Photo by Jared C. Tilton/23XI Racing via Getty Images
Before the NASCAR Cup Series 2022 officially kicks off, we’re setting you up with information about drivers to watch, car and schedule changes and more.
The 2022 NASCAR season is here.
Well, technically it was already here, as we got a preview of the season on Feb. 6 when the Cup Series ran an exhibition race at the Los Angeles Coliseum — yes, that Los Angeles Coliseum, which was converted in a temporary quarter-mile track.
But now, the races count. The Daytona 500 is on Sunday, which kicks off a brand new era of NASCAR. There’s a new car. There are new teams. And there’s a growing sense of optimism about the future of a racing league that had hit some hard times over the last decade and a half.
So, with the stage set, let’s take a look at what to expect from this upcoming NASCAR season.
Every so often, NASCAR redesigns its cars, and fans get equal parts excited and afraid of how those new cars will impact the racing product. This new generation of cars — the seventh generation of NASCAR cars — promises to make some huge changes to that on-track product.
What’s different about the cars?
Even putting aside the fact that cars will physically look different and that NASCAR has moved the side numbers from underneath the window up to just behind the front wheel well, there a number of changes:
In addition, NASCAR has worked to make sure teams are using the same parts, reducing some of the advantages that big-money teams have had in the past. By moving closer to a spec model, the gap between the haves and the have-nots in NASCAR should be reduced, allowing more teams to be competitive. No, we won’t suddenly see Rick Ware Racing cars winning races, but we should see those cars keeping better pace with the field and not being lapped as often.
The new car is the biggest thing heading into this season, but it isn’t the only thing to be aware of. Here are some other storylines to follow:
Can Kaulig Racing transition to the Cup Series?
It’s not often that a new team makes noise in NASCAR. Sure, Bubba Wallace won a race last season for the 23XI Racing team, but that team was also owned by current Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin. We don’t get competitive new teams in the sport much.
But that can change this year. Kaulig Racing has been running in the Xfinity Series since 2016. Over the past few seasons, the team has gone from “solid, mid-pack Xfinity team” to “serious contenders for the Xfinity title,” with the team placing a driver in the final four in 2020 and 2021.
Last year, the team ramped up its Cup Series effort, running nine races, with A.J. Allmendinger winning one of those. Now, the team will run two full-time Cup teams with Justin Haley in one car and a rotating cast of drivers in the other.
Lots of changes for drivers and teams
It was an eventual offseason when it comes to driver and team movement.
Chip Ganassi Racing left NASCAR, with Trackhouse Racing — owned by former driver Justin Marks and rapper Pitbull — purchasing the team’s assets. Ross Chastain, who ran for CGR last year, will join Trackhouse driver Daniel Suarez on the team.
Richard Petty Motorsports was sold this offseason to long-time Truck Series team GMS Racing. It’s been renamed Petty GMS Motorsports and will field a two-car team with Ty Dillon and Erik Jones.
JTG Daugherty has downsized to one team, with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. staying in the 47. Kurt Busch will drive a second 23XI car.
Brad Keselowski shakes up the Ford camp
And, of course, there’s arguably the biggest change: Brad Keselowski is now a co-owner of Roush Fenway Racing.
The former Cup Series champion will pilot the 6 car for the renamed RFK Racing. Once one of NASCAR’s best teams, Roush has struggled over the past decade, but the hope is that this move will reinvigorate the team.
Keslowski moving on from Team Penske opened up a seat in the 2 car, which will be filled by rookie Austin Cindric, the 2020 Xfinity Series champion. Cindric ran a handful of races last year for Penske, leading laps at COTA and Road America and finishing ninth at Indy. He’ll be an instant threat to win on road courses.
Cindric was supposed to race full time for the Wood Brothers, but the Keselowski news shook things up. Now, Harrison Burton slides into the ride.
The biggest change to the schedule this year is that World Wide Technology Raceway — known for years as Gateway — has been added to the schedule, replacing a Pocono race.
The track has never hosted a Cup Series race, though it was on the Xfinity schedule until 2010 and has been on the Truck Series schedule since 2014. Current Cup Series drivers to have a lower series win here: Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Bubba Wallace, Cole Custer, Christopher Bell, Justin Haley and Ross Chastain. So while it’s a new track, much of this field has experience here.
In addition, Auto Club returns to the schedule after it wasn’t on last year due to COVID restrictions. This is expected to be the last race on the two-mile track before it is partially demolished to create a short track for the 2023 season.
While we don’t know yet how the new car will impact the field, we can probably assume that the top drivers will still mainly be the top drivers, and the best place to start when discussing those drivers is with defending Cup Series champion Kyle Larson.
Larson was suspended for most of the 2020 season after using a racial slur during an online racing event. He also lost his ride with Chip Ganassi Racing following the incident. But Larson returned from suspension in 2021, taking over the 5 car for Hendrick Motorsports.
Putting Larson in an elite ride led to a dominant season. He won 10 races in 2021; he’d only won six total in his first seven seasons. He also had 20 top fives and 26 top 10s and led 2,581 laps. Larson finally got a chance to drive for a top-end NASCAR team and the results were even greater than what Larson fans had long thought he was capable of.
Martin Truex Jr. led Joe Gibbs Racing in wins last year with four, while Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch had two each and Christopher Bell won once. It was a strong year for the Toyota team, which was made even better when Bubba Wallace, driving for the affiliated 23XI Racing, also won a race.
Will this finally be the year that Hamlin gets that elusive first title? You can make a good argument that Hamlin has surpassed Mark Martin for the title of best NASCAR driver ever without a championship. His 25 top 10s last year were second in the series.
And, of course, you can never count out Larson’s Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott. His two wins last year were his fewest since his winless 2017 season, but he led the second-most laps of his career and finished fourth in points. The 2020 champion actually improved his average finish in 2021 from 11.7 to 11.4 too. Larson got most of the attention, but Elliott is a great candidate to come out and have a Larson-esque season.
We’ll do this quickly.
In Xfinity, defending champion Daniel Hemric has moved to the Kaulig Racing No. 11 car. Richard Childress Racing has brought two of the best drivers in the Truck Series up to Xfinity to run the full season with Sheldon Creed and Austin Hill. And Ty Gibbs will run full-time after winning four times in 18 starts last year. Consider Gibbs the early championship favorite, but don’t count out any of the JR Motorsports drivers: Sam Mayer, Justin Allgaier, Josh Berry and Noah Gragson.
As for the Truck Series, things look different there, with some key drivers moving to other series. But defending champion Ben Rhodes is back for ThorSport, while Ty Majeski, Matt Crafton and Christian Eckes will also race for the team. But based on last year, Kyle Busch Motorsports driver John Hunter Nemechek is the driver to beat in 2022. His five wins led the series last year and he recorded 12 top-fives over the course of 22 races. He led 572 laps, second behind Sheldon Creed, who is now running in Xfinity.
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