NASCAR gets underway this Sunday with the Daytona 500. Here’s a preview of the upcoming season.
2022 is shaping up to be one of the most anticipated seasons in recent NASCAR Cup Series history. There’s a new car on track, practice and qualifying have returned, and drivers will get their first – and potentially, last – look at some of the tracks on the schedule. The excitement kicks off this Sunday with FOX’s 19th presentation of The Great American Race – the Daytona 500. Here’s what to watch for as the teams roll into Daytona Beach.
“Next-Gen” is “Now-Gen”
Dubbed the “Next-Gen” racecar, NASCAR’s seventh iteration of stock car evolution made its competitive on-track debut in last week’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. While the previous “Gen-6” car introduced in 2013 was praised for its looks and safety innovations, its on-track performance was nothing to write home about – it struggled to put on good racing, even after NASCAR kept reducing the horsepower output to create closer competition. The Next-Gen car was unfortunately driving down the same path in its initial testing sessions until NASCAR and the drivers got together in November to figure out a game-plan. After a few more trips to the drawing board, the Next-Gen vehicle is in a good spot for the start of the season: it’s harder to drive than the Gen-6 (which should create better racing), it looks more modern and aggressive than any car NASCAR has raced, and it should be less expensive to run and maintain than previous versions.
Unfortunately, the one major hindrance that teams are already running into is parts – or, the lack thereof. In order to curb costs, most of the pieces on the Next-Gen car are sourced from approved vendors (teams pay a fixed price for the parts instead of making them in-house and spending millions of dollars experimenting with and finessing them to gain a slight competitive advantage). However, multiple supply chain issues have teams scrambling to assemble complete cars in time for the Daytona 500, the season’s most prestigious race with the biggest payday. While the burden is expected to lighten as the season rolls on and parts become more easily accessible, there has never been a crunch like this at the beginning of the year.
Practice Makes Perfect
COVID-19 wreaked absolute havoc on American sports, but the Cup Series was able to return after a two-month break in May 2020 and complete its usual 36-race season in both 2020 and 2021. However, one major race weekend procedure has been missing since the onset of the pandemic – practice and qualifying. For the final 32 races of the 2020 season and the majority of races in 2021, drivers and teams showed up with their cars and went racing without any on-track preparation or changes. This was done to limit the amount of personnel at the racetrack during high COVID transmission times, as well as negate any reason for teams to bring back-up cars to the event, which would normally be necessary if a driver wrecked the primary vehicle during a practice or qualifying mishap. Fewer cars equated to less money spent, which was very much needed in a financially-sensitive time.
However, drivers and fans have been lobbying for the return of shortened practice sessions and some sort of qualifying since last year, and they’re finally going to get their wish. Gone are the weekends of three, sometimes four, hour-plus practice sessions with qualifying thrown in there as well over Friday and Saturday before the big race on Sunday; these new practice sessions are short, sweet, and allow a driver and the team to get a feel for the racetrack before having to go lay down a fast lap in qualifying immediately after. Less time on the track should reduce wear and tear on equipment, which, in turn, will save teams money. So while practice and qualifying are indeed returning for NASCAR’s top-three series in 2022, they’re going to look much different and abbreviated than we’ve ever seen before.
First Impressions and a Fond Farewell?
2021 saw the biggest schedule shakeup in more than twenty years in NASCAR’s top series: three new tracks were added (Nashville, Circuit of the Americas, and Road America), two tracks were completely dropped (Chicago and Kentucky), one was covered in dirt (Bristol), one moved from an oval configuration to a road course layout (Indianapolis), and two tracks lost their second race dates (Dover and Michigan) while two tracks gained a second date (Darlington and Atlanta). 2022 won’t see near that many changes to the schedule, but there are a few things to note:
Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California could see its last races on its current configuration when the Cup & Xfinity Series visit on the weekend of February 25th-27th. NASCAR originally announced in 2020 that the two-mile Southern California superspeedway would be remodeled into a half-mile short track after its 2021 race and the excess land would be sold off to pay for the construction. Unfortunately, NASCAR didn’t make the annual trip to Fontana last February due to COVID concerns, and so the project has been delayed.
But after last week’s inaugural Busch Light Clash at the LA Coliseum, drivers and fans are wondering if Southern California needs two short tracks in the same vicinity. The Clash at the Coliseum was a test for a new type of “stadium-racing” and it was immensely successful in terms of in-person attendance, TV viewership, and racing product. It would be a no-brainer to go back to the Coliseum in the future and do it again, which makes Auto Club’s impending refurbishment a little less certain.
A major repave and reconfiguration has the 1.5 mile Atlanta Motor Speedway on everybody’s watchlist this year. The venue underwent a much-needed facelift after its July race weekend when part of the track surface started to come up during the Cup race, but the track itself has also been slightly reconfigured. The banking has been raised from 24 degrees to 28 while the width has been reduced from 55 feet to 40. Initial testing has been conducted and drivers believe the track will race like a massive superspeedway, such as the iconic Daytona International Speedway in Florida or the thrilling Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, where drivers are on the gas pedal the entire lap without having to brake in the corners. The March 18th-20th weekend will host the Cup and Truck Series while the July 8th-10th weekend will have the Cup and Xfinity Series in town.
One week after Atlanta’s return, Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas will host NASCAR’s top three series for the second time, but the jury’s still out on how the Cup cars will race there. That’s because last year’s event was run entirely in wet conditions, and it was a mess to say the least – visibility was almost non-existent, drivers kept sliding off-course due to standing water, and several multi-car crashes put a damper on NASCAR’s first new permanent road-course in its premier series since 1989. The race was eventually stopped and called early due to the persistent rain leading to safety concerns. So after last year’s “raincheck,” fans are eager to get back to COTA on the weekend of March 25th-27th to see how the series will race in the dry (or the wet again, we can’t predict the weather). Surely it can’t be any crazier than last year’s attempt.
The only brand new track being added to the Cup Series schedule this year is World Wide Technology Raceway, casually known to fans as Gateway Raceway, in Madison, Illinois. This track has hosted IndyCar, Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, ARCA Menards, and even NASCAR Truck and Xfinity series events in the past, but the premier series has never run there in the track’s 54 years of existence. Originally left for dead in the early 2010’s after IndyCar and NASCAR’s lower series left for other venues, Gateway was revitalized under new management and even found a naming rights sponsor in World Wide Technology beginning in 2019. Fans have said for years that Gateway deserves a Cup race – only time will tell if those people actually show up for the event and watch it on TV. The Cup and Truck Series roll into Prairie State on the weekend of June 3rd-5th for a much-anticipated weekend of racing.