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NASCAR Preview: 10 Tough Questions for the 2022 Season

Phoenix Raceway, NASCAR Season Finale

Phoenix Raceway has hosted NASCAR's Cup Series championship race the past two seasons but some would like to see the finale moved to different tracks

The 2022 NASCAR season promises to be one of change. The biggest change is the introduction of the Next Gen car but that's not the only thing that will look different this season. Team changes are expected and no one should be surprised that the schedule continues to get tweaked either. So before the Cup season officially starts with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20, here are 10 questions on everyone's mind.

1. What will NASCAR learn from racing in the Los Angeles Coliseum?

Last season, NASCAR made schedule changes that had once been utterly unimaginable. The Cup Series shelved visits to intermediate tracks like Chicagoland Speedway and Kentucky Speedway, hosted an inaugural event at Nashville Superspeedway and went road course racing for the most times in a season in history (seven). Even the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was scrapped in favor of an event at the famed track’s road course.

But none of those changes hold a candle to the change NASCAR made to its annual preseason event for 2022. For the first time, defending champ Kyle Larson and NASCAR’s other stars will contest their season preview event on a quarter-mile track inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The Clash offers an incredible opportunity for NASCAR to demonstrate that it can think differently and host events in centrally located urban venues designed for peak entertainment. The close-quarters racing promises to produce high emotions — perfect for the stadium environment. Before the track is built or a single lap is turned, the bold plan and enthusiastic response should help NASCAR keep learning that staking its future on ways to bring more people closer to its racing in an accessible, easily viewed format is a winning combination.

But the other thing NASCAR must learn from making a winter visit to Los Angeles is that some things should stay unique. Building “cookie-cutter” racetracks on the periphery of metropolitan areas was once all the rage; now, most of those tracks struggle for attendance, have pursued wild reconfigurations or no longer appear on the schedule. The right dosage will matter, even if other Clash-style events at other stadiums within or beyond the United States become feasible.

“I’ll totally be fine with it if the racing is good and it’s fun, but you can’t race the same place every weekend, right?” says Martin Truex Jr. “You gotta mix it up. That’s one of the greatest things about our sport.”

2. Is the Next Gen car safe?

Questions abound for the new vehicle in use this season by NASCAR Cup Series teams. It’s a complete break from anything previously raced at NASCAR’s top level. For the first time, the design and manufacturing processes for the Next Gen car won’t be handled by individual teams.

That change in the process along with an overall lack of real-world test collision data led several drivers to pose questions publicly about the new car’s overall crash safety last summer. Led by Denny Hamlin, drivers seemed to have concerns that there wasn’t enough available information about how the car would behave in dangerous collisions.

NASCAR, however, said the concern was overblown and didn’t reflect the reality of what the sanctioning body learned in a crash test held at Talladega Superspeedway last summer. Drivers and teams later received data, analysis and video of the Talladega test that included a head-on, high-speed crash.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps reiterated his confidence in the car prior to last fall’s race at Phoenix. “I think the drivers are satisfied with the answers that they heard,” Phelps said. “I would say as we looked at kind of June, July, early August, that’s probably a fair statement that the drivers and the sanctioning body were not on the same page. But I think right now I believe the drivers feel good about the direction of the Next Gen car both from a drivability standpoint, since most of them had the opportunity to drive it now, and from a safety perspective.”

But at least one driver disagreed with Phelps’ claim on that very same weekend, leaving it an open question as to how everyone feels about this car.

“Data is where the world is driven right now, and there’s none of that being offered to the teams or the drivers or anybody,” Ryan Newman claimed, saying he might retire rather than drive an unsafe car. “The car was crash-tested; never saw the first thing about it. If it’s good, you show people, right?”

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3. Will there be a shortage of Next Gen cars?

One thing that’s no different about the introduction of the Next Gen vehicle for NASCAR’s top series is the concern about vehicle availability. The same worries existed when the Car of Tomorrow arrived in 2007 and when the Gen-6 platform arrived in 2013. Neither rollout saw any team fail to make a race or get on track due a lack of available chassis.

