Ryan: An imperfect day for NASCAR still was an improvement

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Three-time champion Tony Stewart called it a “complete embarrassment.”

Defending Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick lamented “it sucks 56 years of tradition at Daytona where fast cars ruled had ended.”

Clint Bowyer labeled it a “cute show” that was “crap.”

The debut of group qualifying for the Daytona 500 was a debacle just short of concocting the Car of Tomorrow and moving the Southern 500’s Labor Day weekend date to Southern California, right?

Well, maybe until it’s compared with the derision met by single-car qualifying as the most facile and mundane exercise in NASCAR.

“We’re bitching then, and we’re bitching now, aren’t we?” six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson said with a laugh. “Must be racing.”

Of the myriad takeaways from one of the more bizarre and Byzantine days in the annals of Daytona International Speedway – where Jeff Gordon’s storybook pole position for his final Daytona 500 got overshadowed by a chorus of complaints from unhappy Sprint Cup stars – the most important conclusion was that it was unavoidable someone would be unhappy.

It’s undeniable that NASCAR bungled integral parts in the execution of the new format – even though there were blaring warning signs in the previous restrictor-plate qualifying session at Talladega Superspeedway last fall.

It’s also indisputable there was more drama than ever in 57 years of determining which car will lead the field to green for the Great American Race.

That drama wasn’t all positive, particularly for Bowyer, who faces the prospect of racing his way into the season’s biggest race in a backup car.

But this is an inversely proportional axiom that has existed in racing for long before the first car turned a lap on the nearby beach.

What’s good for fans is often bad for drivers – and vice-versa.

Under the old system of single-car qualifying, there was little risk to car or driver. There also was little incentive to watch.

While extremely flawed at points, Sunday’s show was at least captivating to watch the fraying of competitors’ nerves (even Gordon admitted to being anxious despite being locked into the field).

Everything was extremely stressful,” said Joe Gibbs Racing’s Carl Edwards, one of 13 drivers who are locked into the Daytona 500 field. “If it is better for the show, if it’s better for the fans, then it’s definitely good for all of us. But this is a heck of a way to qualify for the biggest race of the year, because there’s so much chance for a problem or something keeping you out of the race.

“I guess it remains to be seen what the best way to do this is. For the competitors, the best (way) is to do single‑car runs and see who built the best car. But this makes it a little more chaotic. Probably creates some storylines. Definitely stirs things up. In some ways, it might be more entertaining.”

In some ways, Sunday’s session became a charade that was too chaotic and too entertaining, and much of it could have been avoided.

After a chorus of howls about a similarly confusing and contentious qualifying round at Talladega Superspeedway last October, NASCAR promised to solicit feedback and make improvements. Chief Racing Development Officer and Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell said “minor adjustments” were made on pit road and to limit blocking.

Given that Bowyer’s crash happened because of a block thrown by Reed Sorenson, the changes didn’t work.

“We don’t want to see wrecks,” O’Donnell said. “If there’s a way to avoid that, we’ll take a look at all of those things and see what we can do to make adjustments.”

NASCAR shouldn’t stop there.

Having a group of world-class drivers idling in their cars for nearly 5 minutes playing an absurd game of chicken also needs tweaking.

But there is a limit to the criticism NASCAR can bear for simply trying to improve a flawed system – single-car qualifying – that everyone agreed was lackluster.

Regardless of the prestige associated with Daytona, single-car qualifying can’t be held up as a sacred cow solely because it skirted controversy and kept teams happy. As Brad Keselowski tweeted, returning to the old format isn’t an option.

Group qualifying might not be the answer, either. If NASCAR’s audience metrics don’t indicate a jolt (and there were vast swaths of empty grandstands Sunday), it should consider eradicating Daytona 500 pole qualifying and setting the field strictly through heat races.

“It’s tough because everybody’s trying to keep an open mind on what’s best for the sport, what creates the most interest,” Johnson said. “I guess maybe we should look at viewership numbers and attendance numbers to see if this format supports the risks that the teams are taking, drivers are taking in the cars.

“At some point in time in order to grow the sport, somebody has to be unhappy. Hopefully we can look at facts and stats and say, ‘Yes, this is better and it is worth the five cars we (crashed).’ If it didn’t move the needle, then we should try to rethink things.”

