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Dr. Diandra: Next Gen success depended on experience: More wasn’t better

The Next Gen car’s introduction in 2022 challenged everyone. But more experience wasn’t better when it came to the final season ranking, the number of top-10 finishes or the average finish position.

Ranking 2022

I compared drivers’ 2022 season-ending rank to their 2021 numbers, including only drivers who ran all 36 races in both seasons.

In the graph below, drivers with the largest drop in rank are toward the left in red. Drivers with the largest improvements are toward the right in blue.

A bar chart showing changes in drivers' season rank for 2022 compared with 2021

Brad Keselowski suffered the largest drop, down 18 positions. But Keselowski also changed teams from Penske — home of this year’s champion — to RFK, which won its first race since 2017 this year.

Martin Truex Jr. fell 15 positions. Toyota got off to a slow start, in part due to fielding fewer cars than the other manufacturers. Truex got the worst of it, following up last year’s second-place finish with a 17th-place season — and no wins.

Kevin Harvick broke a 65-race winless streak but finished 15th, 10 positions down from last year’s fifth-place finish.

While Michael McDowell had a career-best year, not making the playoffs automatically lowered his ranking relative to 2021. Defending champion Kyle Larson finished sixth this year after what he called an “up-and-down” season.

If some drivers fall in the standings, others must rise.

Trackhouse Racing led the way in improvements. Ross Chastain earned his first two career wins on the way to making the largest gain in positions at 18. Teammate Daniel Suárez, had the second-best improvement with a jump of 15 positions.

Chase Briscoe, in his second year at Stewart Haas Racing, went from 23rd to ninth, an improvement of 14 positions. Christopher Bell rose nine positions relative to 2021, and Joey Logano improved by seven positions.

Experience proves a negative

The most-improved drivers at Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing were their most-junior drivers. At Team Penske, the oldest driver not only improved the most but won the championship.

Then again, Penske’s oldest driver is only 32.

Much has been made of NASCAR’s “youth movement,” but age doesn’t measure experience. Logano and Austin Dillon were born one month apart, but Logano has run 507 Cup Series races, while Dillon has run 336.

So instead of plotting changes in rank as a function of age, I plot them as a function of how many Cup Series races each driver totaled as of the end of this season. I again put gains in blue and losses in red.

A scatter graph showing changes in rank as a function of number of races run as of the end of 2022

Only 19 drivers qualified for inclusion, but I argue that there’s a clear trend from the lower right to the upper left of the graph. The drivers with the most Cup Series experience had the largest decreases in rank.

  • With the exception of Logano, no driver with more than 365 races under his belt improved his ranking relative to last year.
  • No driver who has run fewer than 275 races lost more than one position in his season rankings. Of the two drivers in this group who each lost a single position:

    • Tyler Reddick had eight DNFs in 2022 compared with two in 2021.
    • Ryan Blaney went winless, which made matching his three-win 2021 record a challenge.
  • The top four gainers in rank have a total of 548 races between them. Suárez is the most experienced of these four drivers with 216 races run.
  • The top four losers in rank have run a combined 2,357 races. Harvick alone has run more races than all four top gainers combined.

Top-10 and average finishes support the trend

The playoff’s elimination format skews the final season rankings. So I examined top-10 finishes — and found the same results.

More-experienced drivers had fewer top-10 finishes this year than last. Even Logano had two fewer top-10 finishes this year than last year.

  • No driver with more than 470 races earned more top-10 finishes this year than last year.
  • Trackhouse Racing again led the way.

    • Chastain went from eight top-10 finishes in 2021 to 21 in 2022, notching the biggest improvement with 13.
    • Suárez had nine more top 10s, increasing from four to 13.
  • Briscoe, McDowell and Erik Jones each earned seven more top 10s this year than last year.

Bubba Wallace isn’t on the graph because he missed one race in 2022. Nevertheless, he also earned seven more top 10s this year — while running one fewer race.

The data for changes in average finish reinforce the trend: More experience wasn’t better when it came to the Next Gen car.

But the converse isn’t true. Some less-experienced drivers improved while others didn’t.

Will the trend continue in 2023?

Veterans -- Denny Hamlin in particular -- improved as the season went on. This trend may just be a question of drivers needing to break old habits that don’t work in the new car.

I’ll be watching 2023 to see if the old guard springs back or if some of these drivers decide its time to hang up their firesuits.