The Summer of Justice, Legends racer

Daniel McFadin
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CONCORD, N.C. – It’s a hot evening at Charlotte Motor Speedway and like many similar evenings in the track’s history, there’s an angry driver.

As the sun sets behind the frontstretch grandstand, he is by himself in the garage usually reserved for the Xfinity Series on NASCAR’s race weekends.

The tall figure of a dark haired 15-year-old stands in his black firesuit looking down at his phone.

When approached, there are signs of tears in his normally jovial eyes.

Justice Calabro assesses the damage to his Legends car (Photo by Daniel McFadin).

“We didn’t even finish the first lap,” he says before reaching down and slapping the back of his No. 25 Legends car, a 5/8-scale fiberglass version of the modifieds that once raced in NASCAR.

He paces around the car and assess the damage to the front end – relatively minor compared to a wreck he was in the previous week – as he lists how the first three rounds of the Bojangles’ Summer Shootout have gone for him.

“Every time,” he says. “We’ve lost something on the front end, blown a tire, got taken out. Doesn’t matter. We don’t pass Lap 2.”

This aspiring racer’s name is Justice Calabro, he’s not from around here and he just wants to finish a race.

GO EAST, YOUNG MAN

“Oh my God, we can get how much for how much?”

When Vanessa Calabro sat down and looked at how much it would take for her family to get a house in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area – roughly 2,400 miles from their home in Hollywood, California – she was surprised.

It was mid-2017 and the Calabro family had a decision to make.

Would it pick up stakes and swap coasts in order for their 13-year-old go-kart racing son to pursue his dream of auto racing?

The price range helped.

“We can literally get three times the house for half the price,” Vanessa’s husband, Cliff Calabro, said. “That really excited her.”

The next question his wife asked?

Would Cliff – who was a guitar player and music director for the Bret Michaels band before his son’s birth  –  be able to continue his job as a freelance audio mixer in television?

“I could do what I do from anywhere,” says Cliff, who did the math and discovered it was cheaper to fly cross-country a few times a month than to continue living in California, where he primarily worked out of a home office.

“I was paying $2,500 a month in water and power and it’s only about $1,200 for me to fly three times a month,” he says.

For Justice, an only child who was turned onto motorsports through racing movies like “Cars” and “Herbie: Fully Loaded” (his dad bought and restored one of the cars used for “Herbie”), there were other benefits to relocating to the Carolinas.

While he’d be moving east to Concord, North Carolina, in order to race fast, he’d get to slow down away from the track.

“People get to be a kid longer,” Justice says. “When you’re in L.A. you’re forced to grow up very quickly because of the environment you’re in. Out here I surrounded myself with people who are young at heart. I had to bring myself down to a level where I can actually enjoy life and not be uptight about everything that’s going to happen. When I left L.A. I was 14 and I was like ‘When am I going to get a job? When am I going to do this? When am I going to do that?’”

While Justice would eventually get a job detailing cars, his main worries are his school work at Cox Mill High School in Concord and his racing career.

Cliff adds that competing in Legends on the West Coast would be a “logistical nightmare” for a family that got into racing when Justice began driving go-karts locally at age 8.

“A lot of Vegas trips, San Diego, Sacramento, which is eight hours, you know what I mean?” says Cliff. “California is so big.”

But even after a trip to the July 2017 Daytona Cup Series race and their first visit to Charlotte to “catch a vibe,” the family wasn’t ready to pull the trigger.

“We got back and were all pumped up,” Cliff recalled. “But then you start to settle back in. ‘Can we really do this? Is this possible? That’s when we came out in November, ‘Let’s go out there again one more time and see if we really want to do this and have him test a Legend car.’”

According to Cliff, Justice “crushed” it when drove a Legend car for the first time.

The test occurred on the 1/5-mile track located behind Charlotte Motor Speedway under the watchful eye of Walter Stillwell of Stillwell Racing, who would eventually add Justice to his team after his family made the move to Concord in April 2018.

Stillwell has been involved in short track racing for 35 years and Legends for 15 years. He was also part of William Byron’s development as a Legends racer at the start of his career.

