Did You Notice? … This week begins the home stretch of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series regular season?
Ten races in 10 weekends, beginning this weekend at Nashville Superspeedway, will decide the 16-driver playoff field. There’s no off-weeks left on the schedule for teams to catch a breather; it’s now-or-never for those on the playoff bubble to start asserting themselves.
Let’s look at 10 storylines to watch as the summer buildup toward the postseason heats up.
1) Will anyone emerge as a title favorite? In a year where the Next Gen chassis has revolutionized parity, no one driver or team has the edge 16 races into 2022. Hendrick Motorsports leads the way with five victories, seemingly locking all four drivers into the postseason during the year’s first 11 races.
But unlike last season, when Kyle Larson broke out of the pack entering summer, no HMS driver has won since Dover Motor Speedway in early May. You could make a case William Byron, who has yet to make a Championship 4 appearance in his career, is in the best position among the quartet despite trailing Larson and point leader Chase Elliott in the current standings.
That’s how it goes when no Cup driver has more than two victories or 13 playoff points. It puts someone like Denny Hamlin, who’s had a disastrous start with just three top-five finishes, in position to be considered a top-tier title contender. Past experience combined with two surprise wins put Hamlin in a stronger position than you’d think; he won’t face an insurmountable deficit on playoff points to those above him.
There’s also playoff newcomers like the Trackhouse Racing Team (Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez) becoming potential wild cards. TRT is playing with house money and has arguably posted the best speed across all track types throughout the course of the season. But does that mean anything in a year where teams are so close and Trackhouse hasn’t undergone the pressure of competing for a championship?
2) Can Kyle Larson get his mojo back? We’re almost done with the six-race stretch that defined Larson’s run to title contender last season: three straight top-2 finishes from Dover through Nashville Superspeedway. Compare that to 2022, where Larson has just one top-two finish during that same stretch: a second at Kansas Speedway last month.
Now, Larson has to try and find his footing without crew chief Cliff Daniels. Kevin Meendering will fill in for four races after a wheel came off the No. 5 car following a green-flag pit stop at Sonoma Raceway. It’s just the latest misstep in a mix of problems that include poor pit strategy, falling behind on Next Gen adjustments, mechanical issues and simple bad luck. Larson has already failed to finish four races, doubling his total from when he won the championship last year.
3) Can Ross Chastain do the improbable: win the regular season points title? At one point this year, Chastain was +11000 odds to win the Cup championship following the Daytona 500 on Feb. 22. His first two career Cup victories since then have changed the narrative, leaving Chastain solidly in the playoffs as one of the sport’s top drivers this season. His 426 laps led trails just Elliott and Byron for most on the circuit through 16 races.
In the process, Chastain has made a number of aggressive moves, angering all sides of the Cup garage from Hamlin to Martin Truex Jr. to AJ Allmendinger. Somehow, despite all those run-ins, he’s maintained consistency to remain within striking distance: 10 top-10 finishes are tied for second best in the series behind Kyle Busch. It leaves him a surprising second in the standings, just 16 points behind Elliott heading into a series of tracks where Chastain performed better than expected last season.
Indeed, if he was runner-up at Nashville, seventh at Road America and eighth at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, how will Chastain do now with the type of rhythm he’s formed at Trackhouse? While ultimately not the championship itself, earning the 15-point bonus for leading the regular season standings would become the greatest upset in the history of NASCAR’s postseason era.
4) Can Chase Elliott reassert himself as the road course king? Elliott has had a weird year, leading the points and second in the series in laps led (471). Yet aside from his win at Dover and 1-2 other events (Darlington Raceway? Martinsville Speedway), the No. 9 team has struggled to stand out above the pack. In fact, Elliott has just three top-five finishes, one fewer than recent Cup winner Kurt Busch (who sits a mediocre 19th in the standings).
The biggest miss for Elliott lately has been cashing in on his strong suit: road courses. He’s without a win on that track type since Road America last July 4, making this upcoming stretch important for him to reestablish superiority. A return to that track is also paired with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Watkins Glen International, a track where Elliott won his first career Cup race back in 2018.
Asserting himself in at least one of these races is crucial if Elliott’s going to hold onto his regular season points lead. Otherwise, you know who’s won both road courses this year? It’s Trackhouse, including points rival Chastain’s pinball-style push to the front at Circuit of the Americas back in March.
5) Will Martin Truex Jr. retire? This one’s a biggie with a variety of off- and on-track implications. Will a retiring Truex catch fire after finding himself winless after the first 16 races? Who would be in contention to inherit one of the sport’s strongest rides if Ty Gibbs won’t be elevated from the NASCAR Xfinity Series to replace him? (And how will that affect that driver’s run to the postseason with their current team?)
It’s the first domino sure to set off others during the 2022-23 Silly Season sprint. Truex is one of the sport’s understated drivers and also one of its underrated ones: the 2017 Cup Series champion has made Championship 4 appearances in four out of the last five seasons. All indications, by the way, are the soon-to-be 42-year-old will make his decision within the next couple of weeks.
