NASCAR returns from its only season break this weekend at the Nashville Superspeedway. Sunday’s race marks the first of the 10 races that make up the remainder of the regular season that ends with a 16-driver pitch to be completed. As we head into that pivotal run into the playoffs, here’s a look at the must-watch storylines, drivers, and races.
As always at this turn of the season, the playoffs are at the center of everyone’s attention. Who qualifies and who loses will be discussed over and over again over the next 10 weeks.
This season has been as unpredictable as any – including four first-time winners (Austin Cendrick, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez) – adding to the drama in what should be a brilliant finale to the regular season.
Adding to the unpredictability, the upcoming race list features a range of different tracks, creating real potential for surprise winners and truly rocking the qualifying field. Road America, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen, and Daytona should all be considered wilderness trails. And with 12 different drivers having already won races, there is still the possibility, though unlikely, that there will be more winners during the regular season than there are qualifying places available.
Who is the favorite in the tournament?
On the topic of playoffs, we now usually have a pretty good idea of who should be considered the favorite (favourite) in the tournament. Sometimes this situation proves to be inaccurate (see 2020: Kevin Harvick ran away with a regular season points crown and then failed to advance past the semi-finals) while other times that rating is over the mark (see 2021: Kyle Larson dominates the regular season , then continue to win five of the 10 playoffs en route to the title).
So far, this regular season has offered little clarity. No driver has emerged as a constant threat to win each week. At various times, Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Bush, Joey Logano, Ross Chastain and even non-winner Ryan Blaney have given an appearance worthy of favored status. However, each of these drivers’ teams have notable shortcomings that make them pause on whether or not they can stage a championship race.
The introduction of the next generation car has greatly facilitated this unknown. Teams are still looking for the best way to get the speed out of the largely built vehicle with parts supplied by third-party vendors along with limitations on the modifications crew chiefs and engineers can make to the vehicle. Unsurprisingly, the teams’ performance fluctuated dramatically from week to week. For example, Elliott’s longest running streak of points in the top 10 is just five races, which was followed by three consecutive runs of 21st place or worse. Second-placed Ross Chastain has a seven-best five-star finish, although those match four places of 29th or worse.
Track House continues to appear
Trackhouse Racing had a great first run as Chastain and Suárez combined for three wins, and both drivers are now in a playoff for the first time in their careers. The overall victory could easily have been higher if the conditions had been different in just a few races.
But can Trackhouse, only in its second year of existence, continue its rise from being a An exciting new organization In an emerging force?
The question of whether they continue to run with And the Beating the likes of Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske is valid considering this is a whole new territory for the Justin Marks-owned team. It is rare for a team to come out of the middle group and achieve the level of success that Trackhouse enjoys.
Everyone at Trackhouse insists they are not a flash in the pan and the mentality within the organization is that they have to keep fighting and prove themselves every week. After Chastain’s victory in Talladega in April, Marks said his goals in 2022 were not about the number of wins or the number of places taken, and that success would be measured by “making sure that every week we get better and that we invest in each other as we learn this race car.” We are constantly improving.”
This mentality is great. The foundation that Marx laid in building the Track House is clearly the foundation of a team striving for sustainable greatness. But after all the wins, close wins and lap size during the first half, taking a step back in the second half would be seen as a disappointment.
“What I’m telling people is that I’m not surprised we’re a winning race team because I wouldn’t have started this project if I hadn’t thought, and really believe, that the opportunity exists to build a new racing team into this and it’s a sport that can be to win.” That was the surprise, how quickly that happened.
“For me, it kind of makes sense too. We have great people who work hard. The promise of this car is delivered every weekend. We had conversations with the team, and I talked to myself, and it was like, ‘Is this a moment in time or has the Track arrived? House?” I think we’re here. When you have this many people working together, supporting each other, focused, being talented, these are the things that can happen.”
In the two years since NASCAR turned its summer Daytona race from July 4th weekend into the last race of the regular season, there’s been no shortage of drama and unpredictability in boosting who makes and misses the playoffs. Expect more from the same on August 27th. And maybe more, depending on what happens during the nine races leading up to the end of the regular season.
The inaugural race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a smash last year – Just not the way NASCAR nor IMS owner Roger Penske envisioned it. Changes have since been made to the track’s curb in hopes of preventing problems that marred last year’s race. But one can’t help but wonder, if road track proves once again to be a problem for stock cars, will NASCAR and Penske feel the need to return racing to the IMS oval in 2023?
NASCAR’s Next Generation car has significantly improved the quality of racing at Fontana, Charlotte and some other tracks where the action in recent years hasn’t been the most exciting. Pocono desperately needs to experience a similar type of transformation. Pennsylvania Stadium is now just one cup date after picking up two from 1982 to 2021 and needs to dent its reputation for being more known as a track where races are determined by strategy rather than action-packed excitement.
Drivers under the spotlight
Since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, Harvick has never been in this position as late in the season he found himself on the wrong side of the playoff cutting streak. Coming out of the break, he finds himself seven points behind Eric Almerola for the interim relocation place, creating the real possibility that Harvick will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Adding to the frustration is a winless streak dating back to September 2020.
A lot of times this season, Tyler Riddick has had a car fast enough to win. However, for reasons inside and outside of his control, the Richard Childress Racing driver has a zero in the winning column. That will likely change if he wants to make the playoffs for the second year in a row. To achieve that goal, Reddick needs to stop pressing, push his car beyond its limits and turn potentially brilliant finishes into disastrous points-wasting results.
With 23XI Racing entering its second year and adding veteran Kurt Busch to serve as a mentor, Bubba Wallace was expected to qualify for the playoffs, or at least into the mix for a spot. This did not happen. Instead, Wallace and his No. 23 team struggled to find the pace early in the season. Then, once this problem was resolved, the potential gains were in Kansas and Charlotte Get lost with frequent mistakes on the pit road. Wallace is currently ranked 25th in the standings, 139 points behind Almerola. The points deficit is that his only realistic path to the playoffs is by finding a way to win one of these next 10 races.
(Top photo: Jim Deadmon/USA Today)