The 2022 season offers opportunities.
For the NASCAR industry in general, it’s an opportunity to go back to the drawing board with a new car and different methods of car construction, configuration and, ultimately, performance. But for a dozen drivers and crew leaders I’ve identified, 2022 is an opportunity to expand the qualitative statistical performance. This opportunity to go from good to great is a daunting step forward that, if taken successfully, could change the careers and legacies of some of the sport’s most intriguing names.
Today we dive into Part 1, a look at four drivers and two crew chiefs with legitimate growth opportunities in the new year:
Admittedly, it’s strange to wonder if Daniels, a championship-winning crew chief in just his third year in the role, has a jump to go. Based on Kyle Larson’s history, the driver should have little difficulty adapting to a new car. But how Daniels adapting to the next-generation vehicle will directly affect the potential for Larson’s performance in the near future.
The No. 5 team at Hendrick Motorsports produced the fastest car in 2021, but a clean sheet should invite more parity this season. Assuming Daniels’ setups aren’t as dominant as they were during one of the best seasons of the modern Cup Series era, he’ll have some tougher work ahead of him. That means strategy, both under yellow and during green flag pit cycles.
There is an incentive to win pit road battles under yellow. Larson, whose restart numbers last season were outwardly impressive, tends to launch better the closer he gets to clean air, from the front row. If there’s one hiccup in the reigning champion’s repertoire, it’s restarting when he’s stuck in traffic. During the playoffs, he defended his position 20 percentage points less when restarting from the second row or deeper.
Playing under the green in 2021, Daniels proved himself elite, a member of the “60/60 club” in terms of maintaining position at the front of the fields. It’s hard to duplicate that kind of effort from year to year – based on recent history, it’s not a benchmark most crew chiefs can sustain – and the action and timing of pit stops will be markedly different than in years past. But if Daniels is able, not only will he keep Larson in favorable spots, but he will also further his own burgeoning individual legacy as one of the sport’s foremost race-callers.
To properly understand the jump Byron took in 2021, one should not worry about the fact that he won just one race despite having the third fastest car in the series. Wins are not easy in a team sport, and Byron’s team, with poor strategy output from a freshman crew chief and a pit crew who lost 106 positions under yellow, left a lot to be desired.
Byron consistently took the space in the most treacherous running locations in all stock car races—averaging seventh to 12th—and emerged as an above-average restarter and passer. Mind you, the excess positions he created in 2021 (+94.37) totaled much higher than his 2020 net (+17.50), when he averaged 14th place. This means his ability to earn track positions improved against tougher competition. That’s a great sign for his future.
Also a good sign is what lies ahead. The 2022 season will be Byron’s 24-year effort. On average, Cup drivers see a significant production jump from 23 to 24 years. If his 1,903 Production in Equal Equipment Rating from 2021 (ninth in the series overall) increases by the normal number – about 0.400 points – that would be good for one or two extra wins on top of last year’s total, as his car and team are on top of last year’s total. the same competitive level.
Despite the Daytona road course victory, 2021 was a year of regression for Bell after a dizzying rookie season.
In 2020, Bell took charge of his running whereabouts, securing a series-best +2.98% passing value, for a pass difference that was 262 spots better than his statistic expectation. But the huge jump from 19.0 to 13.9 in the average riding position — a product of an equipment shift from Leavine Family Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing — brought with it a more difficult competitive level. The 26-year-old struggled in comparison to his previous standard.
He finished the season with an SPV of -0.93%, failing to achieve a positive surplus on any type of track. His stride gap was more than 71 positions worse than expected, more palatable thanks to Adam Stevens’ strategy-based spend. A second year against this brand of competition in a car that is theoretically harder to drive should suit the three-time Chili Bowl winner.
If his agility returns from 2020, it would be a boon to the traditional driver stat line that JGR and Toyota put their faith in the new era of NASCAR.
Seemingly, Beshore’s job is simple: give Kyle Busch a fast race car and defend his track position on the pit lane. Successfully doing both will unlock the highest potential of one of the greatest drivers to ever set foot in NASCAR.
The 2021 season was Beshore’s first season atop a Cup Series pit box and it did not disappoint. He nearly took a spot in the 60/60 club, holding Busch’s position at 60.87% of all green flag stops and 58.33% of the time, specifically when relinquishing a top-five spot. His designs for Pocono’s double beak, a strategist’s paradise, could not have been more correct; Busch lost the lead on the final restart of race one, but won the next day thanks to astute fuel economy.
Taking a step further this season by Beshore, perhaps in the 60/60 club with a car faster than the fifth-place speed ranking set last year, could propel Busch into the victory lane in a more familiar way.
Cindric is still a growing racer, as his mid-season fade suggested last year. He finished first in average riding position in 13 Xfinity Series races on non-drafting tracks, winning just three. That failure to seal finishes in line with his whereabouts could foreshadow his first attempt as a full-time Cup driver.
But don’t expect his rookie season to be completely devoid of good days. Last year, in his sample of seven Cup Series races, he achieved an SPV of +4.48% – the best of all drivers with a minimum of six starts and good for a pass differential that was 69 positions better than his statistic expectation. That came mainly against drivers hovering near 20th place.
That hefty surplus won’t last an entire season and, unlike last year, he doesn’t have the option to choose his schedule. But he is not without skill, and on certain tracks, namely road courses, he will prove competitive enough in his running position to hint at the prospect of high finishes.
Creed captured the Truck Series championship in 2020. But instead of his title acting as a natural pivot for the more competitive Xfinity Series, he stayed in Trucks for 2021, adding three to his win tally.
In 2022, he will finally make the jump and the Xfinity Series will be more fun for it. He established himself as the top restarter in Trucks over the most recent two-year period, taking 1st and 2nd place each season among the series regulars in terms of position retention. His penchant for successful restarts is ideal for the Xfinity Series, where the average caution volume in 2021 was 3.5 per 100 miles.
A successful season of Creed, now 24, could spark interest among Cup teams. The former trophy truck racer is adventurous by nature and a groove hunter by upbringing. He is only talented enough to revive a Richard Childress Racing program after a two-year slump, having won just once in the last 66 races after taking the 2019 Xfinity Series title with Tyler Reddick.
Part 2 of David Smith’s analysis will appear on January 8.