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Five intriguing races in first half of 2022 NASCAR Cup season

Relive all the best feuds, fights and breathtaking finishes of the 2021 NASCAR season, from Kyle Larson's dominant title win to the Chase Elliott-Kevin Harvick feud.

With the debut of the Next Gen car as the backdrop, the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season will have lots to follow from the get-go.

The season officially begins Feb. 20 with the Daytona 500. But this year, the countdown isn’t to The Great American Race.

Instead, it’s for the exhibition race known as the Clash - traditionally held at Daytona, but now heading for one of the most iconic venues in sports and entertainment.

That’s one of our five intriguing first-half races to watch…

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum - Feb. 6

NASCAR’s drive to create a more diverse calendar will take the sport into a venue that’s hosted nearly everything: Two Summer Olympics (with a third coming in 2028), pro and college football, presidents, popes and rock ‘n roll legends.

The centerpiece is a temporary quarter-mile track inside the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, which aims to provide the fender-banging short track action that the sport was built on.

While the Clash is an exhibition, there’s a lot riding on this.

It’s the competition debut for the Next Gen car, which is being counted on to:

  • Help boost manufacturers Chevy, Ford and Toyota’s street car sales
  • Ensure team owners save money long-term with many parts coming from single-source suppliers
  • Attract new manufacturers with its ability to incorporate electrification
  • Provide great racing, with driver skill again one-upping clean air and track position

It’s an opportunity for the sport to grab a national audience just one week before Super Bowl LVI takes place down the road in Inglewood, California.

And it’s also a chance to engage Los Angeles, one of the world’s creative centers, directly.

Yes, Auto Club Speedway has given NASCAR a foothold in Southern California since 1997. But with respect to the fine citizens of Fontana, California ... Fontana is not L.A.

The City of Angels won’t be easy to crack. But if NASCAR can pull it off, a lot of opportunities could open up for the sport.

Auto Club Speedway - Feb. 27

Speaking of Auto Club Speedway, it’s back after pandemic-related issues played a role in its 2021 races being moved to the Daytona road course (which is not on this year’s schedule).

Auto Club’s return is a big one, too.

Not only will it host the first intermediate track race with the Next Gen car, it will also host the first race with NASCAR’s new speedway rules package for 2022 that includes a 670-horsepower engine and four-inch spoiler. The package will be used at all Cup speedways except Daytona, Talladega and Atlanta.

Meanwhile, we may or may not see the finale for Auto Club in its current form.

The pandemic has disrupted plans to convert the 2-mile oval into a half-mile short track. During NASCAR Championship Weekend this past November, NASCAR president Steve Phelps said he wasn’t sure if the conversion would take place by the 2023 season.

Atlanta Motor Speedway - March 20

Last July, Atlanta Motor Speedway announced it would not only repave its 1.54-mile quad oval for the first time since 1997 but also increase the banking in the turns (from 24 to 28 degrees) and narrow the racing surface.

Marcus Smith, president/CEO of Speedway Motorsports, said that drivers were consulted ahead of the announced track changes. But multiple drivers - most notably Kyle Busch, who asked for a piece of the original surface so he could “cherish what the real Atlanta is like” - indicated they weren’t.

Regardless, the new Atlanta has emerged. Its mission: Produce pack racing a la Daytona and Talladega. Last week, Goodyear tire tests took place.

“Once we got out there in a group, the pace picked up by over a second having the cars draft together,” said Kurt Busch, who won the final race on the original surface and was one of three Cup drivers to test last week along with Chris Buescher and Ross Chastain.

“There’s a lot of speed that you have by yourself and things were amplified way more than what we expected when we had just three cars drafting with each other.”

What will happen when three dozen more cars are added to the mix?

Circuit of the Americas - March 27

Cross your fingers and hope for sunshine.

Last year’s inaugural Cup race at COTA was marred by heavy rains and resulting visibility issues. Two major crashes ensued because of the conditions and the race was cut short 14 laps from the scheduled distance.

A dry do-over would be nice, especially for the Next Gen car’s first road course event.

Road racing has taken on added importance in recent years, and the Next Gen car stands to be more “in tune” with that discipline than the Gen 6 cars were. Remember all the new components coming with Next Gen: Sequential gearbox, bigger brakes, independent rear suspension, a rear diffuser, etc.

But even though they weren’t road racing-centric, the Gen 6 cars put out an entertaining road racing product with drivers that had developed solid road racing skills themselves.

It will be interesting to see if this product remains as good with the more technological Next Gen car.

World Wide Technology Raceway - June 5

With its first NASCAR Cup Series race, the comeback will be complete for the 1.25-mile oval in Madison, Illinois, in sight of St. Louis’ iconic Gateway Arch.

The moment’s been coming for over a decade.

Under the leadership of Curtis Francois, the track - known colloquially as “Gateway” - re-opened in 2012 and regained its previous NHRA and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series dates within a few years.

Then in 2017, the NTT IndyCar Series returned to the track. That race has become an important success for IndyCar on an oval that isn’t the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Now, the top level of America’s most popular motorsport will come to the region that spawned the Wallace brothers, Ken Schrader, and longtime NASCAR sponsor Anheuser-Busch.

Flat and egg-shaped, with Turns 1 and 2 as the tight end of the course, WWTR should provide an interesting challenge for drivers and teams alike.