Playoff puzzle: Key questions for all 16 Cup title contenders

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After an unpredictable year that saw 16 different winners in the regular season and the tightest playoff field in five years, there is much to ponder as the Cup playoffs begin.

Before the green flag waves at 6 p.m. Sunday to start the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on USA Network, here’s a look at key questions for each of the 16 playoff drivers.

1. Chase Elliott (2040 points)

Is this his title to lose?

The 2020 Cup champion won the regular season crown, led the most laps and finished in the top five in seven of the last 10 races. Nobody is better going into these playoffs.

Three times in the last five years the regular season champ went on to win the series title. 

In a season where many teams have been inconsistent, Elliott has gone no more than three races without a top 10. He had a five-race stretch where he finished first or second. 

“I’m excited about these next (10) weeks and the opportunity that lies ahead for us as a team,” said Elliott, who seeks to make the championship race for a third year in a row. “I feel like our group is special. … We’ve just got to make sure we’re performing at our best when it matters and the mattering time is approaching.”

2. Joey Logano (2025 points)

Does his unique streak continue?

Since the playoff format began in 2014, Logano has made it to the championship race four times — 2014, ’16, ’18 and ’20. 

Notice the pattern? 

He makes it every even-numbered year. So, of course, the 2018 Cup champion will make it to the title race at Phoenix again this year, correct? We’ll see, but it helps that the playoffs open at Darlington.

Logano won the pole there in May, led a race-high 107 laps and won after bumping William Byron out of the way. Win again and it won’t matter what happens at Kansas and Bristol in the first round since he’ll already be set for the second round. 

Another number to keep in mind with Logano: He ranks third in laps run this season. He’s completed 98.02% of the laps run this season, trailing only Michael McDowell (98.40% laps run) and Martin Truex Jr. (98.04%). Consistency is likely to be key in these playoffs. That’s another factor that favors Logano.

3. Ross Chastain (2020 points)

 Which driver will keep him from winning the title?

There’s a long line. Chastain’s first playoff experience could be impacted by how others race him.

Kyle Busch said he had been “Chastained” at Richmond after contact in the August race.

Asked at Daytona the need for give-and-take to win a championship, Busch said: “Absolutely, yes you do. You need give and take to win a championship. 

“Will (Chastain) get benefit of the doubt in situations when it comes … to the end of the playoffs and going to Phoenix? Absolutely not. No way. No chance. I don’t think people are paying him back yet because they are waiting for the right time.”

Said Kyle Larson of Chastain: “He’s done a really good job of even when he does get into moments where he has issues with other drivers in the race, he still recovers from it really well. But I feel like that can only last so long. I don’t know. 

“It will be a cool little storyline to follow in the playoffs. … I can’t imagine that with everybody that seems to be upset with him that it will be an easy playoff for him.”

4. Kyle Larson (2019 points)

No driver has won back-to-back titles in more than a decade. Can he do it?

Since Jimmie Johnson won the last of his five consecutive championships in 2010, no driver has won back-to-back crowns. The 11-year drought is the longest period in NASCAR history without a driver winning consecutive championships. 

Larson, the reigning Cup champion, has failed to finish six races this season. While he has 13 top-10 finishes, 10 of those are top fives. It’s just a matter of being more consistent.

“I think our regular season didn’t go very well, to our standards, but I don’t really know if it did for anybody,” Larson said. “Even for Chase (Elliott). I don’t even know if his regular season was up to their standards. There was just a lot of inconsistency this year throughout the regular season. 

“We had three blown engines now in the regular season, so DNFs with that. But also mistakes on my part or bad pit stops. Yes, we got a couple wins, which was nice, but we also probably gave away a couple, as well.”

Improve the execution and Larson could be on his way to possibly a second consecutive title. 

5. William Byron (2014 points)

Does momentum really matter?

Byron certainly hopes not. He has one top-10 finish in the the 18 races since his Martinsville win in April, and that was a ninth-place result at Sonoma. He has only five top-10 finishes this season.

This is not the resume of a championship team. That the playoffs begin at Darlington — where he led until he was bumped out of the way by Joey Logano with two laps left — provides some hope. But Byron noted that the team was a “top-six car” that executed well there in May.