“He came to the driving school and did really well, listened good,” Stillwell says of Justice. “Done exactly what we told him and turned good times. Was really smooth in the car. We work with him intensively on that even now. He’s shown it.”

Justice is in his second year of Legends competition. He had earned the team two race wins – one at Concord Speedway and another on the Charlotte road course – entering this year’s Summer Shootout, a series of nine rounds of races over eight weeks for multiple classes of Legends and Bandolero cars. The Shootout ends on July 30.

What advice does Stillwell give families breaking into the sport for the first time?

“The first thing is to give it a try to make sure that you like it before you go and put money in the car,” Stillwell says. “That’s the biggest thing. It’s kind of pricey, so you don’t just want to buy the car and “Ahhhh!’ freak out and don’t like it.”

The Calabros purchased Justice’s car used for $10,000. They’ve since gone through a couple of motors for between $5,000-$7,000.

“It’s expensive to tear them up,” says Stillwell.

CAUTIONARY TALE

The cost of racing was learned more than a decade ago by another family that uprooted itself from California and made the trek to Western North Carolina, all on the hopes of their son’s racing career.

That family was Matt DiBenedetto’s.

Instead of the massive metropolis of Los Angeles, the DiBenedettos lived on six acres in the small town of Grass Valley in Northern California.

“I rode four wheelers and dirt bikes basically everyday,” says the Cup Series driver of his California lifestyle. “That’s part of what got me into racing, too. I just loved doing that so I tore up our property and I owned a tractor when I was a kid. I was 11 and I had my own tractor and would tear it up and build jumps and all that stuff. So yeah, I was used to a very quiet living.”

Instead of go-karts, a 12-year-old DiBenedetto raced on dirt, piloting outlaw karts on tracks like Cycleland Speedway in Oroville, a track that also produced fellow Cup driver Kyle Larson.

“I was really young and racing in the open division against all adults and some guys that race sprint cars,” DiBenedetto told NBC Sports. “We were winning basically all the time and people were telling us, ‘Hey, Matt’s really good, you guys need to pursue this.’ My parents never took it too seriously. We were just racing for fun and we just won all the time. I don’t come from a racing background or family.”

Then came March 2004 and their move to North Carolina.

After ruling out other cities as being too big and or too far away from Charlotte, the family moved to Hickory, an hour north of the city. Matt’s father, Tony, had picked it by pointing to a spot on a map with his eyes closed.

It wasn’t long before the family learned how “naive” it was in its racing pursuits.

“(We) really had no idea … the journey and battle we were up against, because we didn’t have the funding,” said DiBenedetto, whose father was and remains a self-employed appliance repairman. “We didn’t have the money as a family to take on what we did and that’s why I use the word naive because we just didn’t realize how expensive it would get and the toll it took on our family.”

Even racing with used equipment and having an all-volunteer crew didn’t make things easier for the family, which had to write checks off its home equity loan.

It came to a head in 2007.

DiBenedetto came home from school one day to find his father had sold their truck trailer, both his race cars and every piece of equipment they had in their shop.

There’d been no warning from his father.

“He was tired of seeing it, just because of how hard it was on our family,” DiBenedetto says. “The reason he didn’t tell me is he just felt so bad because he knew this was my dream. … I was on my own. It was up to me if I wanted to keep on doing it. “

DiBenedetto has another thing in common with Justice Calabro.

Not long after he moved to Hickory, DiBenedetto raced Legends cars in the Summer Shootout.

His track record?

“I got wrecked a lot,” DiBenedetto says with a laugh.

A LITTLE HELP

First off, the wrecks are not Justice’s fault.

His No. 25 Legends car – numbered after his November 25 birthday – was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But there’s not many good places to be when one of the wrecks involves 17 cars and results in a tire bouncing down Charlotte’s frontstretch.

It left Justice to think, “Really? This had to happen?”

$1,500 worth of repairs to his front-end later, the car was ready to go.

Then came the following Tuesday.

