After a remarkable 2021 season that saw him win 10 races and his first championship (which really never looked in doubt), Kyle Larson would, most years, be the overwhelming favorite to repeat his success. With the 2022 NASCAR season set to kick off this weekend with the 64th episode of the Daytona 500, the landscape for this season is nearly unrecognizable from the past six years. A completely different car for one, new locations and schedule changes, plus – the numbers HAVE MOVED! But the biggest variable is, of course, the NextGen car itself.
Given all these changes, is Larson the favorite for the 2022 Cup Series championship? In the first installment of this year’s 2 headed monsterJesse Johnston and Vito Pugliese give their thoughts on what the new season could hold for us.
Death, Taxes and Another Larson Championship
Kyle Larson repeats as Cup Series champion? How could anyone even doubt that, especially since he just won the Daytona 500 pole?
Last year, Larson had one of the most successful championship seasons of any driver in the current millennium: 10 wins, 20 top 5s, 26 top 10s, multiple stage wins and over 2,500 laps led. You could put his 2021 season on par with Jeff Gordon from 1996-97 or Jimmie Johnson from 2007. It’s so good.
Larson was seen as a promising prospect early on in sprint and midget car racing. His first full-time season in a stock car was in 2012, competing in what is now the ARCA Menards East series. Guess what? He won the championship. He exploded through the Xfinity Series in 2013, having several big runs. Then he moved to the Cup Series in 2014 under the wing of Chip Ganassi. You should thank Chip for making that bet in the first place, because NASCAR and its fans would be sorely missed if he hadn’t. And of course it pays off.
Another reason Larson can win a second straight championship is the strength of the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization.
Since Chase Elliott’s first Cup Series victory in 2018, Hendrick Motorsports has enjoyed a notable recovery. HMS is coming off back-to-back championships (2020 – Elliott, 2021 – Larson) and has a combined 17 wins with its four drivers in 2021, the most since 2007 when the team scored 18 total wins.
Prior to joining HMS, Larson had just six career victories. Now he’s at 16 and counting. He couldn’t have landed a better opportunity returning to NASCAR in 2021. Now the No. 5 team is strong and alive with ‘Yung Money’ continuing to thrive.
Larson’s racing talent is a rarity and should not be ignored. He’s been in the playoffs in all but two of his full-time Cup seasons and certainly has enough muscle to bring himself and Hendrick Motorsports more glory. He has a championship in the bag, and with his 30th birthday this year, he will eventually win another, right? In my opinion, his winning another Cup Series championship is more certain than death and taxes. – Jesse Johnson
In-season beta testing may favor other organizations
Jeff Gordon had arguably his second most impressive season in 2007, winning six races and finishing in the top 10, an astonishing 30 out of 36 races. This transition year saw him finish second to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who was on course to win his second of five consecutive championships.
Looking back on that transitional year, you’d think it might actually benefit Larson. Larson’s performance last season was very reminiscent of Jimmie Johnson’s peak years: 10 wins and an ability to overcome virtually any obstacle on pit road or in the middle of the race turned many weekends into undisputed performances and dominant.
Certainly, some factors helped lay the groundwork for this. Last season in an outdated car meant that Larson and Cliff Daniels’ No. 5 team could focus exclusively on the task at hand and maximize the performance of the then-current Gen6 Camaro. Larson, essentially coming off a year of layoff, was eager to prove himself and pick up where things left off, before the turmoil of 2020. He was largely in a league of his own l Last year, his three HMS teammates combined to win 30% fewer races than him.
Can he save that for another season? He might… but I don’t think we’ll see that in 2022.
It would certainly not be due to a shortage of engineering resources. Hendrick Motorsports is the winningest organization in NASCAR history for a reason – and not just because it’s been around for 40 years. The pig at the top of the Chevy trough has long been the dominant Bowtie team. Plus, Hendrick Motorsports always wins Daytona 500 pole no matter how their drivers race.
But a new car brings new challenges. Back when the new Camaro debuted, it took Chevrolet teams almost two seasons to get their feet under them and figure out front-end aerodynamics anywhere other than Daytona or Talladega. It’s no coincidence that it also seemed to coincide with the rapid decline in production for Johnson, who won no races from 2018 to 2020.
There’s a lot of new technology in the new car, with aftermarket suppliers supplying exclusive components. Launching and rebuilding from scratch to this degree requires an OEM process for testing and development, as well as engineering resources that have tried similar layouts in the past. That points to a few teams that could be ahead of the competition: the TRD-led efforts of Joe Gibbs Racing and 23XI Racing, and Penske Racing. TRD has always played things pretty close to the vest in the Cup Series side, limiting its resources to what is essentially a team in JGR after MWR disappeared after the 2015 season.
Likewise, Penske has long been a racing engineering company whose successes have spanned from the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 to the Bathurst 1000 in the V8 Supercar series. Although the Next Gen car is not an Australian Supercar (these are actually quite close to being production cars), there are obvious similarities: independent rear suspensions, sequential transmissions and how these components withstand crashes, to heat and impact during an endurance event.
While this does not guarantee the performance of their NASCAR counterparts, it should be noted that there will undoubtedly be some teething issues in the first half of the season as the new car goes through some growing pains.
It’s not a knock on the new car; it happens every time a new generation car is put in competition. Circle of Life, Simba.
The playoff championship format will help alleviate some of those early season stumbles for teams, and probably by the time we get into the playoff rounds, the usual faces will invariably rise to the top. The first half of the year, however, is going to be a dice game, with some of the top teams stumbling and teams that have been relegated to the back half of the top 15 could emerge as early season contenders.
While I’m obviously not counting Larson and HMS by any stretch of the imagination, I think we’ll see a reshuffling of the field to a large degree. If there were to be a team that was successful right away and quickly racked up a bunch of wins, I would be more inclined to bet on a TRD or Penske lined up driver for this season.
But, if you told me Larson would still be in the Final Four in Phoenix, I wouldn’t be surprised. – Vito Pugliese
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