NASCAR’s Next Gen parity on full display as Playoffs get underway

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS - OCTOBER 24: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, (L) and crew chief Alan Gustafson talk on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 24, 2021 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

NASCAR wanted parity and as the 2022 version of the Playoffs begin, it appears they have just that.

There were 16 different winners in NASCAR’s regular season, including a record number of first-time winners, for the first time since the Playoff format began. And that parity along with the record number of different winners can be directly attributed to NASCAR’s Next Gen car.

At least in part.

The Next Gen car has brought all the teams closer together than ever before when it comes to performance. Yes, there have been multiple winners and from some of the big teams, Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, but there have been some surprises along the way.

And that has made for the closest Playoff field in the history of the format. According to 2018 champion Joey Logano, a lot of it has to do with inconsistency as teams figure what the new car can, and can’t do.

“When you look at where everybody is with points coming in, everyone’s got wins,” Logano said at Darlington Saturday. “Usually, there are drivers that come in with zero playoff points.  Now, you’ve got some with wins, stage wins, some regular season points that switched over, so it’s pretty close and you look at the way it’s all seeded, I don’t think we’ve ever had it this close before and that’s because of the inconsistency.

“When you have a brand new car the cycles happen quicker, whereas typically before a team will figure it out and know they’ve got two-and-a-half to three months of kicking butt before the next cycle comes.  Now it’s like three weeks before the next team is the dominant team.  We’ve seen this cycle happen four or five times already this year, so you just have to hope you cycle to the front when it matters the most.”

Chase Elliott won the title in 2020 with crew chief Alan Gustafson.  Saturday at Darlington, where the Playoffs will kick off Sunday, Gustafson said the new car is forcing all the teams to look at their overall Playoff strategy, and the smaller teams might have a bigger advantage.

“I think just the biggest difference is,” he said. “We would always try to line up some technological advancements that made our cars run better or you’d want to unveil some upgrades throughout the playoffs throughout the different rounds so you could continuously get into a better position in comparison to your competition.

“Now, obviously that’s not happening. It’s still about refining the car to best operate for the track conditions and knowing how to take those same parts and pieces and make them a little better.

“The difference now is, instead of coming out with something new or something you’ve evolved to, you’re just trying to find a little bit better way to put it together better than the competitors; try to get the balance of the car just a little better and get better every run.

“It’s different,” he added. “But similar.”

Gustafson’s driver, Chase Elliott, isn’t on board with the Next Gen car itself changing the strategy.

“I honestly don’t know that it does, really,’ Elliott said. “I think that the year has changed a lot, just from the competition aspect. I know we’ve talked about it a lot this week at Media Day, but just how tight the field has gotten over the last six months is pretty significant.”

Elliott said that at the start of the season there were some teams that were better than others, but that has changed as the season as gone on.

“If your car was driving pretty good, you could kind of drive your way up through the field,” he said. “It seems like as the year has gone on, everybody has just gotten closer to together, which is expected and we kind of saw that coming, and that’s going to continue as time goes.”

Now the final 10 races, the Playoffs have started. And it will come down to the little things the will determine how will have an advantage.

“Everybody is driving a similar car and now a similar balanced car, in a lot of ways, and it’s difficult to be different,” Elliott said. “That’s a tough thing to do when we’re all driving the same thing. As time goes on, it’ll probably get more and more in that direction. And as that happens, you’re going to start to put more pressure on the little details to find an advantage, such as a pit stop advantage and qualifying well. Like all those little things are going to end up mattering more and I think we’ve arrived to that point of time. It makes it competitive, tough and can be fun in some ways too.”

Photos: NASCAR at Darlington Raceway Saturday Sept. 3, 2022

Greg Engle