As for the rest of the first round, which has Kansas and Bristol, Byron said:

“Kansas, I’m pretty nervous about. We got the lead there and then we had a flat tire and damaged the underbody and had a rough day after that. Bristol is exciting because Bristol is kind of like (Martinsville) and we had a good run at Bristol last year.”

Just as concerning for Byron is that he’s only nine points ahead of last place in the playoffs. That’s how tight the field is. So any woes could cost this team the chance to advance past the first round. 

6. Denny Hamlin (2013 points)

How much will he miss playoff points lost?

Quite frankly, in this unpredictable season, there are many teams that could look back at the playoff points they’ve given away.

For Hamlin, though, looking back is more painful. He had the strongest car at Dover but had a wheel fall off, and that cost him the win and five playoff points. He won Pocono but was disqualified after his car failed post-race inspection, costing him five more playoff points. 

“We’ve left an enormous amount of playoff (points) on the table from DQs to lack of execution (and) given our opponents playoff points that we know are going to be racing for cutoff spots,” said Hamlin, who seeks his fourth consecutive championship race appearance. “It’s been on us. This has been our deal. 

“This has been a frustrating year as a whole. I never actually could have imagined that we probably should have five or six wins with the Next Gen car. I thought it would take me a while to get used to it.”

But Hamlin still feels good about some of the tracks in the playoff schedule. With Darlington (1.366-mile track) and four races on 1.5-mile tracks — tracks where Toyotas have been fast — there’s a path for Hamlin or any Toyota to make it to the championship race even with some struggles at other tracks. 

7. Ryan Blaney (2013 points) 

Can he take advantage of his second chance?

He slipped into the playoffs by finishing 15th, six laps behind the leaders at Daytona last weekend. 

Even though Blaney is the only winless driver in the playoffs, he shouldn’t be overlooked. His 195 stage points ranked third among playoff drivers, trailing only Chase Elliott (235 stage points) and Joey Logano (203).

Blaney’s average finish of 13.692 ranks third among playoff drivers, behind only Elliott (10.538 average finish) and Kevin Harvick (13.308). 

Blaney does have a win. He took the checkered flag at the All-Star Race at Texas in May, and Texas hosts the opening race of the second round. 

Eventually, he’s going to need to win in the playoffs to keep advancing. 

8. Tyler Reddick (2012 points)

Can he and his team block out the distractions?

He’s signed to race for 23XI Racing in 2024. Car owner Richard Childress wasn’t happy with Reddick after the news, and they didn’t talk until after Reddick won on the Indianapolis road course. 

Reddick showed he was a team player by following Austin Dillon across the finish line at Daytona, assuring Dillon the win and putting both Richard Childress Racing cars n the playoffs.

Still, it’s an unusual situation that Reddick and RCR are in, knowing when their time together will cease. Reddick has shown his commitment to the organization. Childress said the team is committed, as well. This could be one team to watch in the playoffs. 

9. Kevin Harvick (2012 points)

Has the team turned things around enough to make a title run?

The back-to-back wins at Michigan and Richmond in August revitalized what some would consider a sleeping giant. 

The team still has work to do, but Harvick was fourth at Darlington in May and nearly won at Bristol in the playoffs last year, so he could be headed for a good start in the opening round.

Last year was the first time Harvick failed to reach at least the third round of the playoffs. He was eliminated after the second round. Harvick has made the title race five times, winning the crown in 2014. But he last made the championship event in 2019.

10. Christopher Bell (2011 points)

Could he be the surprise that goes deep into the playoffs?

He’s one of three Toyota drivers in the playoffs, joining Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. The Toyotas have been strong on the 1.5-mile tracks. 

That provides a pathway for Toyotas to get to the championship. There are four 1.5-mile tracks in the playoffs. Kansas is in the first round. Texas is in the second. Las Vegas and Homestead are in the third round. 

“I think that the race tracks really play into our hands for sure,” Bell said. “I would expect Darlington, Kansas, Homestead, Texas, Vegas – all of those race tracks to be ones that we perform well at. The Roval is definitely one that we have circled – on a place that we need to focus on to get better. That’s no secret. The tracks are there, so hopefully we are able to execute on the tracks that we are good at and have great showings.”

11. Kyle Busch (2010 points)

Will off-track distractions slow him down or will he overcome to be a three-time champion?

The only active driver with two Cup championships has not announced where he’ll race next season. 

