On the surface, the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season seems to have started off in very typical fashion after its first three points-paying events. Two powerhouse teams have collected all three trophies so far which should come as no surprise to avid followers of the sport. Team Penske’s Austin Cindric won the season-opening Daytona 500 then Hendrick Motorsports followed that up by wheeling cars into victory lane at Auto Club Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway with Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman respectively taking checkered flags.
But when one digs just below the surface it becomes much more evident that this season has not been a typical one at all. And much of that likely has to do with the new machine being used in the sport’s top division. It was said when the Next Gen car was brought into play that it would create a greater condition of parity within a series that has been completely dominated over the past several years by just a few organizations.
That parity has shown itself in several ways outside of the race wins category. To demonstrate this, teams that are not often thought of as front runners such as Trackhouse Racing Team, Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing and Petty GMS Motorsports have led laps and been in contention to win races.
One key indicator that can serve as a sign of strength is that of laps led during the races. And with being said, it is noteworthy that no driver has overwhelmed the competition in terms of that statistic thus showing that domination seems to have been minimized, at least at the beginning of the 2022 campaign.
Interestingly, of the top-5 drivers in that highly indicative laps led stat, only one has won a race. Winless Tyler Reddick has paced the field for 90 circuits, amassing the most circuits run at the front of the field. Ross Chastain, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson are not far behind in Reddick’s number of laps at the front of the pack with Larson being the only driver among that group with a win.
In previous season it was not uncommon to have one or two drivers go out and lead large segments of races then put a cap on their efforts by sailing under the checkered flag first at the end of the day. That is not happening this year.
Along with laps led, the statistic of laps completed indicates consistency and durability.
In the three races held this season, there have been 675 laps completed. Five drivers have finished all those laps. Four of those combatants come from teams that would be expected to complete laps as Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing, Austin Cindric of Team Penske and Aric Almirola of Stewart-Haas Racing have been running on the lead lap at the finish of each race held so far. But somewhat surprisingly, Ty Gibbs of GMS Petty Motorsports joins the more well-known stars in this category.
Another sign of strength is, of course, top-10 finishes. Any team that compiles large numbers of those results has done what is necessary to gain an advantage over the competition.
To this point, only one driver has managed a top-10 result in each of the first three races. Without looking that stat up, many competitors might be guessed before coming up with the right answer of Aric Almirola. To further show either the parity among the teams with this car so far or the difficulty in driving the Next Gen machine, only three drivers aside from Almirola have even managed even two top-10 finishes.
The fact that only one driver has managed three top-10s shows that this car is proving difficult for everyone to get a handle on.
To further illustrate how teams are struggling to harness this car, 34 drivers have entered all three races held so far on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule with fully half of those recording at least one ‘DNF’. Even points leader and defending champion Kyle Larson failed to finish once this year(the Daytona 500).
It isn’t mid-pack runners having all that trouble. Power team drivers Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell, William Byron and Cole Custer each find themselves outside the top-20 in the standings.
At some point, there will likely be one or two organizations to be the first to get put the reins on what has proven to be a somewhat wild car so far, and when that happens, the drivers for that team may reel off several victories. The likelihood of that organization being one of the power players in the sport is high which may return NASCAR back to a sport dominated by just an elite few. Or, this suddenly discovered parity may become the norm.
Either way, the first few weeks of the season have proven to be interesting. NASCAR Cup Series racing has become fun again, at least for this writer.
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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.
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