1. What Was That You Said About Parity?
NASCAR’s most popular driver and 2020 series champion Chase Elliott scored his first win of the 2022 season at Dover Motor Speedway, snatching the lead from Ross Chastain on a restart with 53 laps to go at the Monster Mile. Elliott is the fourth Hendrick Motorsports driver to score a victory in the season’s first 11 races, a NASCAR record for a four-car team.
The advent of the Next Gen car to the Cup Series has certainly brought about a new level of parity at stock car racing’s highest level – I’d like to meet anyone who predicted that the only two multi-time winners by this point in the season would be William Byron and Ross Chastain. Strong runs from previously mid-pack teams like Richard Childress Racing, Petty GMS Motorsports and JTG Daugherty Racing have grabbed headlines while even perennial backmarker Rick Ware Racing is producing more competitive results.
The 2022 Cup Series season has been entertaining and unpredictable. However, it’s time to recognize that despite the near-endless list of changes between November and February, the one thing that hasn’t changed is Hendrick Motorsports remains the class of the field.
Elliott leads the regular-season points with a team newly energized by their first oval track victory since 2020. Byron leads the series in wins and playoff points. Kyle Larson still enters each weekend the favorite simply by showing up while Alex Bowman continues to put himself in position to win races he shouldn’t.
More often than anyone else, when push comes to shove, it’s one of Mr. H’s Chevys that ends up in victory circle.
Last year, HMS won 17 out of 36 races, an incredible 47.2 percent clip. So far in 2022, they’re averaging 45.5 percent. With Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing still on the back foot and adjusting to the new car, there is no reason to think HMS can’t equal, or even exceed, its dominance from one year ago.
2. Are JGR and Toyota Turning it Around?
While Hendrick runs up the wins total, the past few weeks it has looked as though JGR and Toyota have at least started to stop the bleeding. 2022 is the first season ever that JGR failed to win in the first six races since joining up with Toyota in 2008. Across the season’s first 10 races, Toyota drivers had only led a total of 406 laps from 2,622.
But the winds of change started blowing down in Delaware, as the JGR brigade unloaded with speed for the first time in what felt like forever. Here’s Hamlin, talking to FOX’s Jamie Little during the rain delay:
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) May 1, 2022
Hamlin certainly looked happy out there, at least at first. He dominated the first stage, coming back from seventh place on the race restart to score his second stage win of the season. A pit penalty dropped him back down the order, but he’d recovered back into the top 5 before a spinning Cody Ware ripped off the passenger side of his Camry.
Busch then stepped up to pace the field in stage two, only losing out on his first stage win of the season with a tire strategy call. He then looked set to duke it out with Bowman for the win until an untimely caution sent both of them to the back. (He wound up seventh.)
Busch’s 103 laps led at Dover are the most the two-time champion has led in a single race since September 2020. Both he and Hamlin more than doubled their laps-led total for the season in this race.
In fact, by the time the checkered flag fell Monday afternoon, JGR teammates Hamlin, Busch and Martin Truex Jr. combined to lead 175 circuits of the Monster Mile, a staggering 30 percent of Toyota’s laps-led total on the season.
Although the finishing results do not quite reflect it (Christopher Bell had the only Toyota in the top 5 by race end), the fact multiple JGR cars showed race-winning speed could be an indication they’re beginning to recover from their slow 2022 start.
Next week’s Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway, a track where both races last year were won by JGR drivers, could prove if this turn of speed is just a flash in the pan or if Gibbs is truly poised to challenge Hendrick’s dominance.
3. Has the Next Gen Car Saved Dover?
When Chastain and Elliott went toe-to-toe with just over 50 laps remaining in the DuraMAX Drydene 400, it was almost like looking back in time. No side-drafting, no dirty air, just two drivers, all-out, side-by-side, lap after lap. It was like 2006 all over again.
Except it wasn’t. These were Next Gen Camaros with diffusers, five-speed transaxles and independent rear suspensions. And one of them was owned by Pitbull.
The 2022 Dover race for the lead was epic. Then, a caution came out and ruined everything (I kid, I kid).
Don’t let the fact Elliott led the last 53 laps straight erase the fact that there were 18 lead changes among 10 different drivers, something all but unimaginable during the 550-HP era. Like Fontana earlier this year, the Next Gen car seems to have reinvigorated a race that the aero-dependent Gen-6 cars had rendered an endless snoozefest destined to be won by whoever got off pit road quickest before the final restart.
After a difficult practice session that saw several drivers spin out while adjusting to the new car on Dover’s unique configuration, William Byron explained to NBC, “this track is one of those that you rely on downforce the most. Downforce and sideforce…so the fact that we have no sideforce on entry now, with a symmetrical car, it’s the place where that’s going to be the biggest penalty.”
That penalty has an upside, at least from a fan’s perspective. The lack of sideforce made for impressive wheel-to-wheel battles throughout the field once the track rubbered in, though none so great as the Chastain-Elliott battle for the win.
With Dover losing one of its race dates after the addition of Nashville Superspeedway to the calendar in 2021, plus the subsequent acquisition of Dover Motorsports by Speedway Motorsports at the end of last year (a deal which saw the Delaware track officially renamed Dover Motor Speedway), many have speculated that the one-mile concrete oval, one of the few NASCAR tracks without lights, might not have a place on the schedule in the sport’s long-term future.
Instead, like the thrilling Fontana race that put the half-mile reconfiguration plans on hold, this weekend’s DuraMax Drydene 400 may have just kept the wolves from the door… at least for now.