He noted in August at Watkins Glen the toll that the process had taken on him off the track. Now he comes into the playoffs with that still unresolved and with a team that has struggled at times. He has 13 top 10s and is on pace for his fewest top 10s in the last six years. 

Busch last made the title race in 2019. Should he advance to the final four drivers racing for a title, it would mark a record sixth time he’s done so. 

12. Chase Briscoe (2009 points)

Can he and his turn reset after a rough regular season?

Like Byron, Briscoe has had only one top-10 finish in the last 18 races. That’s not championship caliber. That might not get Briscoe, who is making his first Cup playoff appearance, out of the first round. 

“I feel like we’ve had speed every week, but … we run anywhere from seven to 12th for a lot of the race and then we finish 18th to 23rd the last 60 laps, where other teams have kind of done the opposite,” Briscoe said. 

“They run 17th to 21st a lot of the day and then at the end they find themselves from seventh to 12th. For us, it’s kind of nice to have a little bit of a reset button. I know we have the speed, it’s just a matter of putting the whole race together.”

13. Daniel Suarez (2007 points)

Can he win a title two years after not having a single top-15 finish?

With the success Daniel Suarez has had in his second year at Trackhouse Racing, it’s easy to forget how far he had fallen in 2020.

He drove for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019 but was replaced after the season by Cole Custer. With few options, Suarez drove for Gaunt Brothers Racing and never finished higher than 18th in a race. He left after that season to join Justin Marks’ venture at Trackhouse Racing, going from a low-budget team to a new organization. 

Two years later, Suarez has the chance to run for a championship. If he wins, he may have some offers wanting to turn his story into one of those inspirational sports movies. But there’s still plenty of work to do to get there.

14. Austin Cindric  (2006 points)

Will the Daytona 500 champion end the year as a champion?

Only twice since 1998 has the Daytona 500 champion gone on to win the series title that same season. Jimmie Johnson did it both times (2006 and 2013). Austin Cindric seeks to be the next to do so.

Cindric, who joins Briscoe, Suarez and Chastain in making his first Cup playoff appearance, says that the tight field helps him.

“You can look at it from, ‘Oh, I’m three below (the cutoff for the first round) and have some of the fewest playoff points,’ but I can also look at it as eight points puts me fifth,” Cindric said. “Think about how easy it is to gain and lose eight points over three races.”

15. Alex Bowman (2006 points)

Can summer woes lead to playoff gains?

When the series last headed to Darlington in May, Bowman was fifth in points and had seven top 10s, including a win, in the first 11 races.

He’s not won since and had only three top 10s in the last 15 races. 

“The summer has been pretty terrible for us,” Bowman said. “Kind of par for the course, but we’ve shown we can have strong playoff runs, too. 

“Darlington is probably my biggest question mark right off the bat just because we were so bad in the spring. We are fairly certain we know exactly why, but you don’t get to test. You’ve got to go to the race track thinking you have the right thing and hopefully we do when we unload because you can’t change it if you don’t.

“If we can get through some of those race tracks that have been kind of rough on us this year, I think we’ll be really good.”

16. Austin Dillon (2005 points)

Can he throw another Hail Mary?

Running 16th, Dillon took the lead at Daytona when the top 15 cars crashed in rain. Then he waited more than three hours for the race to resume and get back in the lead after he was passed. He did and won to make the playoffs in the last chance to do so.

Should he win the Cup title, he’d become the first driver in NASCAR history to win a championship in the Truck Series (2011), Xfinity Series (2013) and Cup.

“We’re just going to have to go to work and really rely on the sim at Chevrolet and at RCR,” Dillon said of what it will take to get through the first round. “It won’t be from a lack of effort over the next three weeks to progress and try to get another win.”

2023 NASCAR, ARCA schedules

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The start of the 2023 racing season moves closer with each passing day.

