Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2022 NASCAR Season So Far, So Good

What has happened?

After 16 of 36 races completed so far in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season, and with the halfway point of the year fast approaching, Chase Elliott has climbed to the top of the series’ points standings with drivers Ross Chastain, Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, and Joey Logano rounding out the top five, all within 30 points of the lead.

There are already 12 winners this season with 10 races left before the beginning of the playoffs, leaving only four spots open in the playoff standings.

How did it happen?

Elliott has been having a quiet season thus far – quiet, but consistent.

The Georgian has earned only one win so far in the 2022 season, coming at Dover Motor Speedway during this year’s annual Drydene 400. So, one may wonder how he has somehow taken the points lead in both the playoff and regular-season standings.

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In this modern-day era of NASCAR with stage racing, we have to look at each individual points racing performance. Throughout the first 16 races, Elliott has failed to earn less than 25 points only four times and has earned 136 stage points total – the most out of all Cup drivers.

However, Elliott has been consistent at the end of races as well. In fact. he has the third-most top-10 results out of all Cup Series drivers this year, only one behind Chastain and Kyle Busch.

Then there’s times when Elliott has had chances at winning.

At Auto Club Speedway in February, Elliott was battling teammate Kyle Larson for the lead when the latter drifted up the racing surface and made contact with Elliott, slicing his teammate’s tire and ruining his chances of victory.

At Martinsville Speedway, the No. 9 led from the start of the race and never lost the lead until a pit stop under caution at the conclusion of stage two. Elliott’s team delivered a slow service, which allowed Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron to inherit the lead for all but six laps on his way to winning his second race.

Most recently at Sonoma Raceway, Elliott and teammate Larson were exchanging the lead through varying pit strategies. Elliott decided to pit late in stage two and relinquished the lead but would regain it once the conclusion of the event’s second stage break ended.

However, when the 2020 series champion left to exit pit road, crew chief Alan Gustafson halted him as a lug nut was left unsecured. Elliott returned to his pit box.

But not completely.

The team would be penalized for servicing the car outside of the pit box, and Elliott would have to settle for an eighth-place finish – another top 10.

Yet even with those close win calls, stage points, top 10s and points lead considered, the driver of the No. 9 certainly hasn’t been the main story of the year.

That’s been the driver he’s currently tied in the playoff standings with.

Who has stood out?

In 2021 with Chip Ganassi Racing, Chastain earned three top fives and eight top 10s through all 36 Cup Series points races.

In 2022, he’s doubled his top-five count with seven total. He’s also earned 10 top 10s as well. On top of that, the Melon Man has not only smashed his first Cup Series watermelon, but also his second when he earned victories at both Circuit of the Americas and Talladega Superspeedway. With that, he’s now tied with Byron, Logano, and Denny Hamlin for most wins of the season with two apiece.

Last year, Chastain was a rising star in the Cup Series world that would run up front every once in a blue moon. This year, the Floridian seems to be running up front every week, solidifying himself as not a rising star but a risen one.

But with the rise of Chastain comes the rise of his Trackhouse Racing Team.

Usually nowadays when a brand-new race team opens its doors in the incredibly cutthroat and competitive world of stock car racing, it struggles early and often. That’s without mentioning competing in the elite class of the NASCAR Cup Series.

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Up to Speed: Daniel Suarez Reborn at Trackhouse Racing Team

When Trackhouse manifested itself at the beginning of 2021, it showed some promise, but not enough to believe that it would be competing for race wins only one year later.

Which is why with three wins already in the bank just 16 races into its sophomore year, Trackhouse has already shocked the racing world and proven itself not only a competitive team, but perhaps a championship-caliber one. In comparison, it took Joe Gibbs Racing three years before it finally underwent a multi-race winning season.

What’s even better is the team’s star power.

Having somebody like recording artist Pitbull becoming invested in the new race team promotes the brand outside of racing and into the mainstream. Additionally, having young and popular Mexican racer Daniel Suarez earning his first win at Sonoma headlining front pages of newspapers enhances the team’s repertoire further.

Trackhouse’s success only halfway through the season is exactly what NASCAR has been waiting for, as not only does it highlight the racing world, it transcends it.

Who has fallen flat?

There is a time when veterans of the sport begin to fall from their peak performance. It’s seemingly inevitable and has happened to the greatest legends of the sport. Drivers begin to lose their edge at a certain age and begin to compete for only a top 15 at best rather than race wins.

Kevin Harvick seems to be at that age.

Now, please don’t get this twisted. This isn’t a crack at some of the older drivers in the sport. After all, Kyle Busch and Hamlin are closing on their 40s and are very much still title contenders.

However, with the combination of Stewart-Haas Racing’s depreciating performance in the last couple of years and with Harvick in what is his 22nd consecutive year of full-time Cup Series racing at 46 years old – well beyond the age most drivers compete at – Happy’s performance has certainly seen a decline.

Since 2020, the Bakersfield native has not earned a single Cup Series victory. This year he’s earned four top fives and eight top-10 results so far, so it’s not a complete drop from championship form.

He also came close to the top spot at Sonoma before a slow pit stop relegated him away from the leaders.

But with a mounting 59-race winless streak – the second longest of his career – the question has changed from, “When will Harvick win again?” but rather, “Will he win again?”

What has this season proven?

NASCAR has been attempting to create its perfect car for years – no, decades – to what seems to be no avail.

It’s not perfect, but the Next Gen car is probably the closest the sport has gotten since the Gen Four days of the early 2000s.

