Drivers, crew chiefs seeking statistical breakouts in 2022 (Part 1)

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The 2022 season represents opportunity.

For the NASCAR industry at large, it’s an opportunity to return to the drawing board with a new car and different methodologies to car construction, setup and, ultimately, performance. But for a dozen drivers and crew chiefs I’ve identified, 2022 is an opportunity to expand on quality statistical performance. This chance to go from good to great is a daunting step forward that, if successfully taken, could alter the careers and legacies of some the sport’s most intriguing names.

Today, we dive into Part 1, a glance at four drivers and two crew chiefs with legitimate opportunities for growth in the new year:

Cliff Daniels

Admittedly, it’s strange to ponder whether Daniels, a championship-winning crew chief in just his third year in the role, has a leap to make. Based on Kyle Larson’s history, the driver should experience little trouble adapting to a new car. But how Daniels adapts to the Next Gen vehicle will directly affect the potential for Larson’s performance in the near future.

The No. 5 team from Hendrick Motorsports produced the fastest car outright in 2021, but a blank slate 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 a little more heavy lifting ahead of him. That means strategy, both under yellow and during green-flag pit cycles.

There’s an incentive to winning pit road battles under yellow. Larson, whose restart numbers were outwardly impressive last season, tends to launch better the closer he is to clean air, from the front row. If there’s one hitch in the reigning champ’s repertoire, it’s restarting when mired in traffic. During the playoffs, he defended his position 20 percentage points less often when restarting from the second row or deeper.

When pitting under green in 2021, Daniels proved elite, a member of the “60/60 club” in terms of position retention near the front of fields. Duplicating that kind of effort is difficult 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 past years. But if Daniels is able, he not only keeps Larson in beneficial spots, but also furthers his own burgeoning individual legacy as one of the sport’s premier race-callers.

William Byron

To properly comprehend the leap Byron made in 2021, one must not be concerned with the fact that he won just one race despite having the third-fastest car in the series. Wins aren’t straightforward in a team sport, and Byron’s team, with poor strategy output from a first-year crew chief and a pit crew that lost 106 positions under yellow, left a lot to be desired.

Byron consistently occupied space in the most treacherous running whereabouts in all of stock car racing — an average running position of seventh to 12th — and emerged an above-average restarter and passer. Mind you, the surplus positions he created in 2021 (+94.37) was a total far exceeding his net from 2020 (+17.50) when he averaged a 14th-place running spot. This means his ability to earn track position improved against stiffer competition. That’s a tremendous sign for his future.

Also a good sign is what sits ahead. The 2022 season will be Byron’s age-24 effort. On average, Cup drivers experience a sizable leap in production from age 23 to 24. If his 1.903 Production in Equal Equipment Rating from 2021 (ranked ninth in the series overall) increases by the typical amount — roughly 0.400 points — that’d be good for one or two additional wins atop last year’s total, given his car and team are at an identical competitive level.

Christopher Bell

Despite winning on the Daytona road course, 2021 was a year of regression from Bell after a dazzling rookie season.

In 2020, Bell bossed his running whereabouts, securing a series-best +2.98% surplus passing value, good for a pass differential 262 spots better than his statistical expectation. But the massive jump from 19.0 to 13.9 in average running position — a product of an equipment shift from Leavine Family Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing — brought a more difficult competitive level. The 26-year-old struggled compared to his previous standard.

He ended the season with a -0.93% SPV, failing to earn a positive surplus on any one track type. His pass differential was over 71 positions worse than expected, made more palatable thanks to the strategy-based outlay of Adam Stevens. A second year against this brand of competition in a car theoretically more difficult to drive should suit the three-time Chili Bowl winner.

If his adroit passing from 2020 returns, it’d be a boon to the traditional stat line of a driver into which JGR and Toyota placed their faith for NASCAR’s new era.

Ben Beshore

Seemingly, Beshore’s task is simple: Provide Kyle Busch a fast race car and defend his track position on pit road. If he does both successfully, he’ll unlock the highest ceiling for potential from one of the best drivers to ever step foot in NASCAR.

The 2021 season was Beshore’s first atop a Cup Series pit box and it didn’t disappoint. He nearly clinched a spot in the 60/60 club, retaining Busch’s running position on 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 twin bill, a strategist’s paradise, couldn’t have been more correct; Busch lost the lead on the final restart of the first race but won the next day thanks to an astute fuel mileage gambit.

A step further this season by Beshore, perhaps into the 60/60 club with a car faster than the fifth-place speed ranking established last year, could propel Busch into victory lane at a more familiar clip.

Austin Cindric

Cindric is still very much a growing racer, as his midseason fade last year suggested. He ranked first in average running position in 13 Xfinity Series races on non-drafting tracks and won just three of them. That failure to seal finishes commensurate with his running whereabouts may portend doom in his initial foray as a full-time Cup driver.

But don’t anticipate his rookie season being completely devoid of good days. In his seven-race Cup Series sample last year, he amassed a +4.48% SPV — the best of any driver with a minimum of six starts and good for a pass differential 69 positions better than his statistical expectation. That came predominately against drivers hovering near the 20th-place spot.

That lofty of a surplus won’t sustain across a full season and, unlike last year, he doesn’t have the ability to cherry-pick his schedule. But he’s not without skill, and at certain tracks, namely road courses, he’ll prove competitive enough in his running position to hint at the prospect of high finishes.

Sheldon Creed

Creed captured the Truck Series championship in 2020. But instead of his title acting as a natural pivot point to the more competitive Xfinity Series, he remained in Trucks for 2021, padding his win total by three.

In 2022, he’ll finally make the jump and the Xfinity Series will be more entertaining for it. He established himself as the best restarter in Trucks across the most recent two-year stretch, ranking first and second among series regulars each season in position retention rate. His penchant for successful restarts is ideal for the Xfinity Series, where the average caution volume was 3.5 per 100 miles in 2021.

A successful season from Creed, now 24, could spark interest from Cup teams. The former trophy truck racer is adventurous by nature and a groove hunter by nurture. He’s talented enough on his own to reignite a Richard Childress Racing program from a two-year malaise, having won just once in the last 66 races after claiming the 2019 Xfinity Series title with Tyler Reddick.

Part 2 of David Smith’s analysis will post Jan. 8.

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Drivers, crew chiefs seeking statistical breakouts in 2022 (Part 1) originally appeared on NBCSports.com