The White Zone: Takeaways at NASCAR midpoint

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Eighteen down. Eighteen to go.

After the checkered flag flew, Sunday, at Road America, the NASCAR Cup Series reached the halfway mark on the 2022 season. The first 18 races gave us surprises, disappointments, revivals and question marks.

Without further adieu, let’s dive deeper into the biggest takeaways at the NASCAR midpoint.

The White Zone: Takeaways at NASCAR midpoint

Revival of the intermediate tracks

CONCORD, N.C. – MAY 29: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2022, in Concord, North Carolina. Photo: James Gilbert/Getty Images

In May of 2020, I watched the Coca-Cola 600 with fellow NASCAR beat writers Chris Knight of Catchfence.com and Kelly Crandall of Racer.com. After Brad Keselowski took the checkered flag, I told Knight that it was the worst NASCAR race I’ve ever seen.

And I was at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2016, when Martin Truex Jr. led 392 of 400 laps.

It was a microcosm of how far the intermediate/downforce-centric tracks fell.

This season, however, the NextGen car saved the 1.5-mile tracks!

Aside from the god-awful All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway, we’ve seen a return to handling-centric racing at tracks like Kansas Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and others, where driver skill and tire management matter the most.

Case in point: William Byron made a power move on both Ross Chastain and Truex to take the lead at Kansas in May. Furthermore, in that same race, Kyle Larson made a power move on Kurt Busch, but got loose and hit the wall.

To borrow a line from former NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France, this truly is “quintessential NASCAR.” Instead of a terribly handled on-track skirmish, however, it’s in reference to drivers racing on the razor’s edge of control, while using their skill to handle the car.

It’s the type of action that showcases NASCAR at its absolute best. Furthermore, I’d put it up as some of the best racing in the sport of auto racing.

The rise of Trackhouse Racing

SONOMA, Calif. – JUNE 12: Daniel Suarez, driver of the #99 Onx Homes/Renu Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 12, 2022, in Sonoma, California. Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Before the season started, Jeff Gluck, NASCAR writer for The Athletic, predicted that Trackhouse Racing would be the biggest disappointment of the 2022 season.

That take grew so cold, that it turned into dry ice!

Ross Chastain, long arguably the most underrated driver in NASCAR, broke through for his maiden Cup Series victory at Circuit of the Americas. Then did it, again, a few weeks later at Talladega Superspeedway.

Moreover, teammate Daniel Suarez, once left for dead by Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing, scored his first Cup Series victory at Sonoma Raceway.

While Suarez has been hit and miss, this season, both drivers led a career high number of laps in a season and have been in contention for wins at various tracks.

Furthermore, you can make a strong case for either of them winning the championship, when the checkered flag flies at Phoenix Raceway in November.

The White Zone: Takeaways at NASCAR midpoint

The fall of the short tracks and road courses

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – APRIL 9: A general view of racing during the NASCAR Cup Series Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 at Martinsville Speedway on April 9, 2022, in Martinsville, Virginia. Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Gluck summed it up, best.

“The alarm bells started sounding well before the checkered flag waved on NASCAR’s Martinsville Speedway race on Saturday night,” he said. “Or at least they should have for anyone who loves short track racing.

“Martinsville, one of the greatest tracks to ever host a stock car race, saw a dud of a night that turned into one of the biggest disappointments in recent years. This was supposed to be an action-packed showcase for NASCAR’s new Next Gen cars, with all the elements lined up for an exciting race: A Saturday night under the lights, more durable cars that promised full-contact racing, better brakes to help drivers dive into the tight corners and 100 fewer laps than normal to create urgency throughout the event.

“None of that happened. Drivers, limited by a number of factors, couldn’t do anything to put on a good show and it turned into one of the tamest Martinsville races ever. They knew it, too.”

The most damning statistic: Not one of the five lead changes happened on-track, under green. All of them, including the race-winning lead change, happened on pit road.

Instead, you had Chase Elliott dominate half the race. While Byron dominated the other half.

Now a small number of drivers leading 100+ laps at a short track is not uncommon, but in the past, you still had comers and goers.

Not on that Saturday in April.

Blame went around from the cold weather, the lack of tire wear, shifting and the lack of horsepower.

I don’t know how to fix it. All I can do is trust that NASCAR fixes it during tests at Martinsville Speedway.

But if we get another dud like this at NASCAR’s last remaining track from its first season, and in the race that decides who races for the championship, then the hype for more short tracks on the schedule probably dies.

Moreover, road courses have suffered, too.

Take Sunday at Road America. Where Tyler Reddick‘s overtake of Harrison Burton, after his winning move on Elliott, was the lone on-track pass for the lead (Burton had yet to make his final pit stop).

Just like the short tracks, the road courses have lost the comers and goers element that makes road course races fun to watch.

And with road courses making up six of the 36 races on the schedule, something has to change.

The White Zone: Takeaways at NASCAR midpoint

Who’s the favorite to win it all?

MADISON, Ill. – JUNE 3: The full field of the NASCAR Cup Series drivers pose for a group photo prior to practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Enjoy Illinois 300 at WWT Raceway on June 3, 2022, in Madison, Illinois. Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Call it a copout, but I can’t say definitively who’s the breakout favorite to win the Bill France Cup, this season.

Unlike 2021, where Larson broke out and won it all, everybody, this season, has had hot and cold streaks.

Chastain has two wins, but hasn’t led a single lap, since he led 153 at the Coca-Cola 600. Elliott leads the points, but he wasn’t the strongest at Nashville Superspeedway; the Toyotas were.

I could go through every driver, but I digress.

At this rate, I don’t think we’ll know who the favorite to win it all is, until we’re deep into the playoffs.

The White Zone: Takeaways at NASCAR midpoint

In conclusion

TALLADEGA, Ala. – APRIL 24: Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 Moose Fraternity Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 24, 2022, in Talladega, Alabama. Photo: James Gilbert/Getty Images

FOX Sports ran an ad campaign in the 2021 Cup Series season, in which the theme of it called 2021 “the best season ever.”

FOX might have been a season early on that.

Now whether the 2022 season winds up as “the best season ever,” only time will tell. With that said, however, this has been some of the most fun I’ve ever had covering NASCAR, in my eight years on the beat.

With 18 races down, we’ve seen 13 different drivers visit victory lane. Moreover, five of them have been first-time winners. Which ties the modern-era NASCAR record for most first-time winners in a season.

With 18 left, don’t be surprised if this breaks it.

What’s more, with eight* races left in the regular season, a race winner missing the playoffs isn’t an outlandish thought.

*EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this article said six races remained in the regular season.

Of course, I’ll believe it when I see it, but it’s something I never thought would be a realistic possibility.

Regardless of how it all plays out, the roller coaster ride has been fun, so far.

Now let’s see where it goes from here.

That’s my view, for what it’s worth.

TOP IMAGE: Sean Gardner/Getty Images