Since its inception and the first images of its test at Richmond Raceway a few years ago, so many have wondered how the new vehicle would act. When the field took to the banks of Auto Club Speedway, with drivers spinning during practice, it was obvious drivers had a difficult piece of machinery to operate.

And thank goodness for that.

It reminds the seasoned racing veteran of the old days of drivers having to massage the throttle in the corners and handling the braking to perfection if they wanted a good exit. You know, like they did before 2019.

On top of that, the composite body has allowed drivers to be a little more aggressive nowadays without fear of ending somebody’s race.

Albeit there are still some flaws.

Short-track racing has seen a downturn in competition for sure, with Martinsville seeing no on-track passes for the lead in the entirety of its 400 laps.

Then of course, there’s the wheel issues.

Only 16 races in, there have been 11 loose-wheel penalties handed out to race teams, with Justin Haley having already been penalized twice. Doing the math, that’s 44 combined weeks of crew chief suspensions because of the Next Gen cars’ singular lug nut not being fastened properly in the mere seconds race teams take to use the air gun.

Perhaps that leaves something to be said about NASCAR’s policy on loose wheels.

Regardless, it’s obvious the Next Gen car has provided an uptick in competition over the years past.

Or has it?

Better than last time?

With all of this talk about the idea of reaching more than 16 winners before the playoffs, it might be hard to believe that last year also had 12 different drivers win by race 16 as well.

Yet something feels different, right?

Well, four of those different race winners are first-career victories with Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Chastain and Suarez all earning their maiden victories in the Next Gen era, proving there is indeed parity in the modern era of the sport.

Week in and week out, every race appears to be a vast improvement over the previous year’s edition with a few exceptions. As mentioned, the Next Gen car and its not-550-horsepower package has given NASCAR fans the blessing of great racing again on 1.5-mile racetracks – except Texas Motor Speedway.

It feels like 2022 is a breath of fresh air for NASCAR. With new winners, new tracks and a new car headlining the modern era of racing, the outlook of racing feels far more positive than it has in years past.

So far.

Paint scheme of the year

Out of all races this year, it’s only natural to focus on the one race weekend that has become more a vintage art collection of race designs that often produces some of the best liveries of each Cup Series season – throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway.

Readers of Thinkin’ Out Loud will remember what paint scheme won the weekend’s best, and it’s easy to assume it will likewise win the best of the year.

And, well, you’d be right.

As mentioned in the Darlington edition, Byron’s throwback to Jeff Gordon’s 2007 flames paint scheme hit the spot perfectly in terms of duplication. The seaglass blue perfectly resembles the four-time Cup legend’s No. 24, with the flame placement being identical as well with the blue pyro design grasping the corners of the rear and front bumpers of the Camaro. For a race, it really seemed as if the No. 24 DuPont Monte Carlo was back.

The only design flaw are those pesky number placements, but that’s a different argument.

You may feel differently, of course. After all, throwback schemes technically aren’t original modern-day designs. Instead, they’re meant to fill us with nostalgia as remembrance of some of the iconic and classic NASCAR liveries rather than reveal new designs of today’s teams and sponsors.

So, here are some honorable mentions for some of this year’s best designs thus far.

 

What’s next?

The remaining 10 races of the Cup Series regular season.

It begins when the NASCAR Cup Series returns to Nashville Superspeedway for the series’ second ever visit to the 1.33-mile oval. Cup qualifying for the Ally 400 begins on Saturday, June 25 at 1 p.m. ET. with the 300-lap main event being televised live on NBC on Sunday, June 26 at 5 p.m. ET.

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021 after writing for IMSA. A race fan since he was three years old, he began freelance writing in 2018 and graduated with a B.S. in Communications from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

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Carl D.

Nice recap, Dalton.  A few comments…

I expect several changes at SHR before next season, and not just drivers.  That may not include Kevin Harvick.

Yep, the lug nut penalties are excessive.

I do not like running the All-Star race at TMS.  NASCAR should go back to running the oval track at the fall Charlotte race and run the All-Star race on the Charlotte roval.  Yes, I like fireworks.

Sorry, but that #6 Wyndham Rewards Ford is the paint job of the year.

A fearless prediction… Hamlin chokes in the playoffs.  Same as it ever was.

Bill B

I’d say if you were betting on who should grab a win in the next 10 races the best money would be on Truex, Blaney and Harvick. After that it gets cloudier, maybe Reddick or Almirola are good bets. Of course, the way this season has went as a result of the new unpredictable car……

Great, now they start a race at 5 PM. Not a day race, not a night race, and what’s more annoying is that it’s an east coast race. Why do they keep screwing with start times so much??!

janice

cause they hate us on the east coast. nbc must have something really important being broadcasted until 5 pm.

stubbscupseriesdotcom

Good year so far, the only real duds in terms of racing were Martinsville and Texas.
So far, my takeaways would be:

  1. Trackhouse is set for the next 5 years AT LEAST
  2. Hendrick is fine(Byron needs to be MUCH more consistent though)
  3. Kyle Busch is still a championship contender.
  4. The intermediates are the best they’ve been since 2014
  5. Keselowski made a mistake leaving Penske and Penske made a mistake grabbing Harrison Burton
Shayne

Instead of creative writing, why not focus on some investigative reporting? Is NASCAR in financial trouble? How much money are they losing hosting events with poor attendance numbers? Next Gen car is looking more like the failed COT. The product (racing) hasn”t improved, just some unexpected outcomes. I don’t think there’s a reasonable answer or solution to be found. The drivers don’t seem to be enjoying themselves. Something is rotten in Daytona Beach.

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