Here we are again: halfway through another NASCAR Cup Series regular season.
The ninth year of the current playoff format, NASCAR 2022 at midseason stands out for the parity produced by the sport’s new Next Gen chassis. Two teams that didn’t exist in 2020, Trackhouse Racing Team and 23XI Racing, have combined to win three of 13 races. In eight events, the margin of victory has been .552 seconds or less, with several overtime finishes and late-race passes to win. Lead changes have increased 20% from 2021, and cautions are up: no lead is safe these days — good news for fans who craved the return of unpredictability.
There have also been 11 winners in 13 races, 12 of 14 if you count Ryan Blaney and the All-Star Race. Could 2022 be the year that total balloons to 16 or more by the regular season finale? Based on the drivers still winless (Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Christopher Bell) we’re trending in that direction, but we’ve also been here before: 2021 featured 11 different winners in the first 14 races before Kyle Larson caught fire and snuffed out the competition.
In 2020, I brought back “The Bowlesy Awards,” first appearing on SI.com years ago, and the new-age edition continues in 2022. So let’s take the window net down (at the right time, of course) to uncover who and what has made the largest impact on our sport in the past four months.
2022 NASCAR Midseason Awards
The David Pearson Award (Hardest Charger): Ross Chastain. Chastain could win a number of these categories, but his 2022 has stood out for how much this 29-year-old has muscled his way into the weekly conversation. His driving style is defined by the last lap at Circuit of the Americas, where Chastain literally muscled AJ Allmendinger out of the way while shoving him like a pinball into Alex Bowman to take his first career NASCAR Cup win.
The finish to today's NASCAR race at COTA.
Ross Chastain gets the last punch on AJ Allmendinger and Alex Bowman.
— Always Race Day (@AlwaysRaceDay) March 27, 2022
Since then, Chastain has added a second victory, at Talladega Superspeedway, with an organization that didn’t have a second team this time a year ago before purchasing Chip Ganassi’s operation last summer. Owner Justin Marks then chose to keep Chastain, perhaps his best move in a series of them since starting Trackhouse in 2021.
Sitting fifth in the standings, Chastain has already matched the number of top-10 finishes (eight) he had one year ago while producing an impressive position differential of +48 despite three DNFs. His average finish is some +3.7 positions better than where he starts, the best margin of any driver currently inside the top 10 of Cup Series points.
The unique victory lane celebration (watermelon smash) and the way Chastain conducts himself reminds me of a young Carl Edwards. His aggression still gets him into trouble (see: Darlington Raceway, multiple driver feuds) but the upside here is a sizzling summer that leaves him holding the number one seed come playoff time.
2021 winner: Martin Truex Jr., 2020 winner: Ryan Blaney
The Tim Richmond Award (Comeback Driver Of The Year): Chase Briscoe. Briscoe’s 2022 season has cooled off as of late, but does it really matter? That Phoenix Raceway win in March is all he should need to secure a playoff bid following a disastrous rookie year that included an open estrangement with Denny Hamlin, four DNFs for wrecks and not a single top-five finish. For a guy who came in burning hot, winning nine NASCAR Xfinity Series races in 2020, far more was expected.
Thus far, Briscoe’s delivered, earning a third in the season-opening Daytona 500 before fighting past Chastain and Tyler Reddick to earn the victory at Phoenix. As Stewart-Haas Racing continues to struggle overall, Briscoe’s proof he can take his talent to the pinnacle of Cup success is a foundation this organization can build on over the long-term.
2021 winner: Kyle Larson, 2020 winner: Denny Hamlin
The Where Did He Come From Award (pleasant surprise): Erik Jones. Over a year after Joe Gibbs Racing left him for dead, Jones finds himself very much alive in the NASCAR playoff race with Petty GMS Motorsports. Jones seems at home in his underdog role running the No. 43 and has punched back each week like a driver with nothing to lose.
The results? A shocking third-place finish, leading 18 laps at Auto Club Speedway in the year’s second race. A sixth-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway in April, leading 25 laps and holding control of the race down the stretch before some missteps during the final few laps. Jones sits 17th in points, earning four top-10 finishes overall and is just 32 points behind Aric Almirola for the final postseason spot. His average finish is better than Hamlin, and Jones has led more laps (47) than Bowman at Hendrick Motorsports.
Kudos to newly-formed Petty GMS, who has taken advantage of their partnership with Richard Childress Racing. Getting ahead of the curve on the Next Gen chassis, this team’s habit of maximizing their opportunities should be a model for Cup underdog operations going forward.