Justice’s feature race ended even sooner. As the field came out of Turn 2 on Lap 1, the line of cars running beneath him got together, wrecked and blocked his way, resulting in him getting pinned against the wall.

“This racing is frustrating,” Justice says. “I love doing it but it absolutely gets frustrating sometimes.”

It could be worse. Unlike the DiBenedettos, the Calabros are not completely on their own when it comes to backing Justice’s racing dreams.

While they have small sponsorship from Johnny Brusco’s New York Style Pizza in Concord, Cliff utilizes the same skills he plies on TV shows like “Naked and Afraid” and “World Poker Tour” to help out Stillwell Racing.

“I’m in a unique situation because I worked a deal with the team to do their media in trade for their services,” Cliff says. “The team doesn’t charge me to service his car. I pay for his car and everything he breaks. His consumables. But we’re trading labor. I’m here at every race working my butt off filming everything … interviews and impressions on track and racing. It’s very cool, which has really helped their program. … In turn, they’re helping us keep Justice on the track and helping to develop him. I don’t think I could do it without that.”

On July 2, a week after the second wreck, Justice is back in the garage at Charlotte. He’s no longer a Young Lion after moving up to the Semi-Pro class.

And his disposition is a lot more cheery after a week of playing racing video games and hanging it out with “homies.”

“All the normal teenage stuff.”

His day at the track began by qualifying 10th in a field of 27 cars, right in front of teammates Garrett Lowe and Dacin Roberson.

His outlook for the day’s round of the Summer Shootout was also helped by a random encounter minutes earlier in the track infield.

“I walked up to Bojangles’ and this kid gave me like $10,” Justice recounts. “He’s like, ‘I just don’t want to carry around $10, I heard it’s bad luck.’

“I’m like, ‘Life hands you money, you got to take it, right?’”

During the pace laps Justice said he ”wasn’t nervous at all. I felt super confident, I was ready for whatever this race was going to throw at me and I made that pretty clear. I was motivated and made sure to keep my patience today.”

The race starts and the caution comes out with the field halfway down the backstretch. But Justice is nowhere near the incident, which sees one car off in the infield grass and another stalled.

After a handful of green flag laps, the first close call comes for Justice when he makes contact with the No. 49 car of Carson Poindexter in Turn 1 and turns him around. Justice escapes through the infield grass unharmed.

Later, Justice and a handful of others have to go off-track again to avoid a pile-up in Turn 3.

The race doesn’t reach its natural conclusion. Scheduled for 25 laps, the race sees so many cautions that it ends after 25 minutes.

Justice will leave the track with a seventh-place finish.

“I finished! I drove my heart out,” says Justice, who later adds, “Dude, I figured out how to drive today.”

Justice speaks as he rubs watery eyes, a result not of emotion, but of debris caught in his eye from the Turn 3 incident.

“After that I was trying to clean my eyes out the whole race,” Justice says. “It’s still burning right now.”

He might not have earned a top five, but he finished.

Says Justice, “For us right now it’s like a win.”

Justice Calabro, far right, after his first podium finish in the Summer Shootout. (Photo from U.S. Legends Twitter account)

ONWARD

What’s next?

The Summer Shootout would continue, with its downs (elimination from a race after his rear bumper was ripped off) and its ups (a top five).

Justice is already ahead of schedule with his mid-season move to the Semi-Pro division. If things go well in the coming years, after Legends would come late models.

“I think I’m going at a good pace,” Justice says. “It’s good to spend one, two, three years in one class to hone your skills so you know where you are and what you need to and what your driving style is so when you do move up you’re not completely shattered.”

Cliff has “always” told Justice “you got to be realistic” about the future.

“We’re not rich,” says Cliff. “We’re going to give it our shot, we’re going to go in there and work at it. We’re going to use whatever we got. So we got personality, we got some connections, we got some media and you’ve got some talent. We’re going to use everything at our disposal to try to make this a reality for him.”

They plan to widen their racing footprint in Legends in the coming year by racing in Atlanta, Florida and Texas.

But Cliff is “concerned” about progressing to late models.

