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For a driver to have what they and others consider a “successful” season in the NASCAR Cup Series, qualifying for the playoffs is often the minimum benchmark they must attain.

Then there are those who don’t make the playoffs but make significant strides from one year to the next, nevertheless.

Up next, we’ll take a look at four drivers who didn’t reach the playoffs but still took a notable step forward in 2022.

Bubba Wallace

When Bubba Wallace recorded his first career Cup Series victory in the fall of 2021 at Talladega, it came with an asterisk since the race was cut short by rain. A much different situation unfolded in the fall of 2022 at Kansas, however, when Wallace not only scored his first victory in a race run at its advertised distance but also led 58 of 267 laps, including the final 43.

Wallace took the checkered flag a full second ahead of his second-place-finishing team owner, Denny Hamlin, who earlier in the season awarded Wallace a multi-year contract extension with 23XI Racing. 

Wallace was certainly well-deserving of his extension, as he bested his numbers from 2021 in almost every major category, including top-fives, top-10s, laps led, poles, points finish, average start, and average finish.

Chris Buescher

Often, when a driver earns his maiden career Cup Series win, a second victory follows in short order. That’s not how it worked for Chris Buescher, however.

After going to Victory Lane in 2016 for the first time, Buescher needed over six years to return to the Winner’s Circle — and he made it there with a different team, Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing. Buescher’s 2022 win came in the Bristol night race, an event he captured in convincing fashion by leading 169 of 500 laps. 

Along with ending his lengthy drought in 2022, Buescher recorded three top-five finishes compared to just one the previous year. He also posted 10 top-10s — two more than the eight he had in 2021.

Buescher actually dropped two positions in the standings year-over-year, slipping from 19th to 21st, but that was largely a result of missing a race in 2022 due to a positive COVID test. On a brighter note, he won a pole this past season after being unable to qualify P1 a year earlier.

Erik Jones

After a rough first season at Petty GMS in 2021, Erik Jones made a significant leap in 2022 both in terms of points finish and the overall speed he carried in his No. 43 car. And unlike in 2021, he won a race, too.

Jumping from 24th to 18th in points year-over-year, Jones made it happen on the strength of three top-five finishes compared to none in 2021. He also rang up 13 top-10s — 10 more than the year before — as his average finishing position jumped from 19.7 to 16.3, and he led 147 laps after pacing the field for just nine laps in 2021.

The highlight of Jones’ season came on Labor Day weekend when he prevailed in the Southern 500 at Darlington for the second time in his career and won for the first time since triumphing in the 2019 edition of this race as part of Joe Gibbs Racing

Not surprisingly, Jones earned a multi-year contract extension with Petty GMS late in the 2022 season, setting the stage for a possibly even better 2023 when seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson will compete part-time for Petty GMS and also serve as a co-owner of the organization.

Michael McDowell

Unlike the drivers listed above, Michael McDowell never made it to Victory Lane in 2022. In fact, the veteran driver for Front Row Motorsports actually went from winning a race — the Daytona 500, no less — in 2021 to being denied a victory in the subsequent Cup Series campaign.

But McDowell’s absence from the Winner’s Circle doesn’t paint a true picture of his 2022 season. Far from it, in fact. That’s because McDowell’s results were overall far superior to the ones he registered a year earlier.

How superior? Well, consider that McDowell more than doubled his number of top-10s from 2021 and nearly tripled the number of laps he spent atop the leaderboard. Based on these gains, it makes sense that McDowell’s average finish of 20.5 from the prior season improved to 16.7 in 2022.


Bubba Wallace Is the Favorite to Set a Unique NASCAR Playoffs Mark in 2023