Who were the most surprising and disappointing drivers? What was the greatest paint scheme? This is the Best and Worst of NASCAR in 2022.
From Austin Cindric winning his first career race at the Daytona 500 in February to Joey Logano winning his second title at Phoenix in November, the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season was full of entertainment, unpredictability, and controversy. The debut of the Next Gen car promised to bring more parity to the sport, which it did in crowning a record-tying 19 different winners. This included first-time wins for Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain, Tyler Reddick, and Daniel Suarez. Drivers like Chris Buescher, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, and Bubba Wallace snapped long winless droughts as well.
Despite these positives, the Next Gen also brought about several concerns, most notably concussion-inducing hard hits and malfunctioning parts that often caught on fire. The racing was improved at the intermediate tracks with the Next Gen but suffered tremendously at the short tracks.
Through all the different winners and trials of the Next Gen, several storylines emerged to constitute the Best and Worst of NASCAR in 2022. Top drivers and teams rose to the occasion and had career years, while several former stars and powerhouses lagged behind. There were also some memorable races and amazing paint schemes that were matched by equally unenjoyable races and unpleasant paint schemes.
These are my 2022 NASCAR Awards, highlighting the Best and Worst of NASCAR in 2022.
Driver of the Year: Joey Logano
In perhaps the easiest category to award, Logano is the Driver of the Year as he earned his second career championship in 2022. Although his first title in 2018 could be considered somewhat of a “fluke”, considering he was clearly behind Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Kevin Harvick in performance that year, this was not the case in 2022.
Logano’s four victories and 784 laps led were behind only those of Regular Season Champion Chase Elliott, who had five wins and led 857 laps. He also ranked near the top of the sport in top fives (11) and top tens (17). While other drivers like Elliott cooled off down the stretch and failed to perform as well in the Playoffs, Logano heated up when it mattered the most, winning two of the season’s final four races at Las Vegas and Phoenix. He also finished inside the top ten in five of the ten races of the Playoffs. In a season with so much parity, there was no driver that was clearly above the rest like Kyle Larson was in 2021. However, Logano’s consistency all season and ability to win in the clutch are enough to earn him Driver of the Year honors.
Honorable Mentions: Christopher Bell, Ross Chastain, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson
Worst Driver and Team: Ty Dillon and the #42 Petty GMS Motorsports Team
When considering this award, drivers that raced for teams like Spire Motorsports or Rick Ware Racing were left out because they are severely underfunded and lacked performance as a result. To qualify for this category, the driver must have underperformed despite racing for a team that has decent equipment.
Although Petty GMS is not an elite-level team, they are still a relatively well-funded organization that is more than capable of competing for the Playoffs. Erik Jones proved this in 2022, winning the Southern 500, finishing 18th in points, and narrowly missing the Playoffs while driving in the #43 for Petty GMS. Ty Dillon, on the other hand, severely underperformed in the #42 and had the worst season of any driver in the NASCAR Cup Series.
While his teammate was thriving, Dillon had just one top ten, a series-leading nine DNFs, and finished 29th in points. He finished lower in the standings than drivers like Todd Gilliland, Harrison Burton, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Cole Custer, Michael McDowell, and Justin Haley. Each of these drivers either lack the experience of Dillon or are in worse equipment, yet the driver of the #42 managed to perform worse than all of them. Dillon also finished just 33 points ahead of Kurt Busch despite Busch only racing in 20 races due to injury and Dillon racing in all 36.
Petty GMS acknowledged Dillon’s ineptitude as they elected not to resign him and brought on Noah Gragson instead. Dillon will now look for an unlikely bounce-back season with a worse team in Spire Motorsports in 2023.
Honorable Mentions: Harrison Burton, Cole Custer
Rookie of the Year: Austin Cindric
Cindric essentially won this award in February by winning the Daytona 500 and making the Playoffs, especially when considering his only rookie competition was Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland. Burton and Gilliland finished with nearly identically lackluster stat lines, both earning one top five and two top tens with Burton finishing 27th in points and Gilliland finishing 28th.
The overall lack of competition should not take the shine away from Cindric, however, as he had one of the better rookie seasons in recent memory. In addition to winning at Daytona, the driver of the #2 had five top fives, nine top tens, and made it to the Round of 12 in the Playoffs. His stats do not leap off the page by any means, but are very solid for a rookie who had to adapt to the grind of the Cup Series and the new Next Gen car.