“Because that’s very expensive,” Cliff says. “Not sure how we’re going to manage that yet. But, you know, we’re not there yet.”

 

Friday 5: Is it time to change how NASCAR champion is determined?

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Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both raise questions about how NASCAR determines its champion with a one-race event after whittling the 16-driver playoff field to four through a trio of three-race rounds.

Since 2014, the driver who finished the highest among the four championship contenders in the season finale won the title. The format creates a Game 7 type of moment for the sport in an event that has become a winner-take-all race. Joey Logano won the season finale at Phoenix to win his second Cup title. Ty Gibbs claimed the Xfinity title by winning the season finale at Phoenix. Zane Smith won the Truck title by winning the season finale at Phoenix. 

Thursday, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series announced a new way of determining its series champion that mirrors the NASCAR format. The late model series will cut its field of playoff drivers through eliminations, leading to one race where the four remaining championship contenders will vie for the title in 2023.

One of the questions with the NASCAR format is if it provides the most fair way to determine a series champion. Of course, the NFL determines its champion by the Super Bowl, a winner-take-all game. The best team hasn’t always reached that game or won that game, but the event has been played for more than 50 years with no change in sight.

Those who question NASCAR’s way of determining a champion note that the Super Bowl is between two teams, while the championship race for Cup, Xfinity and the Truck Series not only includes the four teams racing for a crown but also the rest of the field, which can include 30 more vehicles. What those drivers and teams do can make an impact on the race and play a role in who wins the championship.

“I think Dale Jr. covered it perfectly,” Hamlin said. “Should one season come down to this three-hour window?”

Hamlin, who seeks his first Cup title, says that the previous Cup champions have been worthy and admits that “I’m the last one that should comment on this” because he doesn’t have a title. 

Still, he raises questions.

“From a purist’s standpoint, it needs to have a bigger sample size,” he said.

Hamlin notes how he knew he wouldn’t win the 2020 Cup title even though he was among the four contenders because his team was not as strong at the shorter tracks such as Phoenix. 

“If you had more of a sample size, you have a chance,” he said. 

Earnhardt expressed the questions he had about the format when he spoke with former NASCAR Chairman Brian France on the Dale Jr. Download this fall.

Earnhardt said the playoff format, which features three-race rounds, is “compelling. It can be argued that it’s relatively fair. Everybody’s got the same opportunity. It’s three races. You can kind of dig yourself out of a hole. But I’ve always kind of struggled with the final race being all or nothing.

“The reason why I struggle with that is because the venue may suit a team or a driver. … You wouldn’t ever consider running it at a road course or a superspeedway because that certainly suits some drivers more than other. You try to have it at a neutral facility, if you will, like a Homestead or a Phoenix.

“But I always had a hard time with saying, ‘OK, it all boils down to this one race where you’ve got to get it right and if you don’t you’re not a champion this year.’ Even though you’ve really got this amazing body of work. You can still have that guy that wins one race be the champion and the guy that wins six not even make the final round.

“I wish we could figure out a way to make that championship moment not an all or nothing three-hour affair. … I’ve really warmed up to everything else we’ve done. It took me a long time because I was too much of traditionalist. But I still feel like there’s got to be a better scenario for the final moment.”

France responded to Earnhardt’s query by saying: “The reason you feel that way is because those are fair points that you make. They are.”

France went on to say that such questions are “part of the challenge of a playoff format in general with auto racing. You’re just going to have to accept that is not exactly perfect.”

France then said: “My decision was we’re not going to hold ourselves back from getting those (Game 7) moments because auto racing doesn’t quite fit perfectly into that. We just couldn’t do it.”

NASCAR changed how its champion was crowned ahead of the 2004 season. From 2000-03, three champions were so far ahead in the points that they clinched the title with one race left in the season (Bobby Labonte in 2000, Jeff Gordon in 2001 and Matt Kenseth in 2003). 

The Chase was created to generate interest in the fall, particularly when NASCAR was going against the NFL on Sundays. The Chase morphed into the playoffs and included eliminations and one race to determine the champion. 

