Five things to watch in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway


TALLADEGA, Ala. – David Ragan’s uniquely eventful season could take its most interesting turn yet Sunday.

Ragan will close out his nine-race stint in place of injured Kyle Busch in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota with Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, and it’s prompted some curiosity about a scenario that Ragan already has experienced at the 2.66-mile oval known for unexpected endings and bizarre twists.

What if Ragan, who conquered Talladega in 2013, wins in his final start for JGR before moving to Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota to finish out the 2015 season?

Start with the obvious – Ragan would become eligible for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, regardless of whose car he is piloting. Though his MWR team technically wouldn’t be in the Chase (unless he were to win in that car), it still would reap the PR benefits of having a driver compete for a championship in one of its Camrys.

But so would JGR.

A win for the No. 18 by Ragan would catapult the car into the owner’s championship, creating the possibility for the first split driver-owners title in NASCAR’s premier series since 1963. In that season, Joe Weatherly won his final driver title, and Wood Brothers Racing took the owners championship.

There has been only one other split title in Cup – Lee Petty (driver) and Herb Thomas (owner) finished the 1954 season as respective champions – but it’s been a common occurrence in the Xfinity Series, where JGR and Team Penske rotate drivers through top-caliber cars and Sprint Cup drivers can’t earn points. The past three seasons have featured split driver-owner champions on the Xfinity circuit.

Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, the field for the playoff (which started at 10 drivers, expanded to 12 in 2007 and grew to 16 last year) has featured no deviation between the eligible contenders and the cars they drive full time. The drivers competing for the title are mirrored by their teams vying for the owners championships.

But there always has been the possibility of “parallel” Chases for the driver and owner championship in which a driver might be racing for a title even though the car isn’t eligible.

And it’s more than semantics. There are millions at stake for each share of the championship. The championship driver and team roughly split the point fund money doled out by NASCAR and Sprint for winning the title. Last year, Kevin Harvick received a bonus check for nearly $5 million, bringing his total season winnings to $12.7 million.

When Chase Elliott won the Xfinity title last season, he picked up a bonus of nearly $1 million, and Team Penske (whose No. 22 Ford won the owners championship) earned a similar haul in bonus money.

In a season that perhaps has become best known for a spinning carousel of replacements for drivers sidelined by injuries and suspensions, it would seem fitting to have Ragan win before he hops into his third car in three months.

The Unadilla, Ga., native probably has a better shot at it than when delivered Front Row Motorsports’ underfunded No. 34 Ford to victory lane here in May 2013. That was the second of Ragan’s two career Sprint Cup wins at restrictor-plate tracks (he also won at Daytona International Speedway in July 2011), and he seems confident again.

“Man, I feel great,” he said after qualifying ninth Saturday. “I feel like we’ve got a car that can win this race. There are obviously a lot of really good cars, a lot of really good drivers, but at the end of the day, we’ve just got to execute. We’ve got to be perfect on pit road – no mistakes –and just have to be in contention.”

Other storylines to watch Sunday:

Strange bedfellows: Alliances often used to determine the outcome of restrictor-plate races before they even began as drivers, teams and manufacturers made deals to work together exclusively in the draft.

But that’s faded over the past two years with the Gen 6 car, which doesn’t allow partnerships so easily because it’s more difficult to maneuver.

The latest proof was Matt Kenseth pushing rival Brad Keselowski to a victory last October. After shoving Keselowski after the race a week earlier at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kenseth would have preferred to help any other driver, but he said he had no choice – which has become common.

“It was so much easier to pass guys in the past and team up with people and make things happen, so you could pick and choose,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Saturday. “You could say, ‘I don’t want to work with that guy. He’s going somewhere, but oh, he’s a Ford. I’m going to get over here with this Chevy, and we’re going to team-up and I’ll see him later. In another lap or two, we’ll go by him’. Today, you’ve got to take whatever you can get. Every significant run is so rare, that you might not like the guy, but you’ve got to do it and help people you don’t want to help.