Cindric also performed much better than some of his rookie predecessors like Chase Briscoe, Cole Custer, Christopher Bell, and Tyler Reddick. Although all four thrived in the Xfinity Series like Cindric, each struggled mightily in their rookie seasons and were much worse than Cindric in 2022. The sky is the limit for Cindric as he is racing for a top-tier organization in Team Penske and should only find more success as he continues to gain more experience.
Honorable Mentions: N/A
Breakout Driver of the Year: Ross Chastain
With all of the breakouts this season, it was difficult to pick just one driver to win Breakout Driver of the Year, but it has to be Ross Chastain. If anyone predicted in February that Chastain would win two races and finish second in the points standings, they probably would have gotten told to stuff their head into some watermelon. However, the Melon Man shocked everyone in 2022 and had the biggest breakout of any driver in the Cup Series.
In his first year driving the #1 for Team Trackhouse, Chastain had two wins, 15 top fives, 21 top tens, and 692 laps led. All of these stats ranked near the top of the series and helped him to finish second in points. He also produced the most viral NASCAR clip in decades with his video game-like wall run to advance into the Championship 4 at Martinsville.
The one negative of Chastain’s 2022 was his at times reckless driving and the feuds he consistently got into with some of NASCAR’s best drivers, most notably Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, and Kyle Busch. Despite this, Chastain brought some needed energy, personality, and a hard-nosed style of racing that has been missing in NASCAR for quite some time. If Chastain can limit the mistakes, keep being himself, and find victory lane a little more often, he will be a title favorite in 2023.
Honorable Mentions: Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe, Daniel Suarez, Tyler Reddick, Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace
Biggest Disappointment: Brad Keselowski
Nobody expected him to light the world on fire in his first season as driver-owner of RFK Racing, but most predicted that Brad Keselowski would at least be competitive in 2022. Yet, Keselowski was mired in 30th in points for much of the year and had easily the worst season of his career. After making the Playoffs for eight straight years with Team Penske, Keselowski recorded just one top five, six top tens, and went winless for the first time since 2010. He finished 24th in the points standings. The driver of the #6 also suffered constant penalties that ruined otherwise solid performances, including a 100-point penalty in March that effectively ended his season.
Despite all of this, fans of Keselowski have a lot to be optimistic about heading into 2023. It is no secret that RFK Racing (formerly Roush Fenway Racing) was a disaster before Keselowski stepped in as owner. Keselowski, teammate Chris Buescher, and other team officials have said how the team had to undergo large-scale changes in order to improve in the long run. Much of these changes likely led to Keselowski’s disastrous start to the year, but also led to the team making great strides in the second half. Buescher won at Bristol in September, while Keselowski had three top tens in the final ten races. 2022 may have been a huge disappointment for Keselowski, but it might have been necessary for him and RFK to be highly competitive in 2023 and beyond.
Honorable Mentions: Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch, Alex Bowman
Best Paint Scheme: Bubba Wallace’s McDonald’s Scheme
The Next Gen car brought significant changes to paint schemes because the door numbers were slid to the front of the car. Despite this shift, Bubba Wallace’s McDonald’s paint scheme remained stellar and was the best-looking car in 2022. The red, yellow, and white colors along with the animated cheeseburger meal make the car pop off the track. Wallace’s improved performance in 2022 helped this car get more screen time as well, only cementing its place as the Best Paint Scheme of 2o22.
Honorable Mentions: Ross Chastain’s Worldwide Express/Advent Health Scheme, Erik Jones’ Focus Factor Scheme, Christopher Bell’s Yahoo! Scheme, Tyler Reddick’s BetMGM Scheme
Worst Paint Scheme: Austin Dillon’s Breztri Scheme
What a disaster. The teal and gold lines on the side of the car do not mesh well together. There is a random gold globe near the front tires that looks very out of place. The teal on the roof of the car also mutes the iconic #3 yet is simultaneously too bright to look at. The overall color palette is muted as well and leads the car to be an ugly mix of colors that also does not pop off on the track.
The worst feature of the car is the hood, which includes the medical facts of Breztri in large, unappealing letters. The team may have been required to include these facts and had to make them large enough for people to read, but it nevertheless results in perhaps the worst hood in recent history.
The one saving grace for this paint scheme is that Dillon drove this car while winning at Daytona in August, but even that is not enough to fully redeem it.
