NASCAR’s NextGen car celebrated it’s arrival by giving fans a vision of the past.
The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series saw 19 different winners, tying a record from 2001.
If history tells us anything, we’re in for another big season of winners. In 2002 & 2003 the feat was nearly repeated, falling short with only 18. In total over those three seasons, there were 55 different winners. Since the playoff era began in 2004, the number of winners began to shrink. In fact, prior to 2021’s 17 different winners no other season had more than 13.
What is so impressive is that no single driver ran away in the wins. While Chase Elliott lead the way with five, most of his victories came during the summer stretch of the season. In the first months of the season, Ross Chastain picked up two victories at COTA and Talladega, and William Byron did the same at Atlanta and Martinsville. If you leave those two out, there were nine different winners in a span of 14 races. The early season saw surprise first time winners in Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe and the aforementioned Chastain. Daniel Suárez joined the ranks at Sonoma and Tyler Reddick picked up two victories at Road America and the Indy Road Course. Team parity looks to be on the rise as 23XI, RCR and Trackhouse joined Hendrick Motorsports as the only teams to see each car in their stable win a race.
What differentiates the 2001-2003 stretch from today is a completely different set of circumstances. The racing and rules packages have changed a ton. That’s not to say these cars are any easier to drive than they were 20 years ago. With the exception of a few teams, each team looked to be a threat to at least have one car finish in the top-10 each week this season. When drivers like Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney find themselves on the bubble or out of the playoffs altogether, it shows how close the sport is to becoming truly competitive.
While there are no package changes planned, I do expect next season to be back to “normal”. Each team now has a season of information and strategy under their belts, and several teams towards the end of 2022 started finding the formula to win and win convincingly. There are new driver and crew chief pairings, and several of those crew chiefs are with new manufacturers. There will be a get-up-to-speed portion, but by April every team should be fine. I expect a return to form for Kyle Larson, who only won twice in 2022 after winning 10 races en route to the championship in 2021. There are plenty of chances for small teams to shine as well. They may not enter the win column, but 2022 showed that if you take care of the car the reward is richer than the risk of putting it out on edge. I also expect Goodyear to be able to solve the tire issues that plagued this past season and put several contending drivers out of the running early in races.
While NASCAR has plenty of detractions to work on including finding a way to make short track racing fun again, not having the same winners every week is a beautiful problem to have and should have lasting effects for the next few seasons as they begin negotiations on a new television package. We could be headed towards a time where any driver can win at any track on the schedule.
Featured photo from Pat Vallely.