Drivers (and broadcasters): Start your engines!
Following an off week, the NASCAR Cup Series is back in action at Nashville Superspeedway on Sunday. And starting this weekend through the championship race in November, every event will air on NBC or USA Network.
With NBC taking over broadcasting duties from FOX for the final 20 races, the network will cover major races at Daytona, Talladega, Bristol and more. The playoffs – which take place over the final 10 races – will conclude another exciting season at the track.
Here’s everything you need to know about the 2022 NASCAR season so far, and what to expect for NBC’s portion of the schedule – with an assist from NASCAR on NBC analysts Parker Kligerman and Nate Ryan:
What to know about NASCAR’s Next Gen car
Prior to the 2022 season, NASCAR introduced the Next Gen car after running the Gen 6 car since 2013. The new car had numerous advancements, including an updated aero and downforce package, composite bodies and a new wheel design, among other things.
“It has been a massive change for the sport and the best way I can relate it to people is… It’s like if the NFL decided they were no longer going to use a pigskin football, but a soccer ball,” said Kligerman, a NASCAR on NBC analyst and part-time driver. “You would still throw it, but you would do things differently in the game if you were suddenly using a round ball like that. And that's exactly what we're doing with the NASCAR Cup Series.
“The Next Gen car has been the biggest departure from everything we've known as a stock car, probably in the last 40 years.”
The main goal of the car was to cut costs for teams, who don’t need to spend money developing chassis. With the new rules package, the cars became more difficult to drive, placing an emphasis on individual skill. According to Kligerman and Ryan, the new car has accomplished just that.
“That's what NASCAR wanted,” said Ryan, a NASCAR on NBC writer and host. “They want the cars to be very difficult to drive. They want the Cup Series to be the best of the best. Only the supreme level of talent reaches this level of competition.”
Kligerman has started one Cup race this season, but he has 29 prior starts in the old car. The new car is such a challenge to drive, Kligerman said, that you have to race on your limit every lap.
“As a driver, you almost have to drive it to the point where it's on the edge of wrecking, mentally note that spot and then just try to drive to that mental note every single time,” he explained. “It's like a golf swing, right? You've got to mentally know how the golf swing goes through and then try to reapply it. Every time we're doing that, at 180 miles an hour, every lap, every corner.”
With the new car, there’s been increased parity throughout the field. The difference from first to last is tighter than ever, as 12 drivers have already won a race and no one has more than two victories through 16 weeks.
“The thing that really stuck out to me about the new car has been just how tight the field is,” Kligerman said. “In years past, as the cars became really engineering-driven, you had a massive separation between the budget levels of the top teams and smaller teams, you had a huge separation on track, multiple seconds at some tracks across the field. It’s been huge closing the gap between the small teams and the big teams.”
Best drivers and teams of 2022 so far
Chase Elliott currently leads the points standings over Ross Chastain, Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano. Chastain, Logano, William Byron and Denny Hamlin lead all drivers with two wins each, while eight others have one victory.
To Kligerman and Ryan, there has been one clear breakout team of 2022: Trackhouse Racing. Co-owned by Pitbull and Justin Marks, Trackhouse has asserted itself in just its second season – with three wins, 10 top-fives and 15 top-10s between its two drivers, Chastain and Daniel Suarez.
“They've been the star of the show,” Kligerman said. “You know, Ross Chastain winning his first race and another one, Daniel Suarez winning a race. And just what Justin Marks and (team president) Ty Norris and everyone at that team has been able to pull off has been massively impressive.”
“They've really established themselves in a tier with Hendrick Motorsports, with Team Penske, with Joe Gibbs Racing, as a force to be reckoned with,” Ryan said.
Beyond Trackhouse, the usual powerhouse teams are still in the mix. Hendrick Motorsports, led by 2020 champion Elliott and 2021 champion Larson, has all four of its teams locked into the playoffs with wins. But for Ryan, one Hendrick driver stands out above the rest.
“(William Byron) has probably been on balance the best Hendrick Motorsports driver so far,” Ryan said. “He's got two victories and is in a little bit of a lull, but I really feel like that's going to be the team to watch when the playoffs arrive and we're looking at championship contenders.”
Progress report on Kyle Larson, 23XI Racing and Toyota
With the increased parity in 2022, it’s been a “down” season for Kyle Larson. Through 16 races last year, he had three wins, 11 top-10s and 1,162 laps led. This year, he has one win, eight top-10s and 273 laps led. So while it hasn’t been a bad start, Larson isn’t yet near the level he reached last year.
Ryan, though, believes it’s only a matter of time before this team regains its championship form.
“I do see Kyle Larson beginning to pick it up a little bit more and I'll look at what he did last year as maybe being an indicator of that, when he won five of the 10 races in the playoffs,” Ryan said. “This is a team that can be more of a second half team. And even though they haven't shown as much speed, as much consistency in the first 16 races of 2022, I do think that the signs are still there.”
Aside from the aforementioned Trackhouse Racing, another second-year team is trying to find its footing: 23XI Racing.