“It’s difficult because a lot of times you’re helping people get by people you like, or your teammates, even. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do because these opportunities are few. You’ve got to be in the top three all day long to expect to be in the top three at the end when it counts. If you get shuffled out, it’s so hard to pass these people with this kind of car. So, we sit there in two lines: the bottom and the middle, and you aren’t going to jump out there by yourself and go around them. So, you’ve sort of got to sit there in line and hopefully some dummy pulls out, and he gets shuffled back. Hopefully, that happens a lot, and you end up toward the front.”

Big Mac: It’s hard to call Jamie McMurray a dark horse considering that four of his seven victories in Sprint Cup have occurred on plate tracks. But as the lesser heralded driver at Chip Ganassi Racing (Kyle Larson was the consensus preseason pick as 2015’s breakthrough star), McMurray quietly is putting together one of the best seasons of his career. A fourth last week at Richmond International Raceway (on a gamble by rookie crew chief Matt McCall) was McMurray’s fourth top 10, which has him a solid ninth in the points standings.

Though he will start 27th Sunday, McMurray has been strong at Talladega since making his Sprint Cup debut here in October 2002 (in place of injured Sterling Marlin), and he is less than two years removed from his last win at the 2.66-mile oval (in October 2013). A win would qualify McMurray for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, one of the only voids on a resume that includes victories in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

Dynamic duo: The past two plate races have been won by the Team Penske Fords of Keselowski and Joey Logano, who opened 2015 with a win in the Daytona 500. It isn’t by accident as Earnhardt and others have taken note of the prowess of the Penske drivers. Just as he did over 500 miles at Daytona International Speedway, Logano won Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega by making every right move in a 200-mph chess match where a mistake can drop a driver from first to 30th.

Faster horses: Hendrick Motorsports engines claimed five of the top six spots in qualifying, including a stunning gap of 0.3 seconds from pole-sitter Jeff Gordon to Hendrick teammate Kasey Kahne. Though NASCAR essentially equalizes what’s under the hood at a plate race, a significant edge can magnify the margin over the competition.

In his most impressive of six wins at Talladega, Gordon paced 139 of 194 laps and credited the engine for his dominance in the May 2005 race, in which he drove a Star Wars-sponsored Chevrolet. A decade later, a sequel could be brewing.

NASCAR implements safety changes after Talladega crash


NASCAR is implementing changes to Cup cars that strengthen the right side door area and soften the frontal area after reviewing the crash between Kyle Larson and Ryan Preece at Talladega Superspeedway in April.

The changes are to be in place for the July 9 race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Larson and Preece were uninjured in the vicious crash late in the race at Talladega. Larson’s car was turned and slid down the track to the apron before coming back up in traffic. Preece’s car slammed into the right side door area of Larson’s car.

Dr. John Patalak, NASCAR vice president of safety engineering, said the difference in velocity of the two cars at the time of impact was 59 mph.

“It’s pretty hard to find that on the racetrack normally,” Patalak told reporters Thursday during a briefing.

The severe impact moved a right side door bar on Larson’s car. NASCAR announced last month that it was allowing teams to add six right side door bar gussets to prevent the door bars from buckling in such an impact.

Thursday, NASCAR announced additional changes to the cars. The changes come after computer simulations and crash testing.

NASCAR is mandating:

  • Steel plate welded to the right side door bars
  • Front clips will be softened
  • Front bumper strut softening
  • Front ballast softening
  • Modified cross brace

Patalak said that NASCAR had been working on changes to the car since last year and did crash testing in January at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio. NASCAR did more work after that crash test.

As for the changes to the front of the car, Patalak said: “From an engineering standpoint we’re reducing the buckling strength of those individual parts and pieces. The simplified version is we are increasing the amount of crush that the front clip will be capable of. That’s all an effort to reduce the accelerations that the center section and driver will be exposed to during these frontal crashes.”

Adding the steel plate to the door bars is meant to strengthen that area to prevent any type of intrusion or buckling of the door bars in a similar type of crash.