4. Another Week, Another Ross Chastain Take
Despite Hendrick dominance and Gibbs dropping the ball, the story of the season so far has been America’s fastest melon farmer, Trackhouse Racing Team driver Ross Chastain. Chastain’s two wins, at Circuit of the Americas and Talladega Superspeedway, are the first two of his Cup Series career, but many are already predicting a deep playoff run for the sophomore-year wheelman and his energetic young team.
Chastain was up front for 86 laps at Dover and came home with his series-leading seventh top five of the year. That is what has been most impressive; even when he doesn’t bring home the hardware, Chastain’s very much in the conversation. A stage win at Las Vegas, good fortune at Phoenix Raceway, a last-lap move away from victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway: it seems he is always up front and has transformed overnight into a week-in, week-out threat.
This flies in the face of a trend we’ve seen in the Cup Series for the past decade: the late bloomer.
Or does it?
Yes, gone are the days of hotshot youngsters like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, who arrived to big teams and delivered results immediately. Drivers who score their first wins these days haven’t become week-in, week-out competitors overnight: Cole Custer is a prime example, having struggled since scoring an upset win at Kentucky Speedway in 2020.
Larson, arguably the best driver in NASCAR right now, came into the Cup Series as an extremely hyped young prospect driving for the same Chip Ganassi Racing team that would become Chastain’s No. 1. Yet it took Larson nearly three years to win his first race, and he didn’t have his first multi-win season until his fourth year of full-time competition in 2017. Elliott, although he was the first rookie to qualify for the playoffs in their current form in 2016, similarly had to wait 99 races until his first Cup victory.
So what makes Chastain different? Well, Trackhouse owner Justin Marks’ preparation for the Next Gen car certainly made a difference, and a second year to build on with crew chief Phil Surgen shouldn’t be understated.
But the secret, I think, is that Chastain is not actually a sophomore, owning four years experience at the Cup level. Before Trackhouse and Ganassi, Ross ran nearly two full years for Jay Robinson’s Premium Motorsports, driving No. 15 and No. 27 Chevrolets that were almost dangerously off the pace while competing for the Xfinity Series championship with JD Motorsports.
By the time he began his first Cup campaign in competitive equipment, Chastain had already competed in 79 Cup events. His first win, a few races into his second season in remotely competitive equipment, came in his 121st start.
So is Ross the typical “late bloomer”? It’s hard to say. I’d put him in the same category as Bowman (who raced for BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing before replacing Dale Jr. at HMS). Even then, Bowman won just once in his second and third seasons at HMS, only turning into a steady threat last year. Chastain and Trackhouse really seem to have skipped over a lot of the struggling.
Ross’ experience is certainly invaluable, especially when compared with talented, high-profile drivers like Custer, Tyler Reddick and Daniel Suarez, who have yet to take that next step after jumping into top-tier rides with minimal prior Cup starts.
What could this mean for Xfinity Series wunderkind Ty Gibbs, who seems poised to replace either Busch or Truex at JGR in the next several years? Only time will tell.
5. What’s the Deal With 3 p.m. Start Times?
Jumping on Twitter during Sunday’s rain delay, as one does, my feed was a solid block of clamoring for NASCAR to adjust its start times when there’s rain on the radar. When the tracks don’t have lights. And just… in general.
The green flag had flown just past 3 p.m. local time, and the heavens opened just 45 minutes later. With a foreboding mass of green on the radar, most knew the race was done for the day even before NASCAR called it. So why didn’t they make the last-minute move to start the race a couple hours sooner to try and squeeze in as many of the 400 laps as possible before Mother Nature put a stop to the action, making sure the fans in the stands got what they paid for?
The answer, as I’m sure you know, is the networks. For West Coast viewers, or at least so goes the NASCAR Twitter speculation machine, FOX and NBC require 3 p.m. start times for East Coast races – rain or shine.
As someone who has worked in TV, I know that network requirements are somewhere on the spectrum between “frustratingly insightful” and “absolute nonsense,” but according to Jeff Gluck, there is a method to the madness, or at least the networks are aware of the implications of a rainout.
I’m seeing your tweets about how an earlier start time would have helped get the race to halfway before rain. Of course. But NASCAR/TV has determined it’s worth the risk to start later because of a larger audience toward the evening (this is from a Top 5 column last June): pic.twitter.com/RHsuB4FSQy
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) May 1, 2022
If NASCAR and the networks are willing to lose two races a year to rain, how effective is that model?
Dover was the first race this year to run on a Monday. The Bristol dirt race was also affected by rain, though they were able to get it all in on Easter Sunday.
Looking back at 2021, three races had to be run on Monday: spring Martinsville, Bristol dirt, and fall Talladega, while a further two (CoTA and New Hampshire) were reduced in length due to weather delays. The Daytona 500 was also delayed by rain last year, and by being pushed into the wee hours of Monday morning, it had easily the lowest ratings in the race’s televised history, averaging just under five million viewers. Including the Daytona 500, there were four rainouts in 2021, and eight total races affected in some way by rain.
My two cents as a West Coast resident: I’ll watch NASCAR whenever it’s on, even if that’s 9 a.m. on a Monday, as it turned out to be for the Dover finish. Lord knows I wake myself up at 5 a.m. to watch Formula 1 every so often. I admit, though, that morning racing just doesn’t feel right, and so it doesn’t surprise me that it’s worth it to the networks to start later to catch more viewers on my side of the Mississippi.
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