Honorable Mentions: Kevin Harvick’s Busch: #ForTheFarmers Scheme, Brad Keselowski’s Roush Parts Scheme, William Byron’s Valvoline Scheme, Ross Chastain’s Tootsies Scheme
Best Race: EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas
The Next Gen provided solid competition that produced more than a few memorable races. None of these races were as memorable as the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at COTA in March.
In the Next Gen’s first road course race, it did not disappoint as there were nine different leaders and a Cup road course record of 30 green flag passes for the lead. Ross Chastain led a race-high 31 laps and rose victorious during the thrilling final lap showdown between him, A.J. Allmendinger, and Alex Bowman. After an overtime restart, all three drivers made contact with each other several times and each had a legitimate chance at victory. Chastain appeared finished after Allmendinger sent him out of the groove, but Chastain returned with a vengeance by shoving Allmendinger into Bowman. This allowed Chastain to muster a large enough lead and win his first career NASCAR Cup Series race.
The victory was also the first for Team Trackhouse. With the last lap battle and the drama of it being Chastain and Trackhouse’s first win, NASCAR’s lone trip to COTA earns the nod as the Best Race of 2022.
Honorable Mentions: Quaker State 400 at Atlanta, Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol, Xfinity 500 at Martinsville, South Point 400 at Las Vegas, YellaWood 500 at Talladega
Worst Race: Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 at Martinsville Speedway
There were bound to be a few hiccups in the debut season of the Next Gen. While the racing improved as the year went on, short tracks proved to be the kryptonite of the Next Gen and this became especially apparent at the at Martinsville in April. Chase Elliott and William Byron combined to lead 397 of the 403 laps with Byron leading a race-high 212 laps to earn the victory.
There was very little passing for the lead and throughout the pack. Cars just could not get close enough to each other to do much of anything. There was some drama in the form of an overtime restart, but Byron, as the control car and having clean air, was able to easily pull away from Joey Logano to win.
The lone bright spot for this race is that it proved to NASCAR that they had a lot to work on in regards to the Next Gen’s short track package. This helped them to make adjustments and the short track racing did improve slightly by the end of the year, including when the NASCAR Cup Series returned to Martinsville in November. Hopefully, NASCAR continues to learn and there are no more races like this one.
Honorable Mentions: AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas, Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona, NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix
Biggest Storyline Headed Into 2023: Will the Next Gen improve in Year 2?
A common thread amongst each category of the Best and Worst of NASCAR 2022 was the Next Gen car. After its inaugural season, it is still unclear whether the new car is a success or a failure. The Next Gen did accomplish several of the things it set out to do. There was more parity than ever before as 19 different drivers found victory lane. New teams and drivers emerged to compete with the powerhouse organizations of the sport. Racing at intermediate tracks improved as well, while superspeedway racing remained entertaining as always.
Despite these positives, there are still several areas in need of improvement with the Next Gen. Most importantly, the safety of the drivers appears to be more at risk compared to the previous generations of cars. Several drivers, including Noah Gragson and Denny Hamlin, stated how the Next Gen hits were the hardest they had ever felt. The car also had a problem with hard hits into the wall and rear impacts. Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch received concussions because of hard rear impacts into the wall, forcing them to miss extensive time.
Short track racing, which had been highly entertaining with the old car, severely regressed with the Next Gen as well. The Next Gen also had several critical parts failures, including rubber build-up that caused cars to inexplicably catch on fire, power steering issues, and severe tire drop-off. Kevin Harvick’s championship chances ended because his car caught on fire at the Southern 500, while Daniel Suarez’s also ended because of power steering issues at the Charlotte Roval. The “crappy parts” as Harvick politely put it, must improve on the Next Gen because it consistently impacted race and championship results in 2022.
NASCAR listened to driver concerns as the season went on, so hopefully, they will continue to improve the performance and safety of the Next Gen this offseason. Despite being only its second season in existence, 2023 may be a make-or-break year for the Next Gen.
Honorable Mentions: Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson’s Rookie Years, Old Faces in New Places (Reddick, Busch, Preece, Allmendinger), Jimmie Johnson’s Return to NASCAR
The NASCAR Cup Series had plenty of highlights as well as several lowlights. While there was tons of excitement to constitute the Best and Worst of the NASCAR Cup Series in 2022, one can only hope and expect there to be even more in 2023.