The points-paying NASCAR season kicks off with a sold-out crowd expected on Sunday for a rejuvenated 2022 Daytona 500. The 64th edition of the Great American Race comes at a time of great optimism, more than the sport has seen in over a decade. In fact, two buzzwords have stood out this week when I’ve walked the garage, both of which this sport has yearned to hear.
Momentum and unpredictability.
Momentum: NASCAR just pulled off a magical Los Angeles exhibition, a Clash held at the Coliseum delivering the race its best audience in six years. The sport’s new Next Gen chassis has sparked fresh interest from fans along with potential new ownership by lowering the cost of entry.
Among those joining the Cup Series this season: Matt Kaulig, whose team won a crown jewel race last season (Indianapolis Road Course) driving a limited schedule. Boxer Floyd Mayweather debuts his No. 50 car nearly two years in the making, squeaking into the Daytona 500 field this week on the final lap of a qualifier with driver Kaz Grala. French Canadian and Formula 1 champion Jacques Villeneuve is jumping in, running a limited Cup schedule with a new team at age 50. Even the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith, has partnered with African-American driver Jesse Iwuji to run a full-time entry in the Xfinity Series as NASCAR continues to diversify.
On-track, fresh rivalries are brewing, veterans clashing with youngsters as the transition between them is underway. Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott stood out during last fall’s playoff but they’re far from the only one. Drama is palpable everywhere you look, from Chase Briscoe’s run-ins with Denny Hamlin to Kyle Busch sniping at fellow Toyota driver Bubba Wallace last October.
And about those young drivers: they’ve built themselves a fan base, whether it’s a generational thing (Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, now rookie Harrison Burton), a breaking new ground thing (Wallace winning Talladega, just the second African-American to win a Cup race) or simply breaking the competition in two (Kyle Larson, the 2021 Cup champion and 10-race winner).
Add in the L.A. success, the latest in a recent schedule shakeup, and NASCAR has positioned itself to reinvent its popularity over the next decade.
Unpredictability: That’s where the Next Gen comes in. Notice we haven’t talked about the race itself at Daytona because literally no one knows what to expect. Even in the 60-lap qualifying Duels Thursday night, it felt like drivers were babying their way through in order to preserve equipment for Sunday. The end result was almost the first caution-free Duels since 2003 (until a final-lap crash in Duel 2). As to how the Next Gen races three-wide, bump drafts or handles a 40-car pack remains a relative unknown.
There’s also concern about these cars going the distance. A handful of parts failures in L.A. reminded everyone of the not-so-distant era when engines failed, axles broke apart and people needed to use the garage for repairs. My take? That unpredictability can be a good thing, keeping fans engaged all race long as a 10-second lead is never really safe.
That means going through how this race will unfold is a waste of space. The first full Next Gen event at a superspeedway where no one’s really showed their cards? You might as well blindfold yourself and start swinging a pinata. But I will mention a third word salad I’ve heard that should make NASCAR fans a little nervous.