For years, it’s felt that even though the NASCAR Cup Series is the premier NASCAR series, that the shows in which we had become accustomed to seeing on Sundays were constantly taking a backseat to the action showcased in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Thankfully, that is not the case in 2022.
The NASCAR Cup Series is officially fun again.
Without a doubt, the Next Gen car has been a factor at equaling the playing field between the haves and have nots in the garage area. But overall, the racing action has been frantic, chaotic and, honestly, it’s been quintessential NASCAR.
Ross Chastain was rooted out of the way on the final lap by AJ Allmendinger at Circuit of the Americas on Sunday, and it looked like Allmendinger would go on to score another road course win. But, not to be denied, Chastain returned the favor and dumped Allmendinger into Bowman in turn 19 to retake the lead and ultimately the win.
It was a heart-pounding finish, but it’s not anything new as the recurring theme this season has been close-quarters racing. And the close-quarters racing has become much more exciting in the NASCAR Cup Series this season thanks in large part to the new composite bodies.
With composite bodies, the cars are now tougher, which has lent the series to a more aggressive style of bumping and banging for position, without fear for tires being cut down by sheet metal collapsing on tires, as had been the case in recent years with the Gen 6 car.
While cars are tougher under contact, and drivers are becoming more willing to slap a tire donut on the side of another car while battling for position, the cars are also more and more difficult to drive than in year’s past.
As a result, we are seeing even skilled veterans rack up incidents early in the year. While rookie contenders Austin Cindric and Harrison Burton sit at the top of the #TobyTracker incident rankings after COTA with eight and seven incidents, respectively, the other four drivers who are tied with Burton with seven incidents are: Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson — all NASCAR Cup Series champions.
In addition to tougher cars that are tougher to drive, we are also seeing a game of musical chairs at the front of the field this season.
Different Faces Up Front
Through the opening six races of the season, we have had six different winners, including three first-time winners (Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe and Ross Chastain). Seemingly each and every week a new face asserts themselves as a new potential threat for a win.
We have already had 30 different drivers lead a lap in the opening six races of the season, the most since there were 31 in the opening six events of the 2014 season. There have been 163 lead changes through the opening six races of 2022, which is also the most we’ve seen in an opening six-race stretch since the 2014 season, where there were 165.
In the words of NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell, “We like what we’re seeing.”
And it’s not that we’re simply seeing people stay out under caution to lead one lap, we have seen laps led being evenly spread through the field, as 20 drivers have already led double-digit amount of laps and only two drivers have led more than 150 laps this year (Ryan Blaney and Ross Chastain). Last season, we had 25 different leaders through the opening six races and three drivers were already over 150 laps led a year ago at this point and only 15 drivers had led more than 10 laps.
Different winners, different leaders it all is a sign that the NASCAR Cup Series, which had grown to be predictable and stale in recent years, is as unpredictable as it’s ever been.
To highlight the unpredictability of the NASCAR Cup Series so far this season, Denny Hamlin, a perennial Playoff contender, who has 15 NASCAR Cup Series wins over the last three seasons, has failed to produce a single top-10 finish this year and he sits 22nd in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Standings.
Sure, he’s had some bad luck along the way, but luck or no luck, you would expect a top-10 finish for Hamlin over the course of a six-race stretch.
In Hamlin’s entire full-time NASCAR Cup Series career, which spans back to the 2006 season, he has only had two stretches close to this in his career. In 2009, Hamlin had a six-race streak without a top-10, he would finish fifth in the championship standings that season.
In 2013, Hamlin had a miserable 16 consecutive races outside the top-10, however, this came as Hamlin worked his way back into the car after suffering a broken back earlier in the year.
But it’s not just Hamlin that is struggling this season. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell, who finally broke through with a third-place finish Sunday at COTA, has had a miserable start to the season as well as he’s mired back in 23rd in the point standings.
In addition to Hamlin and Bell, 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski is in trouble to start the season, as well. Keselowski, who has won at least one race over the last 11 seasons, sits 34th in the championship standings after six races. Obviously, Keselowski is reeling after a 100-point penalty from NASCAR for modifying single supplier parts, but even without the penalty, Keselowski would be sitting outside the Playoff cutline.
Keselowski has not missed the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs since 2010 — his rookie season.
Best Season Ever?
While last year’s NASCAR Cup Series season was coined, “The Best Season Ever” by NASCAR on FOX, it was a claim so bold that it led many to chuckle at the notion that what we saw in 2021 was the best season ever. However, I think I’m as shocked as anyone else that what we are seeing in 2022, so far, is one of the greatest seasons in recent NASCAR Cup Series history.
Let’s not get too carried away, as there is a long way to go this year, but this is about as ideal of a start that NASCAR could have ever envisioned for their Next Gen era of the NASCAR Cup Series going. And I, for one, am just happy the NASCAR Cup Series is a fun, must-watch event each and every week again.