INSIGHT: Next Gen brings mystery and intrigue to 2022 season

The roar of cars running around Daytona International Speedway will be heard throughout Tuesday and Wednesday this week. While the Daytona 500 and the official start of the season is still over a month away, several Cup Series teams are once again putting their Next Gen cars through the paces. It’s expected that drafting practice will be a large part of what takes place over the next two days.

Daytona is the third organizational test for the Next Gen car since the 2021 season ended. Goodyear has also held two tire tests: Lancaster Motor Speedway (South Carolina) with Stewart Friesen to prepare for the Bristol dirt race, and the newly repaved Atlanta Motor Speedway. A fourth organizational test is scheduled for end of the month at Phoenix Raceway.

Daytona, of course, kicks off the year. Phoenix is where it all ends. It’s fitting those two tracks are on the agenda over the final few weeks of the off-season.

A return to racing is down to a matter of weeks, not months, and just making that drive south on I-95 brings a growing sense of excitement the closer the exit for International Speedway Blvd gets. It’s only natural to shift toward thinking of what’s to come in the season ahead. Except, there was a different feeling this time — a slight hesitation.

How do you go about trying to preview a season when one of the most critical pieces of racing is such a mystery? No one knows Next Gen. There is no telling how much it will affect the on-track competition, let alone affect drivers and teams.

“Everyone has a huge opportunity in front of them to take advantage of this reset,” said Tyler Reddick of Richard Childress Racing. “We’re all starting over in a lot of ways. We got to go through the learning process all over again.

“It’s just a huge opportunity for those who are willing to (put that) extra effort in, work that extra hour, go to that extra gear, if you will, to really push ahead. Hopefully, we can learn some things here (at Daytona) and take in as much as we can to get to when we come back here in February to start the year off on the right foot.”

While it’s easy to say that yes, it’s still a race car, it can’t be stated enough how different of a race car it is. For a little while, at least, it’s going to be an adjustment.

So, when looking at the 2022 season, how can one start offering any insight into what could possibly happen after preaching so much about the car being an unknown variable?

Logic says despite the change, the cream will continue to rise to the top. The powerhouse teams of Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, and Stewart-Haas Racing are still going to lead the way. Money buys speed, and those teams have the most money and resources. They also have damn good drivers.

But does Hendrick Motorsports pick up where it left off? Just seeing reigning series Kyle Larson adapt to a new car is one storyline. Larson was the class of the field in the final year of the Gen-6 car with 10 wins, and over 2,00 laps led. He is one of those rare talents of drivers who can drive anything, and now he gets to prove it once more with his title defense taking place in the debut year of a new car.

And that’s one thing that’s not going to change: the driver is always the key. The driver makes a difference. A driver can carry a team.

Cup Series drivers who are willing to learn and take on the challenge of Next Gen will be better off. Drivers prone to adapting should be fine.

Toyota has the fewest drivers in the field. It is a disadvantage when it comes to drafting partners and strategy on the superspeedways, but perhaps now an advantage in learning a new car. Consider that Toyota has two drivers who share the same last name, who are very good at dissecting their race cars. It’s impressive, really, how good they are at breaking down what the car is doing well and where it needs to be better.

Kurt Busch can play a pivotal role in helping a smaller Toyota roster. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images via NASCAR

Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch are great race car drivers with great racing minds. If the Busch brothers get a feel for Next Gen, all that information will be in the same camp to help all teams. Kurt Busch has repeatedly said he wants to drive the new car, and as soon as he went to his first test with 23XI Racing, he said it was his job as a veteran to help the team pick up on things with the car.

How much of a difference is this car going to make? Will it take a mid-pack team and turn them into winners? No. But does it spread around the success? Maybe Larson doesn’t win 10 races, and it opens the door for a few more from the Busch brothers or those at Penske.

Is it a fresh start for the Ford camp after a down year where they were the third-best manufacturer? Go even further. It is the clean slate that those at Stewart-Haas are looking for after a one-win season?

One of the biggest stories is Brad Keselowski beginning the next chapter of his career at RFK Racing. There are many questions on how that organization will do and Keselowski’s impact. Quite frankly, it’s hard to know.

How will Kaulig Racing do in their first full season? What about the rookies?

There are so many more questions this pre-season than most. And that’s before thinking about all the new driver and crew chief pairings. Or drivers on new teams.

Where do you even start when the biggest question of all is the car?

Sure, predictions are fun and usually easy if you build off what happened the previous year. But none of that seems to apply anymore.

It’s far easier to simply embrace seeing the Daytona grandstands coming into view off in the distance as you make your way down the road and all the possibilities of what’s to come than overthinking how it could all play out.