Did You Notice? … We’re 10 races into the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season already? It’s been a year so chock full with news (a new race car will do that to you), we’ve seen a couple of under-the-radar storylines overlooked. It’s not easy to cover it all in a year where parity (eight winners in 10 races) and surprises have reigned supreme.
So let’s breathe, take a step back and a look through the camera lens of NASCAR 2022 in the form of 10 quirky stats that define it. Look through and think … would you ever have expected any of these back before the season began in February?
1) Chase Elliott has just one top-five finish, the worst average start of his career … and he’s the point leader.
NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver has found himself behind a trio of Hendrick Motorsports teammates, all of whom have combined for four wins, 11 top-five finishes and 25 playoff points. By comparison, Elliott’s totals in those categories are just zero, one and two, with just a fourth-place result at Circuit of the Americas as his season best. Elliott’s worst top-five total over a six-year Cup career is 11 for a full season; he’s currently on pace for just four.
That said, Elliott has flashed the type of consistency we saw from a winless Denny Hamlin throughout much of the 2021 regular season. A career-best 10.5 average finish and a league-leading seven top-10 finishes has masked a lack of overall speed. The No. 9 team has hung around in a lot of races only to fade in the final stage; can crew chief Alan Gustafson find that extra gear to get Elliott up front?
The rookie came out of the box strong, winning the Daytona 500 in only his eighth career Cup start. Since then, it’s been a dose of reality for the freshman who has only one other top-10 finish: an eighth at COTA back in March.
At least Cindric can still boast a potential playoff-clinching victory over teammates Blaney and Logano. For Blaney, old habits die hard; he’s struggled to close out races following the first multi-win season of his career. Blaney’s led the second-most laps on the circuit (362), has three stage wins and a NASCAR-best three pole positions. But he’s been at his worst during final stages, posting an average finish (11.2), almost 2.5 positions below where he starts (8.8).
Logano has simply been off, making the best of ill-handling cars while leading just 35 laps on the year. He’s without a stage victory, although back-to-back top-five finishes at Martinsville Speedway and the Bristol Dirt Race have Penske hopeful a turnaround is near.
That goes to show you how badly things have gone for both this season. Burton, replacing Matt DiBenedetto at Wood Brothers Racing, has yet to earn a single top-15 result, crashed out of three races and posted an average finish of 25.7. That’s a whopping 8.8 (?!) positions below DiBenedetto last season and would be the worst for the team since they were part-time with Trevor Bayne in 2014 (Somewhere, you gotta believe Matty D has that I-told-you-so look on his face).
For Stenhouse, he’s been a contender in all three pack-style superspeedway races only to crash out of all of them, including Talladega Superspeedway last weekend. The team has failed to lead a lap and scored just one top-10 result everywhere else, posting just two finishes on the lead lap. Only Cody Ware has fewer points among drivers who have started all 10 races.
JTG Daugherty Racing has already sold one of their two charters due to lack of proper sponsorship, letting Ryan Preece go at the end of 2021. This poor performance is sparking whispers they’d be willing to sell altogether as charter values continue to rise.
4) Speaking of Keselowski … Ryan Newman had more top-five finishes through 10 races in the No. 6 car.
Newman, in the midst of a difficult final year at Roush Fenway Racing (now RFK Racing), still placed fifth in the Bristol Dirt Race in 2021. Keselowski has yet to match that, earning just one top-10 result while enduring the penalty and some wheel confiscation drama at Daytona International Speedway. Teammate Chris Buescher is doing no better, with a worse average finish (17.3 to 19.0) and points position compared to last season.
This driver/owner thing isn’t easy; Roush was bought into in terrible shape. I wouldn’t bet against Keselowski long term, but in 2022? He’s taking his lumps.
5) Trackhouse Racing Team has more wins through 56 starts than Joe Gibbs when he started his Cup team.
TRT’s two victories in the first 10 races have also matched JGR this season; only Hendrick Motorsports has more. Ross Chastain’s meteoric rise has been talked about at length, but it’s worth noting his six top-five finishes this year are double what he put up in his first 115 Cup starts. Chastain’s doubled his career laps led total, too, all in just 10 races’ time.
Will Daniel Suarez follow suit? A Suarez victory (or Chastain) in the next few weeks would leave Trackhouse ahead of the pace Hendrick Motorsports set in its first two Cup seasons. Now that’s impressive.
6) Nine of 10 Cup races this season have been won by drivers under the age of 30.