Here are the Cup, Xfinity and Truck schedules (playoff races in bold), along with the ARCA, ARCA East and ARCA West schedules for the upcoming season:

2023 NASCAR Cup Series Schedule

Date Race / Track Network Start Time (ET) Radio
Sunday, February 5 Clash (L.A. Memorial Coliseum) FOX 8:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Thursday, February 16 Duel at Daytona FS1 7:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, February 19 DAYTONA 500 FOX 2:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, February 26 Auto Club FOX 3:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, March 5 Las Vegas FOX 3:30 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, March 12 Phoenix FOX 3:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, March 19 Atlanta FOX 3:00 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, March 26 COTA FOX 3:30 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, April 2 Richmond FS1 3:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, April 9 Bristol Dirt FOX 7:00 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, April 16 Martinsville FS1 3:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, April 23 Talladega FOX 3:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, April 30 Dover FS1 2:00 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, May 7 Kansas FS1 3:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, May 14 Darlington FS1 3:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, May 21 NASCAR All-Star Race (North Wilkesboro) FS1 8:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, May 28 Charlotte FOX 6:00 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, June 4 World Wide Technology Raceway FS1 3:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, June 11 Sonoma FOX 3:30 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, June 25 Nashville Superspeedway NBC 7:00 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, July 2 Chicago Street Race NBC 5:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, July 9 Atlanta USA 7:00 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, July 16 New Hampshire USA 2:30 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, July 23 Pocono USA 2:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, July 30 Richmond USA 3:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, August 6 Michigan USA 2:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, August 13 Indianapolis Road Course NBC 2:30 p.m. IMS/SiriusXM
Sunday, August 20 Watkins Glen USA 3:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, August 26 Daytona NBC 7:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, September 3 Darlington USA 6:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, September 10 Kansas USA 3:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, September 16 Bristol USA 7:30 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, September 24 Texas USA 3:30 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, October 1 Talladega NBC 2:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, October 8 Charlotte Roval NBC 2:00 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, October 15 Las Vegas NBC 2:30 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, October 22 Homestead-Miami NBC 2:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, October 29 Martinsville NBC 2:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, November 5 Phoenix NBC 3:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM

2023 NASCAR Xfinity Series Schedule

Date Location Network Start Time Radio
Saturday, February 18 Daytona FS1 5:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, February 25 Auto Club FS1 5:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, March 4 Las Vegas FS1 4:30 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, March 11 Phoenix FS1 4:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, March 18 Atlanta FS1 5:00 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, March 25 COTA FS1 5:00 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, April 1 Richmond FS1 1:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, April 15 Martinsville FS1 7:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, April 22 Talladega FS1 4:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, April 29 Dover FS1 1:30 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, May 13 Darlington FOX 1:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, May 27 Charlotte FS1 1:00 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, June 3 Portland FS1 4:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, June 10 Sonoma FS1 8:00 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, June 24 Nashville Superspeedway USA 3:30 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, July 1 Chicago Street Race USA 5:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, July 8 Atlanta USA 8:00 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, July 15 New Hampshire USA 3:00 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, July 22 Pocono USA 5:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, July 29 Road America NBC 3:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, August 5 Michigan NBC 3:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, August 12 Indianapolis Road Course USA 5:30 p.m. IMS/SiriusXM
Saturday, August 19 Watkins Glen USA 3:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Friday, August 25 Daytona USA 7:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, September 2 Darlington USA 3:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, September 9 Kansas NBC 3:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Friday, September 15 Bristol USA 7:30 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, September 23 Texas USA 3:30 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, October 7 Charlotte Roval USA 3:30 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, October 14 Las Vegas USA 3:30 p.m. PRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, October 21 Homestead-Miami NBC 3:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, October 28 Martinsville USA 3:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, November 4 Phoenix USA 7:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM

 

2023 NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Schedule

Date Location Network Start Time Radio
Friday, February 17 Daytona FS1 7:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Friday, March 3 Las Vegas FS1 9:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, March 18 Atlanta FS1 2:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, March 25 COTA FS1 1:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, April 1 Texas FS1 4:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, April 8 Bristol Dirt FS1 8:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Friday, April 14 Martinsville FS1 7:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, May 6 Kansas FS1 8:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Friday, May 12 Darlington FS1 7:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, May 20 North Wilkesboro FOX 1:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Friday, May 26 Charlotte FS1 8:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, June 3 World Wide Technology Raceway FS1 1:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Friday, June 23 Nashville Superspeedway FS1 8:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, July 8 Mid-Ohio FS1 1:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, July 22 Pocono FS1 12:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, July 29 Richmond FS1 7:30 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Friday, August 11 Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis FS1 9:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Sunday, August 27 Milwaukee FS1 4:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Friday, September 8 Kansas FS1 9:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Thursday, September 14 Bristol FS1 9:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, September 30 Talladega FS1 1:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Saturday, October 21 Homestead-Miami FS1 12:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM
Friday, November 3 Phoenix FS1 10:00 p.m. MRN/SiriusXM

