Kyle Busch and Tyler Reddick — among the key storylines this season — got their first days on track with their new teams this week.
Busch, Reddick and Austin Cindric participated in a tire test Monday and Tuesday at Circuit of the Americas. The session marked Busch’s first official laps with his Richard Childress Racing team. It also was Reddick’s first laps with his 23XI Racing team.
Busch, a two-time Cup champion, joins RCR after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing. Lack of sponsorship led to his move.
Busch heads into this season having won at least one Cup race in each of the past 18 seasons, tying him with Richard Petty for the all-time Cup record.
Busch, who estimated he ran 200 laps during the two days at the 3.41-mile road course in Austin, Texas, was pleased with the session.
“Had a lot of fun,” he told NBC Sports. “Was able to work with the guys and really (have) good communication, give good feedback and have that opportunity to have dialogue of ‘Let’s do this. Let’s do this. Let’s try this. What do you think about this?’
“(Was) able to talk about the car in ways I’m used to and have them hear me describe things in certain ways, so they can get a better understanding where, as you go on, you can say less words and they get what you’re saying.”
Reddick said the session was helpful to get settled in the No. 45 Toyota.
Reddick told NBC Sports that a goal at the session was to “try and close the gap Toyota feels like they’ve had on the Chevys and some of the other competition last year on the road courses. I think we made some gains, but certainly, we’re going to work hard on that.”
“Some of the things they’re learning (have) started to trickle on to our side,” Graves said of the Garage 56 car. “They’ve done some things on the underbody.
“As NASCAR is looking to make short tracks in particular a little bit better, we’re trying to be less dependent on the outer body with aero and get more of it with the underbody — with the theory that it’s going to be less affected by traffic.”
Graves said that the plan is for the rear spoiler to be smaller at the Phoenix test with the underbody of the car generating more of the car’s downforce. NASCAR also is looking to better channel the air underneath the car with the diffuser.
Graves explained how having more of a car’s downforce generated underneath it could impact the race:
“When you look at the lap times, the guys that are up front have a huge advantage, but when they get to the back of the pack, they run the same speed.
“That’s what everybody in the pack is doing the whole race, running the same speed and having a hard time getting around each other. Hopefully, this will help with some of that, where it’s not so dependent on the outer body. You get into turbulent air, dirty air (in traffic) the (aero on the) outer body really goes away. The theory is that the underbody is still going to have that air underneath the car, so it will keep it a little bit better.”
Could he be joined by Kyle Busch? Busch has expressed an interest in also doing the double — something his brother Kurt did in 2014.
“I think that’s great that Kyle (Larson) has been able to kind of button that up early and get that done for himself to run the Indy 500 in 2024,” Busch told NBC Sports.
“I wasn’t so fortunate (in the past). We had a couple of deals kind of right there, right to the sign phase almost I guess you would say. It just didn’t really materialize. Teams got other deals that were more important to them that kind of didn’t want to give me the chance, or they didn’t want to go from three cars to four cars, whatever it might have been.
“A lot of discussions happened behind the scenes, but nothing materialized. I would say that our industry, both NASCAR and IndyCar is just short on people, having the right amount of people and good people to go and do these ventures. Yeah, you could go do it and go run circles and make laps, but is it going to be a winning effort was the question. That’s just kind of why it never materialized.”
Asked if he felt the door was closed to him to running the Indy 500, Busch said: “Yeah, I would say 2023, the door’s closed. I would say 2024, with Kyle (Larson’s) announcement, the door closed because that’s probably about the only team that could do it. Given the nature of who he’s racing with, but just with other teams trying to stretch too thin and not have enough people. Again it comes down to the people part. So, you just never know. See what happens.”
4. Looking into the future
As NASCAR celebrates its 75th anniversary season, it’s a chance to look back at many of the memorable moments on and off the track.
When NASCAR celebrates its 100th season and others in the future, Chastain’s move is likely to be among those memorable moments.
“I’m proud that I’ve been able to make a wave that will continue beyond just 2022 or just beyond me,” Chastain told NBC Sports. “There will probably be people that will learn about me because of that. I’m good with that. I’m proud of that.
“I don’t think it will ever happen again. I don’t think it will ever pay the reward that that paid off for us. I hope I’m around in 35 years to answer someone’s question about it, and I probably still won’t have a good answer on why it worked, or why I did it.”
5. A celebration
NASCAR takes time tonight to honor its past and induct three people into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Deep into December, the start of the 2023 NASCAR season seems far away, but shops have been busy getting cars and plans ready for the new year.
Some teams have new faces in new places. The biggest change for the new year will be Kyle Busch sitting in the No. 8 Chevrolets at Richard Childress Racing after winning championships with Joe Gibbs Racing. Ty Gibbs replaces Busch but will drive JGR’s No. 54. Ryan Preece moves into the No. 41 at Stewart-Haas Racing, and Tyler Reddick joins 23XI Racing.
A look at Silly Season as the calendar approaches 2023:
No. 1: Ross Chastain, the surprise driver of 2022, returns to keep the fire burning — and the watermelons smashing — at Trackhouse Racing.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Champion Logano ranked 11th in fastest laps with 319, and eighth in overall green-flag speed with an average ranking of 9.281.
The tables below show drivers’ rankings throughout the season for average finishes 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.
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.
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.
Busch needs one win to set the NASCAR record for most consecutive seasons with a win. He is tied with Richard Petty with 18 entering the 2023 season, which will see Busch drive for Richard Childress Racing.
Busch is 92 laps away from leading 19,000 laps in his Cup career.
Heis 34 starts away from tying Dale Earnhardt Sr. for 23rd on the all-time list of most career starts at 676. Busch is scheduled to tie Earnhardt’s mark Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the playoffs and surpass the mark the next weekend at Martinsville Speedway in the playoffs.
Harvick is scheduled to make his 800th career Cup start April 23 at Talladega.
He is 15 starts from tying Jeff Gordon for ninth on the all-time list for most career Cup starts at 805. Harvick is scheduled to tie Gordon’s mark June 4 at World Wide Technology Raceway and is scheduled to move ahead of Gordon on June 11 at Sonoma.
Harvick is 99 laps away from leading 16,000 laps in his Cup career.
He is five top fives away from having 250 in his Cup career.
Logano is one win from having a Cup victory in 12 consecutive seasons, which would tie him for 13th on the all-time list with Denny Hamlin.
Logano is one top five away from 150 career top-five finishes.
He is nine starts away from tying Richard Petty for 19th on the all-time list of consecutive starts at 513. Logano is scheduled to reach that mark April 16 at Martinsville and surpass it April 23 at Talladega.