Melillo’s Mind: Recapping a busy NASCAR off-season
The NASCAR off-season was not a quiet one by any means, but then again, when is it ever? There have been plenty of things to talk about. This upcoming season just might be the most radical in quite some time.
Transitioning from the Generation 6 NASCAR Stock Car to the NEXT Gen vehicles takes the top spot, but what else dominated the headlines entering this upcoming season?
Here are arguably the ten biggest story lines heading into Daytona qualifying tomorrow (February 16th) at the World Center of Racing:
10. Xfinity / Truck field sizes right-sized for 2022
One of the earlier announcements from NASCAR came later in the season when it was announced that qualifying and practice would be returning to the weekend schedules in 2022.
Before the pandemic hit, field were downsized to 36 Xfinity cars starting and 32 Camping World trucks starting. Once qualifying went away, those field were re-expanded to 40 for both.
In 2021, if there was qualifying, the normal fields would consist of 36 Xfinity cars or Camping World trucks. When there was no qualifying or practice during most of 2021, NASCAR allowed the lower series to start up to 40 cars or trucks on those weekends.
Moving forward, the field size for the NASCAR Xfinity Series will be expanded to 38 starters and the Trucks will stay at their pandemic amount, 36 starting. They will both continue to utilize owners points for provisionals.
9. 2022 Schedule Changes
It is a bit of a different looking calendar for 2022 across all three series. The NASCAR Cup Series schedule gains Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 27th) and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (June 5th) while it loses the Daytona Road Course and a date from Pocono Raceway. Cup will also return to the Bristol Dirt Track, Road America, Circuit of the Americas and Nashville Superspeedway.
For the NASCAR Xfinity Series, a date with Portland Int’l Raceway appears on June 4th, the first NASCAR National Series visit since the 1990’s when the trucks came to play. Speaking of the trucks, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series returns to both Sonoma Raceway (June 11th) and Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis (Aug. 29th).
Sure, these things were announced before last season ended, but for argument’s sake, it will be good to keep in mind as we enter another calendar year.
8. New Teams, Charter Realignment
The NASCAR Cup Series team landscape is a little different than it was a year ago. No longer in the field are Chip Ganassi Racing, StarCom Racing or two of the Rick Ware Racing cars. In their place, we have a second 23XI Racing ride for Kurt Busch, a second Trackhouse Racing entry with Ross Chastain, Two Kaulig Racing cars and second Petty car now partnered with GMS Racing.
For Busch and Chastain, the moves came due to the sudden departure of Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR program, snatched up by Pitbull and Justin Marks’ Trackhouse Racing, due to the fact that their one leased charter from Spire was sold over to the Kaulig program.
On top of that, Rick Ware’s half Petty charter from Petty Ware Racing was taken back when GMS Racing stepped in to purchase the rights to Richard Petty’s team. The other Ware charter? Well, since Spire sold off two of theirs, that one is in the hands of Spire for the season to field the 77. Denny Hamlin thought he had that one and then he didn’t, so they ended up dealing to take the StarCom one.
StarCom will still have a presence, but they’ll do it without a charter. They’ve partnered with Floyd Mayweather’s The Money Team to field an entry for Kaz Grala in the Daytona 500. Also, Greg Biffle will attempt to qualify in the NY Racing No. 44 this weekend.
7. Team Alliances
There’s a constant talk of teams aligning together to share data and information for better results. With a new car, these alliances might be more important than ever before. I don’t know if there’s any new data here, but it’s good to keep tabs on who’s sleeping with who.
One of the most known alliances belongs to Team Penske together with Wood Brothers Racing, as they’ve been for years. Likewise, RFK Racing and Front Row Motorsports will continue to share information under the Ford banner as well.
One of the things with Rick Ware Racing downsizing comes with the switch fully to Ford Performance. They’ll be partnering up, technically speaking, with Stewart-Haas Racing this season, as well as Live Fast Motorsports. RWR’s former partners at Petty, now together with GMS Racing, will be working together again with Richard Childress Racing in 2022.
In fact, Richard Childress Racing seems to have a whole fleet of associated teams for Daytona this weekend. They’ll have their own two cars driven by Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick, the two Kaulig Racing cars,Trackhouse Racing’s two cars, the unchartered No. 62 entry with Beard Motorsports, the No. 44 of NY Racing, and the two Petty GMS entries, one of which includes Childress’s grandson Ty Dillon.
Spire Motorsports and JTG Daugherty Racing have help from Hendrick Motorsports again this season, but don’t expect those entities to be on the same level. For Toyota teams, once again you’ll see Joe Gibbs Racing and 23XI Racing under the same alliance as a year ago. I mean, Denny Hamlin does drive for Gibbs, so as long as that’s true, I’d expect this to continue.
