Never Stop Driving #26: NASCAR’s Wild 2022
Ford Mustang driver Joey Logano won the NASCAR championship last weekend, but underdog Ross Chastain was the star of the tumultuous and compelling season. We’ll look back on 2022 as the beginning of another surge in popularity similar to what stock car racing enjoyed two decades ago.
The latest stock car, dubbed “Next Gen,” underlined the multiple storylines of the 2022 season. It’s vastly different from its predecessors, with much tighter restrictions on the modifications teams can make. That evened the playing field and negated some of the advantages that rich, long-established organizations like Penske and Hendricks had over lesser-funded teams.
Justin Marks recognized that 2022 was a huge opportunity for his young team, Trackhouse Racing, which is co-owned by the musician Pitbull. The team won three races—unheard of for a green outfit—and also put the first Mexican racer in the winner’s circle, Daniel Suárez. Trackhouse driver Ross Chastain was the early villain of 2022 after punting several drivers into the wall. Two weeks ago, however, he pulled off a fantastically audacious move by riding the outside wall at Martinsville to make up several places and stay in contention for the championship. Even Chastain’s main antagonist, Denny Hamlin, called the move “brilliant.”
There were problems with the new car, including a lack of spare parts, and a section behind the front tire that allowed rubber to build up and catch fire. Driver Kurt Busch suffered a concussion that ended his season and highlighted concerns over the car’s safety. NASCAR president Steve Phelps, who took over the series in 2018, celebrated the 19 different winners in 2022. The series also experimented by hosting the opening race in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and racing on dirt. There was even a Drive to Survive–style documentary series called Race to the Championship that’s pretty good. Phelps said that TV ratings and ticket sales were up.
NASCAR watchers are looking to 2025, when the next TV deal will be in place. The teams, which are now organized like sports franchises, want a larger share of the TV money to offset declining sponsorship revenue. The situation was deftly explained by driver and team owner Denny Hamlin in a podcast with the unofficial mayor of NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
My personal optimism for NASCAR emerges not only from my 14-year-old son’s passion for it, but also because of what transpired at the abandoned North Wilkesboro Speedway. This North Carolina track was once a fixture of stock car racing, but NASCAR abandoned the venue more than a decade ago to take the show to other larger and more modern venues, and the track soon closed. When I stopped by the historic site during a road trip in 2015, I saw faded paint and grass growing from pavement cracks. It was sad.
I’d long been interested in the track and the town it’s named after because it was the home of Junior Johnson, a famous bootlegger, racer, and NASCAR fixture. Johnson was profiled in my favorite piece of sports writing, Tom Wolfe’s The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes! Johnson’s old race shop is near the track and I loved the history of these folks who built cars to outrun the cops and then later raced them. While I’m no NASCAR historian, abandoning North Wilkesboro Speedway seemed like turning away from the sport’s roots.
Earnhardt Jr. was the spiritual leader of a drive to bring the track back. This past summer, the track reopened and Jr. raced there. Crowds were huge. NASCAR then announced that the 2023 All Star race would be held at North Wilkesboro Speedway. My son is dying to go, but the tickets sold out within hours. Sigh. I guess we’ll comfort ourselves with another visit to another historic stock-car track, Bowman Grey. NASCAR fans are obviously hungry for heritage and authenticity.
Speaking of authenticity, our own Tony Angelo, an authentic horsepower lover, bought a $128 turbo from China and plumbed it to the engine in a used Lincoln. We sent a team to capture the challenge of the London To Brighton vintage car run. Henry Catchpole showed us the fetching new BMW M3 CSL. Finally, remember the Excalibur car company? Here’s a piece about the woman who owns it.
Have a great weekend!
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