NASCAR Cup Series
How Kyle Busch Could Add to the Richard Childress Racing Legacy
Sep 13, 2022
Bubba Wallace’s victory on Sunday – the second of his young career – certainly triggered a range of emotions for the popular driver, but it also signified an important trend for the NASCAR Cup Series in 2022. All of it good for the sport.
With the win at Kansas Speedway in Round 2 of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, Wallace became the 18th different race winner of the season – a winner tally reached only three other times since 2001 and eclipsed just once with 19 winners in 2001.
Just as significantly, the most recent “first-time 2022 winners” Petty GMS Racing’s Erik Jones (at Darlington, S.C.) and 23XI Racing’s Wallace earned their trophies in the opening two rounds of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs – although neither driver qualified for the 16-driver Championship. It marks the first time that multiple Playoff races have been won by non-championship eligible drivers.
It’s indicative of how competitive this season has been. And it bodes well for yet another unpredictable night of racing in the Playoff first round cutoff race, the Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway this Saturday night. Already one of the most authentically exciting tracks on the circuit, the Bristol half-miler could easily produce yet another new winner on the season.
Current Playoff driver, Penske Racing’s Ryan Blaney, is still racing for his first victory of 2022, yet is ranked fifth in the Championship standing thanks to amazing consistency. Another likely “first-win of the year” candidate is Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. – the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion – and the top-ranked driver among those who didn’t secure a Playoff position. He’s got seven victories at tracks still remaining in the final eight races – three wins at Martinsville, Va., two at Las Vegas and one at Homestead, Fla. and Phoenix.
“I mentioned it earlier this week that I thought that this could be the first potential year that somebody wins the [Championship] race at Phoenix that’s not part of the Championship Four,’’ said Wallace’s team owner Denny Hamlin, who finished second to Wallace at Kansas and is ranked third in the Playoff standings.
“I don’t know how long the list of new winners is going to get,’’ Hamlin said. “We’re at 18 now. … Everyone has won it legit. Guys go out there and execute and win races. It’s been obviously great for the product because people tune in to not know who is going to be the race winner and I think for the last few years, you tune in and knew that the race – the race is going to be won by one of three organizations, maybe one or two drivers within those organizations.
“It’s good that the love is getting spread around and drivers now that are in equal equipment are able to show what their talent is all about.’’
Jones’ win in the Playoff opener -the fabled Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway – marked the first time a non-Playoff driver has won the opening Playoff race since the format began in 2004. It’s the third career win for Jones, but the first in three seasons - and his first trophy driving the famed No. 43 Petty GMS Racing Chevrolet.
“It’s hard to get attention in the Playoffs when you’re not a Playoff guy,’’ Jones conceded after his victory. “What better way to do it than that (win)? It feels good and I feel like coming up, we’ve got more good tracks. I wouldn’t say this is the only race that we have a shot at ending the year out. … It’s a big testament to the people [on the team] when you can win a Playoff race like that.’’
Not only is there a run on first-time 2022 winners, five drivers have earned their first career wins this season. Penske Racing’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Austin Cindric started it all with a dramatic first NASCAR Cup Series victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe answered three weeks later with his first career win at Phoenix Raceway.
Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain took his first series trophy at Circuit of the Americas and answered it with another at Talladega, Ala. - which hosts a Playoff race on Oct. 2. His teammate Daniel Suarez scored his first win at the Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway this summer. And Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick won on road courses both at Elkhart Lake, Wisc. and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Interestingly, four of these drivers are ranked alongside one another heading to the Bristol first-round elimination race this week – and all currently inside the 12-driver cutoff that would stay championship-eligible in the next round of the Playoffs.
Trackhouse Racing teammates Chastain and Suarez are ninth and 10th, followed by Reddick and Cindric, who holds a slim 2-point advantage over Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch. The two-time series champion Busch, a series-leading eight-time race winner at Bristol, will be racing for the first time since announcing Tuesday his move to Richard Childress Racing in 2023.
Briscoe is ranked 15th, but is only nine points behind Cindric in that all-important 12th place position.
The large slate of race winners and legitimate potential winners has certainly made the season one for the ages. Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson could only shake his head when asked if he could identify an odds-on championship favorite. He couldn’t - and wouldn’t - rule anyone out and neither could his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott, the 2021 series champion.
“There’s been too many people good at different times,’’ Elliott said at Playoff Media Day just before the Darlington Playoff opener. “Just because we have a win more than other people doesn’t mean other people aren’t capable of winning or having a really good day. You have to respect the whole field. There are a lot of really talented drivers and a lot of really smart people working at these teams.
Added Elliott, “I definitely think it’s competitive. Look at how many people have won. I think that answers the question in itself. Any of the guys in this 16 (Playoff field) and even those who didn’t make the 16 could go and win more than one race in the last 10. It’s very competitive.’’