Johnson said it also was important to consider the impetus for group qualifying – when the guarantee of a qualifying rainout at Talladega a few years ago prompted drivers to race hell bent for leather during a practice session that would set the field by speeds.

“Everybody loved that,” he said. “Then group qualifying came into play. Now we’re having second thoughts. I don’t know how we keep everybody happy.”

The answer is you can’t, nor should you care if you do.

NASCAR’s goal should be the implementing the fairest and most entertaining qualifying show for the crown jewel of its premier circuit.

It didn’t get there Sunday.

But at least it got somewhere.

Dr. Diandra: How level is the playing field after 50 Next Gen races?

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Last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 marks 50 Next Gen races. The 2022 season produced 19 different winners, including a few first-career wins. Let’s see what the data say about how level the playing field is now.

I’m comparing the first 50 Next Gen races (the 2022 season plus the first 14 races of 2023) to the 2020 season and the first 14 races of 2021. I selected those two sets of races to produce roughly the same types of tracks. I focus on top-10 finishes as a metric for performance. Below, I show the top-10 finishes for the 13 drivers who ran for the same team over the periods in question.

A table comparing top-10 rates for drivers in the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars, limited to drivers who ran for the same team the entire time.

Because some drivers missed races, I compare top-10 rates: the number of top-10 finishes divided by the number of races run. The graph below shows changes in top-10 rates for the drivers who fared the worst with the Next Gen car.

A graph showing drivers who have done better in the next-gen car than the Gen-6 car.

Six drivers had double-digit losses in their top-10 rates. Kevin Harvick had the largest drop, with 74% top-10 finishes in the Gen-6 sample but only 46% top-10 finishes in the first 50 Next Gen races.

Kyle Larson didn’t qualify for the graph because he ran only four races in 2020. I thought it notable, however, that despite moving from the now-defunct Chip Ganassi NASCAR team to Hendrick Motorsports, Larson’s top-10 rate fell from 66.7% to 48.0%.

The next graph shows the corresponding data for drivers who improved their finishes in the Next Gen car. This graph again includes only drivers who stayed with the same team.

A graph showing the drivers who have fewer top-10 finishes in the Next Gen car than the Gen-6 car

Alex Bowman had a marginal gain, but he missed six races this year. Therefore, his percent change value is less robust than other drivers’ numbers.

Expanding the field

I added drivers who changed teams to the dataset and highlighted them in gray.

A table comparing top-10 rates for drivers in the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars

A couple notes on the new additions:

  • Brad Keselowski had the largest loss in top-10 rate of any driver, but that may be more attributable to his move from Team Penske to RFK Motorsports rather than to the Next Gen car.
  • Christopher Bell moved from Leavine Family Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2021. His improvement is likely overestimated due to equipment quality differences.
  • Erik Jones stayed even, but that’s after moving from JGR (13 top-10 finishes in 2020) to Richard Petty Motorsports (six top 10s in 2021.) I view that change as a net positive.

At the end of last season, I presented the tentative hypothesis that older drivers had a harder time adapting to the Next Gen car. Less practice time mitigated their experience dialing in a car so that it was to their liking given specific track conditions.

But something else leaps out from this analysis.

Is the playing field tilting again?

Michael McDowell is not Harvick-level old, but he will turn 39 this year. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 35. Both have improved with the Next Gen Car. Chase Elliott (27 years old) and William Byron (25) aren’t old, either, but their top-10 rates have gone down.

Drivers running for the best-funded teams earned fewer top-10 finishes while drivers from less-funded teams (mostly) gained those finishes.

Trackhouse Racing and 23XI — two of the newest teams — account for much of the gains in top-10 finishes. Ross Chastain isn’t listed in the table because he didn’t have full-time Cup Series rides in 2020 or 2021. His 9.1% top-10 rate in that period is with lower-level equipment. He earned 27 top-10 finishes in the first 50 races (54%) with the Next Gen car.

This analysis suggests that age isn’t the only relevant variable. One interpretation of the data thus far is that the Next Gen (and its associated rules changes) eliminated the advantage well-funded teams built up over years of racing the Gen-5 and Gen-6 cars.

The question now is whether that leveling effect is wearing off. Even though parts are the same, more money means being able to hire the best people and buying more expensive computers for engineering simulations.

Compare the first 14 races of 2022 to the first 14 of 2023.

