The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season is over halfway complete, which means the Next Gen car is closer to its competitive debut than ever.
That doesn’t mean we are any closer to knowing what NASCAR will look like past 2021, though.
The top tier of stock-car racing is about to undergo a massive shift in 2022. Spec parts and pieces all coming from common vendors, new suspensions, new safety implementations — every single thing is new.
So trying to set expectations for what drivers or teams will hold or gain a competitive edge? Well, that’s just impossible.
Jeff Gordon met with media members on June 27 at Pocono Raceway days after his elevated role at Hendrick Motorsports was announced. Even as the soon-to-be No. 2 man at HMS, Gordon knows predicting what happens next year is more difficult now than ever.
“There’s so many unknowns, and it’s so hard to really even get deep into that conversation because we don’t even really have a chassis and a body and a car to go out there and test with,” Gordon said. “Yes, we’ve been doing these kind of group efforts with our OEM and with NASCAR, but it’s not been a full-fledged effort. We’re still in the development stage, and we’re working hard to be ready to go at Daytona in February, but a lot of work still left ahead of us.”
How, then, can we sit here and say some current driver will continue to whoop the competition’s butt for the next 10 years without knowing what he’s going to do in the next 10 months?
The truth is that we can’t.
Hendrick Motorsports has obviously found something with the current iteration of the Gen-6 car that has the team peaking once again after a long lull of mediocrity before Chase Elliott‘s 2020 championship. Kyle Larson is the man to beat week after week; Alex Bowman has netted a career-high season total of three wins; and William Byron broke through to win at Homestead-Miami Speedway, setting off a remarkable string of top-10 runs.
But who’s to say any of that carries through to 2022 or beyond? Those drivers’ talents have certainly shined as of late. It could mean a lot for next year … or it could mean absolutely nothing.
Gordon pointed to one commonality despite the incoming loss of in-house fabricators: people.
“You’re always going to put yourself in a position where you want to fall back on your people and the strengths that you currently have,” Gordon, a four-time Cup Series champion driver, said. “And I think those strings are still going to play out well for us next year. But until we get into it, we won’t know exactly how to take advantage of the areas of expertise that we have — the engineering, what area of engineering, aerodynamics, horsepower. All those things that are making us successful now will still be very important next year.”
Ownership will also look quite different in 2022. As Gordon vaults to next-in-line at Hendrick, 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski is all but confirmed to join Roush Fenway Racing as a driver and part-owner; Justin Marks’ Trackhouse Racing just purchased Chip Ganassi Racing; Matt Kaulig enters the fray as a full-time Cup owner.
According to Dirty Mo Media’s “Door Bumper Clear” podcast, things almost got even crazier. Spotter Brett Griffin, who currently spots on a part-time basis after many years as a full-time spotter for Elliott Sadler and Clint Bowyer, said Richard Childress Racing was rumored to be “for sale” while Kaulig was shopping for charters.
On top of the rich history and legacy that RCR holds on its own, NASCAR worked intimately with Childress’ organization to build and test the Next Gen car and put it on the racetrack. Suddenly, the team was for sale? That means nothing is off limits at this point.
Between the insanity of silly season and the introduction of the new car, there is no use in trying to set expectations for 2022. No one should pose any predictions until we see multiple true multi-car tests and see how these competitors wheel their cars.
Until then, put down the crystal ball. The glass is still too foggy.