Co-owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, 23XI paired 2004 champion Kurt Busch with Bubba Wallace this year. Wallace won a race last year, and Busch won at Kansas in May, but the team has lacked consistency. Busch and Wallace sit 19th and 25th in the points standings, respectively, though Busch’s win locked him into the playoffs.
“23XI's fortunes are very much tied to Joe Gibbs Racing, which is the flagship Toyota team,” Ryan explained. “They're kind of at the mercy of where Toyota has been. If they can find more second half consistency, I do believe that Bubba Wallace has shown flashes that he's ready to develop into a consistent driver. And Kurt Busch, his win at Kansas showed he's still championship caliber as long as he has the car under him.”
What are the biggest rivalries to keep an eye on?
NASCAR is a contact sport – on and off the track. It seems like every year there are rivals fighting it out late in the season, and the early months often lay the groundwork for those playoff conflicts.
“It does seem like paybacks always rear their head in the playoffs,” Ryan said. “I think everybody has to keep their mind on Ross Chastain because it does seem like he's got beef with virtually everybody… I think the playoffs could be where Denny Hamlin is lying in wait to deliver his revenge to Ross Chastain.”
Hamlin and Chastain’s disagreement began at Gateway, when Chastain wrecked Hamlin and Hamlin then toyed with Chastain for the rest of the race. Chastain made his life even tougher when he crashed Elliott, as he’s now made two high-profile enemies.
“As far as other rivalries, Byron-Logano is one of many that are just kind of simmering, I'm not sure if we fully have them revealed to us until the playoffs,” Ryan said. “… I feel like those final 10 races will be a place where we see revenge exacted by more than a few drivers.”
Byron and Logano’s rivalry started at Darlington. With a win on the line, Logano crashed Byron out of the way after claiming the opposite happened on a prior restart. That was nearly two months ago and there still hasn’t been any payback, so that’s another pair to watch closely.
Looking ahead to the NASCAR on NBC schedule
The final 20 races of the season on NBC can be split evenly – the first 10 to decide the playoff field, the final 10 to decide the champion.
Of the 20 events, there are 11 intermediates (over one mile, less than 2.5 miles), four road courses, three short tracks and two superspeedways. But which tracks have the most anticipation?
“Road America, the July 4 weekend last year was epic,” Kligerman said. “Daytona, the (playoff) cutoff race. That's just going to be insane. Atlanta this year, being a superspeedway. Now that's going to be crazy when you look at the schedule leading to the playoffs and how much opportunity there is for some cars outside the (playoff picture) to go win.”
Ryan agreed, pointing to Road America and Atlanta as his two most intriguing races before the playoffs. Road America is a 14-turn, 4.048-mile road course, while Atlanta is a high-banked 1.54-mile track with a freshly repaved surface.
“The July 4 weekend tradition that they're building (at Road America), I think is off to a great start,” Ryan said. “That's a huge market for racing fans that goes overlooked sometimes – how many racing fans, how many short tracks there are in Wisconsin.
“I think Atlanta would be high on my list as well. I missed the first race there with this new (surface). So I'm very, very interested to see in a few weeks what it's going to look like to essentially have superspeedway style racing in Atlanta.”
Preview and predictions for Nashville and the playoffs
Before we get to the playoffs, we can’t look past Nashville. The Music City, which holds the annual NASCAR Awards Banquet in December, certainly knows how to host a massive event.
“The Nashville atmosphere last year was epic,” Kligerman said. “The whole event was awesome… It was awesome to see the crowd there. So I love this as a kickoff event (for NBC). The whole town supports NASCAR. You can sense it walking through the town.”
Nashville Superspeedway is a 1.33-mile concrete oval, unlike any other track on the circuit. Because of that, it’s even tougher to predict what might happen this weekend.
“It's a very unique racetrack,” Kligerman explained. “It's a place that is really funny in that you practice driving it one way and you'll qualify driving it one way, and then you'll get in the race and it will completely change.”
Kligerman raced in the NASCAR Truck Series race at Nashville last year, and he’ll do so again this year before NBC’s Cup Series broadcast on Sunday – giving him first-hand insight.
Even with their expertise, Kligerman and Ryan were stumped when asked to pick a winner for Nashville.
“I have a sneaking suspicion that Toyota will be good, and I don't really have a real reasoning for that other than I just have a suspicion,” Kligerman said. “So I think Kyle Busch is a really good one to pay attention to this weekend.”
“I've been picking Larson just because I sort of like unconventional but somewhat safe picks,” Ryan said with a laugh. “I usually don't make predictions because I'm terrible at it.”
Looking ahead to the championship race in November, Kligerman and Ryan still don’t have a clear idea of which four drivers will be fighting for the title. They agreed on three of the final four participants – Larson, Byron and Hamlin – but differed on their final pick.
“I kind of want an outlier – I want someone that we wouldn't expect,” Kligerman said. “Throw in Ross Chastain, and that's probably my final four.”
“I feel like I should probably pick a Ford,” Ryan said. “I'd probably pick Joey Logano, he’s been the strongest of the Ford cars.”
So, are you ready for some racing? You can catch the Ally 400 on NBC this Sunday at 5 p.m. ET, where Kligerman, Ryan and the entire NBC crew will bring you coverage.