The finale of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season wound up being a nearly perfect summation of the imperfect campaign that it had just wrapped up. A most apropos period stamped at the end of a story that had been written since the first green flag was waved over NASCAR’s 74th season, 274 days earlier in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
There was plenty of drama at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday. There was controversy. There was good racing. At one point, the Championship 4 were: 1. Leading. 2. Running third. 3. Running in the top 10 despite believing that his engine was blowing up. 4. Fighting to get back onto the lead lap after a run-in with the car that was now running third.
But in the end, not even all of that could quite get out from underneath the cloud of a story that no one saw coming. The latest stanza in a broken record of a theme that has dogged the latter stages of what had been one NASCAR’s most remarkable seasons. Bad news acting like an annoying lapped car that refused to get out of the way.
“I think that this has been one of the craziest years in NASCAR history. It has to be, right? It certainly has been from my perspective,” said Joey Logano, shortly after becoming only the 17th multitime champion of NASCAR’s premier series. “We are definitely going to celebrate. But there is also a lot of work to do this winter. A lot of introspection. There always is, but this winter feels like there’s a lot to be done by everyone in the sport.”
Logano drives for Penske Racing, a team with whom he has now won 29 races and a pair of Cup Series titles. But before he signed with Roger Penske in 2012, he spent his first four full seasons at stock car racing’s highest level as a driver for Joe Gibbs Racing. He had been anointed as the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, famously nicknamed “Sliced Bread,” as in “greater than …” But he was also thrown into the deep end at 18 years old and indeed drowned, labeled by many as a bust after “only” two wins in the same car that Stewart had used to win 33 races and become a legend.
Among his de facto bosses at JGR was Coy Gibbs, son of Joe, the team’s namesake and a Pro Football Hall of Famer who had just wrapped up his second stint as head coach of Washington, with Coy, a former all-star linebacker at Stanford, on his staff. As Logano was moving on in 2013, Coy Gibbs was moving up the ladder at JGR. He eventually ascended to the role of co-chairman, helping to oversee the team that had Logano’s former ride, the No. 20 Toyota, now driven by Christopher Bell, alongside Logano in the Championship 4 at Phoenix on Sunday. On Saturday night, Coy’s son Ty Gibbs won the Xfinity Series title in a JGR machine. Hours later, Coy died in his sleep at the age of 49, the news announced by the team just as prerace ceremonies were beginning.
“What I want to do is say a prayer for Joe Gibbs and the loss he had,” Penske said as he met with the media in the Phoenix Raceway media center, while Logano and the team were still going through the post-title photo dance outside. “That’s more important than a win or a championship.”
It is difficult to recall a NASCAR Cup Series season that began with as much excitement and hope as this one did in February 2022. That historic exhibition race in the L.A. Coliseum generated a wave of positive energy that carried the sport well into summer. That was followed by a Daytona 500 that set the tone for what has been, inarguably, the most top-to-bottom competitive season since NASCAR’s premier series debuted in 1949, with the shocking victory of Penske’s Austin Cindric, a rookie, winning “The Great American Race.”
Cindric was the first of an incredible 19 different winners over 36 races and the first of a remarkable five first-time winners. That parity even managed to crash the postseason, as half of the 10 playoff races were won by drivers who had already been eliminated from title contention.
The catalyst for this level playing field was the so-called Next Gen race car, a product of years of unprecedented cooperation between NASCAR and its three auto manufacturers. It is a one-size-fits-all machine, the closest to an actual “stock car” that NASCAR has fielded in more than 60 years. Next Gen was designed with the hope of cutting costs, narrowing the engineering gap between little teams and superpowers, all while producing entertaining door-to-door racing.
It largely accomplished all of the above, and NASCAR was rewarded with rising TV ratings, ticket sales and that desired parity. Suddenly, second-tier teams such as Trackhouse Racing were title contenders. Trackhouse’s Ross Chastain was the racer chasing Logano to the checkered flag at Phoenix, in the postseason via his win at the Circuit of the Americas road course and the Talladega Superspeedway, vastly different races won in the exact same car.
