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.

In 2015, the then abandoned North Wilkesboro Speedway still had signage from when NASCAR’s premier class was called the “Winston Cup Series.” Larry Webster

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.

The historic short track is just over a half mile and could seat nearly 20,000 spectators. Larry Webster

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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Comments

    I used to be such a big NASCAR fan since I was little and had to watch 15 min bits on ABC Wide World of Sports. Today I really don’t care that much anymore.

    Too many marketing people vs true racers are running this crap show. They have a points system where a driver can sit out 11 weeks and win a championship while the others make each race? What kind of sense is this! That is no real championship.

    Today too many drivers are not chosen for their skill anymore behind the wheel. Today great drivers like we had in the past would never get a ride.

    I did like the racing returning back to Wilksboro.

    NASCAR needs to get back to the roots. Stop trying to be all things to everyone. They are never going to surpass the NFL so they need to accept that. The they need to let the teams have a bit more of an area to work in and if it is detrimental then ban it. It is not cheating till they make a rule against it.

    As for the new cars. They changes too much too fast. I saw from the start and saw cars hitting the wall that show little damage. This was the same thing Indy Roadsters in the 50’s faced. They could hit the wall and kill the drive as the frame had no give and then the car would make the race a week later with a new driver and sheet metal nose. They need to make the front and rear clip buckle more and more crush on the side panel.

    If needed NASCAR needs to focus more on their roots in the south and mid west. Places like LA really don’t car. You can 250,000 people in the south to drive hundreds of miles to the middle of no where for a race but the folks in LA will not drive 20 miles. But the LA folks will drive to Vegas for other reasons and a race.

    Racing is going to face some real economic challenges and just removing the seats at the track will not cover it any longer.

    Too bad Dale Sr is not here as he understood the future but he also understood the past. I note that Jr pays a lot of attention to the past and many of the answers to the problems we are having are in the past.

    You hit many things on the head that Nascar needs to address. Personally, I do not care for the stage racing. Races should start at the drop of the flag and end with the checkers. Also, no competition yellows to check for tires and the single lug nut idea should go by the wayside. Autos have 5 or 6.and the pit stop is part of the show. As Nascar tracks put advertisements over seats on most tracks maybe they will figure it out.

    It is Bowman GRAY stadium, not grey. Named after James Gray, also of the extended RJR family and THE MAJOR benefactor to establishing the now world famous Medical School at Wake Forest BAPTIST hospital in Winston-Salem, NC.
    Maybe to take care of the injured stock car drivers? HAHA!

    I moved from LA to Charlotte back in 92, used to be the NASCAR boys were at supermarkets hocking Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (Mark Martin), Elliot at McDonald’s, a really exciting “Speed Street” in downtown Charlotte. Hendrick’s shop outside Concord was actual steel type garage with a couple of buildings, 2 buildings for 4 drivers, Huge race crowds, good times, then the M-O-N-E-Y got BIG, just like NHRA Drag Racing, then came the “SUPER” teams. Remember the last “Independent” one car champion, his first name was Alan and that was in 92. Drivers are now like Movie, Music, or other so-called celebrities. Sport changed from “racing” to “entertainment”. I remember when NHRA logo was “Dedicated to Safety and Speed”, now “Championship Drag Racing”. Both grew too fast and money got in the way, the guys on “budgets” are not able to compete, not even the lowest level of NASCAR’s Truck Series. Oh well, guess it is progress.

    I know these times are a changing. It is what it is. As Springsteen sang back in 84, “Glory Days”. I am glad to see North Wilkesboro is returning, maybe Rockingham.

    These days I go to Charlotte, VIR, Road Atlanta for SVRA and Trans Am. When I walk the pits and watch the teams work, talk to a driver. It reminds me of the days growing up 1 mile from Lebanon Valley Dragstrip and 1/2 Clay Oval. At the drags seeing Shirley Muldowney in her little dragster and then on to FC and TF. Watching 16 Funny Cars and guys “recruiting” local help for the day. But then it was a “hobby” or “passion”, some made a few bucks, most didn’t.

    I was at Bowman-Gray back in 2009 to see a Saturday race. It was great, some of the locals I met told me of some history and made sure to say anybody who was anybody in Nascar had their start there. Time your visit there to go on down to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Memorial Day Coca-Cola race. As time goes by I can only hope to visit Bowman-Gray again.

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