Hamlin says a three-race round to determine the champion will keep the interest of fans.

“I think when you spread it out amongst a bigger sample size, such as a three-race (round), I don’t see how that’s not a positive thing for ratings. People will be compelled every week to tune in because this is the championship round. I think there’s something to be gained there.”

Asked about what if one of the title contenders wins the first two races to all but assure them the title ahead of the final race, Hamlin said: “Will not happen. There’ll be no lockup. No one will be locked going into the final race.”

Hamlin acknowledges that his viewpoint will not be shared by all.

“I’m a traditionalist like Dale,” Hamlin said. “This is just my opinion. I think that everyone is going to have a different opinion on it, but I just believe a larger sample size of our champion makes it more legitimate. I think it would be hard for anyone to argue that, especially in the industry. 

“If you ask the drivers, ‘Do you see championships as valuable today as they did 10 years ago?’ I don’t think any one considers them as valuable just because it’s one race. It’s one race.”

2. Plugged in

Tyler Reddick moves to 23XI Racing and will have Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan as his bosses. Reddick says that Jordan is not an absent owner.

“We’ve gotten to spend time (together) a little bit, here and there,” Reddick said of Jordan. “His involvement with the team is, I think, more than most realize.”

Reddick referenced the Martinsville race in October when he pulled out of the event because he wasn’t feeling well after contact on the track. Jordan reached out to Reddick afterward.

“It was really cool that you have a guy like him checking in on you to make sure you’re OK,” Reddick said. “He’s definitely locked in, and he really wants the team to do well. I’m excited to be working with him.”

3. Staying home

Kyle Larson said he will race very little this offseason. He’s staying at home for the birth of his third child with wife Katelyn Sweet.

Larson will compete in the Wild West Shootout, a dirt late model event at Vado (New Mexico) Speedway Park on Jan. 7-8 and Jan. 11-15.

Larson will not compete in the Chili Bowl this year. 

He said his focus will be on family this offseason.

“Help out where I can and just spend as much time with the family,” Larson said. “I normally go race a lot, but this year I’m not. I’m actually excited about it. I’ve only run one race so far this offseason. I’m surprised that it already feels like the offseason is going by really fast because I thought it’d be really slow with me not racing. It’s been good to just not race for once.”

4. Looking to improve

Ryan Blaney said he and crew chief Jonathan Hassler have looked back on the season and compiled a list of things to do for next year.

Blaney won the All-Star Race but did not win any points races. He finished eighth in points. It’s the sixth consecutive year he’s finished in the top 10 in points, but he’s never placed higher than seventh in the standings at the end of a season.

“We were up front so many races and led a lot of laps and won a bunch of stages, just never won (a points race),” Blaney said. “It is kind of a bummer. 

“So what kept us out of victory lane? Was it me? Was it a bad pit stop? It was kind of everything in some certain races. Sometimes they don’t work out for you. Some are self-induced. I felt like we took ourselves out of a handful of races I felt like we had a good shot of winning. … It is a bummer we didn’t win, but I was proud of the consistency and just hope to build on that.” 

Blaney is ready for the new season to begin.

“I’m kind of like two weeks is nice and then I kind of get itching to get back going,” he said. “It is nice to reset, and you kind of go through things you want to be better at. You have your own little list between myself and my team. … It’s a perfect time to work on that stuff.”

5. New partnership 

Among the new driver/crew chief pairings for 2023 is Austin Dillon working with Keith Rodden.

Rodden last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne. Rodden served as crew chief for William Byron in one race in 2020 but returns to full-time duty with Dillon, who finished 11th in points this past season, tying his career best. 

Rodden most recently worked on the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors. He takes over for Justin Alexander.

“Keith and I first got to work together in a wheel-force test for the Next Gen car at Richmond,” Dillon said. “It was a two-day test. We had dinner that night. It was good to talk to him. … Just knowing his passion was still very high to get back to the Cup level and crew chief. Him having the ability the work with Chevy this past year and seeing the different odds and ends of the Next Gen car was really the key to us (for him) to come over and crew chief for.”

