Race Weekend Central

Next Gen Parity, Not So Much

Some may have debated something or other about the NASCAR Cup Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course – things like the absence of stage cautions (make it universal, please), or how the series should return to racing the big 2.5-mile oval (um, do y’all remember how boring some of those races were?) or probably Shane van Gisbergen who is stealing headlines, but necessitates shortening his name to SVG because, um, whatever.

But Michael McDowell‘s win for Front Row Motorsports highlighted that a solid driver can score a win every so often when things align. Not to pick on anyone, but even drivers like Kyle Petty, Jeremy Mayfield, Aric Almirola, and Brian Vickers have scored a win every so often.

These things are usually seen as outliers and attributed to being lucky or strategy calls (which may be one of the most idiotic notions ever utilized to describe a race win).

Wait, was the narrative supposed to be about how the Next Gen car has leveled the playing field and that NASCAR now has more parity than ever? Isn’t that the reason that Ross Chastain, van Gisbergen and McDowell have won this year? Perhaps that narrative isn’t as enlivening as it should be.

Let’s take a dive and look at things. 

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In 2022, with the debut of NASCAR’s latest vehicular offering for the Cup drivers, the series managed to celebrate 18 different winners, with the playoffs being comprised of 15 different winners. Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace and Chris Buescher all scored wins during the playoffs but were not participants. Those numbers look lovely. 

Huzzah to the Next Gen.

The thing is, it is a blip. Much like Michael Waltrip winning a race, a Cup season with 18 different winners is more of a statistical outlier than it is evidence of something special happening. The 2022 season represented a narrow window that allowed teams with lesser resources to grab a win. In essence, last year was a restrictor-plate track.

A quick look makes 2023 appear to be similar. With two races to go before the playoffs, 14 different drivers have won races. Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, and Wallace are all winless potential playoff drivers. Looks familiar, right? That’s because it is.

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In fact, the playoff field, as it stands, varies little. 

Here are the minor differences:

Made it in 2022 but not yet in 2023

Daniel Suarez

Austin Dillon

Austin Cindric

Chase Briscoe

Alex Bowman

Chase Elliott

Did not make it in 2022, but will in 2023 (currently)

Brad Keselowski

McDowell

Wallace

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Martin Truex Jr.

Buescher

One could argue that having more than one-third of the playoff field turnover from the previous year is an argument for parity and that NASCAR is more competitive than ever. Of course, in our current calamity of life, one could argue anything – and probably get a sweetheart podcast deal to do it. 

Both Briscoe and Cindric have tallied all of zero wins on the year. That Harvick might not make the 2023 cut if two other drivers win the final two races of the regular season pinpoints that the organization is struggling a little bit, something detailed here

Drivers like Elliott and Alex Bowman have suffered injuries derailing their seasons. Elliott had a snowboarding accident and then found himself parked for something like actions detrimental to NASCAR and yet could still make the playoffs with a win. 

Bowman broke his back toying around in another series and could do the same as Elliott as both are inside the top 30 in points even after missing a number of races. 

To say that there is parity ignores the fact that two drivers are driving for new teams and still have made their way into the postseason. With Tyler Reddick, we have a case of a driver bouncing to what should become a solid situation but doing so a year earlier than anticipated. The driver who took over Reddick’s Richard Childress Racing ride is Kyle Busch, who has scored three wins and ensured the car returns. Yet Reddick earned a win at Circuit of the Americas to ensure he makes a second-straight appearance. 

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Notice that even someone like Chastain is locked into the playoffs for the second straight year. What this all means is that the opportunities for ‘other’ drivers to win is not as substantial as it might seem. Eliminate injuries and SHR’s terrible year, and the field appears strikingly similar. 

What we have this year is the addition of two drivers to the playoffs who found their Regan Smith moments. The season started with Stenhouse finding his way to the end of another crash-filled Daytona 500, giving credence to the idea that the race is like a lottery. McDowell similarly excelled in a specific environment where conditions enabled to him to come through with the win. 

But the rest of the race wins and the playoff drivers – they’re all from places one would expect and whom we might predict. Trackhouse Racing is no longer some unknown entity but rather a pretty solid team that fell behind early and has been performing better of late. The empires of the sport have been doing what they do, even if Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsport have been somewhat underwhelming at times. 

What we saw at the end of last year has continued into this one. Joey Logano earned his second championship because Penske has the resources for him to win. The likelihood of McDowell somehow outclassing the field over a 10-week period is laughable and highlights that even with the new car, things are the same as they ever were. 

About the author

As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.

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Christopher

The thesis presented in this article is self-defeating.

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