2023 ARCA Menards Series Schedule

  • Broadcast schedule, including event start times, will be released at a later date.
Feb. 18 Daytona International Speedway Daytona Beach, FL
March 10 Phoenix Raceway Avondale, AZ
April 22 Talladega Superspeedway Talladega, AL
May 6 Kansas Speedway Kansas City, KS
May 26 Charlotte Motor Speedway Concord, NC
June 17 Berlin Raceway Marne, MI
June 24 Elko Speedway Elko, MN
July 7 Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course Lexington, OH
July 15 Iowa Speedway Newton, IA
July 21 Pocono Raceway Long Pond, PA
Aug. 4 Michigan International Speedway Brooklyn, MI
Aug. 11 Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park Brownsburg, IN
Aug. 18 Watkins Glen International Watkins Glen, NY
Aug. 20 Illinois State Fairgrounds Springfield, IL
Aug. 27 The Milwaukee Mile West Allis, WI
Sept. 3 DuQuoin State Fairgrounds DuQuoin, IL
Sept. 8 Kansas Speedway Kansas City, KS
Sept. 14 Bristol Motor Speedway Bristol, TN
Sept. 30 Salem Speedway Salem, IN
Oct. 7 Toledo Speedway Toledo, OH

 

2023 ARCA Menards Series East Schedule

March 25    Five Flags Speedway              Pensacola, Fla. 

April 28      Dover Motor Speedway           Dover, Del. 

May 13      Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway    Nashville, Tenn. 

May 20      Flat Rock Speedway              Flat Rock, Mich. 

July 15      Iowa Speedway                  Newton, Iowa 

Aug. 11     Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park  Brownsburg, Ind. 

Aug. 27     The Milwaukee Mile              West Allis, Wisc. 

Sept. 14    Bristol Motor Speedway           Bristol, Tenn. 

 

2023 ARCA Menards Series West Schedule

March 10    Phoenix Raceway                Avondale, Ariz. 

April 1     Irwindale Speedway               Irwindale, Calif. 

April 22    Kern County Raceway Park          Bakersfield, Calif. 

June 2      Portland International Raceway      Portland, Ore. 

June 9      Sonoma Raceway                Sonoma, Calif. 

July 1      Irwindale Speedway               Irwindale, Calif. 

July 29     Shasta Speedway                 Anderson, Calif. 

Aug. 19     Evergreen Speedway             Evergreen, Wash. 

Sept. 30    All-American Speedway            Roseville, Calif. 

Oct. 13     The Bullring at LVMS              Las Vegas, Nev. 

Oct. 21     Madera Speedway                Madera, Calif. 

Nov. 3      Phoenix Raceway                 Avondale, Ariz. 

Each ARCA Menards Series East and West stand-alone race will be streamed live on FloRacing and televised on a delayed basis on USA Network. Race start times, as well as broadcast details for combination races with the ARCA Menards Series will be announced at a later date. 

 

2022 spotlights: The Clash, the King and Martinsville Mania

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The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season brought something new (a race inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum!) and something old (a win by the No. 43!) and a lot in-between.

In many ways, it was one of NASCAR’s best seasons. There were new winners, the Next Gen car kicked up competition a bit and there was a race finish (see the Ross Chastain file) like none other in the history of the sport.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: The name game

There were downsides, too: The safety of the new car came under fire (figuratively and literally, as wheel-well flames ended more than a few rides), drivers’ seasons were interrupted or ended because of hard wrecks and some races were less than stellar.

Looking back over the February-to-November marathon, some races stand out:

Rocking the City of Angels – Despite the naysayers, the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was a roaring success. A platter of questions, including whether the purpose-built track inside the stadium would hold up under heavy stock cars and generate good racing, awaited as teams rolled into LA. The racing wasn’t sensational, but it was good, and there were no problems with the track. A huge crowd showed up, and NASCAR left town with many ideas, having proven that it could run a race on a temporary track inside a large stadium. It has escaped no one’s notice that there are many other large stadiums in the country – and, by the way, outside it.