That same scenario is playing out now with the Next Gen vehicle, and once again, there has been no reason to believe teams won’t be able to participate in early-season events due to chassis shortage issues. But that doesn’t mean totally smooth sailing.

For one, teams are learning to live with fleets of cars that are much reduced by design. Many will have only a portion of those fleets optimized for competition when the season begins, meaning that any team suffering multiple significant crashes between the Daytona opener and the West Coast swing could face disruptive interruptions in the shop production calendar that could get them behind their competition.

“I certainly think when you look at the schedule for Daytona, I just don’t see these guys putting their cars on track very much because you just don’t have stuff sitting there ready to go in case you wreck,” said Denny Hamlin.

As of December, it was also clear that the Next Gen car had hit more roadblocks than NASCAR’s in-house engineering staff expected. The first series-wide test at Charlotte Motor Speedway in November revealed a car encumbered with many flaws for intermediate-style tracks. Most importantly, the car was slow, and it couldn’t pass. The results sent series officials and teams back to the drawing board as they scrambled for answers amid a revised and more aggressive offseason testing schedule. Those changes will cause the most stress. If there are substantial changes to chassis parts or engine designs, the windows for part designs and manufacturing will be extremely tight before the season begins.

“We certainly are concerned with supply issues at this point,” Hamlin said in December. “And what I’m terrified of is that if we have another semi lockdown and those suppliers can’t get supplies that they need to supply to us, we’re on tight, tight schedules right now. The panic meter is moving.”

4. Which engine configuration should Next Gen use?

The disappointing results of the first team test of the Next Gen last November tended to leave most drivers talking about one thing: more power.

“Right now, you don’t have enough power to start a pass when somebody screws up,” Kevin Harvick said in December during the NASCAR awards week in Nashville. “So, I think that the power is key. There (was) no way that the car behind you (was) ever going to be as good as the car in front of you.”

Harvick did get to test an engine with approximately 670 horsepower toward the end of the November test and reported positive results, such as faster laps, more off-throttle time and a better handling balance due to the improved effects of the aerodynamic pieces at higher speeds.

It is a combination that appeals to second-year Stewart-Haas Racing driver Chase Briscoe.

“You want to be lifting and slipping and sliding around,” Briscoe says. “It is harder to drive, but it’s more fun. You want it to where you got more power. You don’t want to feel like you’re slow. You want to feel like you’re going fast.”

But that scenario flies against the preferred wishes of NASCAR executives who have aimed to reduce engine performance in recent years as a way to lure new automobile manufacturers to join the series. The idea is that new manufacturers might see a high-performance engine as an unrelatable aspect to a car company’s marketing portfolio in the era of efficiency and hybrid powertrains.

“If I was in charge, I would send that press release out yesterday that we’re going to go to more horsepower,” Harvick said, smiling. “I’d put a thousand horsepower in it, but I don’t know that I’d have a lot of support on that one outside of the drivers.”

Whatever NASCAR settles on, Denny Hamlin — now a team co-owner himself with an intimate knowledge of engine costs in the Cup Series — says the series should just use the same size engine for as many races as possible in 2022. The varying configurations used in the last few years used too many engine shop resources, he says. A higher-power standard engine also could save teams money in other areas.

“If you have the 670, you’re probably just trying to find downforce in your cars every week and not trying to find downforce and less drag,” Hamlin says. “So you’re probably not going to spend less, but you can dial in your resources to doing one thing versus trying to do multiple things.”

5. Who will be the best new Cup team in 2022?

The number of new cars and new organizations in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2022 might feel staggering to longtime viewers. As of December, there were five new full-time, chartered entries out of 36 in Cup for this season.

The list includes two new full-time teams for Kaulig Racing (Justin Haley will be the primary driver of one; the other features multiple drivers), the new No. 42 entry for Ty Dillon at Petty GMS Motorsports, Kurt Busch moving into the 23XI Racing’s new No. 45 team and Ross Chastain joining the new No. 1 car at Trackhouse Racing Team.

