Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: No One Is Talking About the Most Popular Driver in NASCAR

1. Ross Chastain just did something that would have been impossible before this season

We’re not talking about winning NASCAR Cup Series races, because there are plenty of people who suspected that Ross Chastain would be able to win at the highest level of stock car racing if given an opportunity with the right team. And “winning with Trackhouse Racing Team,” while technically correct since he only joined the organization in 2022, isn’t what we’re going for here either.

No, when Chastain emerged with a dramatic last-lap victory at Talladega Superspeedway, he was actually driving the same car he drove to his first Cup Series win at Circuit of the Americas.

Kind of, anyway.

The No. 1 Chevrolet Chastain wheeled to victory lane was indeed the same chassis he drove at COTA. It’s just that a lot of the parts may have been different, thanks to the interchangeable nature of many of the components of a Next Gen car.

In the past, NASCAR teams would need several different types of chassis in their inventory for different types of tracks: superspeedways, intermediates, etc. No one, unless they had no choice would try to race the same chassis at COTA and Talladega in the past. But it’s not just possible to compete that way now, Trackhouse has shown you can win as well.

“All the cars right now are essentially universal,” Chastain’s crew chief Phil Surgen told NASCAR.com. “We took that car after it was done at COTA, cleaned it up, set it up a little bit differently to come here (Talladega). There’s no reason it can’t race at a different (type) of track, (like) an oval next time, a downforce oval.”

The point is simply this: The Next Gen car has proven, in less than a season, that it’s accomplished one of its goals, which is to reduce the amount of money and resources it takes to field a winning Cup Series team. That’s a victory worth celebrating, even this early in the game.

2. Oh, and Chastain is definitely a championship contender, at least for now

There’s definitely a long way to go before we start talking playoffs and narrowing things down toward the Championship 4. But Chastain is absolutely in the discussion at this point, history and inexperience be damned.

Not only is he tied with William Byron for the lead in wins with two, but Chastain is tops in top-five finishes with six and tied for second in top-10 results (also six), just one behind Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott. That’s proof that he’s running well on a regular basis.

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He may have to show he can claim some stage wins to grab extra playoff points to solidify his status as a contender, as he’s finished first in just one stage so far. Though to be fair, no one is really racking those up, as the co-leaders in category have just three apiece.

Chastain is locked into the postseason and likely just another victory or a continued uptick away from having enough playoff points to really help push for a deep run. That’s pretty remarkable if you consider where his career was just two years ago, running for different teams across all three national series.

3. The most popular driver in NASCAR is leading the points race and generating basically zero discussion

Considering he’s won the Most Popular Driver Award four years running and is just two years removed from a series championship, it’s hard to fathom there would ever be a time when Chase Elliott was leading the points after a good chunk of the season and the overall reaction would be one of … indifference?

True, there have been a lot of other things to discuss in 2022, starting with the exhibition race at the Los Angeles Coliseum and continuing through the second dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway. The season has produced three first-time winners, two consecutive races where the winners led only the final lap and the continuing saga of the Next Gen car’s rookie campaign.

Throughout all this, Elliott has been doing just fine and been remarkably consistent. He’s nabbed seven top 10s in 10 starts, won a couple of stages and, perhaps most impressively, has zero DNFs. His 276 laps led is third in the Cup Series, more than 100 ahead of Chastain, though far, far behind the 520 piled up by teammate Byron.

So if the No. 9 team isn’t quite hitting on all cylinders, it’s also not far off. This is perhaps the quietest quality season a driver of Elliott’s stature could produce. What will be interesting is seeing how long it continues like this — or if he breaks through with a win or two and forces everyone to acknowledge him like the NASCAR version of Roman Reigns.

4. That last lap Bristol tangle with Chase Briscoe could prove more costly to Tyler Reddick than anyone could have imagined

Tyler Reddick was a popular pick to contend for a victory in this past weekend’s GEICO 500, but he instead finished 39th (a.k.a. dead last) when his engine betrayed him after just 31 laps. The only Cup Series driver who stands out as having more misfortune in 2022 on days when his car looks strong is Denny Hamlin.

The difference is that Hamlin has a win, while Reddick does not.

Reddick left Talladega 15th in points, but behind both Hamlin and Austin Cindric in terms of playoff positioning. Despite some very good days for Richard Childress Racing — both he and Austin Dillon have three top fives to date — Reddick is now in a spot where he needs to step it up even more if he wants to be in the playoffs.

The irony, of course, is that Reddick was in position to win the dirt race of Bristol, until Chase Briscoe‘s overambitious last-lap gambit spoiled the evening for both of them and handed the checkered flag to Kyle Busch. He was less than half a mile away from not having to worry about whether his fall races would be meaningful, and now …

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Reddick and Briscoe famously exchanged words instead of punches after that race, and it’s hard to name another young NASCAR driver better able to put success and failure in better perspective than the pilot of the No. 8 Chevrolet. Yet if he ends up on the outside of the playoff field looking in, the one that got away is only going to grow in size in the rearview mirror.

5. A Ford team who should try to sign Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch has never driven a Ford at the Cup Series level, and his only experience doing so in any national series was a few Camping World Truck Series starts for Roush Racing (now RFK Racing) more than 20 years ago. He still probably won’t, as the most likely outcome for the current uncertainty over his 2023 plans is that Joe Gibbs Racing finds sponsorship and keeps Rowdy around.

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Yet there’s a Ford team that should definitely be giving him a call if things don’t work out with JGR, and it’s Stewart-Haas Racing.

For starters, it should have a seat for Busch. Aric Almirola has already announced that the 2022 season will be his last. Cole Custer is struggling for the second straight year, and feels like the type of young driver who perhaps hasn’t shown enough promise so far to keep on if something truly better came along.

With Kevin Harvick potentially nearing the end of the road as well, Busch would make a lot of sense to help revitalize SHR. He’s a proven winner and champion who comes with a loyal fan base (and yes, plenty of haters too, but even those have value in terms of relevance). The way things are going, hiring him wouldn’t even necessarily take away a spot from an up-and-comer since there could be multiple vacancies in the organization over the next two seasons.

Let’s say Harvick retires when his contract is up at the end of 2023. If Busch replaced Almirola next season, that would allow SHR to move forward into 2024 with Busch, Briscoe and a new driver, regardless of what happens with Custer.

That sounds like a more promising trajectory than Stewart-Haas is on right this moment. Sponsorship obviously would still need to be worked out, and seeing Rowdy behind the wheel of a Mustang would take some getting used to, but it’s not a crazy thought right now with everything Kyle Busch-related still up in the air.

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hum kyle busch and stewart. i can only imagine the meetings when the car doesn’t run well!

Bill B

If there is any owner that could accept Kyle the way his is and be OK with it, you would think it would be Stewart. He pretty much had the same (FU) demeanor when he was a driver.

Elliott is quietly running consistently each week. His lack of wins wouldn’t be worrisome if he were racking up stage win points but he isn’t. A lack of playoff points will haunt him when the playoffs come if things don’t change.

Last edited 1 year ago by Bill B

just reminds me of the days gone by with the labonte brothers. they were both quiet but were there at the end of the year, typically.

Carl D.

Janice and Bill B, I think you’re both right.

Carl D.

I think there will be several more different winners over the rest of the regular season. Suarez and Reddick have been knocking on the door. Blaney and Elliott have been strong but haven’t won yet. And Bell will be strong, especially on the road courses. This early, this year, I don’t anyone can be picked as a favorite.

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