After a flurry of victories by young drivers to open the 2022 NASCAR season, the veterans asserted their dominance in the seventh race.
Denny Hamlin only led five laps at his hometown Richmond Raceway on Sunday, but they were the laps that mattered most. With a strategy assist from crew chief Chris Gabehart, the 41-year-old Hamlin powered past William Byron in the final run to score his 47th career win.
Seven races into the Next Gen car era, there have been seven different race winners. It’s fair to continue to expect this parity, especially considering the next two tracks on the schedule. Martinsville Speedway (April 9) is the shortest track on the circuit and Bristol Motor Speedway (April 17) is the only dirt track of the season.
So, who’s the driver to beat through seven weeks? Here’s our power rankings with 19 regular season races still to go:
1. Ryan Blaney
Last week: 3
Blaney showed up to his worst statistical track at Richmond and won the pole, won a stage, led 128 laps and finished seventh. Oh, and he’s now tied with Chase Elliott for the overall points lead. Even though he hasn’t finished better than fourth in a race this season, Blaney has been steady every week.
2. William Byron
Last week: 7
Richmond easily could’ve been Byron’s second win of the season, but he was undone by strategy and had to settle for third place. Still, the 24-year-old led a career-best 122 laps and jumped up to fourth in the standings. Byron has led 270 laps on the year, second only to Blaney’s 334.
3. Ross Chastain
Last week: 1
The Melon Man followed up his first career win with an up-and-down day at Richmond. He had a run-in with Blaney and came home in 19th after four straight podium finishes. It ended up being a solid points day, as he finished third in each of the first two stages.
4. Chase Elliott
Last week: 2
Once again, it was a week where Elliott didn’t finish as well as he ran for most of the race. That’s happened several times already this season, and Richmond was no different when he crossed the line in 14th. Stage points have salvaged Elliott’s races this season, and he’s still tied for the points lead, but the team isn’t finishing races where it should be right now.
5. Alex Bowman
Last week: 5
Bowman has quietly put together a strong start to the season since his win at Las Vegas. With his eighth-place run at Richmond, he has five straight finishes inside the top-15, including four top-10 results. As the series’ most recent winner at Martinsville, Bowman should be in the mix again next weekend.
6. Kyle Larson
Last week: 9
The defending champion snapped his cold spell with a much-needed fifth-place finish at Richmond. Prior to Sunday, he posted three straight finishes of 29th or worse. Larson already has a win on the season, but he’ll need to continue getting solid results to work back up the points standings (currently 12th).
7. Joey Logano
Last week: 8
Sunday looked like a sure-fire top-10 finish for Logano until his pit crew had a problem with the jack on his final stop. The two-time Richmond winner finished 17th after placing eighth and fourth in the first two stages. Martinsville (where he has five straight top-10s) and Bristol dirt (where he is the defending winner) should be welcome sights on the upcoming schedule.
8. Martin Truex Jr.
Last week: first four out
On a similar strategy as Byron, Truex could only watch as his teammate Hamlin stormed past him for the win. MTJ finished fourth, his first top-five and sixth top-15 finish of the season. Still, he led 80 laps and was a contender all day. Truex has won three of the last five races at Martinsville, so his first win of 2022 could be on the way.
9. Tyler Reddick
Last week: 6
The consistency is starting to come for Reddick, who is still in search of his first career win. With a 12th-place run at Richmond, he has finished 12th or better in four of the last five races. If it weren’t for untimely crashes at Daytona, Fontana and Atlanta, we’d be talking about Reddick near the top of the power rankings.
10. Denny Hamlin
Last week: not ranked
The only way to categorize Hamlin’s first six weeks of 2022? Abysmal, with no top-10 finishes and three DNFs. That’s all in the past now, as one victory catapulted him into the playoffs. He’s still 20th in the standings, and he only led five laps in the victory, but this finish could be all the No. 11 team needs to go on a hot streak. Hamlin leads all active drivers with five wins at Martinsville.
First four out: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Chase Briscoe, Christopher Bell