Oh, Hail Yes! The Athletic is selecting the five best and worst performances for each sport during 2022, and the top NASCAR performance of the year was pretty obvious.

Ross Chastain’s move at Martinsville Speedway might go down as the top move of the decade, not just this season. But what are the remaining best performances? And what defines a “performance,” anyway? For our purposes, we decided to view a performance as a singular event rather than a trend — although sometimes that means the occurrence could be related to a larger issue.

Anyway, let’s get to it. Here are our five best NASCAR performances of 2022, as selected by Jeff Gluck and Jordan Bianchi. (Our picks for the worst performances of the year can be found here.)


NASCAR’s worst performances of 2022: Intentional wrecks and more

Ross Chastain’s ‘Hail Melon’

What happened: On the final lap of the semifinal NASCAR playoff race, Ross Chastain decided to put his foot to the floor and slam his car into the Martinsville wall — riding it all the way around Turns 3 and 4 for one of the all-time NASCAR moves. The maneuver, a split-second decision, launched Chastain into the Cup Series championship race and eliminated rival Denny Hamlin at the same time.

Why it mattered: Few performances from NASCAR have ever gone viral for a positive reason like the Hail Melon. It was the talk of the sports world on an NFL Sunday, taking the No. 1 spot on the “SportsCenter” Top 10 list and leaving even F1 drivers gushing over Chastain’s gutsy move. Videos of the move were viewed more than 100 million times in the first 48 hours alone.

What it means now/for the future: Chastain ultimately didn’t win the championship, but he finished second in the title race. Meanwhile, NASCAR has faced calls from many competitors to ban the move in case someone else feels the urge to try it at a track like Martinsville, Richmond or Darlington.

Quotable: “I thought ‘Why not?’ That’s a motto some buddies and I have back home. We live by ‘Why not?’” — Chastain


NASCAR pulls off a stadium race

What happened: One of the biggest unknowns in NASCAR history ended up as a smashing success. No one knew for sure if NASCAR would be able to pull off its ambitious Clash at the Coliseum race, from the construction of a temporary track to the quality of the racing to the debut of a new car. Somehow, it worked — and the result generated the most positive vibes to open a season in memory.

Why it mattered: The concept of oval racing on a purpose-built track inside a football stadium might work in video games, but would it translate to real life? The answer turned out to be yes, and now the door is opened to all sorts of potential circuits. It also validated NASCAR’s outside-the-box thinking in remaking its once-stale schedule.

What it means now/for the future: Nothing seems out of the question anymore. Could NASCAR drop into other major U.S. cities and race inside their sports stadiums? What about overseas in an Olympic stadium? Surely, the Coliseum experiment won’t be the last of its kind.

Quotable: “We’ve always talked about you have to go to a road course (or) they have to build a track somewhere if you’re in Europe. Not anymore. We’ve proven you can go to a cool stadium with a track around it. We know what to do.” — NASCAR chief operating officer Steve O’Donnell



NASCAR’s L.A. Coliseum dream: How they built a racetrack on a football field

Cup Series achieves 19 different winners in a season

What happened: Chris Buescher completed a non-playoff-driver sweep of Round 1 by going to victory lane in the Bristol Night Race in September and in doing so became the 19th different driver to win a Cup Series points race in 2022. That tied a modern-era record (2001) and set a new mark for the fewest amount of races in which it was achieved (29).

Why it mattered: NASCAR hoped the Next Gen car would generate parity, but this was beyond anyone’s expectations. The regular season alone saw 16 different winners and then added three more to open the playoffs. That’s where the streak ended, but it didn’t diminish the remarkable nature of seeing 59 percent of the full-time Cup Series drivers win an event in the same year.

What it means now/for the future: The increased competitiveness throughout the field has already generated a major storyline for 2023. Namely, can this be replicated and become the norm going forward? Or will the major teams take the offseason to figure out a way to reassert their dominance?

Quotable: “More than half the field won a race in NASCAR this year. Five first-time winners. (Most) passes throughout the field in a single season. So I would say the racing has delivered. It’s been terrific.” — NASCAR president Steve Phelps

Trackhouse Racing’s ambitious Project 91 program shines

What happened: In two short years as a NASCAR team owner, Trackhouse Racing’s Justin Marks has made it apparent that he’s not like most everyone else. He’s a big thinker who is unafraid to put his bold plans into action. And one of his most ambitious ideas was to field a part-time team designated solely for high-profile drivers who compete outside of NASCAR. The idea was that these drivers, while intrigued by racing in NASCAR, were often otherwise put off because such opportunities were never with a competitive team. Enter Project 91, which was designed to solve this dilemma and came to fruition in August at Watkins Glen with 2007 Formula One world champion Kimi Räikkönen driving the third Trackhouse entry.

Why it mattered: Räikkönen’s Cup debut generated significant buzz across the motorsports community with several notable drivers taking notice. That Räikkönen crashed out of the race made no difference as Project 91 had proven to be a success with Marks fielding a professional, competitive part-time team that offered interested drivers a gateway to NASCAR’s premier series.

What it means now/for the future: Although Project 91 did not enter another race in 2022, the significance cannot be diminished. It was a winning idea that was well executed and created lots of anticipation on who will be the driver to follow Räikkönen. Marks has said he expects Project 91 to compete in a handful of select races in 2023 and the expectation is that he’ll recruit drivers with star power comparable to Räikkönen’s.

Quotable: “When everybody sees this program in the flesh and Kimi has a good race and it looks cool and all that stuff, (additional interest) will start ramping up.” — Justin Marks



Kimi Raikkonen’s NASCAR cameo at Watkins Glen brought a thaw from the Iceman

Rookie Austin Cindric pulls off upset in Daytona 500

What happened: Although surprise winners are not an uncommon occurrence on superspeedway tracks, the Daytona 500 still tends to be a race where it’s a familiar face celebrating in victory lane. But in February, Austin Cindric shocked everyone when in a thrilling, mad-scramble conclusion he won NASCAR’s biggest race by .036 seconds over Bubba Wallace, the fourth-closest finish in Daytona 500 history.

Why it mattered: Cindric’s win came in just his eighth Cup start and in his first race as a full-time Cup driver. The win also placed the rookie Team Penske driver in the playoffs. But more than anything, the triumph offered a snapshot of what was to come in 2022, where surprise winners became the norm and NASCAR enjoyed a level of parity that featured a record-tying 19 different winners.

What it means now/for the future: Cindric’s name will forever be in the record books as a Daytona 500 champion, something many a great driver is unable to say. And while that cannot never be taken away from the now-24-year-old, it’s still far too early to definitively state whether this was a one-off victory brought about by the usual craziness associated with racing on a superspeedway, or a young talent earning the first of what will be many statement wins in his career.

Quotable: “It’s a racer’s dream, and so many people get close to it, and I feel very grateful and very proud to be able to pull it off.” — Cindric



The best and worst performances of 2022: Reliving the highs and lows of the year in sports

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Allen J. Schaben, Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

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