6. Keselowski takes driver/owner role with Roush Fenway
RFK Racing might sound like a new name, and it is, but it’s the same Roush Fenway Racing it has always been, just with the addition of one Brad Keselowski to the ownership of the company, as well as the new driver of the No. 6 Mustang.
Since 2010, Keselowski has been in the flagship ride at Team Penske. A champion in 2012 took his career to new heights, and after owning a successful truck team and subsequently closing it, he said one day he’d like to get back into the ownership side of things.
Now, he has that shot to bring Roush back to relevance for the first time since Carl Edwards left the team in 2014. Sure, RFK has had wins with Ricky Stenhouse Jr, but the team hasn’t really competed on a weekly basis, or for a championship since Carl’s exit.
I don’t think anyone, even Brad, expects the team to compete right away. It will likely be a building project for a year or two, but Keselowski knows how to be “Penske Perfect”, and I expect that to rub off on his new endeavors with the No. 6 and No. 17 in the future.
5. Rookie Class of 2022
The No. 2 and the No. 21 are two of the most iconic numbers in NASCAR. This season, they’ll have new blood behind the wheel. Austin Cindric, the 2020 Xfinity Series champion, will have the reigns of the deuce in place of Brad Keselowski.
The original announcement was that he’d be in the No. 21, but after Keselowski left, the No. 21 needed a driver. Matt DiBenedetto wasn’t invited back, so the Wood Brothers brought Harrison Burton into the fold to race for top rookie honors alongside.
They’ll be joined by another Ford driver, Todd Gilliland, who will take up the mantle of the No. 38 for Front Row Motorsports.
Even though Justin Haley will be competing for the first time fully in 2022, for one, he has a win already after that rain-shortened Daytona race, and two, he’s made enough starts in the No. 16 and No. 77 to be considered not a rookie this season.
4. Package Refinement
There’s been a bit of a battle for the soul of the NEXT Generation, specifically the specifications of the NASCAR NEXT Gen cars. Originally, it looked like it would be another year of low power and high downforce, a package that polarized the fan base over the last few seasons.
After extensive testing, NASCAR decided to give back a little power. While Daytona, Talladega and the newly repaved Atlanta Motor Speedway will see 510 HP and a tall spoiler, everywhere else will have a 4-inch spoiler and 670 HP.
More power, smaller back blade. Drivers seem to enjoy that package the most. Now the only question is, will it produce good racing with this new car?
3. Parts Shortage?
One of the biggest topics so far as we enter the season is a possible parts shortage as team attempt to make enough cars to make each event over the season.
Even the big teams seem to be scrounging to make enough of a fleet for the start of the season. Many teams are only bringing one car to Daytona, praying that it will be enough to make it through the end of the day on Sunday.
Beyond that, with the West Coast Swing and the races following that, it also might be a bit of a stretch to get the most out of a minimal amount of race cars. This will continue to be a storyline as the season progresses, I think.
2. LA Coliseum Clash
To kick off the season, NASCAR went West to Los Angeles for a once-in-a-lifetime event, well so far at least. Inside of the LA Memorial Coliseum, the home of some of the biggest football games and the Olympics on more than one occasion, NASCAR built a quarter-mile race track.
Since the beginning of the Busch Clash, the race has been held at Daytona. Mainly on the Superspeedway, but last year, they took to the Road Course to change things up. This year would be different, and all the teams would be invited to participate.
The event introduced asphalt heat racing to get a final starting grid of 23 cars. When it was all said and over with, Joey Logano was victorious over Kyle Busch.
It was an incredible feat to see succeed. Together with iRacing, NASCAR built the track from scratch, implemented it in the real world, and put on one hell of a show. It will be interesting to see where this leads in the future of the sport.
1. THE NEXT GENERATION CAR
Speaking of the future of the sport, the future is NOW. The next generation of NASCAR stock car is here and it is the NASCAR NEXT Gen. The seventh generation of racecar includes a Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang and Toyota Camry.
It’s a completely different philosophy of car. It has rack-and-pinion steering as opposed to its previous steering box. There’s a five-gear sequential, long gone is the four-speed. The wheel is bigger, wider, and only had a single lug nut. The rear-view mirror isn’t a mirror, but it’s a live camera mounted on the roof facing backwards.
There are safety innovations added, and they sound a lot growl-ier. It’s a different car altogether. Oh yeah, they moved the number placement on us too! They look, feel, sound different. They put on a great show in the Clash, but how will they perform for the rest of the season and beyond?
DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
Stay tuned to TheRacingExperts.com as we’ll have on-site coverage of the event at this year’s Daytona 500.
Justin Melillo View All
Columnist / Reporter / Photographer / Webmaster for TheRacingExperts.com
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