Jesse Iwuji Motorsports seeks $4.125 million in lawsuit against sponsor

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Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team, has filed a $4.125-million lawsuit against Equity Prime Mortgage, one of the team’s sponsors.

In the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the team alleges that EPM committed a breach of contract. JIM alleges that EPM agreed to pay the team $2.25 million for sponsorship in the 2022 season and $3.75 million for 2023.

The lawsuit attempts to recoup what Jesse Iwuji Motorsports calls two missed payments totaling $375,000 from 2022 and the $3.75 million for 2023. The filing of the lawsuit was first reported by TobyChristie.com.

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The team scored one top-10 finish in 30 Xfinity starts in 2022. The team’s cars were driven by Kyle Weatherman and Iwuji. Weatherman had a best finish of eighth; Iwuji’s best run was an 11th.

The team was founded by Iwuji, former National Football League player Emmitt Smith and a group of investors.

The lawsuit claims that an EPM executive informed the team in September 2022 that EPM had been “margin called” and was dealing with problems because of rising mortgage rates and that EPM could not make any more payments to Jesse Iwuji Motorsports .

According to the lawsuit, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports sent EPM a Notice of Intent to terminate the sponsorship agreement after the payment due Oct. 1 was missed. The suit claims EPM “took no action” after EPM offered 30 days to remedy the situation.

The suit also claims EPM “allegedly continued to take advantage of their status as a sponsor of the NASCAR Xfinity Series team, as EPM continued to make promotional posts on social media, which featured the company’s logo on the JIM race car.”

EPM is based in Atlanta.

Dr Diandra: The best driver of 2022

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NASCAR’s elimination playoff format means that the driver with the best statistics — arguably the “best driver of 2022” — doesn’t always win the championship.

Races unfinished

Drivers involved in a lot of crashes also failed to finish a lot of races. But not all accidents end drivers’ races. Comparing accidents and spins to DNF (did not finish) totals helps gauge how serious those incidents were.

Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were involved in the most accidents for a single driver with 15 caution-causing crashes each. The difference is that Chastain had only five DNFs (33.3%), while Stenhouse had nine (60.0%).

Ty Dillion tied Stenhouse for the most DNFs in the series with nine DNFs and 10 accidents.

Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Corey LaJoie tied for third place with eight DNFs each. Reddick had 10 accidents, while Dillon and LaJoie were each involved in 11 crashes.

No driver avoided DNFs entirely. Among full-timers, Michael McDowell had the fewest DNFs in 2022 with two. Justin Haley and Ryan Blaney tied for second with three DNFs each.

In 2021, only Denny Hamlin finished every race running. This year he had five DNFs, with four in the first nine races.

This year’s 225 DNFs are up significantly from 179 in 2021. and the most DNFs since 2017. I’ll be watching in 2023 to see if the rise in DNFs continues, or if this was a one-time phenomenon due to the first year with a new car.

Wins

“Best driver” doesn’t necessarily mean most wins.

This year’s champion, Joey Logano, didn’t have the most wins. That’s not at all uncommon in NASCAR. With 19 different winners in 2022, no driver dominated the season the way Kyle Larson did in 2021 with 10 wins.

The winningest drivers in 2022 were: Chase Elliott (five wins) and Logano (four wins). Christopher Bell, Larson and Reddick tied for third with three wins each.

Top-five and top-10 finishes

While wins matter more than good finishes, the number of top-five and top-10 finishes show how close a driver got to taking home the checkered flag. Running up front means being there to take advantage of other drivers’ mistakes and misfortune.

In 2021, Larson had the most top-five finishes (20) and the most top-10 finishes (26). This year, good finishes were much more spread out.2022's best drivers in terms of top-five and top-ten finishes

Chastain deserves a special shoutout for having 13 more top-10 finishes than he earned in 2021.

Also deserving of a shoutout, but for different reasons: Hamlin had the same number of wins this year as last, but nine fewer top-five finishes. William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. also had nine fewer finishes in the top five.

