The second race of the 2022 NASCAR season ended in a way fans are familiar with, as 2021 champion Kyle Larson took the checkered flag.
But nothing else about Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway was what fans have seen before. From the drop of the green flag, there were frequent lead changes, a record number of caution flags and a thrilling finish among several unlikely competitors.
With all that said, it’s safe to say the brand new Next Gen car is off to a strong start this season. Drivers and fans alike should be encouraged by the early returns of the Next Gen car, which is the sport’s first new vehicle since 2013.
After two races, who is the driver to beat? Here’s an early power rankings with 24 regular season races still remaining:
1. Austin Cindric
2022 average finish: 6.5
The 23-year-old rookie started his season by winning the Daytona 500 and qualifying on the pole at Fontana. He had a quietly solid performance in Sunday’s race, finishing 12th and running inside the top-10 for most of the day. If he didn’t get collected in someone else’s crash with 40 laps to go, he likely would’ve finished even better. Cindric leads the points standings after two races, which is the latest in a season that a rookie has led the standings since Jimmie Johnson in 2002.
2. Kyle Larson
2022 average finish: 16.5
Larson started in the rear, ran in the top-10 for the entire race and pounced in the final stage to grab his first win this season. After winning 10 races last year – mostly in dominant fashion – this race proved that Larson can win without having the best car. He’s now locked into the playoffs and can solely focus on winning for the next 24 weeks.
3. Ryan Blaney
2022 average finish: 11.0
An 18th-place finish at Fontana didn’t tell the whole story for Blaney, who earned 10 stage points and was in the top-10 all day. The No. 12 pit crew routinely cost Blaney spots on pit road, and in the end it might’ve cost him a chance at the win. Still, his car had the speed and he arguably should’ve opened the season with consecutive top-fives (he was fourth at Daytona). Blaney will be a threat moving forward.
4. Joey Logano
2022 average finish: 13.0
Team Penske’s oldest driver comes in just behind his teammates, Cindric and Blaney. Logano, 31, led 14 laps and finished fifth at Fontana. He was in contention for the win on the final restart, taking it three-wide for the lead in the closing laps. While many of the veterans around him had issues, Logano had a consistent run. Now he heads to Las Vegas next week, where he’s won two of the last three spring races.
5. Kyle Busch
2022 average finish: 10.0
Busch went five laps down in the early going after overheating issues. Fighting the problem all day, he worked his way back onto the lead lap for the final restart with four laps to go and finished 14th. It certainly wasn’t the day he wanted after entering Fontana as the favorite to win, but his team showed impressive fight. Busch and the other Toyota teams will have to sort out the overheating problem if they hope to compete for wins moving forward.
6. Aric Almirola
2022 average finish: 5.5
Almirola announced before the year that 2022 will be his final season before retiring in November. So far, the retirement tour is off to a great start. The Stewart Haas Racing driver owns the best average finish through two weeks, and he was the only driver to score a top 10 at both Daytona and Fontana. With consistency like this, Almirola could be on his way to a playoff appearance in his final season piloting the No. 10.
7. Erik Jones
2022 average finish: 16.0
Perhaps the biggest surprise on Sunday, Jones qualified second, finished third, led 18 laps and scored 18 stage points. The 25-year-old Jones had zero top-fives and nine laps led in the entire 36-race season last year. With increased support from his Petty GMS Racing team, Jones is looking to bring the No. 43 that Richard Petty made famous back to its former glory.
8. Chase Briscoe
2022 average finish: 9.5
The second-year Stewart Haas Racing driver is off to a strong start after finishing third at Daytona and leading 20 laps at Fontana. Even though he finished 16th on Sunday, he ran up front – something he could rarely say last season. He led just 18 laps during his entire rookie campaign in 2021. Sitting at fifth in points, Briscoe is in a good early position.
9. Chase Elliott
2022 average finish: 18.0
It was an eventful day at Auto Club for the 2020 champion. Elliott led 12 laps before hitting the wall and dropping two laps down. After extensive repairs, he found himself back in position to win before Larson mistimed a block and sent Elliott into the wall in the closing laps. The No. 9 finished 26th, but Elliott and Hendrick Motorsports clearly have the speed to win races right now.
10. Tyler Reddick
2022 average finish: 29.5
How is a driver with 2022 finishes of 35th (Daytona) and 24th (Fontana) still in my power rankings? Well, the finishes don’t tell Reddick’s whole story. The Richard Childress Racing driver was the man to beat out in California, leading 90 laps and winning the first two stages. He cut a tire while leading with under 50 laps to go, subjecting him to a poor finish. Now in his third season, Reddick is knocking on the door of that first career victory.
Just missed the cut: Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Denny Hamlin