Patalak also said that NASCAR inspected the car of Blaine Perkins that barrel rolled during the Xfinity race at Talladega in April. Patalak said that NASCAR consulted with Dr. James Raddin, Jr., who was one of the four authors of the Earnhardt investigation report in 2001 for the sanctioning body, in that incident.

Dr. Diandra: Brad Keselowski driving RFK Racing revival


Brad Keselowski surprised many when he didn’t re-sign with Team Penske in 2021. Penske was his home since 2010, and the team who helped him to a Cup Series championship in 2012. But Jack Roush offered Keselowski something Roger Penske couldn’t — ownership stake in the team.

Keselowski knew an RFK Racing revival would be an challenge, but also that he was prepared for it.

“I’ve been studying my whole life for this moment, and I’m ready for the test,” Keselowski said during the announcement of the new partnership.

A historic team with historic ups and downs

Roush Racing entered Cup competition in 1988. It didn’t win that first year, but the company collected at least one checkered flag every year from 1989-2014 — except for 1996.

Roush was one of the first owners (along with Rick Hendrick) to appreciate the advantages of multi-car teams. By 2003, Roush Racing fielded five full-time teams. In 2005, all five Roush cars made the playoffs, accumulating 15 wins between them. Their dominance prompted NASCAR to limit teams to four cars. That limit remains today.

Roush sold half the team to Fenway Sports Group in 2007. The renamed Roush Fenway Racing team, however, never reached the highs of 2005 as the graph below shows.

A vertical bar chart showing the challenges Brad Keselowski has in driving RFK's revival

The 2015 season was Jack Roush’s first winless season since 1996. By the time Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won two races in 2017, RFR was down to two cars. The company had four consecutive winless seasons before Keselowski came on board.

Keselowski is a perfect choice to drive the RFK revival. After all, how many other NASCAR drivers run a 3D-printing business? Or worry about having enough properly educated workers for 21st century manufacturing jobs?

“I feel like I’m buying into a stock that is about to go up,” Keselowski said.

Keselowski’s record

The new RFK Racing team started off strong at Daytona, with Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher each winning their Duels. During that week, NASCAR confiscated wheels from both drivers’ cars. Despite concerns about the team’s modifications, NASCAR ultimately levied no penalty. But after the fifth race of the year at Atlanta, NASCAR docked Keselowski 100 points for modifying single-source parts. Keselowski needed to win to make the playoffs.

It wasn’t Keselowski, but Buescher who won the first race under the new name. Unfortunately, Buescher’s Bristol win came too late to make the playoffs.

Keselowski finished 2022 ranked 24th, the worst finish since his first full-time season in 2010 when he finished 25th.

In the table below, I compare Keselowski’s finishes for his last two years at Team Penske to his finishes with RFK Racing in 2022 and the first 15 races of 2023.

Comparing Brad Keselowski's finishes for his last two years with Penske and his first two years (so far) with RFK RacingKeselowski’s lack of wins since switching teams is the most obvious difference; however, the falloff in top-five and top-10 finishes is even more significant. Keselowski was not only not winning races, he often wasn’t even in contention. In 2020, Keselowski finished 91.7% of all races on the lead lap. In his first year with RFK, that metric dropped to 61.1%.

On the positive side, his numbers this year look far better than his 2022 statistics. Keselowski finishes on the lead lap 86.7% of the time and already has as many top-10 finishes in 15 races as he had in all 36 races last year.

Keselowski’s top-five finish rate improved from 2.8% in 2022 to 20.0% this year. That’s still off his 2021 top-five-finish rate of 36.1%, but it’s a step forward.

I summarize the last four years of some of Keselowski’s loop data metrics in the table below.

A table comparing Brad Keselowski's attempt to drive RKF's revival with his last two years of loop data at Penske

In 2022, Keselowski was down between six to seven-and-a-half points in starting, finishing and average running positions relative to 2021. This year, he’s improved so that the difference is only in the 2.6 to 3.6-position range.