  • Last year at this time, 23XI and Trackhouse Racing had each won two races. This year, they combine for one win.
  • It took Byron eight races to win his second race of the year in 2022. This year, he won the third and fourth races of the year. Plus, he’s already won his third race this year.
  • Aside from Stenhouse’s Daytona 500 win, this year’s surprise winners — Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney — are both from major teams.

We’re only 14 races into the 2023 season. There’s not enough data to determine the relative importance of age versus building a notebook for predicting success in the Next Gen car.

But this is perhaps the most important question. The Next Gen car leveled the playing field last year.

Will it stay level?

NASCAR weekend schedule at World Wide Technology Raceway, Portland

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NASCAR’s top three series are racing this weekend in two different locations. Cup and Craftsman Truck teams will compete at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, and the Xfinity Series will compete at Portland International Raceway.

World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (Cup and Trucks)

Weekend weather

Friday: Partly cloudy with a high of 87 degrees during Truck qualifying.

Saturday: Sunny. Temperatures will be around 80 degrees for the start of Cup practice and climb to 88 degrees by the end of Cup qualifying. Forecast calls for sunny skies and a high of 93 degrees around the start of the Truck race.

Sunday: Mostly sunny with a high of 92 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the Cup race.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 1 – 8 p.m. Craftsman Truck Series
  • 4 – 9 p.m. Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 6:30 p.m. — Truck practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. — Truck qualifying (FS1)

Saturday, June 3

Garage open

  • 8 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.  — Cup Series
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series

Track activity

  • 10 – 10:45 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 10:45 a.m. – 12 p.m. — Cup qualifying  (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 1:30 p.m. — Truck race (160 laps, 200 miles; FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, June 4

Garage open

  • 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (240 laps, 300 miles; FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

Portland International Raceway (Xfinity Series)

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly sunny with a high of 77 degrees.

Saturday: Mostly sunny with a high of 73 degrees and no chance of rain around the start of the Xfinity race.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 6-11 p.m. Xfinity Series

Saturday, June 3

Garage open

  • 10 a.m.  — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 11:30 a.m. – 12 p.m. — Xfinity practice (No TV)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 4:30 p.m. — Xfinity race (75 laps, 147.75 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR Cup playoff standings after Coca-Cola 600

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The severe penalty to Chase Briscoe and his Stewart-Haas Racing team Wednesday for a counterfeit part dropped Briscoe from 17th to 31st in the season standings. Briscoe now must win a race to have a chance at the playoffs.

The penalty came a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for his retaliation in wrecking Denny Hamlin in Monday’s Coca-Cola 600. Elliott is 28th in the points. The 2020 Cup champion also needs to win to have a chance to make the playoffs.

Ten drivers have won races, including Coca-Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney. That leaves six playoff spots to be determined by points at this time. With 12 races left in the regular season, including unpredictable superspeedway races at Atlanta (July 9) and Daytona (Aug. 26), the playoff standings will change during the summer.

Among those without a win this season are points leader Ross Chastain and former champions Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Elliott.

Here’s a look at the Cup playoff standings heading into Sunday’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois. Drivers in yellow have won a race and are in a playoff position. Those below the red line after 16th place are outside a playoff spot in the graphic below.

NASCAR issues major penalties to Chase Briscoe team for Charlotte infraction

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NASCAR fined crew chief John Klausmeier $250,000 and suspended him six races, along with penalizing Chase Briscoe and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team 120 points and 25 playoff points each for a counterfeit part on the car.

The issue was a counterfeit engine NACA duct, said Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition. That is a single-source part.

MORE: Updated Cup playoff standings

The team stated that it accepts the L3 penalty.

“We had a quality control lapse and a part that never should’ve been on a car going to the racetrack ended up on the No. 14 car at Charlotte,” said Greg Zipadelli in a statement from the team. “We accept NASCAR’s decision and will not appeal.”

Asked how then piece could have aided performance, Sawyer said Wednesday: “Knowing the race team mentality, they don’t do things that would not be a benefit to them in some way, shape or form from a performance advantage.”

The penalty drops Briscoe from 17th in the season standings to 31st in the standings. Briscoe goes from having 292 points to having 172 points. He’ll have to win to make the playoffs. Briscoe has no playoff points at this time, so the penalty puts him at -25 playoff points should he make it.

Briscoe’s car was one of two taken to the R&D Center after Monday’s Coca-Cola 600 for additional tear down by series officials.

The penalty comes a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in last weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.