Choosing which of the new teams will perform best this season might prove impossible should the new Next Gen car produce wildly unexpected results. However, even surprises to start the season are probably not enough to derail the savvy and ability that Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan have imported for their new second car this season.

Busch, the 2004 series champion, already impressed Hamlin from the jump of the first off-season test last November. Busch was faster than the Joe Gibbs Racing cars during that test, Hamlin says.

“I underrated his talent,” Hamlin says. “I worked with them at the Charlotte test, and he’s good. He’s great.

“His feedback’s good. He’s everything that his previous teammates said he was gonna be so far.”

But Busch isn’t the only reason to feel like 23XI might have a leg up in the Next Gen car. The team was able to hire Billy Scott — Busch’s former crew chief and, most recently, the head of race engineering at Richard Childress Racing, where he played an outsized role in the development of the new car.

“We knew that Billy had done most of the work for NASCAR on the Next Gen,” Hamlin says. “So this was an opportunity to put Kurt with someone that he knew and had a great relationship with. Both of them said that when they worked with each other, it was the best years of their career — the best time that they had. And then on top of that, I’m like, ‘Hmm. And I can get a guy who has a lot of knowledge about the Next Gen.’”

It’s a combination that at least on paper seems the most potent for any of NASCAR’s new teams.

6. Is the Kyle Larson/Christopher Bell rivalry still on?

With backgrounds in dirt tracks and clear respect for one another while competing in marquee offseason events like dirt racing’s Chili Bowl, Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell seem like the last two drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series who would end up feuding. But that’s what happened last season after an incident on the road course at Watkins Glen.

Both drivers seemed to quickly get over the contact — Bell wasn’t pleased but moved on, and Larson apologized in his post-race interview — but the fallout happened over how they communicated after the race. Bell said Larson texted an apology at midnight following the race, to which Bell didn’t respond. Larson then chided Bell during a radio interview the next day for ignoring the apology.

The communication breakdown continued, and by the next race at Indianapolis, Bell was seething and Larson wasn’t giving an inch. Both drivers made critical comments in the media about the other’s ability to communicate. Four months later, Bell said the relationship remained icy.

“We haven’t talked or anything, but that’s a long time ago and I’ve definitely moved on,” Bell said in late November.

So why was it necessary for Bell to take such a public stand?

“He felt it was necessary to run his mouth and share his side of the story,” Bell said. “So, you know, I felt like I needed to at least tell my side of the story.”

7. Who is on the hot seat in 2022?

Trying to understand which drivers may be on the move for 2023 before the 2022 season even begins can be a fool’s errand. But if you take recent results and factor them with looming external forces, a few drivers and teams start to stand out as possible movers and shakers in NASCAR’s next Silly Season.

In 2022, most seats among the top teams — especially Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing — have the appearance of stability. The vast majority of those team drivers have either won recently or just joined the team. It also seems likely that the sport’s highest earners might try to sign their next contracts once NASCAR’s new TV rights agreement is signed, likely sometime in 2023.

But when you drop a tier or two in the current Cup pecking order, a few drivers appear ripe for change.

One is Erik Jones. His second season in the recently sold Richard Petty Motorsports (now Petty GMS Motorsports) No. 43 could mean changes beyond his control as management switches hands. He’ll now be a teammate this season with Ty Dillon under new owner Maurice Gallagher.

The situation for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. could be much the same. His JTG Daugherty Racing team contracted to a single car in the offseason, leaving former teammate Ryan Preece out of a Cup-level job. Single-car efforts don’t typically fare well in today’s NASCAR world, so Stenhouse’s results and that team’s future will be worth watching.

Drivers rising from NASCAR’s lower ranks will also start to influence the Cup driver market. Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson especially appear likely to have full-time, Cup-level racing on their horizons.

