William Byron is currently on pace for a career-best season. Has he elevated himself to the level of championship contender or are we not there yet?
Aaron Bearden: We’re too early in this Next Gen era for me to consider anyone a certified championship contender. Could he potentially rise to that level when the time comes? Sure. But let’s see how teams find manufacturers adjust to this car prior to the playoffs before we go penciling anyone into the Championship 4.
Luken Glover: William Byron‘s rookie season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series? He was a title contender. His first season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series: same story. Byron is in year five now at NASCAR’s premier level. He already has a win in the bank and is on pace to easily surpass his career-high in laps led of 425 a year ago, leading 270 circuits already. Title contenders show consistency, resilience and the ability to consistently be upfront. After an awful start to the year, Byron has three top fives in the last five races. Richmond Raceway has undoubtedly been one of his more challenging tracks, yet he was one pit call away from winning this past weekend. Right now, I would put Ryan Blaney as the title favorite, followed by Chase Elliott and then Byron. He is ready to shine.
Amy Henderson: We’re sadly past an era where consistency wins titles, and while Byron has been consistent, he hasn’t yet shown he can reel off the wins he’ll need in the playoffs. He’s also been streaky. He’s certainly a driver who can be championship caliber, he showed that back in his Truck days. Heck, he could put on a strong run this year and be in the conversation. I just think he’s more likely a year or two away still.
Mike Neff: It is hard to say; between the current means of winning a championship and the new car, establishing yourself as a title contender is different than it used to be. That said, he isn’t leading and contending for wins quite as much as it would seem necessary to be a serious threat. On the other hand, he is riding the Hendrick momentum and the organization seems to be getting a good handle on the new car. He has a very good chance if HMS continues its strong efforts.
Josh Roller: Byron has elevated himself to be a legitimate threat to surprise us with a Championship 4 appearance. He has been strong, and since reuniting with Rudy Fugle, Byron has made gains in his racecraft. 2022 will be the first year Bryon earns multiple wins. It’s still too early to tell what every driver and team has with the Next Gen car. The landscape will become clearer once we get past the Coca-Cola 600. If Byron can put himself consistently in the top five or seven cars each week, I’ll label him as a championship threat.
Kevin Harvick’s winless streak is now at 50 races. How much longer will it continue after his runner-up finish at Richmond and does Stewart-Haas Racing need to make changes to the No. 4 team to get Harvick over the hump?
Bearden: SHR has looked better this year. Kevin Harvick’s rising with them. So long as they can stay competitive, I could see the 2014 champ winning somewhere soon — maybe Darlington Raceway?
Henderson: Harvick could go out and win next week … or he could never win again. Jimmie Johnson was winning until he wasn’t. I’m not convinced crew changes, even a new crew chief, would make a difference. Harvick looked stout at Richmond, and he hasn’t run badly, just not brilliantly. He’s at an age where wins historically taper off, so a decline in wins isn’t exactly unexpected. But he’s earned the opportunity to go out on his own terms, so SHR should not do anything rash.
Neff: Harvick is far closer to the end of his career than the beginning. That said, he isn’t a rolling chicane yet. Harvick hasn’t been the same since the end of season collapse after his dominant season in 2020. What better place to get that monkey off of his back than where it ultimately went south, Martinsville. Wouldn’t be shocked at all to see him drive home with another Ridgeway Grandfather clock in the hauler.
Roller: It’s honestly impossible to say when Harvick will end his winless streak. However, I’d be surprised with the gains SHR has made and how well his teammates are also running, especially Chase Briscoe, if Harvick isn’t a winner by the time the playoffs begin. Right now, the No. 4 team is struggling in qualifying. Starting up front makes the races so much easier. Get up front, stay up front. Another advantage Harvick has is that this is the third time the car has changed in his career. This season, for every winner except Denny Hamlin, this is the first time the car has changed. I believe that will be a valuable experience to draw from as the season progresses.
Stephen Stumpf: Harvick’s nine-win season in 2020 makes it easy to forget that he is now 46 years old. At 46 years old, both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson had retired from NASCAR. Harvick is clearly not the same driver that he was in 2020, and it looks like the 1-mile ovals as well as Bristol Motor Speedway, Nashville Superspeedway, Darlington, and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway will be his best chances at a win. It’s hard to say how long Harvick’s winless streak will last, but it will end sooner if he can start turning laps at the front of the field. And by leading enough laps, eventually one of them should turn into a win. Harvick only led 217 laps in 2021, roughly a quarter of his previous low at SHR, which was 850 in 2017. He’s only led 12 laps through the first seven races of 2022, and if they can’t run up front or find speed on the 1.5-mile tracks, it would be time for SHR to make some internal changes inside the No. 4 team.
The Cup race at Martinsville Speedway is 100 laps shorter this year. Was it a wise decision to shorten the event and will the racing be any different with the new distance?
