DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Tonight’s Sprint Unlimited not only begins the NASCAR Sprint Cup season but marks the debut of the pit road camera system used to determine penalties.
No longer will NASCAR officials stand on pit road looking for penalties in Cup races. High-powered cameras will allow officials in a trailer to monitor each pit stop.
When NASCAR tested this system during last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, it found numerous infractions that were not called by officials on pit road – specifically, crew members leaving the wall too soon and drivers going through more than three pit stalls entering or exiting their stall.
NASCAR met with teams in December to go through the new technology and the penalties it was finding.
How teams react to the officiating changes will be among the things to watch in tonight’s race (8:35 p.m. ET green flag on Fox and MRN).
GET THROUGH THE FIELD
Watch how easy or difficult it is for drivers to work their way to the front. The rear of the field is stacked.
Defending Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. starts 24th in the 25-car field. Kyle Larson starts last. Tony Stewart is 22nd. Former Daytona 500 champions Jamie McMurray and Jimmie Johnson start 21st and 17th, respectively.
With cars running similar speeds, passing becomes more difficult. Also, Daytona is more narrow than Talladega. A key will be how far back a driver can be late in the race and still make it toward the front to have a chance to win.
Tonight marks the debut of seven new driver-crew chief pairings. With testing limited to tire tests, most have not worked together at the track until this weekend.
Those new combinations are:
Kasey Kahne and crew chief Keith Rodden
Kyle Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens
Denny Hamlin and crew chief Dave Rogers
Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn
Carl Edwards and crew chief Darian Grubb
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Greg Ives
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and crew chief Nick Sandler
Four eligible teams pulled out of this event, allowing those of Stenhouse, Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer, and Casey Mears to compete in the Sprint Unlimited. Can they take advantage and start the season with a strong performance?
A GOOD SIGN?
Although the Sprint Unlimited winner has not gone on to win the Daytona 500 since Dale Jarrett did it in 2000, five of the last seven Unlimited winners went on to finish in the top 10 in the 500 the following week. Last year’s winner, Denny Hamlin, placed second in the 500. Will this trend continue?
Dr. Diandra: With Chase Elliott out, these are the best Next Gen road racers
The Next Gen racecar is the ideal vehicle for road course racers. With none of the asymmetry of previous car generations — vehicles optimized for only turning left — the new car upended the road course pecking order.
Elliott has won seven of the 25 Cup Series road courses races he’s run, giving him a win rate of 28.0%. That’s a little more than one win in every four races. He posts top-10 finishes 68.0% of the time.
In 2022, Elliott:
led the most laps (121) at road courses
led four of the six road course races
led the most laps at three of the six road course races
For example: Elliott led most of the first two stages at Sonoma but had to back up during a mid-race pit stop to retighten a wheel. His average running position was 2.2 before the glitch and 15.9 after. He finished eighth.
Despite not winning in 2022, Elliott still tied for the best average finishing position on road courses. The graph below shows all drivers with average finishing positions below 12 in 2022.
Of last year’s road course winners, only Reddick and Bell make the graph.
Three finishes outside the top 20 drop Chastain’s average finish to 16.7.
Sonoma winner Suárez had three top-five finishes and three finishes of 24th and worse for an average finish of 16.5.
Although Larson finished third at Road America and won Watkins Glen, his other four finishes were 29th or worse. That averages out to 19.7.
That’s not to say these drivers aren’t contenders for a win at any road course race. But I’m more interested in the most consistent Next Gen road course racers.
Only four drivers have average finishing positions under 10: Elliott, Reddick, Chris Buescher and Austin Cindric. Michael McDowell is fifth on the list, 1.3 positions back from Reddick. Bell is 0.7 positions behind McDowell.
Going beyond averages
To gain insight, I examined driver finishes by track, as shown in the graph below. Average positions are represented by gray bars, with symbols showing individual race finishes.
This graph shows, for example, that Elliott had four top 10s and two finishes out of the top 15. Buescher had the same average finishing position but had five top 10s and one 21st-place finish.
Given the issues the new car introduced, this graph suggested that I give each driver a mulligan. So I also calculated the average of each driver’s best five road course races and summarized them in the table below.
Let’s look a little deeper into three of these drivers.
Buescher won the fall Bristol race and his name always comes up when talking superspeedways.
But the Next Gen car improved Buescher’s average road course finish by 3.1 positions relative to 2021. Buescher not only matches Chase Elliott’s average finish but beats Elliott in number of top-10 finishes.
