Through the Field: Year of the Underdog
Who doesn’t love a good underdog story?
We nearly had one of the biggest ones in recent NASCAR Cup Series history at Atlanta this past weekend, with Corey LaJoie coming close to his first career win.
But it’s still been the year of the underdog in 2022.
The Next Gen car has had its faults. And you still would have to say that the regular favorites of old are still the favorites with the new car (besides the emergence of Trackhouse Racing). Still, we have seen it become much more of a “great equalizer” to bring parity and competitiveness back into the field.
There have been five first-time Cup winners this season; part of that is because of the great deal of young/up-and-coming talent, but only one of those five is in their rookie season in Cup. And even that one rookie, Austin Cindric, made multiple Cup starts for Team Penske last season.
We’ve seen 13 different winners taking up 16 playoff spots, leaving out drivers Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr., who are perennial race winners at this point in Cup. There have been entire seasons I’ve watched when it didn’t feel like there were 13 drivers capable of winning races, let alone pulling it off with months left before the playoffs.
But fortunately, we have moved forward, and we are now truly in the year of the underdog. You never know what can happen; even if you think you’re down and out, the circumstances can dramatically turn and alter your fate for the good.
The next two tracks on the Cup schedule could be more favorable to underdogs than we expect; the Magic Mile at New Hampshire and the Tricky Triangle of Pocono have each seen a fair share of unique winners. Here are a few names to watch that certainly could be considered underdogs:
Underdogs Heading into New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Stewart-Haas Racing: Despite another season that has largely been below expectations, we’ve seen Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) have some competitive runs. But, short of Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers nailing a setup at some point, it’s hard to expect any of their four cars to be a favorite for the victory.
But SHR and New Hampshire go together like lobster and butter, especially after an upset win by Aric Almirola last year. These races may be the last shot for the three winless SHR cars to win before the last playoff chance they’ll have at Daytona.
Christopher Bell: Last year’s runner-up at New Hampshire largely feels like a forgotten man in the Joe Gibbs Racing’s (JGR) No. 20 car. This feels especially true after he received members of the No. 23 pit crew that have been subpar at best this season. This same pit crew made a crucial mistake once again on their new assignment at Atlanta.
But Christopher Bell is a talented enough driver in a car that is still better than many in the Cup field. It’s hard to say if he’s growing frustrated with possibly being the lowest priority at JGR, but maybe it will motivate him to perform.
Michael McDowell: Somehow, Michael McDowell has delivered even more this year than in his impressive 2021 season – which included a Daytona 500 win – with more consistent runs. We’ve seen the No. 34 team put together some solid finishes, and maybe they can take advantage of tracks that have seen unorthodox winners, adding their name to that list.