6) Did RFK Racing reach a turning point at Sonoma? Thus far, RFK Racing’s first season with Brad Keselowski at the helm has looked more like shades of Michael Waltrip Racing/Toyota 2007 than the success stories of Trackhouse or 23XI Racing. After a 100-point penalty for an illegal parts modification, Keselowski finds himself 30th in points, ahead of only Corey LaJoie and Cody Ware among full-time drivers.
But NASCAR’s wacky playoff system, where a win can salvage everything, still gives Keselowski an outside shot. For the first time all year, his No. 6 and the No. 17 driven by Chris Buescher both finished inside the top 10 at Sonoma Raceway. Buescher in particular is suddenly flashing speed, winning the pole at Dover before pressuring Suarez for the victory last week until the No. 99 pulled away in the closing laps.
Those three upcoming road courses give Buescher an opportunity to convert while all eyes turn to Keselowski for the Daytona International Speedway race in August. That’s a track where he led the most laps (67) before crashing across the finish line in NASCAR overtime to wind up ninth in February.
7) Which direction will Atlanta Motor Speedway go? A repaved Atlanta caused NASCAR to utilize the same rules package in March for that track as it would for Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway. The end result was a controversial pack race, producing a record-setting 46 lead changes but also a number of crashes as drivers found it much harder to work their way through the field.
If NASCAR retains that package for the race held there next month, you could end up with another wild card event that produces an unlikely winner. At the same time, the sport’s “normal” intermediate package has produced some of the best racing outside of a snoozer All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway. What will NASCAR choose on a surface where there won’t be much tire wear over the course of 400 miles?
8) Is it possible Kevin Harvick would actually miss the postseason? Harvick is eight-for-eight in NASCAR playoff appearances since the expansion to 16 drivers in 2014. He’s made 12 straight postseasons, in fact, last missing way back in 2009 when he was driving the No. 29 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.
But after a winless streak that dates back to 2020, Harvick finds himself in real jeopardy entering the summer. Leading only 13 laps all year, his No. 4 Ford hasn’t flashed the type of winning speed needed despite scratching and clawing for four top-five finishes. That’s left Harvick within striking distance of making the field on points but it’s increasingly clear a win will be needed to qualify unless, say, you’re the top winless driver in the standings.
Harvick is signed through 2023 at Stewart-Haas Racing so it’s unlikely a postseason miss would cause him to retire a year early. If it does happen, though, there are eerie similarities to Jimmie Johnson here: the seven-time Cup champion won three races in the first half of 2017 before suddenly losing his touch. He never won again and was out of the sport by the end of 2020.
9) Are Road America and Pocono Raceway competing for their NASCAR futures? Road America was in the news this past week when the track made clear NASCAR has not signed a deal to return to the track in 2023. Pocono Raceway, meanwhile, saw its Cup doubleheader reduced to a single race. Both circuits are independently owned and don’t fall under the umbrella of the NASCAR track arm or Speedway Motorsports, Inc.
With NASCAR President Steve Phelps looking toward schedule changes for 2023, you wonder if the crowds and the racing at these venues will dictate their long-term future in the sport. A Chicago street course is virtually in the same market as Road America; it honestly doesn’t make sense to keep them both. And L.A.’s Clash at the Coliseum, in my opinion, has opened the door to a similar event in a northeastern city, which would make retaining Pocono less crucial for the market share.
Both facilities have done a phenomenal job with their fan bases and making their races actual events, with plenty to do over the course of the weekend. Will that wind up being enough to save them?
10) What does the Daytona finale look like in a world with 16+ winners? In a word: insane. Right now, Kurt Busch trails rookie Austin Cindric by seven points as the lowest-ranked driver this season with a victory. Could the Daytona 500 winner be the one that missed out, ironically because someone else charges up and produces an upset at Daytona?
Does that mean Keselowski has no chance, as a victory would still leave him the lowest-ranked driver in the field? What if Ryan Blaney stays winless but is in position to win the regular season points title (he’s just 25 behind Elliott right now)? What if Aric Almirola, a former Daytona winner, needs that victory in his final full-time season to qualify for the playoffs?
We always say the regular season finale is going to be wild. But this year? Expect more storylines swirling around the race than ever before with a postseason field that likely enters the race incredibly unsettled. I can foresee a scenario where nearly half the field (eight drivers) could enter that event in position to lose their playoff spot if the right combination of circumstances went against them.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- Helio Castroneves with a NASCAR Cup ride? That’s what SRX CEO Don Hawk promised with a victory Castroneves cashed in on at Five Flags Speedway. The most likely candidate is Trackhouse and their No. 91 international program but, whatever the landing spot, having a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner attempt the crossover can only be a good thing for the sport.
- If NASCAR chooses to go with a Chicago street course, as is rumored for 2023, that has to be the death knell for Chicagoland Speedway, right? Two races in the same market would just be too much, especially for a track that hasn’t held a Cup race since 2019. As much as that place has struggled to gain traction, I often think of what that 1.5-mile track could look like now with the sport’s new rules package doing so well on intermediate tracks this year …
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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