At the risk of sounding like a broken record as I start off season three of sorts of “Through the Field,” a new start is quite often a good thing, no matter how risky or scary it may be.
And while I’m sure I’ve given that moral of the story before in my columns, it’s never been more relevant to the NASCAR Cup Series than now as the Next Gen car made its debut during the Busch Light Clash, NASCAR’s annual preseason event, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum over the past weekend.
The advent of the Next Gen car has perhaps been the largest and most-hyped transition of vehicle type in the history of NASCAR. Before the pandemic, it was supposed to debut in the 2021 season, but its delay to 2022 may have been a blessing in disguise.
To debut the new vehicle at the debut Clash at the Coliseum was a perfect storm, and it couldn’t have gone much better for the sport. While the main event wasn’t as wild as we may have expected (especially after the absolutely bonkers second Last Chance Qualifier race, which saw multiple drivers crash out and the winner get disqualified for jumping the final restart), good racing was still seen all around.
One thing I’m worried about that hasn’t been brought up much is the fact that multiple cars experienced mechanical failures early in the race, and they seemed to happen all at once. Race leader Tyler Reddick, as well as Chase Briscoe, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Preece, were among the vehicles to experience problems in the main event.
Some people say that they miss the days of mechanical failures in races. But with the reports of teams experiencing parts shortages from the vendors which provide the nuts and bolts of this car to each team, it’s worrisome to see issues early. With that being said, no track in the sport is as short and requires as much exertion as the Coliseum did, so I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt for now.
At the end of the day, the Clash was still a bit of a gimmick race and doesn’t tell anywhere near the whole story, but it was a reason to see optimism about that new start that the Cup Series is embarking on. There’s nothing wrong with taking even the small victories to help you move forward.
Moving forward is the name of the game for everyone in 2022, perhaps even for the champion Kyle Larson, whom everyone is trying to catch. Rather than give a more extensive season preview, which we’ll do on our season-opening episode of “The Backroad” next Tuesday, I’ll highlight a few names to watch in the opening races of the season:
NASCAR Drivers to Watch for in Season Openers
Kevin Harvick (and Stewart-Haas Racing as a Whole): 2021 was a down year for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) as a whole, but for Kevin Harvick, it was quite an unexpected step backward. Though he finished in the same spot in points (fifth) as his nine-win 2020 season, 2021 came and went without a trip to victory lane for the No. 4 team.
The 46-year-old elder statesman of the series will hope he doesn’t see a late-career faltering in results similar to Jimmie Johnson, who didn’t win a race in his final three seasons and, outside of his 2016 title, never was higher than 10th in the standings in his final seven seasons. For Harvick and the entire SHR team, we will have to see if the Next Gen car brings back the success that they sorely missed last NASCAR season.
Brad Keselowski: Taking a leap of faith by leaving Team Penske for a driver-owner role at newly-named Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing (RFK), Brad Keselowski is perhaps the most intriguing name to watch in 2022. While he’s obviously had the talent to be a championship contender for most of his career, 2021 was a relatively down year for Keselowski, winning just one race and earning his lowest amount of top-five and top-10 finishes in six years.
It’s not like RFK has been a stellar team lately before the merger either. Its last top-10 finish in the final points standings came with Carl Edwards in 2014, and Ryan Newman finished outside the top 20 in points in the last two seasons in the same No. 6 car Keselowski steps into. Will the new car and ownership bring better luck to RFK or does the downward spiral continue?
Justin Haley: Kaulig Racing is a new team in the NASCAR Cup Series, at least when it comes to racing full-time at NASCAR’s highest level. The team has been successful in the second-tier Xfinity Series and won one of the Cup races it entered last season with AJ Allmendinger at the Indianapolis road course. But its first and only full-time driver in 2022 is Justin Haley, who’s had extensive Xfinity experience with Kaulig as well as Cup seat time with Spire Motorsports, which included a rain-shortened Daytona win in 2019.
Haley is a talented driver, finishing in the top-10 in points in the last two Xfinity seasons. But he’s never won a race at the top two levels outside of Daytona and Talladega, the unpredictable superspeedways of the circuit. His performance at the Clash, running well before being crashed out, brings hope, but it was also a non-points event at a unique track that we won’t see again this year. Seeing how the team performs full-time at the top level will be intriguing.