Parity, youth, Next Gen cars dominate NASCAR season so far

Sports

NASCAR is hitting its annual All-Star break (yes, I realize there’s not an actual break, and there won’t be one for another month, but Sunday is the All-Star Race, so work with me here), and the Cup Series season now has 13 of the 26 regular-season events in the books. We’re halfway to the playoffs.

So, what have we learned? What preseason predictions and concerns did we correctly see coming and on which ones did we totally whiff worse than Kyle Busch at Darlington?

Grab ahold the Newman Bar and read ahead as we take stock of stock car racing before officially dropping the hammer on the summertime grind.

All that Daytona “NASCAR is back, baby!” has held up

That was the exact sentence screamed by driving legend-turned-Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon as he walked onto the set of “Marty & McGee” on Daytona 500 eve, and Wonder Boy’s wonderment was with good reason.

The race was sold out, preceded by a buzz-machine Busch Light Clash held inside the L.A. Coliseum, all while new sponsors were popping up all over the garage, and the celebrity guest list for the Great American Race looked like it had been stolen from the MTV VMAs red carpet. The next day was a nearly perfect event, and that momentum has seemed to carry on throughout spring.

Fox’s TV ratings are up nearly 20 percent over one year ago, including a giant number posted on a date that was long-considered NASCAR taboo, Easter evening. NASCAR doesn’t release attendance numbers, but series track execs say that in-person crowds are also up by double-digits over 2021. Atlanta Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway both confirmed their biggest spring crowds since 2014 and 2017, respectively.

Is anyone ready to declare this a return to the 2000’s? No. Does everyone in the paddock understand there are still a lot of races remaining, a large chunk of which still have to fight football for eyeballs in the fall? Of course. But it has been a long time since the garage felt this good as a group.

The Next Gen car is equal parts tank and Swiss Army knife

In 1967, when Richard Petty had the greatest season ever (27 wins! 10 in a row! Look it up!), the most amazing aspect of that most amazing year was the fact that His Royal Fastness used pretty much the same Plymouth Belvedere in all 48 starts, from Daytona to Darlington to Beltsville, Maryland.

These days aren’t exactly like those, but they are a heckuva lot closer than anyone could have possibly believed. When NASCAR rolled out the Next Gen car that debuted this season, they promised a super-durable, one-size-fits-all-tracks machine that could take a licking and keep on racing. And all season long they’ve been smacking walls, not to mention each other, and then racing on.

When Ross Chastain won at Talladega in the same ride he’d driven to victory on the road course at COTA four weeks earlier, well, that was an old-school move that no one thought we’d see this century, especially those of us who remember the not-so-long-ago somewhat out-of-control custom-built days when teams would spend tens of millions cranking out dozens of cars each season.

“It’s just so wild,” Chastain, 29, says of his Trackhouse Racing Camaro. “Change the geometry, the suspension, shim the body a little bit, and then go race. Put different tune in the motor for a superspeedway, adjust your rear diffuser, and the same car can come race. That’s just wild.”

Parity is real

If Chastain thinks the quick turnaround on these smaller fleets is wild, then what must he think of the results it has created on the racetrack? He is one of only two multi-race winners. That’s right, over 13 weeks, there have been 11 different winners.

“You give us a new car and limited practice each weekend and it definitely opens the door of opportunity for a lot of guys to figure some stuff out, and some not to,” said Ryan Blaney, who is second in the championship standings but winless this year. “I don’t know if that will continue as the races and years go by with this car, but right now it’s crazy.”

A whopping 35 drivers have led at least one lap, and 23 of those have run up front for double-digit lap counts. There have also been eight different pole winners, 24 different drivers to earn at least one top-five finish, 30 to finish in the top 10, and a trio of first-time Cup Series race winners. Speaking of those guys…

That youth movement we admittedly predicted a wee bit too early has officially arrived

Those three first-time winners — Chastain, Phoenix victor Chase Briscoe and Daytona 500 stunner Austin Cindric — are all under 30, and they have a lot of company. More than half of the drivers in the field each week are twenty-somethings, simply the latest bar on a graph that has trended younger for the last half-decade. In fact, seven of the top 10 drivers in the championship standing have walked the Earth for 29 years or fewer.

It would appear to finally be the arrival of the youth wave that we in the NASCAR media corps wrote about during the 2018 (and last) NASCAR preseason Media Tour, a fact that greatly angered the established likes of Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. They spent the next few years keeping most of those kids out of Victory Lane. Now the old dudes are increasingly outnumbered. The Busch brothers own one win apiece, as do Denny Hamlin and 31-year-old “old man” Joey Logano. The rest of the 30/40-something crowd has yet to hoist a trophy.

“The newer, younger generation that came in, it just seems like they are more aggressive,” Hamlin, 41, said in the days following his April 3 win at Richmond. “Us old veterans, we make our mistakes too. But they’re just more aggressive in thinking that, ‘Hey, the risk is worth the reward because the reward is winning. I might get a little backlash and I might have to worry about that guy wrecking me in the future.’ But people just think it’s worth it nowadays.”

Owning a race team is hard

While the kids (and Logano at Darlington) think it’s worth the risk to win races, Hamlin and his fellow closer-to-retirement racers are taking a much longer-term risk by stepping into team ownership.

Hamlin’s Team 23XI (co-owned by Michael Jordan) started the 2021 season without a finished race shop but still won in the fall with Bubba Wallace. They added a second victory last weekend with Kurt Busch in a Jumpman ride. But Hamlin is open about the struggles he’s faced to get it all headed in the right direction. So has Brad Keselowski, who bought into now-Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing, a team that immediately won a Duel 150 qualifying race at Daytona but has yet to earn a top five points-paying finish. Keselowski is 31st in points, next-to-last last among those who have started all 13 races, and teammate Chris Buescher is ranked 21st.

“We all love racing so much and we want to win, whether we are driving or in the front office,” explains Gordon, who showed us all the agony of defeat at Darlington when Logano’s win came at the expense of the racer who now pilots Gordon’s old ride, William Byron.

The NASCAR Hall of Famer laughs. “Being a race car driver is hard. But as I am finding out, as I think a lot of us are finding out, being the guy who hires the drivers and helps those drivers, that might be even harder!”

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