By MARK LONG
The most meticulously designed and intently controlled racecar in NASCAR history levels the field in 2022.
The so-called next-gen car resulted in 19 different winners over 36 races, including five first-timers and two guys who earned their first shot at a championship in the season finale. It provided more exciting racing at most tracks and may have helped improve attendance and television ratings.
Although the unpredictable season ended with a familiar face hoisting the trophy in Phoenix – Joey Logano won his second title with Team Penske – it also showed that anyone can win in the top series of stock car racing.
The biggest teams, the ones with the deepest pockets, no longer had any clear advantages as they had in the previous decades. The best drivers didn’t have huge edges, either.
Winning came down to timing and luck as much as tuning and experience. Whether this passes in 2023 remains to be seen. But the redesigned car could help lead to more national relevance and better long-term stability for one of racing’s most popular series.
“Before this year (and) the next gen car, you had to have a relationship with one of five race teams if you wanted to come into the sport. You had to,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in November. “This car changed that.”
Phelps pointed to the car’s styling and its relationship to those coming off the assembly lines at Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota. He noted the raceiness of the car, saying there were more passes in the Cup Series than any season before. And he insisted safety is the top priority for the car despite driver complaints about crashes.
“It’s a steep learning curve this year with this car,” said Logano’s crew chief, Paul Wolff. “It’s something completely different than what we’ve obviously used in the past. … A lot of the things we’ve done in the past really don’t work with this machine.”
Logano and Wolfe figured it out faster than most, winning a series-high five times if you count the exhibition clash to open the season at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“Boy, this year has been an adventure, to say the least,” Logano said. “It’s just kind of crazy to think about it all. It’s been a tough time of year, and a lot of times you’ve just felt lost. The only thing that helped me was I realized that everyone else was lost with Me. That’s one way to stay safe is when you know everyone else is lost too.”
Ross Chastain finished second to Logano, a breakthrough season for an eighth-generation watermelon farmer from Florida. Chastain has a series-leading 15 top-five finishes for upstart Truckhouse Racing, none bigger than his fourth-place showing at Martinsville in which he used a video game move to pass five cars in a matter of seconds and claim the final spot in the title. Race.
Martin Truex Jr. went winless for the first time since 2014 and finished 17th overall. The 2017 series champion failed to make the playoffs for the third time in eight seasons and kept stepping away before announcing in June his commitment to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023.
Austin Cindyric won the season-opening Daytona 500 and finished 12th for Team Penske. He earned rookie of the year honors and, considering he has Logano as a teammate, could find more success in his second full season.
Aric Almirola was scheduled to retire from full-time racing at the end of 2022, but he has had a change of heart and will return for another year at Stewart-Haas Racing. Will anyone join him for a farewell tour in 2023? Kevin Harvick expects to know if next season will be his last before the Daytona 500 in February. What about Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Truex? The trio is certainly nearing the end of their Hall of Fame careers.
One to watch
Favorite Kyle Busch’s move to Richard Childress Racing and Tyler Reddick’s much-anticipated switch to 23XI Racing will get a lot of attention in 2023, but AJ Allmendinger’s full-time return to the Cup Series with Kaulig Racing is another one to Watch. Allmendinger has six top-10 finishes in his last eight Cup starts with Kaulig in 2022.