This coming week in Nashville Joey Logano will be officially crowned the 2022 NASCAR Cup series champion as the sport celebrates and closes out its long season.
It’s sort of fitting in a way as it was Logano who was celebrating after he won the first race of the year back in January at the L.A. Coliseum to open the season.
Bookended in between were 38 Cup races, including the non-points paying race in L.A. and the All-Star Race, were races and moments that will be talked about for some time to come. And many of those races and moments will be part of highlight reels for decades.
As it normally does at year end, NASCAR put out a recap of the season with the title, “Best Season Ever?”
So, was it the “best season ever”?
Unlike the two seasons that came before it, Covid didn’t affect the 2022 schedule, though one driver Chris Buescher, was forced to miss a race after testing positive. This season for the first time in 2 years, all the scheduled races were held at their scheduled tracks.
The biggest variable this season was the Next Gen car.
The new Cup car debuted in L.A. after a pandemic delay, and many will agree that it was this next generation racecar that provided many of the highlights of 2022.
To start his rookie season, Austin Cindric scored the first points win for the Next Gen car roaring to victory in the Daytona 500 for team owner Roger Penske who celebrated his 85th birthday in a big way.
Cindric was one of five first time winners in 2022 and would be joined by Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez, and Tyler Reddick by seasons end. That list is just one example of how level the playing field became thanks in large part to the Next Gen car. Two of those first-time winners were from Trackhouse Racing a team in just its second full season in the series.
In all there were 19 different winners, something that hasn’t happened since 2001, and tied a series record. Other stats that show the parity of this season:
This year saw an all-time record for green flag passes for the lead; there were 1,544 green flag passes not just at the start-finish line and a total of 9 races set records for green flag passes for the lead. There were also more closer finishes for the win: the average margin of victory this season was 1.011 seconds; the second closest since the advent of electronic timing and scoring in 1993 (in 2014 the average was .909 seconds).
Also notable was the percentage of lead lap finishers. Of the 36-point races 59.46% of the field finished on the lead lap; that’s the highest percentage of lead lap finishers through 36 races in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972-2022).
But was it the “best season ever”?
Fans were certainly paying attention, both at the track and on TV:
The overall TV ratings for Fox and NBC Sports networks increased by 4%. And the overall share increased by 10%.
At the tracks there were eight sellouts and the number of fans attending their first NASCAR race increased by 11%.
As for the memorable moments, they started when Cindric beat Bubba Wallace to the line to win the Daytona 500 by half a car length (Wallace had his own memorable moment later in the season when he scored his second career win at Kansas).
NASCAR raced on dirt again at Bristol and in the final laps it was a duel between leader Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe that ended in disaster for both when Chastain tried a slide job on Reddick in the final corner, misjudging the move, sending both cars spinning, and opening the door for Kyle Busch who would score what turned out to be his only win of the season and his last for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Daniel Suarez won his first Cup race in June with a convincing victory on the road course at Sonoma. That marked the third win for Trackhouse Racing as Ross Chastain had scored his first win at COTA in March followed by a second win in the spring Talladega race.
Corey LaJoie broke a lot of hearts (including his own) in July when he came up one lap short, and a block from Chase Elliott, from winning the July race at Atlanta.
It was in the Playoffs where things got really interesting. In the first Playoff race, Erik Jones took Richard Petty’s No. 43 to victory lane, the first time that famed number had visited victory lane at Darlington Raceway since 1967.
In the fall race at Talladega the lead changed 57 times with the final one coming on the last lap when Chase Elliott got a push from Jones to clear Ryan Blaney and score his fifth victory of the season.
Christopher Bell became a last-chance hero winning at Charlotte’s ROVAL to move on to the next round of the Playoffs, and again at Martinsville to make the Final 4.
Bell’s win at Martinsville, however, wasn’t the biggest news, that belonged to Ross Chastain. On the final lap Chastain needing to make up five spots, mashed the gas and sent his car full throttle into the outside wall. In what looked like something from a video game (Chastain later admitted he learned the move from video game), his car rocketed along the outside wall gaining five spots, securing his place in the Final 4 and denying Denny Hamlin.
Chastain’s move was easily the highlight of the entire season and put NASCAR in the mainstream media all around the world.
Joey Logano’s win at Phoenix the following week to secure his second Cup title seemed to pale in comparison.
To be clear, there were some issues in 2022. The Next Gen car certainly seemed to live up to the hype, but not on short tracks, at least early in the season. And two drivers were forced out with concussions after what appeared to be minor accidents with the new car. One of those drivers, Kurt Busch, decided to retire, while the other, Alex Bowman, was forced to sit out five races starting in September and returned for the final race of 2022.
So was 2022 the “best season ever”?
Some could argue that the metrics say so, others the highlights. Still others could argue that it was a great season, but certainly not the best.
In reality it’s all subjective. It’s a debate that started in the moments after the checkered flag fell at Phoenix, will continue through the awards banquet, and will probably only quiet down in February when it starts all over again with the green flag at the L.A. Coliseum.
One thing for certain: when the 2023 season does get underway, NASCAR will have a chance to do it all over again. Kyle Busch will be with a new team, NASCAR will continue to work on the short track, and safety issues, of the Next Gen car in its sophomore year, and NASCAR will race through the streets of Chicago for the first time. There will also be a Next Gen car representing NASCAR at the 2023 running on the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Next season will be an opportunity for new records, new winners, new moments, and when it’s all finished in November next year, another chance to ask, was this “the best season ever”?
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