NASCAR awards: Our driver of the year, top race and more from the 2022 season

It’s once again time to reflect back on the NASCAR season and hand out some awards. You may or may not agree with what’s listed below, but one thing is for sure — no one could have predicted most of what was seen this year, even if handed a crystal ball in February before the Clash.

Let’s dive in.


Driver of the Year: Joey Logano

Up until the start of the third round of the playoffs, Chase Elliott seemed certain to win this award. At that juncture, he had won a series-best five times, had rolled to the regular-season points title and felt like a lock to again advance to the Championship 4 round for a third straight season.

And while Elliott did, in fact, make it to Phoenix with a shot at the title, he did so despite an underwhelming semifinal round performance that saw him finish 21st, 14th and 10th. That he got as far as he did, had more to do with what he had done during the regular season than the playoffs, and in the buildup to the championship finale, he was no longer the clear favorite.

The distinction of “title favorite” belonged to Joey Logano, an assertion he himself made well known in the days leading up to the race. He backed it up by capturing the pole in qualifying then rolling to the race and championship by leading 60 percent of the laps and never really being threatened by any of the other three finalists. The title was his second, and unlike his first in 2018, there were no questions about his worthiness as champion.

Looking at the totality of the season, although Elliott displayed better consistency than Logano, the champion’s statistics did not noticeably pale in comparison to Elliott’s. Logano had just one fewer win and top-five finish, an average finish that was only one spot worse and led 73 fewer laps. That’s not enough to tip the scales in Elliott’s favor, especially when you consider that Elliott was largely a nonfactor in the playoffs while Logano excelled.

Honorable Mentions: Elliott; Ross Chastain; Christopher Bell; Tyler Reddick

Best Race: Clash at the Coliseum

Everyone has different criteria when it comes to determining what constitutes a “great race.” The voting results in the “Was It a Good Race?” poll from my colleague, Jeff Gluck, make that apparent every single week. Some people think it should be whether a race had enthralling action from beginning to end, others focus on the finish and if the winner was in doubt until the checkered flag waved, and there are those who think a race is defined by whether something unforgettable occurred that will be remembered for years to come.

All sides have their own perspectives and none of them are wrong.

From this point of view, however, when looking at the 38 Cup Series races on the schedule, one stood out more than any other: the Clash at the Coliseum.

Going into that weekend, no one knew what to expect. Could NASCAR actually construct a purpose-built racetrack inside a football stadium. Could that track actually hold up for the duration of a race? Would the racing be any good?

Across the board, the Clash proved a success, exceeding all expectations. There were zero issues with the track, the racing was competitive, and everyone from fans to drivers to teams to NASCAR’s decision-makers were ecstatic with how the event turned out.

And when determining which race deserved the reward, we’re taking into consideration how this exhibition race could shape NASCAR’s future. The Clash was a game-changer, one of those races that will be looked back on as a seminal moment that altered our idea of ​​what a track could be and where it could be located. The Clash demonstrated that NASCAR could build a functional racetrack inside a stadium, opening up the possibility that NASCAR will expand the idea into untapped markets like New York City or abroad that don’t have an already-built track but do have a stadium that could be utilized.

Honorable Mentions: Daytona 1; Fontana; Las Vegas 1; Kansas 1; Charlotte 1; Michigan; Watkins Glen; Darlington 2; Kansas 2

Worst Race: Texas playoff race

Expectations are always kept in check whenever it pertains to the quality of racing at Texas Motor Speedway, as the much-maligned 1.5-mile track has a well-deserved reputation for being the worst on the NASCAR schedule. And yet, even as low as the bar is for Texas, in 2022, that bar somehow dropped even lower.

Just how bad were the two races held at Texas, the non-points All-Star Race and its annual playoff race? Of the 261 races tabulated in the “Was It a Good Race?” poll, the All-Star Race ranks dead last with only 11 percent of voters liking it and the playoff race is second to last at 13.4 percent.

That Texas has the two lowest-rated races since the poll’s inception is both mind-blowing and not at all surprising. The track in its current configuration simply does not put on an entertaining product. Mention the track to a NASCAR fan and the strong likelihood is that their face will take on a look of disdain.

So then, now that we know which two races are in the final running for the dubious distinction of being labeled the “Worst Race of 2022,” which one gets the award? A strong case could be made for either, but ultimately the winner — if you want to call it that — is September’s playoff race.

In addition to the usual monotony associated with Texas — little passing and a strung-out field — the playoff race featured a new wrinkle in that a rash of drivers suffered tire blowouts that factored heavily into a track-record 16 cautions. And three times a driver suffered a failure while leading. No, the track wasn’t the sole culprit for the failures, as Goodyear and the teams deserve their fair share of blame too, but it underscores the fact that this configuration is not suitable for modern-day NASCAR. Changes are needed in a big way and soon.

The repeated tire issues marred what is supposed to be a showcase event carrying championship implications. Instead, fans were treated to a race that felt a bit like a crapshoot — you knew that a driver would soon suffer a blowout, you just didn’t know who. It was embarrassing. Not at all how a playoff race should transpire.

