Did You Notice? … The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season is finally upon us? As Speedweek kicks off down in Florida, the sport hopes to keep momentum flowing two weeks after its well-received L.A. Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum. Sunday’s (Feb. 20) Daytona 500 launches 36 points-paying races in 38 weeks, the most condensed schedule in the sport’s modern era.
Front and center is the sport’s Next Gen chassis, a brand new stock car for the first time in almost a decade. There’s a lot riding on its success (or failure) as the sport tries to sell itself to a new wave of potential owners and manufacturers.
But to focus on just the car would be silly in a sport where driver personalities ultimately take center stage. Here’s a look at where we stand in the Cup Series and how 2022 is set to shape up.
Can Hendrick Motorsports be beaten? Since the sport’s Championship 4 format was adopted in 2014, no driver has pulled off back-to-back Cup titles. But HMS did it at the ownership level in 2021, following up Chase Elliott’s first ever championship with one from the unemployed-turned-unstoppable Kyle Larson. HMS drivers combined to win 17 of 36 races last year and joined Joe Gibbs Racing in sending a pair of drivers into the championship round (Larson, Elliott).
This organization enters the year with the youngest quartet of drivers in the entire series: Elliott, Larson, William Byron and Alex Bowman are all under 30 years old and entering the prime of their careers. Each one is backed by multi-million dollar sponsorship, almost all of which is signed well beyond 2022.
Compare that to the other major teams in the sport. Team Penske is in transition, welcoming a rookie to their three-car team (Austin Cindric) after losing veteran Brad Keselowski to an ownership opportunity. JGR suddenly looks past its prime, with two contenders over 40 years old and a third (Kyle Busch) turning 37 this year and slated to lose primary sponsorship at the end of the season. Stewart-Haas Racing’s lone title contender, Kevin Harvick, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit at age 46.
That sets up HMS to have a monstrous season across the board if they can figure out the Next Gen quickly. Some obstacles: common parts and chassis selection will erase (somewhat intentionally) their competitive advantage over the field. Everybody starts from square one, and past success means even less compared to past years.
There’s also two contracts that need to be extended: Elliott and Byron. It seems inconceivable either will leave after 2022 but keeping everyone happy and winning is always a tricky balance. As NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Elliott clearly played second fiddle all last season to Larson (10 wins to two) and is not someone you’d think would embrace the role of sidekick long-term.
How will Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing respond? Speaking of Elliott, his rivalry with Harvick was a dominant storyline within the NASCAR playoffs. In the end, while Harvick got revenge for their Bristol Motor Speedway contact at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, it was the No. 4 team knocked out of the playoffs. Harvick suffered through his first winless season since coming to SHR in 2014. Keep in mind that’s one year removed from a nine-win season close to the domination Larson showed in 2021; it was the most wins in modern NASCAR history for a driver age 44 or older in a single season.
Somehow, Harvick still finished fifth in points, a miracle for a SHR organization ending 2021 suffering across the board. Aric Almirola, despite scoring the team’s only win and making the playoffs, struggled all year and announced his retirement effective the end of the 2022 season. Chase Briscoe had more high-profile arguments with Championship 4 drivers (one, Denny Hamlin) than top-five finishes (zero) over a frustrating rookie campaign. And Cole Custer couldn’t even muster Paul Menard-like numbers, finishing no better than 10th as the son of SHR’s president found his NASCAR Xfinity Series stardom fading into the distance.
That brings this organization to a full crossroads. Co-owner Tony Stewart is newly married and newly enamored with a successful SRX project entering its second year. The TV booth is ready and waiting for Harvick, money in tow should he choose retirement. And will the sponsorship money from Smithfield stay when Almirola bolts at the end of the year?
Can old dogs learn new tricks? The first year of the Gen-6 chassis, in 2013, found some familiar faces up front. Jimmie Johnson won his sixth NASCAR title, trailed by 2003 series champion (then age 41) Matt Kenseth. Harvick and Kyle Busch finished right behind them; all of them had 9+ seasons of experience at the Cup level.
The question is whether this new chassis will tilt the veterans’ way once again. Changes meant for equality are also designed to put racing back in the driver’s hands. On paper, you’d say that favors guys like Harvick, Truex, Hamlin, guys with top-tier support who have been around a while.
At the same time, a lot of offseason buzz in the garage area concerned the Next Gen learning curve. It’s a completely different type of car to drive, the shape and feel surprising even one-time celebrity drivers like Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Will the older drivers, balancing everything from family to ownership (Hamlin) be able to put in the OT needed to succeed?
If not, Harvick may not be the only driver slated to retire in 2023. Think Truex, Kurt Busch, even Hamlin as 40-something year old drivers approach expiring contracts.
The conundrum of Kyle Busch. Busch started the 2022 season learning primary sponsor M&Ms would leave him at the end of the year. He also announced a retirement (at least for now) from a NASCAR Xfinity Series where he’s moonlighted for a record 102 career wins, going a perfect five-for-five during a limited schedule last season.
That leaves Busch developing Kyle Busch Motorsports, his Camping World Truck Series and now ARCA Menards Series team, while running just Cup for Joe Gibbs. And the thing about that No. 18 Toyota? It hasn’t been visiting victory lane so much on that side, winning just three times the past two seasons. It’s the fewest number of wins for Busch in a two-year time span since he drove the No. 5 for HMS in 2006-07.
At the end of that, Busch bolted HMS for JGR. Is he prepping for another big move in 2023? Busch said he was “not ready” to discuss his future last month and came out of the box strong, leading the most laps during the Coliseum exhibition main event. But Busch needs sponsorship and a young, hungry Ty Gibbs is about to light up NXS full-time. I’m not thinking Grandpa Joe is going to stick him on a satellite team somewhere.
It leaves Busch perhaps the biggest Silly Season domino if he becomes available. Even juicier, he could be in championship contention when contract negotiations are underway. Ask Brad Keselowski how that goes.
Bits and pieces. Will Kurt Busch push Bubba Wallace to be a star in his second season with 23XI Racing … or will Busch’s presence backfire if he runs circles around the No. 23? Can Hamlin finally dump the Mark Martin label and win a title at age 41? Will Austin Cindric buck the trend and actually have a successful, winning rookie season after some awkward transitions from NXS? How far behind is RFK Racing; is it possible to clean it up in time for them to make the 2022 postseason? And how will the hotshot new Kaulig Racing team do, in particular its second team (No. 16) built as win-or-bust with NXS stars Daniel Hemric, AJ Allmendinger and Noah Gragson? That mentality earned Allmendinger a surprise 2021 victory in a crown jewel race, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
About the author
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.
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