If we throw out both drivers’ worst finishes — a 21st-place at COTA for Buescher and Elliott’s P20 at the Roval — Buescher beats Elliott in average finish position.
Cindric won four road courses in the Xfinity Series and posted the third-best average finish at road courses in his first Cup Series season. His 2022 performance included four top-10 finishes on the first four road courses of the season.
But even excluding his 21st-place finish at the Roval, Cindric remains ranked behind Elliott and Buescher.
Like Buescher, Cindric’s average running position is significantly higher than his average finishing position. That raises the interesting question of whether drivers advancing last year did so because they were better in the Next Gen car, or because other drivers had trouble.
Reddick finished 35th at Sonoma last year, 13 laps down. He had been running consistently in the top six before requiring a brake repair.
But Sonoma was Reddick’s only misstep. His other five road course finishes were all top 10s, including two wins. Excluding the Sonoma finish gives Reddick a 4.4 average finishing position for 2022 road courses — the best of any driver.
As the first road course of the year, COTA will begin a new approach by NASCAR to stage racing on road circuits. There will no longer be a caution to end stages, but points will be awarded for the finish order. In another change, the “choose” rule will be in effect on road courses.
A look at the weekend schedule:
Circuit of the Americas (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)
Friday: Thunderstorms in the morning, sun later in the day. High of 86. 80% chance of rain.
NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Three Cup drivers got their first chance to experience North Wilkesboro Speedway’s worn racing surface Tuesday and said tires will play a key role in the NASCAR All-Star Race there on May 21.
The verdict was unanimous about how important tire wear will be.
“This place has got a lot of character to it,” Reddick said. “Not a lot of grip and it’s pretty unforgiving. It’s a really fun place.”
Dillon said: “If you use up your tire too early, you’re going to really be in trouble. You really got to try to make those four tires live.”
Buescher said: “The surface here was so worn out already that we expect to be all over the place. The speeds are fairly slow just because of the amount of grip here. It’s hard to get wide open until you’re straight.”
Reddick noted the drop in speed over a short run during Tuesday’s test. That will mean a lot of off-throttle time.
“I think we were seeing a second-and-a-half falloff or so over even 50 laps and that was kind of surprising for me we didn’t have more falloff,” he said. “But, one little miscue, misstep into Turn 1 or Turn 3, you lose a second sliding up out of the groove and losing control of your car.”
“That’s with no traffic. Maybe with more traffic and everything, the falloff will be more, but certainly we’re out of control from I’d say Lap 10 on. You have to really take care of your car. … It’s really hard 30-40 laps into a run to even get wide open.”
One thing that stood out to Dillon was how the facility looks.
While the .625-mile racing surface remains the same since Cup last raced there in 1996, most everything else has changed.
In some cases, it is fresh red paint applied to structures but other work has been more extensive, including repaving the infield and pit road, adding lights for night racing, adding SAFER barriers, the construction of new suites in Turn 4 and new stands along the backstretch.
“It’s cool to see how much they’ve done to the track, the suites, the stands that they’re putting in,” Dillon said. “To me, the work that is going in here, we’re not just coming for one race. We’re coming here for a while. I’m excited about that.”
Jordan Taylor, who is substituting in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet for injured Chase Elliott, brings a resume that includes 31 IMSA class wins, two 24 Hours of Daytona overall wins and two IMSA wins at COTA.
Keselowski hasn’t been a star in road course racing, but his 2023 season has started well, and he figures to be in the mix at the front Sunday. He led the white-flag lap at Atlanta last Sunday before Joey Logano passed him for the win.
The Dinger is a road course expert. Last year at COTA, he was involved in tight racing on the final lap with Ross Chastain and Alex Bowman before Chastain emerged with the victory.
Points position: 3rd
Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Auto Club)
Past at COTA: Two straight top fours, including a win
Chastain lifted Trackhouse Racing’s profile by scoring his — and the team’s — first Cup victory at COTA last season. He’s not shy about participating in the last-lap bumping and thumping that often mark road course races.
Buescher has never led a lap at COTA and is coming off a 35th-place finish at Atlanta after being swept up in a Lap 190 crash. Although he has shown the power to run near the front this year, he has four consecutive finishes of 13th or worse.
Points position: 20th
Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Las Vegas I)
Past at COTA: Two straight top 10s
Bowman’s four-race run of consistent excellence (finishes of fifth, eighth, third and ninth) ended at Atlanta as he came home 14th and failed to lead a lap. At COTA, he is one of only four drivers with top-10 finishes in both races.