Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: A Little NASCAR Magic in An Unexpected Place

I want to hate it.

On paper, there’s very little to like about NASCAR’s Next Gen Cup Series racecar. There’s virtually nowhere for teams to work on their chassis. Just about every part and piece comes from a single source, with only some variation in engine manufacturers to differentiate one car from another.

Teams can’t fix damaged panels for fear of massive penalties, but there aren’t enough new ones to go around. For most intents and purposes, it’s a spec car.

There, I said it.

That IROC mentality goes against everything that made NASCAR what it is today. It’s a sport built on innovation, on teams finding an edge and also trying to bend the rules. It flies in the face of everything I love about NASCAR competition. I want to hate it and I should.

Except I don’t.

I entered the 2022 season fully prepared to hate every second of it… and I haven’t. Whether it’s the car itself or the process of teams learning it, the season has produced something I had thought was gone from the sport forever.

2022 has been… unpredictable.

Even as Hendrick Motorsports has reasserted itself as the team to beat, they’ve been beatable. Even as 23XI Racing was supposed to have a breakout year, they’ve been overshadowed by Trackhouse Racing Team, another upstart that was almost completely overlooked last year. Richard Childress Racing and its affiliates have been surprisingly strong. Joe Gibbs Racing looks shockingly weak.

There have been 10 different winners through 12 races, yet four former series champions haven’t been among them. And the two repeat winners? One is William Byron, who’s kind of Hendrick’s low man on the totem pole while the other is Ross Chastain, who went from a winless watermelon farmer with untapped potential to one of the hottest rising talents in racing.

Young drivers are winning, veterans are struggling. Martin Truex Jr. hasn’t won. Ditto Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. Kyle Busch eked out a victory but even he admits he kind of backed into it. Denny Hamlin has a win and sits 22nd in points, tied with Michael McDowell (and McDowell has more top-10 finishes). Rookie Austin Cindric also sits on a win, the season-opening Daytona 500, but has since tumbled outside the top 16.

The thing is, it’s not a big stretch to think there could be six more winners this year, maybe even before the playoffs. No team has really been able to break out above the rest.

On track, there have been some good races at ovals that haven’t given fans much in the past. We saw quality shows at Auto Club Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, while it’s the short tracks that haven’t been as exciting (it’s for sure a problem, no two ways about that).

It’s created a season that’s the closest to parity we might ever get. Sure, there are still bigger, richer teams, and those are the ones leading the points now. But suddenly, the mid-tier and smaller organizations aren’t automatically relegated to the back of the field. Kaulig Racing, Petty GMS Motorsports, Front Row Motorsports and JTG Daugherty Racing have all had some very strong finishes.

When I was new to racing, there was one moment — the mere seconds between when the pace car dropped to pit road and the green flag waved — that was magic. It held every possibility, the chance for anything to happen and anyone to win.

Recently, I admit, that magic faded. I felt like I could write much of my post-race before the first lap and only have to change the names on occasion. The illusion anything could happen was a bitter pill because, well, it was hard to believe it really could.

But now, when the pace car falls away onto pit road before the green flag flies, I feel the butterflies, the thrill of believing, however temporarily, that anything can happen.

While racing is many things, good racing isn’t predictable. Most of the races this year have been anything but, and that’s the best we could have hoped for in the Next Gen era.

I still want to hate the car. It flies in the face of everything the sport should be. And yet, it’s brought a glimmer of hope. If things can stay as they are, with every ending written before our eyes instead of following a tired script, then maybe the sport can find a little of that old magic, the kind that fueled its explosive growth.

Follow @Writer_Amy

About the author

Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Cynthia

Good writing!

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