OK, so I cheated a little; this stat has been batted around pretty much everywhere. But you can’t overstate what a surprise it has been to see drivers like Chastain, Chase Briscoe and even Kyle Larson rise up so quickly these past few years after Kevin Harvick, at age 44, led the series with nine wins in 2020.
CUP WINS BY DRIVERS UNDER AGE 30, FIRST 10 RACES
See how a changing of the guard transpires? It’s a youth movement unlike any we’ve seen since the emergence of Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson, among others, in the mid-1990s through early 2000s.
7) Lead changes in the Cup Series are up 19% year-to-year, from 192 to 228.
It’s the most lead changes in any year since 2014, the first year Cup adopted their current postseason format. And the total would be higher if not for some snoozers at what are typically the best races on the schedule: short tracks. Richmond Raceway, Martinsville Speedway and the Bristol Dirt Race posted a total of 24 lead changes combined. Compare that to, say, Talladega, which had 41 lead changes last weekend alone.
It’s not just the pack races, though. Auto Club Speedway featured 32 lead changes and Las Vegas Motor Speedway 23 in a highly-competitive event there. NASCAR deserves credit for the way this Next Gen chassis has raced at intermediate-track sizes and higher right out of the box.
8) Noah Gragson doesn’t have a single DNF this year and has completed all but one lap in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
It’s an impressive turnaround for a driver whose aggressive style, both on and off the racetrack, got him into trouble early in his NXS career. This time in 2021, Gragson was known more for the David Starr incident that cost him a win at Homestead-Miami Speedway, paired with his post-race comments. A pit road fight with Daniel Hemric was part of a frustrating start that left him second.
This time around, Gragson’s second in the standings and has remained inside the top three virtually all year. He’s doing it all with a new crew chief (Luke Lambert) and has learned to tailor his on- and off-track aggression just enough to be one of the sport’s fastest-growing fan favorites.
9) Zane Smith as many top-five finishes in six races as all of last season, a year in which he finished as championship runner-up.
Smith has gone from unemployed following that Championship 4 result to rebuilding his career with a Front Row Motorsports Camping World Truck Series program that never won multiple races prior to Smith’s arrival. The No. 38 Ford has “run” 10th or better at every race (they were disqualified after a runner-up performance at Las Vegas). Fourth in points, they can spend the rest of the year tooling for a playoff run and putting this former Cup Series candidate for Chip Ganassi Racing in his third straight Championship 4.
Boy, did this talented 22-year-old make it back through the recycle bin quick. All of a sudden, a Ford program that’s facing a dearth of developing talent (Penske doesn’t even have a full-time NXS program anymore) now has a top-caliber candidate for a promotion down the line.
10) Kyle Busch is winless in the Camping World Truck Series through three starts.
Busch only has two more starts in the No. 51 this season under NASCAR rules. Since he chose to retire from NXS competition prior to this season (though he could come back to attract sponsors), he’s risking an 0-for in both of the sport’s lower levels. That’s only happened once in Busch’s career, back in 2012, a year in which he also missed the postseason in Cup.
So far in 2022, Busch’s Cup performance isn’t quite that bad (with a win already at Bristol Motor Speedway dirt). But no victories elsewhere is limiting his value at a time Busch may come on the free agent market.
Honorable mention: All those loose wheel penalties (another one coming at Talladega — BJ McLeod), William Byron leading the most laps in Cup (520), Denny Hamlin having just one top-10 finish and is 24th in points a year after starting off with eight and leading the points.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- I can think of no better track that’s a test of the sport’s Next Gen chassis than Dover Motor Speedway. It’s a place that has literally put people to sleep the last few years with how difficult it is to pass (And remember the 1-2-3-4 finish from Hendrick Motorsports last year, too?). It’s an oval that used to eat people up who made mistakes (Miles The Monster is its mascot, after all) but has seen a few accident-free races the past few years. Can the right mix of competition we saw on intermediate-style tracks with this new car make its way down to Delaware? The concrete oval’s future on the Cup schedule may depend on it.
- How competitive is the NASCAR Xfinity Series this season? Last year’s champion, Daniel Hemric, is literally on the playoff bubble through 10 races, just 10 points ahead of Anthony Alfredo for the final spot. With Landon Cassill just above him in 11th, it’s fair to ask if Kaulig Racing spread itself too thin with an expansion to two full-time Cup programs at once. Justin Haley has yet to score a top-10 finish in Cup while the team’s “chasing trophies” No. 16 Chevrolet has only been out front once — at COTA with AJ Allmendinger before Chastain muscled around him on the final lap.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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