody now. I’m going to pull for a Chevrolet team if it’s not us for sure, because we’re stronger together.

“But Justin has done a great job. He’s got two great drivers. You can’t take anything away from that.

“But I look at them like Brad is going to be tough next year, having Reddick over in that Toyota is going to be tough. Hey, you’ve got to race everybody, so it’s going to be a bunch of good cars out there, and we just have to go race and win our share.

“But they have done a super job, and I commend them on that. We can’t really look at other people. We just have to get better ourselves. We have to do a better job of figuring out the car and crew chiefs and drivers working together and the whole organization working together.

“We’ve won 11 races this year, and you always want to win more, but I’m thankful to win 11.

“I see other competitors coming, and you can’t rest on your laurels. We’re going to have to be better.

“I think we are better. I think we are getting better every race. Some races don’t show it, but in some areas I think we’ve improved, and then in other areas we need to improve a lot more.

“I look at everybody as competition.”

Czarnecki doesn’t think that with a second year of this car in 2023, that the gap will necessarily widen just because the bigger teams have more money to develop it faster.

“I think we’ll see the lesser teams still have the same chance,” he says. “I really do. They’re being given that opportunity. Again, I think the car has indicated that or has illustrated that.

“It really boils down to the people. There are some darned good people, whether it’s Penske or Hendrick or Gibbs, there are a lot of good, talented, smart people in this sport that know how to race and know how to win.

“I think it could be just as open next year as it was this year.”

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