Wiggling at Watkins Glen – The venerable New York road course produced another hot finish as teammates Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott battled for the win. Larson forced Elliott out of the main groove and took the lead for good with five laps remaining. “I’m not proud of it, but I knew it’s what I had to do to get the win,” Larson said. Elliott didn’t publicly criticize Larson, but it was clear he wasn’t pleased with Larson’s move.

MORE: Fighting knights and pie in the sky

Six hundred miles, and then some – The long history of Charlotte Motor Speedway’s 600-mile race has produced some great competition – and some races that prompted long naps. This year’s was one of the craziest and, by the way, the longest. The race went to two overtimes, finally ending after 413 laps and 619.5 miles, making it the longest race in NASCAR’s 75 years. The winner – perhaps most accurately described as the survivor – was Denny Hamlin, who outran teammate Kyle Busch over the final two laps.

The King is back…but where is he? – The Cup playoffs opened at Darlington Raceway with the storied Southern 500, but the playoffs took a back seat to other storylines. Erik Jones scored an upset win in Richard Petty’s No. 43, marking the iconic car’s first victory since 2014. Petty, however, missed the Victory Lane festivities. He and Dale Inman, the No. 43’s former crew chief, left the race early for the drive home to North Carolina. The long night held several incidents, including one involving Kevin Harvick, who criticized NASCAR after his car caught fire, uttering his now-infamous diatribe about what he called “crappy-ass parts.”

No watermelon, but a lotta juiceThe finish of the Oct. 29 playoff race at Martinsville Speedway generated international interest. Christopher Bell won in a must-win situation to advance in the playoffs, but the post-race spotlight was on Ross Chastain, who rode the outside wall through the final two turns at speeds rarely seen on the short track and finished fourth, good enough to stay in the championship hunt. Chastain’s remarkable move drew comment from observers outside NASCAR, including Formula 1 drivers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday 5: Memorable images from 2022 NASCAR season

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The end of the season provides a chance to look back and each year I go through the photos on my phone and find those that show the highs and lows of a sport that goes from February to November. 

Here are some of the photos that stood out for me:

1. Daytona 500 

Although the time spent in Daytona Beach, Florida, has shrunk in recent years with a more compact track schedule, the intensity remains. As do the emotions. 

Cup rookie Austin Cindric accomplished “a racer’s dream” in winning the Daytona 500, accomplishing something in his second attempt that took Darrell Waltrip 17 times and Dale Earnhardt 20 times to accomplish.

Cindric blocked teammate Ryan Blaney coming to the finish line and beat Bubba Wallace by half a car length. 

It was the second time Bubba Wallace had finished runner-up in this race. Unlike 2018, when Wallace was excited with finishing second, Wallace felt no such emotion this time. 

“2018 was awesome,” Wallace said of his runner-up result in the Daytona 500. “2022 was not awesome.

“I didn’t have a fighting chance the first time in 2018. This one being that close, it’s like a gut punch.”

The photos that stand out to me are of the picture of Cindric’s car covered in red, white and blue confetti before going through post-race inspection and the disappointment Wallace wore on pit road after the race.

Austin Cindric‘s car after winning the 2022 Daytona 500. (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

A dejected Bubba Wallace after finishing second in the 2022 Daytona 500. (Photo: Dustin Long)

2. Road America 

The Cup Series is not returning to the Wisconsin road course after two years there. Instead, this race will be replaced by the Chicago street course event in 2023.

This past season’s race was memorable. Tyler Reddick scored his first career Cup win on July 3. Nine days later came the announcement that he was leaving Richard Childress Racing for 23XI Racing in 2024 (That timetable moved up to 2023 after RCR signed Kyle Busch to replace Reddick in the No. 8.).

Among the special moments from the Road America race was Austin Cindric walking the length of pit road to victory lane to congratulate Reddick.

Austin Cindric hugs Tyler Reddick in victory lane at Road America on July 3, 2022. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Walking with Cindric, I asked him why he was making the trip to see Reddick.

“I think of anyone in the field, he probably deserves that win more than anybody else,” Cindric told me. “I think he’s put himself in position. He’s a really likable guy, and I feel like you can see how hard he works. 

“I’ve seen him mature as a driver and a person and as a friend and a father. It’s cool to see somebody you’re close to go through that.”