Logging laps

While Truex didn’t make the championship race, he did tie Elliott for the most lead-lap finishes in the season with 29, or 80.6% of starts. Blaney, Byron and Kevin Harvick each had 28 lead-lap finishes.

Elliott led the most laps in 2022 with 857. He’s followed by Logano (784), Byron (746), Chastain (692) and Blaney (636).

I remain slightly wary of metrics that purport to measure quickness because so much of a car’s speed depends on where in the field it’s running. Lap traffic, or even being far back in the field, can slow fast cars. That’s especially true at short tracks.

For completeness, however, the next two tables show the drivers’ numbers of fastest laps and those with the best rank in green-flag speed according to NASCAR’s loop data.

Two tables showing the drivers with the most fastest laps and the highest rank in green-flag speedChampion Logano ranked 11th in fastest laps with 319, and eighth in overall green-flag speed with an average ranking of 9.281.

Best Finishes

The tables below show drivers’ rankings throughout the season for average finishes and average running position.

Two tables comparing 2022's best drivers in terms of average finish and average running position

Elliott ranks first in both average finish and running position. Chastain takes second for best average finish and fourth for best average running position, while Blaney is second for running position and fourth for finishing position.

Logano finished 2022 third in both metrics.

Passing

NASCAR defines a quality pass as a pass for position inside the top 15. Interpreting the meaning of the number of passes is a little tricky. A driver who runs up front a lot doesn’t make many quality passes because he doesn’t need to.

I focus instead on the percentage of quality passes: the fraction of all green-flag passes that qualify as quality passes. A higher percentage means that the driver is efficient: The passes mean something.

Elliott scores first in percentage of quality passes with 63.4%, just edging out Bell, who has 63.3% quality passes. Larson is third with 61.2%.

Who was the best driver in 2022?

I combined the metrics I think matter most for determining the best driver in the table below. I color-coded drivers who appear in the top five in more than one metric to make it easier to see patterns.

A table showing the top five in each of the metrics discussed in the hopes of identifying 2022's best driver.

This table confirms that the NASCAR playoffs format did a good job identifying the top four drivers in the series. Elliott, Logano, Chastain and Bell are well-represented in the top five in each metric.

The table also shows that Larson and Blaney contended strongly in 2022. With a slightly different distribution of luck, one (or both) might have found their way to the Championship Four.

Logano’s consistency is also evident, even though he doesn’t rank first in any of these metrics and fails to make the table in top-five finishes or quality passes. It’s not uncommon for the driver with the most wins not to win the championship. And this year has been anything but common.

But overall, it’s hard not to argue that Elliott had the statistically best year. He led the series in wins, laps led, average finish, average running position and percent quality passes. If his playoffs had been comparable to his regular season, he would have taken the trophy.

But they weren’t and he didn’t. That may have ended the 2022 season on a down note for the No. 9 team, but they can look forward to 2023 knowing they have a strong base on which to build.

While skill is reproducible, luck isn’t.

Kaz Grala, Connor Mosack join Sam Hunt Racing for 2023

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Kaz Grala is scheduled to run the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule for Sam Hunt Racing in 2023.

Connor Mosack will drive a second Hunt car — No. 24 — in 20 races for the team. Grala will drive the No. 26 Toyota.

The new season will mark Grala’s first as a full-time Xfinity driver.

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“I’ve scratched and clawed for each opportunity over the past several seasons, and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s made me appreciate this sport and its difficulty more than I ever could if things had been easy,” Grala said in a statement released by the team. “I feel like everything has finally come together at the perfect time in my life with the right team around me to start that next chapter in my career.”

Grala, 23, has scored five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 44 Xfinity starts. He has raced in all three NASCAR national series and won a Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2017.

Allen Hart will be Grala’s crew chief.

Mosack, who will begin his schedule at Phoenix Raceway March 11, was the CARS Tour rookie of the year in 2020. He drove in two Xfinity and two Truck races in 2022.

Kris Bowen will be Mosack’s crew chief. The team said it will announce other drivers for the 24 car later.