The Buckshot Jones Award (biggest disappointment): Brad Keselowski. Keselowski is one of the brightest, most forward-thinking minds in the NASCAR garage area. Partnering with Jack Roush to form Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing entering the 2022 season made perfect sense as the 2012 Cup Series champion looked to secure a long-term place in the sport. It’s a team that’s spent years behind the curve, and everyone understood a quick turnaround was unrealistic.
What I didn’t expect was the tumultuous first few months for Keselowski as an owner. The wheels confiscated from the No. 6 team during Daytona Speedweeks. The 100-point penalty for improperly modifying a Next Gen part this spring. Along the way, Keselowski’s flagship No. 6 team has gone 10 straight weeks without leading a lap and struggled to improve its speed during races. Teammate Chris Buescher won the pole at Dover Motor Speedway last month but has a lower average finish (18.5) than the 17.3 he put up last year.
Sitting 31st in the standings, the playoffs are a pipe dream barring some type of miracle win at Daytona in the finale.
The Richard Petty Award (best points racer): Chase Elliott. I’d argue teammate William Byron has more speed within the four-car Hendrick Motorsports operation right now (He leads the Cup Series with 569 laps led and is the only other two-win driver in the series besides Chastain). Larson will also be reckoned with at HMS before the year is out.
But Elliott, the winner at Dover last month, has put together consistency in the form of nine top-10 finishes. That’s tied for the most this year with Kyle Busch, as the No. 9 team has stayed within striking distance of the race lead almost every week. Elliott has been the points leader since the fifth race of the year at Atlanta Motor Speedway and holds a 52-point edge over Blaney this early. That’s important in a year where the title race is wide open; those extra playoff bonus points for winning the regular season title could catapult a driver right into the number one seed.
2021 winner: Denny Hamlin, 2020 winner: Kevin Harvick
The Jayski Award (best Silly Season move): Kurt Busch to the No. 45 Toyota and 23XI Racing. A strong argument could be made here about Justin Marks re-signing Chastain. But the No. 1 team did already have a structure in place with Ganassi, and Trackhouse kept some of the same people around their marquee driver.
Compare that to Busch, walking in off the street to start a brand-new team with a 23XI operation that hadn’t exactly lit the world on fire. Bubba Wallace’s Talladega win notwithstanding, the team had just two other top-10 finishes to its credit once Busch entered the fold in 2022. Now? Busch has added five more in just 13 races, including an unlikely win at Kansas Speedway that secured the No. 45 team’s position in the playoffs. He did it with a hodgepodge crew around him and a crew chief, Billy Scott, Busch hadn’t worked with since 2018.
Busch’s presence is pushing Wallace and the No. 23 to be better. In a year where Toyota has had its share of ups and downs, they can claim a playoff spot that technically remains uncertain for both Bell and perennial Championship 4 participant Truex.
2021 winner: Rudy Fugle to William Byron’s No. 24, 2020 winner: Penske crew chief swap
The Breaking News Award (biggest story to watch): Joe Gibbs Racing. There’s late-breaking news on this organization just this week, as owner Joe Gibbs is throwing water on rumors Kyle Busch will be leaving the team in 2023. Gibbs said Monday (May 23) he feels sponsorship on Busch’s No. 18 car is squared away despite M&M’s departure and the organization is looking to keep its two-time Cup champion over the long-term. Gibbs also made mention of grandson Ty Gibbs, claiming the plan is to give him another full season of Xfinity Series competition in 2023.
Those would be the best-laid plans, leading to stability and a big nothing-burger over at JGR. But everything within this four-car team seems so volatile right now. Truex has not announced whether he’ll run another season in the No. 19 Toyota, mulling retirement. Hamlin is signed through 2023 but runs 23XI, an organization who just this week made clear they won’t expand until potentially 2025 after concerns surrounding additional money from a new NASCAR media rights deal. Bell has won three poles this season but failed to capitalize, going winless and posting a -7.0 differential between average start and average finish.
It all feels like a shakeup is coming.
2021 winner: Who replaces Keselowski at Penske?, 2020 winner: The 2021 schedule
The Dale Earnhardt Sr. Award (best on-track altercation): Bristol Dirt Race finish.
The ending here was an epic disappointment for Tyler Reddick, still seeking his first Cup Series victory, and Briscoe in an ending bringing back deja vu from the 1976 Daytona 500. Here’s the big difference: third place wasn’t two laps down, and in this case, Kyle Busch ran close enough to steal a victory right under their noses.
