Next Gen car leveled NASCAR field in 2022, possibly beyond
By MARK LONG
(AP) -- The most meticulously designed and intently controlled racecar in NASCAR history leveled the field in 2022.
The so-called Next Gen car resulted in 19 different winners over 36 races, including five first-timers and two guys who earned their first shot at a championship in the season finale. It provided more exciting racing at most tracks and may have helped improve attendance and television ratings.
Although the unpredictable season ended with a familiar face hoisting the trophy in Phoenix - Joey Logano won his second title with Team Penske - it also showed that anyone can win in stock car racing's top series.
The biggest teams, the ones with the deepest pockets, no longer had clear-cut advantages like they did in previous decades. The best drivers didn't have huge edges, either.
Winning came down to timing and luck as much as tuning and experience. Whether that carries over into 2023 remains to be seen. But the redesigned car could help lead to more national relevance and better long-term stability for one of racing's most popular series.
"Before this year (and) the Next Gen car, you had to have a relationship with one of five race teams if you wanted to come into this sport. You had to," NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in November. "This car changed that."
Phelps pointed to the car's styling and its relevance to those coming off assembly lines at Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota. He noted the raciness of the car, saying there were more passes in the Cup Series than any single season before. And he insisted safety was the top priority for the car despite driver complaints regarding crashes.
"It's a steep learning curve this year with this car," said Logano's crew chief, Paul Wolfe. "It's something totally different than what we've obviously used in the past. . A lot of the things we did in the past really don't work with this car."
Logano and Wolfe figured it out quicker than most, winning a series-high-tying five times if you count the exhibition Clash to open the season at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
"Boy, this year was an adventure, to say the least," Logano said. "It's just kind of crazy to think about it all. It was a tough grind of a year, and a lot of times you just felt lost. The only thing that helped me is I realized that everyone else was lost with me. That's one way to stay confident is when you know everyone else is lost, too."
Ross Chastain finished second to Logano, a breakthrough season for an eighth-generational watermelon farmer from Florida. Chastain had a series-leading 15 top-five finishes for upstart Trackhouse Racing, none bigger than his fourth-place showing at Martinsville in which he used a video game move to pass five cars in a matter of seconds and claim the final spot in the title race.
Martin Truex Jr. went winless for the first time since 2014 and finished 17th overall. The 2017 series champion failed to make the playoffs for the third time in eight seasons and had considered stepping away before announcing in June his commitment to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023.
Austin Cindric won the season-opening Daytona 500 and finished 12th for Team Penske. He earned Rookie of the Year honors and, considering he has Logano as a teammate, could find more success in his second full season.
Aric Almirola was scheduled to retire from full-time racing at the end of 2022, but he had a change of heart and will return for one more year at Stewart-Haas Racing. Will anyone join him in making 2023 a farewell tour? Kevin Harvick expects to know if next season will be his last before the Daytona 500 in February. What about Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Truex? The trio is certainly nearing the end of their Hall of Fame careers.
ONE TO WATCH
Kyle Busch's ballyhooed move to Richard Childress Racing and Tyler Reddick's much-anticipated switch to 23XI Racing will get plenty of attention in 2023, but AJ Allmendinger's full-time return to the Cup Series with Kaulig Racing is another one to watch. Allmendinger had six top-10 finishes in his last eight Cup starts with Kaulig in 2022.
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Updated December 27, 2022