When Cindric arrived in victory lane, he walked up to Reddick and gave his friend a bearhug, lifting Reddick well off the ground.

In all the excitement, Reddick’s son, Beau, was not impressed. He was sound asleep in victory lane.

Tyler Reddick’s son Beau sleeps in victory lane after his father’s first Cup win in July 2022 at Road America. (Photo: Dustin Long)

3. Special moments

One never knows what you’ll come across in a season that stretches so long through the calendar. 

These are a few such moments that proved special for one reason or the other.

As storm clouds gathered over Daytona International Speedway in February, the sun was settling, creating a sky both ominous and spectacular. The photo captures that scene as Cole Custer walks through the garage. After this season, Stewart-Haas Racing announced it was replacing Custer with Ryan Preece in the No. 41 Cup car and that Custer would run in the Xfinity Series for the team.

Cole Custer walks under an ominous sky at Daytona in February 2022. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Another photo that stands out to me comes from the Clash at the Coliseum. There were so many questions about the exhibition race inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, such as if the specially built track would withstand the rigors of cars, what would the debut of the Next Gen car be like and would fans really be interested in such an event.

The track held up. So did most of the cars and the fans came. While not a sellout, more than 50,000 people attended the event and NASCAR noted that many had not purchased tickets to a NASCAR event before. The event was a success.

What stood out to me was the lines of people waiting to buy souvenirs the day of the race. In some places, lines stretched well away from the merchandise trailers. 

Fans stand in line for merchandise at the Clash at the Coliseum in Feb. 2022. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Sometimes you never know what you’ll see at at event. At an event at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Hall of Famers Richard Petty, Dale Inman and Ray Evernham all stood together. That is 18 Cup championships (eight by Inman, seven by Petty and three by Evernham).

NASCAR Hall of Famers Ray Evernham, Richard Petty and Dale Inman at the NASCAR Hall in April 2022. (Photo: Dustin Long)

4. New winners 

This season saw five first-time Cup winners: Austin Cindric (Daytona 500 in February), Chase Briscoe (Phoenix in March), Ross Chastain (Circuit of the Americas in April), Daniel Suarez (Sonoma in June) and Tyler Reddick (Road America in July).

I caught this scene of Suarez alone in his thoughts in the garage at Nashville Superspeedway in his first race since that Sonoma victory.

Daniel Suarez at Nashville Superspeedway in June 2022. (Photo: Dustin Long)

5. Martinsville

Ross Chastain’s video game move on the last lap of the playoff race was stunning. Needing two positions to advance to the championship race, Chastain put his car into fifth gear, planted his car against the wall in Turn 3, took his hands off the wheel and let the wall guide his Chevrolet around the final two turns while he floored the throttle.

Amazingly, it worked. He passed five cars and earned a spot in the championship. Although he didn’t win the Cup title, Chastain provided one of the most memorable moments of the 2022 season.

As I was leaving the infield late that Sunday night. I stopped to take a picture of the wall and the marks Chastain’s car had left on its remarkable charge.

Turn 4 wall after Ross Chastain’s video game move on the last lap of the October 2022 race. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Dr. Diandra: 2022 accidents steady, spins up 200%

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Cautions were up in 2022 despite fewer stage-end and competition cautions of any year since stage racing began. The third installment of 2022 by the numbers focuses on the causes (and causers) of cautions.

Cautions

I divide cautions into those that are planned — like competition and stage-end breaks — and so-called ‘natural’ cautions. Natural cautions include accidents, spins, stalled cars, debris or liquid on track and weather.

My first graph shows that this year’s 302 cautions are the most total cautions since 2014. That’s despite only 73 planned cautions, the fewest since stage racing started.

A stacked bar chart showing the planned and natural cautions from 2013 to 2022

The 2022 season had 43 more total cautions relative to 2021, and 57 more natural cautions than last year. That’s the most natural cautions since 2016.

Causes

Caution classification is subjective. Obviously, a car spinning is a spin and cars colliding is an accident. But if a car spins and then hits another car, is it a spin or an accident? If an accident happens at a stage break, do you record the caution as an accident or a stage break?

This year presented an even thornier problem.

The 2022 season had more blown tires and wheels coming off cars than any season I can remember. NASCAR classified some incidents arising from blown tires as debris cautions, others as accidents.

To me, a blown tire seems fundamentally different from a stray car part on the track.