Bearden: I don’t necessarily think there will be any added urgency with only 100 fewer laps. It’s not like this is a sprint now. But I think it will fit into a late-night TV window better without losing anything invaluable to the product, so the move is fine with me.
Glover: It was a good move on NASCAR’s part. With the race being at night now, 400 laps accommodate everyone time-wise. Having one Martinsville race with 400 laps and the other with 500 also gives both races a different character, especially with the spring race being under the lights now. Personally, I love longer races because it makes the sport unique. At the same time, you can’t go too long to the point where people lose interest midway through a race. Only iconic races should be 500 miles or more, and I think one Martinsville race fits that list. The racing will likely be business as usual for the first two stages, but when the final stage arrives drivers will be desperate to gain track position. Give drivers 100 fewer laps to work with on a grind-it-out short track combined with short fuses? What could go wrong?
Henderson: It was an absolutely terrible decision. Every single lap of racing at Martinsville features a battle somewhere, and I would not be happy to pay for a ticket only to find I’m getting 20% less race for my money (guarantee tickets aren’t 20% less!). It’s like paying for tickets for a baseball game only to be told it’s only going to be seven innings now. Maybe the broadcast should actually show the on-track battles for the entire race and then claim it needs to be shortened. It won’t change the racing because Cup racing is about playing the long game. The networks need to stay out of how the sport is run, and NASCAR needs to stop catering to their every whim when it’s obvious those whims are detrimental to fans.
Neff: Garbage! Hot, steaming garbage! I know I am in the minority here but I have always maintained that Cup races are supposed to be a test of man and machine. That test was set at 500 miles a very long time ago. Not only should Martinsville not be 400 laps, but it should also be 500 miles. That is right, 993 laps. It would be amazing. This is all a side effect of lights being installed at Martinsville. The press release stated that the lights were only a safety measure for weather events and they would never start a race at night. Well, you see how long that lasted. Racing won’t be any different. Action will pick up at the end of the stages and strategy will figure out the last time tires will matter.
Stumpf: Shortening the first race at Martinsville from 500 laps to 400 laps is a big mistake. There have been talks of shortening the distance for Cup races, but Martinsville is one of the last races that should have been truncated. It’s a fan favorite, one of the most anticipated races of the year, and it always provides exciting racing. With the introduction of the Bristol dirt race in 2021, there are now five short track races on the schedule, and the 400-lap Martinsville race gives us even less short track racing when there should be more of it. As for the strategy, if there are a bunch of cautions, the strategy will be similar to the 500-lap races. But if the race goes green for long stretches of the night, we will see the drivers be more aggressive past halfway.
Zane Smith has already won twice this Truck season. Would you consider him the title favorite at this point in the year? If not, then who?
Glover: Zane Smith has no doubt raised his level to start the year, and he should be in the title conversation. After all, he’s been to the Championship 4 the past two years. However, he should not be crowned the title favorite quite yet. Kyle Busch Motorsports still has heavyweights in John Hunter Nemechek and Chandler Smith, who’s beginning to come into his own while he also leads the points standings. You also can’t leave out defending champion Ben Rhodes, who sits second in the standings currently.
Henderson: The title favorite? Of course not; it’s far too early to proclaim anyone the sole favorite. A favorite, sure. But it’s about who’s hot in the playoffs (once a driver’s in), not who’s hot in April. Not saying that’s a good thing, but a hot streak now doesn’t mean much if you aren’t a frontrunner at Phoenix Raceway.
Neff: Zane Smith has certainly started off strong and 12 playoff points certainly have him in a strong position at this point of the year. While that is the case, he still has to beat the two, full-time KBM trucks. Chandler Smith and Nemechek are going to have a say in the title race. ThorSport Racing is also going to have something to say. Don’t forget, your defending champ is still in the mix and ahead of Smith in the points. If you have to make a pick, it would seem Chandler Smith has the best average finish which points to him being best on several style tracks and poised for a title run.
Roller: Zane Smith is a title contender for the Truck title. Every race this season, he has displayed top five-speed, and FRM found an upgrade in driver qualify in Smith over the departed Todd Gilliland. That’s not to say Smtih wasn’t a title contender at GMS Racing because he was. But at FRM, he is the sole concentration in the Trucks. He has traditionally run well just about everywhere in the Trucks, and I look at him and see the biggest threat to the field at this point in the season.
Stumpf: Both Cup and Xfinity have seven completed races, which is enough to get an idea of who the contenders are. The Trucks only have four races, so there is still time for drivers to shake off slow starts. It would also be premature to call Zane Smith the favorite at this point, especially when Chandler Smith has a win and the points lead heading into Martinsville. After seven or eight races, there should be a clear picture of who the championship favorites are.
About the author
The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.