NASCAR Cup season off to historic start with Next Gen car

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The winning teams are familiar, but what’s happening behind the leaders is historic.

Twenty-five drivers have scored at least one top-10 finish in the first three Cup races of the season. The last time more drivers did so at this point was 1973, according to Racing Insights. 

Of the 44 drivers who have competed in Cup this season, only Jacques Villeneuve (born in 1971) and Greg Biffle (born in 1969) were alive then.

Former Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. noted in the offseason that this year had the potential to be topsy-turvy, as teams learned the nuances of the Next Gen car.

“There’s going to be a lot of crazy storylines early in the year,” Truex told NBC Sports in January. “There’s going to be a lot of surprises, and there’s going to be a lot of guys that have a good week, bad week, good week, bad week, hit and miss. 

“I just feel like until we get some time under our belt and find kind of a baseline of what this thing wants at certain tracks, we’re all going to be searching. We’re all going to be taking gambles on what we’re taking to the racetrack, setup-wise.”

Truex finished eighth Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his first top 10 of the season. Also scoring their first top 10 of the year this past weekend were: Alex Bowman (winner), Ross Chastain (third place), William Byron (fifth), Tyler Reddick (seventh) and Christopher Bell (10th).

Only seven times in NASCAR history have 25 or more drivers scored a top 10 in the first three races of the season. Here’s that list:

1965 — 27 drivers

1971 — 27

1960 — 26

1970 — 26

1973 — 26

1950 — 25

2022 — 25

It’s not surprising that some of these drivers are up front because of the talent they have to make it to the Cup Series,” said Greg Ives, Bowman’s crew chief, of the parity early this season. “I think leveling the playing field … with the car allows for those guys to maybe wheel it a little bit more.”

Chastain who competes for Trackhouse Racing, had the best average running position at Las Vegas at 3.82. Petty GMS Motorsports driver Erik Jones had the best average running position (4.28) the week before at Auto Club Speedway.

Chastain, who has yet to win a Cup race, led a race-high 83 laps at Las Vegas. Tyler Reddick, who has yet to win a Cup race, led a race-high 90 laps at Auto Club Speedway. 

The Next Gen car has played a significant role in balancing some fo the power in the sport, but Bowman’s victory showed that the top teams are still likely to win more often. Had the caution not come out and sent the race into overtime, Kyle Busch or Truex likely would have given Joe Gibbs Racing its first win of the season. 

“Once the bigger teams get time developing things,” Bowman said, “you’re never going to shut down the giant race teams, right?”

For now, the car continues to confound drivers. The 12 cautions Sunday matched the number of cautions last weekend at Auto Club Speedway. 

Ten of those 24 cautions have been caused by single-car spins. Among those who have brought out those cautions have been former champions Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch, along with Cole Custer, Christopher Bell and Chris Buescher, who each have won a Cup race.

After spinning Sunday at Las Vegas, Custer radioed his team: “I went too far trying to find the limit.”

After Austin Dillon lost control of his car and got into Justin Haley’s car, Dillon radioed his team: “Tell (Haley) I’m sorry, man. I didn’t think it would take off on me like that.”

A little later, Reddick spun and radioed his team: “It just snaps on me without a lot of warning.”

Aric Almirola, the only driver to have a top-10 finish in all three races this year, says there’s much to understand with this car.

“We’re still learning this car,” he said. “There’s a lot to learn about it, and we’re still trying to figure a lot of things out.”

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While Kyle Busch ranted about Alex Bowman’s good fortune in winning Sunday’s race, only one driver has won more races than Bowman since the start of last year.

Here’s the list of drivers, who have won multiple races, and their victory total since the beginning of the 2021 season:

11 — Kyle Larson

5 — Alex Bowman 

4 — Martin Truex Jr.

3 — Ryan Blaney

2 — Denny Hamlin 

2 — Kyle Busch

2 — Chase Elliott 

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Stage points are already proving to be important early in the season. 

Erik Jones is 15th in the season standings with 74 points, but 26 of those come from stage points. That’s 35.1% of his point total coming from stage points — the highest percentage among drivers in a playoff spot (top 16 in points). Jones finished second in both stages at Auto Club Speedway to collect 18 points.

Jones is one of three drivers in the top 16 who have more than 30% of their points from stage points. 

Brad Keselowski, who ranks 12th in the standings with 77 points, has 26 stage points. That’s 33.8% of his point total from stage points. Keselowski is helped by scoring 10 points for winning his qualifying race at Daytona. The other 16 stage points came in the Daytona 500.

Joey Logano is third in the standings with 104 points. He has scored 33 stage points. That’s 31.7% of his point total from stage points. 

On the other side is Almirola. While he has the best average finish this year at 5.7, he ranks sixth in the standings because he’s only scored three stage points. That represents 3.1% of his point total of 97.