But as summer gave way to fall, the new machine also began producing concerns about an unforeseen price being paid by the drivers behind the wheel. Veterans such as Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin had voiced safety concerns throughout the year, and Harvick’s scramble from his car as it burst into flames during the Southern 500 at Darlington became a visual flashpoint for the debate. Then a pair of would-be title contenders in Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch had their efforts cut short by concussions, with Busch ultimately stepping away from full-time racing. Racers said that the frame of the car is too stiff to properly protect them during rear impacts. Then they said they were frustrated by NASCAR’s refusal to heed their warnings during the season’s hot start.
In the midst of that very public safety debate, Bubba Wallace received a one-race suspension for a rage-fueled crash of Kyle Larson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the first Cup Series driver parked by NASCAR for an in-race incident in seven years. Not for the fight that came after the accident, but rather for committing the ultimate racing sin: purposely hooking a competitor’s car in the right rear while racing at speed and in traffic.
In the two races that followed, the focus returned to the racing itself and the buzz about the buildup to the Phoenix showdown of Logano, Chase Elliott, Bell and Chastain, who singlehandedly turned the conversation to on-track action when he used a wall-riding video game move at Martinsville Speedway to make the Championship 4 in the final turn of the year’s penultimate race. Even when that turned into a “Should drivers do that?” argument, at least it was a racing-based debate.
For 312 laps, Phoenix provided flashbacks of every chapter of the 2022 NASCAR story. There was the news about Gibbs that deflated every heart in the paddock. The Next Gen machine provided good racing once again, but it also once again sent a racer — Logano’s former teammate Brad Keselowski — scrambling out of a fire after a seemingly run-of-the-mill wreck. When Bowman, in his first race back after five weeks on the sidelines, hit the wall to bring out the race’s final caution, one couldn’t help but pause and worry if he had reaggravated his concussion-like symptoms.
Ultimately, evening arrived with a closing-laps showdown between Logano and Chastain, a future Hall of Famer driving for a superpower team versus an upstart underdog employed by what was supposed to be a second-tier team but has benefited all season from that same new model of car and the parity that came with it. Logano won, cementing his place among the sport’s all-time greats. Now NASCAR hopes that the season as a whole does the same, remembered in the long run more for the amazing competition it produced instead of the bad news that seemed to always be lurking in the rearview mirror throughout fall.
In response to the complaints about communication, NASCAR has held meetings with the drivers as a group throughout the fall. The engineers at NASCAR’s Research & Development Center spent October conducting crash tests on a new rear bumper and rear clip design for Next Gen that will be implemented next season. During his annual “State of the Sport” news conference at Phoenix, NASCAR president Steve Phelps pledged to keep those meetings going and keep the work moving forward.
“I think the communication between the sanctioning body and the drivers over this past five or six weeks has completely shifted the narrative on how the drivers are feeling about the area of safety or ‘race ability,’ whatever it is the concerns are,” Phelps said. “The conversations we’re having with the drivers, you can tell there’s a difference in how the drivers are speaking even to all of you [in the media].”
Can the early-season energy of 2022 be recreated? Can the unpredictability of the 2022 racing results be repeated? Can NASCAR race its way out from the under the specter of bad news all the way until a season’s end?
The Daytona 500 will be here sooner than later. The 2022 title bout is over. Now NASCAR can begin its fight with fixing this car over the offseason.
But first, maybe just a brief pause to catch one’s breath.
“I don’t really care about 2023 right now,” Elliott said following the accident with Chastain that knocked him out of the championship race, and unknowingly speaking for the entire garage. “We had five wins on the season, and we had — you tell me what the stats are. That’s how you would assess it, right? I know we won five races. That’s more than we did last year.
“But do not tell me what the countdown clock [to Daytona] is because I don’t want to know.”