- All three winners so far this season drive for quality teams with winning traditions, but at some point each weekend they had to fight hard to keep unfamiliar competitors at bay.
- Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon credits the new Next Gen car for bringing more parity to the grid than at any time in recent memory.
- NASCAR has seen only five upset victories in the past three-plus seasons by teams other than Hendrick, Gibbs, Stewart-Haas, Penske, RFK, and Childress.
Four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon recently used a somewhat-unusual word to characterize the racing he’s seen through this year’s early-season races at Daytona Beach, Fontana, and Las Vegas.
When’s the last time anybody in NASCAR used the word “refreshing” to describe anything other than a cold beer in July?
That’s how Gordon described the interesting trend that’s featured traditional mid-pack drivers suddenly near the front. He credited the new Next Gen car for bringing more parity to the grid than at any time in recent memory.
“I think it’s been refreshing to see,” the retired Hall of Fame driver said after last weekend’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “I think we’ve seen great racing. We’ve seen cars coming from the back to the front and from the front to the back. The cars are on the edge, but we’ve seen where they can race hard. The drivers are definitely having to show their talent.”
Rookie Austin Cindric showed his talent by winning the Daytona 500 by less than a car-length in only his eighth career Cup start. Defending series champion Kyle Larson won a week later at Fontana, Calif. In a thorough entertaining race not decided until the final few yards. And Alex Bowman got a late-race lucky break to win at Vegas with Larson right beside him. All three drive for quality teams with winning traditions, but at some point each weekend they had to fight hard to keep unfamiliar competitors at bay.
“I think that was the intent of the Next Gen car,” said Gordon, an executive at Hendrick Motorsports. “The idea was to have a car on a more level playing field. I’m proud of NASCAR going with the lower downforce/higher horsepower package for these types of tracks. That (package) puts it more in the drivers’ hands.
“You see guys spinning out by themselves, and we haven’t seen that in years. You see guys catching it, but yet you can tell they’re still pushing and driving hard. I’m incredibly impressed and optimism about what this car has to bring throughout the season, as these guys continue to work on it.’
The list is long, so Gordon mentioned just a few of the traditional backmarkers who appeared to have embraced the Next Gen car more than others. “Yeah, it’s great to see fresh faces and names up front,” he said. “We saw it with Tyler Reddick and Erik Jones at Fontana last week. This week, Ross Chastain was incredibly impressive. I hope we see more of that (because) that’s what the sport needs to continue to grow.”
Greg Ives, crew chief for Bowman at Las Vegas, suggested that the Next Gen car is providing an opportunity for mid-pack backmarkers to finally show what they can do. “If I was sitting there, maybe in the situation where you talk about some drivers sitting in the mid pack, this is a new opportunity,” he said after coaching Bowman to his seventh career victory in Las Vegas. “It’s a new opportunity to take advantage of the resources we have at Hendrick Motorsports, but look at some of those guys with Chevrolet partnership. The teams they have built around, not only Hendrick, but Richard Childress Racing, and Trackhouse.
“It’s not surprising that some of these drivers are up front because of the talent they have. I think leveling the playing field with this car allows for those guys to maybe wheel it a little bit more. Guys like Ross Chastain, who likes it on the edge, can balance that really well. I think he’s always been that way.”
Chastain, in his first year with Trackhouse Racing, led more laps at Las Vegas (83) than in his 117 previous Cup starts combined. Likewise, Reddick was dominant with RCR at Fontana, leading 17 more laps (90) than he’d led in his 76-race career. Cindric’s victory at DIS was the first top-5 finish of his fledgling Cup Series career. Erik Jones took the Petty GMS car to third at Fontana, his best finish in years. A handful of others have run better than they finished, giving hope to more upset victories than usual.
NASCAR has seen only five upset victories in the past three-plus seasons: Justin Haley at Daytona Beach in July of 2019, Michael McDowell in the 2021 Daytona 500, AJ Allmendinger at the Brickyard 400 road course last summer, Bubba Wallace at Talladega last summer , and Cindric at Daytona Beach three weeks ago. The other 111 races have been won by Hendrick, Gibbs, Stewart-Haas, Penske, RFK, and Childress.
Bowman was happy to see Jones and the No. 43 run so well at Fontana. “I think last week was a good example of (mid-pack drivers finishing well),” he said. “I think Erik surprised a lot of us being as fast as he was. That’s a car that historically hasn’t been up there. It was really cool to see the 43 running up front with all the (Richard Petty) history behind it. I think that’s what this new car is all about.”
Then came his word of warning: “My opinion is that you’ll have that a lot through the first half of the season,” he said. “Once the bigger teams get time developing things, you’re never going to shut down the giant teams. I could be totally wrong and there are people way smarter than me making decisions, (but) it will be interesting to see how the year plays out.”
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