Honorable Mentions: Martinsville 1; Charlotte 2; Indianapolis; Richmond 1; Richmond 2

Crew Chief of the Year: Paul Wolfe

Logano, crew chief Paul Wolfe, and the Team Penske No. 22 team were collectively frustrated coming off a dismal outing at Dover where Logano finished 29th and four laps behind race winner Elliott. Figuring out the Next Gen car was confounding the team, changes that had worked previously were no longer having the desired effect, and self-doubt had become the overriding emotion.

Recognizing that a frank conversation needed to be had, Wolfe sat down with Logano that week to engage in some serious self-analysis. It wasn’t an easy discussion, but what emerged was a different approach that immediately changed the fortunes of the No. 22 team. The next week at Darlington, Logano won his first points race of the season. He won again three races later at Gateway. And by the time the regular season concluded later that summer, he had earned the second seed.

Wolfe isn’t just the Crew Chief of the Year because of his willingness to be blunt with his acclaimed driver who happens to be a former champion, although it certainly factored into the decision.

He also deserves the award because of how effectively he guided Logano through the playoffs. His call to have his driver make a late pit stop for four tires was pivotal to their win at Las Vegas, a victory that clinched a spot in the championship round and afforded the team a two-week head start on preparing for the finale. And then when the championship weekend began, the No. 22 team was on another level. Logano sped to the pole in qualifying, followed by him dominating the race to such a point that he never felt seriously challenged by any of the other three finalists.

Like Logano, Wolfe is now a two-time champion, one of only two active crew chiefs to hold that distinction. He is also the first crew chief since Dale Inman in 1984 to win a championship with two different drivers.

Honorable Mentions: Alan Gustafson (Elliott); Adam Stevens (Bell); Phil Surgen (Chastain); Jeremy Bullins (Austin Cindric); Randall Burnett (Reddick)

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

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Biggest Storyline: The Next Gen car

Before the green flag waved on the season, it was evident that the Next Gen car would be the predominant storyline of 2022. That proved to be the case from supply chain issues early, which led to concerns about the availability of cars, to the quality of racing that would occur on various tracks to increased parity to significant safety concerns that increasingly became heightened as the season progressed.

There was a lot to like about the Next Gen car. The hype that it would dramatically improve the on-track product proved prophetic on intermediate-sized tracks, which featured some of the best racing in some time. And that a record-tying 19 different drivers won a points race shows that smaller teams now have a better chance against bigger teams.

But there were obvious problems with the new car. A talking point throughout the season was how the Next Gen car was ill-suited for short tracks and road courses, leading to some forgettable races on tracks where the racing is usually intense.

There was also the safety aspect that cannot be ignored. Drivers frequently stated that when a crash happened, they often bore more of the impact than they felt in the previous car, with the car especially vulnerable during rear impacts. Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman sustained head injuries that caused them each to miss significant time, with Busch still not medically cleared to resume racing.

NASCAR is implementing changes to the rear construction of the car for next year, although some drivers publicly questioned why it didn’t happen sooner. But that this is happening is an encouraging development, no doubt, and will ensure that the Next Gen car is likely again a central storyline in 2023.

Honorable Mentions: Kyle Busch leaving Joe Gibbs Racing; NASCAR holding the Clash at the LA Coliseum; NASCAR announcing a 2023 schedule that includes a return to North Wilkesboro and a street course race in downtown Chicago; Chastain’s aggressive driving angered several competitors; Bubba Wallace earning a one-ace suspension for deliberately crashing Kyle Larson

Biggest Surprise: Kyle Busch leaving JGR

When the year began, no one foresaw Kyle Busch leaving Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season. This was a driver and team that had been together for 15 years, and the consensus was that they would be together for several more once the sides negotiated a contract extension.

That extension never materialized due to a multitude of factors, however. And by the time the playoffs began on Sept. 4, it was apparent that a separation was coming. Nine days later, it became official, with Busch announcing that he had signed a multiyear contract with Richard Childress Racing.

One of the most successful driver-team pairings in the 21st Century is now no longer. Next year, Busch will be behind the wheel of a No. 8 Chevrolet and not his iconic No. 18 Toyota. It is a big change, one that will take a long time to get used to and one no one would have predicted 11 months ago.

Honorable Mentions: Chastain finished runner-up in the championship; Trackhouse Racing; Reddick leaving RCR to join 23XI Racing; Cindric winning the Daytona 500; Erik Jones winning the Southern 500; Chris Buescher winning the Bristol Night Race; Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney failing to win a points race

Quick hits

Driver who most overachieved: Chastain

Driver who most underachieved: Bowman

Unbelievable moment: Chastain riding the outside wall on the final lap at Martinsville

Best quote: “I thought, ‘Why not?’ That’s a motto that some buddies and I have back home. We live by ‘Why not?’” — Ross Chastain explaining his decision to ride the outside wall on the final lap at Martinsville

Best interview: Kevin Harvick

Best paint scheme: The Air Jordan 3-inspired “Black Cement” design that Kurt Busch drove to victory at Kansas in May.

(Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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