8. Should NASCAR rotate the season finale from Phoenix?

NASCAR has now raced its championship-deciding events at Phoenix Raceway for two seasons after an 18-year run of wrapping the season at the South Florida confines of Homestead-Miami Speedway. Last season was the first Phoenix finale that featured a fan and track experience largely free of pandemic-related restrictions at the one-mile track, and the track happily announced a sellout of all seats and hospitality options more than a month before the event.

The switch was intentional and reflected NASCAR’s desire to bring the championship events to its renovated venue on the southwestern edge of the Phoenix metro. But NASCAR’s bold and creative shifts to its national schedules over the past two seasons have opened the door for additional thinking about the best way to finish the season.

“I’d love to see the championship race rotate every year and create some sort of rotation between venues,” says Kevin Harvick. “Put five or six venues in and have it rotate amongst those so that it wasn’t the same every year.”

It’s an interesting idea that borrows from the rotational nature of the NFL Super Bowl, college football’s national championship game and all-star events for the NBA and MLB. NASCAR could see value in putting the event out to bid by local tourism officials.

However, there is also value found in the November Phoenix climate that few other tracks can offer at that time of the year: warm temperatures and extremely low chances of rain interrupting the event. So while a finale at more rural and traditional venues like Bristol Motor Speedway or Martinsville Speedway might peg the excitement level, those locations just don’t seem suitable.

Right now? We’d leave the championship right where it is.

9. Is limited practice the right move for NASCAR?

After two seasons with barely any practice or qualifying for any NASCAR series largely due to the pandemic, both components will return to each NASCAR weekend this year. However, the format will usually be extremely compressed compared to pre-pandemic seasons.

For most race weekends this season, practice and qualifying will fit inside a single two-hour window. There will be a 15-minute practice session with only extremely limited car adjustments allowed. Then there will be a two-round, split-group, single-lap qualifying session. Five drivers from the first round of each group will advance to the second round for a chance to win the pole.

It’s a format that’s efficient in its use of time and on-track resources, but it’s also one that has left at least some drivers scratching their heads.

“We have this brand new car. No one knows anything about it. No one knows how to work on it. And you’re gonna give us 15 minutes’ practice,” Ryan Blaney said in December. “It’s pretty amazing to me, that side of it. I would have figured we would at least get 50 minutes or something. Give us some time to figure this car out. But it is what it is and the same for everybody. So everyone’s going to have to figure it out.”

Road courses, superspeedways, new venues, the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race and the season finale will all use different formats across the season. Third-year Cup Series driver Christopher Bell is happy to no longer just show up at the track and race, even if the track time remains extremely short.

“There’s a qualifying session, which is good because you’re able to kind of control your destiny at the start of the race a little bit better,” says Bell. “I’m happy that we have qualifying, and I’m excited about having a little bit more track time, although it’s far from perfect.”

10. How will pit stops be different?

Joining the Next Gen car this season in the NASCAR Cup Series will be pit stops that are radically different than any previous NASCAR era. For the first time, Cup pit crews will need to remove and replace just a single lug nut at each wheel. Gone are the days of wheels with five lug nuts at NASCAR’s top level.

The new wheel design and attachment process is virtually identical to the technology used by open-wheel and road racing cars for decades and promises to shorten the duration of four-tire pit stops for Cup teams to well under 10 seconds. It’s a change in stop length that will drive some new strategy wrinkles in the Cup Series.

Two-tire stops will likely continue as a strategy option because teams still are limited by rule to just two wheel guns over the pit wall. However, the value of two-tire stops may decrease because four-tire stops are faster, and fuel will still need to be added.

Another strategy change to watch will be how the faster four-tire stops affect fueling. Teams will be incentivized by track position to match tire change length to the fuel fill time, rather than wait for a full tank. Without changes in the speed of fueling, the recipe could equal an increase in drivers being told to conserve fuel use between pit stops.

— Written by Geoffrey Miller (@GeoffreyMiller) for Athlon Sports' 2022 Racing magazine. With 144 pages of racing content, it's the most complete preview available today. Click here to get your copy.