2021 winner: Ty Gibbs vs. the field/Austin Cindric at Daytona road course, 2020 winner: Chase Elliott vs. Joey Logano at Bristol
The Tony Stewart Award (best off-track altercation): Ty Gibbs vs Sam Mayer at Martinsville Speedway. The fact we’re dipping into the NASCAR Xfinity Series shows how relatively controlled the Cup level has been this year (Most of the war of words have been through Twitter posts and dueling press conferences: you didn’t see Byron and Joey Logano throwing punches after Darlington Raceway, did you?)
Mayer and Gibbs made contact during the final laps at Martinsville, a race Gibbs lost despite leading 197 laps. In frustration, talking led to punches, one of a series of incidents involving Gibbs to start 2022 (Ryan Sieg at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, punting then-teammate John Hunter Nemechek out of the way at Richmond Raceway, to name a few). Will ruffling all these feathers come back to bite Gibbs come playoff time?
2021 winner: Noah Gragson vs Daniel Hemric at Atlanta, 2020 winner: Kyle Busch vs. Alan Gustafson
The Darrell Waltrip Award (Tweet of the Year): Anything Denny Hamlin says. Hamlin has always been vocal on Twitter, but this year, it feels like he’s fully embraced the former Tony Stewart role of controversial veteran elder statesman. His most recent tweet on the NASCAR All-Star Race seemed to perfectly summarize the event.
Never should have been a yellow in the first place. They put Blaney in the situation he was in. To make up for it they let him break a rule. 2 wrongs don’t make a right.
Blaney W, NASCAR L
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) May 23, 2022
But Hamlin hasn’t stopped there, willing to weigh in on anything from the downside to NASCAR ownership to questioning scoring as the Cup race is still going on.
Tell me why they changed the scoring before the green in stage 2 then. (99-1-14 stayed out).That’s why teams and driver are confused. How do you expect ppl at home to know wtf is going on if the story tellers on TV don’t know. https://t.co/lQ3pvk8oku pic.twitter.com/nuFQu8LokX
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) April 18, 2022
Love him or hate him, Hamlin’s become a must-see on Twitter and often reflects views from other drivers inside the garage that are afraid to speak. Expect this 41-year-old to only stay the course as his influence within NASCAR as a two-car team owner continues to grow.
2021 winner: Anything Marcus Lemonis says, 2020 winner: Bubba Wallace and the entire field in solidarity at Talladega Superspeedway
(Best Race): 2022 Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway. There are plenty of candidates this year, but the first race at a NASCAR intermediate oval with the Next Gen chassis feels like the most important. It produced the most lead changes at this track since 2014, a surprise list of contenders (Reddick, Jones, Briscoe) and 12 caution flags as driver skill worked its way back into the equation.
A disaster here would have sent the sport into panic mode: the Next Gen was specifically designed to conquer aerodynamic challenges posed by this track type that make up the bulk of the 2022 NASCAR schedule. While Sunday’s (May 22) All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway shows there’s still plenty of work to do, overall, the Next Gen chassis has been a major step forward. As Larson crossed the finish line, wrapping up an ultra-competitive race, you could hear executives exhale from the offices in Daytona Beach some 3,000 miles away.
2021 winner: GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, 2020 winner: GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway
(Biggest Upset): Austin Cindric at the Daytona 500. Cindric wowed the competition in just his eighth career Cup start, positioning himself late in the Great American Race and leading 21 of the final 45 laps. He’s the youngest to win Daytona (age 23) with the least experience since Trevor Bayne’s shocking Daytona upset in 2011.
Not bad for a Cup freshman who’s shown he needs a little extra seasoning since (just one top-10 finish in the past dozen races). But this victory alone is enough to leave him running circles around his Rookie of the Year competition: Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton.
Driver On The Hot Seat: Harrison Burton. Speaking of Burton, he’s having a nightmare of a year behind the wheel of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. It started with him getting turned, then flipping in the Daytona 500, and the 21-year-old has never really recovered. Still without a top-10 finish, he’s tied in points with Gilliland (who has a fraction of the money and engineering support) while posting an average finish of 24.3 through 13 events. That’s some 7.4 positions below what Matt DiBenedetto achieved a year earlier.
The Woods have been content in the past to align themselves with a nepotism candidate (see: 2018-19 with Paul Menard). But this start is ugly and a sign Burton may have needed another year, maybe two, down in the Xfinity Series. If Matty D got the boot for much better performance, keep an eye on the No. 21 if this summer’s Silly Season gets a little crazy.
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.