NASCAR Crash Course: Unpredictability continues to define 2022 Cup Series

Joey Logano’s last five NASCAR Cup Series starts entering Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300 were not all that enjoyable: 32nd, 29th, 1st, 17th, 20th. His surprise win at Darlington Raceway was the only time Team Penske’s three-car operation had finished inside the top 10 since Easter Sunday.

So, of course it makes total sense Logano would walk into NASCAR’s newest Cup track like he owned the place, dominating practice and then escaping with a NASCAR Overtime win over Kyle Busch.

Say what?

“It’s a roller coaster ride,” Logano said about his year. “That’s for sure.”

You can say that about virtually any team 15 races into NASCAR’s unpredictable 2022 season.

  • Only once has the same organization won back-to-back races, and that came back in February with Hendrick Motorsports.
  • Among drivers, there have been 11 different winners and no one has won more than twice.
  • Only one of the four drivers that have (Ross Chastain) sit inside the top 5 in points while the rest are slogging through an up-and-down season in which no one person has stood out amongst the crowd.

“I feel like,” said Logano’s crew chief Paul Wolfe, “You never know what to expect every weekend when you show up.”

What was the key to NASCAR’s newest race outside St. Louis? A combination of pit strategy, track position and having the right pusher behind you on restarts. That initially gave the edge to Kyle Busch, whose brother was starting right behind him on the outside line in overtime. But a disconnect between them gave Logano the edge, and inevitably control of the race, on the green-white-checkered restart.

“I thought there was going to be a hand signal on when it was going to be go time and I was going to push the hell out of the 18,” Kurt Busch said. “We did the whole brother miscommunication. We should have won that.”

Instead, the ball bounced Logano’s way this time. Who knows where it’s going to go next week in a year where the championship race remains wide open.

“It’s just a razor’s edge,” Logano said, “Where you’re good or not. It just goes back and forth quickly.”

Traffic Report

Green: Kyle Busch — Team Penske may be on the rise, as our Steven Taranto reports, but let’s not forget about Joe Gibbs Racing’s top driver. Busch has three straight podium finishes, charging up to second in the standings behind Chase Elliott. He’s already led more laps (345) in 15 races than he did during a full season in 2021.

Yellow: Aric Almirola — Fifth at this track tied a season best for this Stewart-Haas Racing driver in his final season of full-time Cup racing. But Almirola’s chances to win come few and far between. In a year where you might need that victory to make the playoffs, he needed to make the most of this opportunity.

Red: Kevin Harvick — A late wreck following a mechanical failure at WWT Raceway led to a hard hit that erased all the momentum of a surprise top-5 finish in the Coca-Cola 600. What’s worse, it left Harvick in the once-unthinkable position of being on the outside of the playoffs looking in. (Harvick has never missed since the postseason expanded to 16 drivers in 2014).

Speeding Ticket: Tyler Reddick — Reddick found himself the victim of the day’s only major pit penalty when he dragged his gas can along outside the pit box. Add in yet another flat tire, a problem that’s victimized him in nearly half the races this season, and the No. 8 team slumped to 16th with a potential top-5 car.

Oops!

Ross Chastain. Ross Chastain. And Ross Chastain some more.

Mistake number one came when racing Denny Hamlin for a top-5 spot early in the race. The two dueled for several laps before Chastain ran in the corner too hard, bumped the No. 11 and took Hamlin out.

But Chastain wasn’t done. Less than 40 laps later, he sent Chase Elliott and the No. 9 car around on the frontstretch, a wreck that also involved Bubba Wallace.

NASCAR officials chose not to intervene and issue a penalty to Chastain for rough driving. Instead, his rivals doled out the consequences as Hamlin and Elliott, who have their own sordid history, wound up tag teaming Chastain to block his progress on the racetrack.

It’s just the latest controversy for Chastain after angering everyone from AJ Allmendinger to Martin Truex Jr. in recent weeks. Sincere in a post-race apology, it’s clear Chastain finally realizes a long line of aggression is catching up with him.

“I owe half of the field an apology,” he said. “Words aren’t going to fix it, so I’ll have to pay for it on the track. I almost did today and I deserve everything that they do. I can’t believe I continued to make those same mistakes; overdrive the corners and drive into guys.”

Will words be enough after a long line of missteps over a period of months? It’s beginning to feel like payback from someone to ruin Chastain’s championship bid is all but inevitable come the fall.

“The sport is self-policing,” Hamlin said after the race. “Usually when you least expect it, and when it means the most, is when it comes back around.”