The myriad tire and wheel problems prompted me to review all 302 cautions. I added three additional caution categories: wheel issues, fire and tire issues.

Tire issues were so labeled only if a blown tire preceded a crash or spin. Tires that blow because of contact with the wall or flat spotting aren’t included. If I couldn’t tell for sure that the blown tire came first, I left the caution in its original category.

My re-categorization complicates comparing cautions by category to previous years. That concern is offset by the need to set a benchmark against which to measure next year’s data.

The table below compares my breakdown of cautions with NASCAR’s for the 2022 season. I admit that I’m not totally objective, either. But I believe my categorization better reflects the overall nature of the 2022 season.

A table comparing breakdowns of cautions

The most surprising statistic is the extraordinarily large number of spins. Cup Series drivers spun between 20 and 27 times per season between 2016 and 2021. Drivers in 2022 spun 60 times.

There haven’t been that many spins since 2007, when the series recorded 66 spins. That was the first year of the Gen-5 car; however, the number of spins this year is similar to the numbers for the Gen-4 car. Fans wanted a car that was harder to drive. The spin statistics are a good argument that they’ve gotten their wish.

Drivers in accidents, spins and stalls

I treat accidents, spins, and stalls as a single category because of the questions about differentiating between them. ‘Incidents’ combines all the spins, all the accidents and all the stalls.

And remember: being involved in an incident doesn’t imply that driver caused the incident.

The graph below shows all drivers with 12 or more incidents during the 2022 season.

A stacked bar graph showing the drivers involved in the most accidents, spins and/or stalls

Remember also that this count doesn’t include wheel or tire issues. A driver crashing because a tire blew is fundamentally different from an accident or spin.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ross Chastain were involved in the most incidents in 2022. Both drivers had 15 accidents. Stenhouse also had two spins and a stall, while Chastain had three spins. Stenhouse led in caution-causing incidents in 2021 with 17 accidents.

Kyle Busch comes in third in total incidents, and first in spins with seven. For comparison, no other driver had more than four spins.

No full-time driver evaded incidents entirely. Justin Haley was involved in the fewest: four. William Byron tallied six while Aric Almirola and Michael McDowell came in at eight each.

Cautions by race

The Coca-Cola 600 was the longest Cup Series race in history in terms of mileage. Its 18 cautions helped make it long in terms of time, too.

But longer races offer more opportunities to crash. A better metric is the number of crashes per 100 miles of racing. I removed stage and competition cautions because planned cautions don’t depend on race length.

The Bristol dirt race’s 14 cautions were the third highest total after the Coca-Cola 600 and Texas’s 16 cautions. But the dirt race was the shortest race of the season at 133.25 miles.

A vertical bar graph showing the races with the most cautions per 100 miles of racing

That gives the Bristol dirt race a whopping 9.0 natural cautions per 100 miles of racing. Last year, the Bristol dirt race was also at the top of the list with 7.4 total cautions per 100 miles of racing.

Bristol’s asphalt race had the second-most cautions per 100 miles at 3.4  The two Bristol races are followed by COTA (3.0) and Texas (2.8).

What about superspeedways?

The only superspeedway race in the top-10 cautions-per-100-miles graph is the second Atlanta race. The fall Talladega race had the fewest cautions per 100 miles this year of any oval at 0.80.

But superspeedways claim more cars per accident. The summer Daytona race featured 46 cars involved in five accidents for an average of 9.2 cars per accident. Some cars were involved in multiple accidents, which is why the total number of cars in accidents is larger than the number of cars racing.

The fall Talladega race comes in second in terms of wreckage per accident with an average of 8.0 cars. The spring Talladega race ties with the Bristol asphalt race. Both had an average of 7.0 cars per accident.

Road America had the fewest cautions of any race in 2022. With only two stage-break cautions, Road America had 0.0 natural cautions per 100 miles. Sonoma had 0.72 natural cautions per 100 miles and the Charlotte Roval 0.78.

We normally use cautions as a proxy to count accidents and spins. The problem is that not every incident causes a caution — especially at road courses. There were seven cautions for wheels coming off cars, some wheels came off on pit road. Some drivers limped their cars back to the pits after losing wheels.

And there were a lot more spins that didn’t bring out cautions.

Next week, I’ll tell you all about those.