Two keys for continued improvement

Ford is playing catch-up this year, having won only two of 15 points-paying races. Ryan Blaney, who won one of those two races, has the highest average finishing position (11.3) among drivers with at least eight starts. Keselowski is 14th overall with a 15.7 average finishing position, and fourth best among Ford drivers. Buescher is finishing an average of 1.2 positions better than his teammate.

Kevin Harvick is the top-ranked Ford driver in average running position, coming in sixth overall. Keselowski is 13th overall in average running position and the fourth-best among the Ford drivers.

Average green-flag speed rank is the average of a driver’s rank in green-flag speed over all the races for which he was ranked. Harvick is the fastest Ford as measured by this metric, ranking eighth among all drivers who have completed at least eight races. Keselowski is the fifth-fastest Ford, but the 20th-ranked driver in average green-flag speed rank.

The other issue, however, is particular to Keselowski: He is involved in a lot of accidents. That’s not new with Keselowski’s move to RFK Racing. Since 2016, Keselowski has been involved in at least eight caution-causing incidents every year.

What may be new is that he has a harder time recovering from non-race-ending incidents now than he did at Penske.

In 2021, Keselowski was involved in 12 caution-causing accidents. Last year, it was 10 (nine accidents and a spin). He’s already been involved in 12 incidents this year, the most of any full-time driver.

Keselowski isn’t too concerned about accidents. He views them as a consequence of pushing a car to its limits. His competitors, however, have called him out for for his aggressive driving style.

Neither accidents nor Keselowski’s attitude toward them changed with his transition from Team Penske to RFK Racing.

Except now he’s the one paying for those wrecked cars.

NASCAR weekend schedule at Sonoma Raceway


The NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series head to Sonoma Raceway this weekend. This marks the first time the Xfinity Series has competed at the 1.99-mile road course.

The Cup and Xfinity Series will take the following weekend off before the season resumes at Nashville Superspeedway. NBC and USA will broadcast each series the rest of the year, beginning at Nashville.

Sonoma Raceway

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 69 degrees.

Saturday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 73 degrees. Forecast is for a high of 70 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race.

Sunday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 67 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the Cup race.

Friday, June 9

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — ARCA Menards Series West
  • 1 – 10 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 2 – 3 p.m. — ARCA West practice
  • 3:10 – 3:30 p.m. — ARCA West qualifying
  • 4:05 – 4:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 p.m. — ARCA West race (64 laps, 127.36 miles; live on FloRacing, will air on CNBC at 11:30 a.m. ET on June 18)

Saturday, June 10

Garage open

  • 12 p.m. – 8 p.m.  — Cup Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 3 – 4 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 5 – 6 p.m. — Cup practice  (FS2)
  • 6 – 7 p.m. — Cup qualifying  (FS2)
  • 8 p.m. — Xfinity race (79 laps, 156.95 miles; FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, June 11

Garage open

  • 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (110 laps, 218.9 miles; Fox, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)


NASCAR penalizes Erik Jones, Legacy MC for L1 violation


NASCAR has docked Erik Jones and Legacy Motor Club 60 points and five playoff points each, suspended crew chief Dave Elenz two races and fined him $75,000 for the L1 violation discovered this week at the R&D Center. The team was found to have modified the greenhouse.

The penalty drops Jones from 26th to 30th in the standings heading into Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway.

MORE: NASCAR’s $1 million question is can the culture change?

“We have been diligently working with NASCAR regarding the penalty and are working internally to determine the course of action in response,” said Joey Cohen, vice president, race operations for Legacy MC, in a statement. “We will announce that decision within the timeframe determined by the NASCAR Rule Book.”

Cohen will serve as interim crew chief during Elenz’s suspension.

Jones’ car was among those brought to NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, after last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway.

NASCAR cited the team for violating:

Section 14.1.C: Vehicles must comply with Section 14 Vehicle and Driver Safety Specifications of the NASCAR Rule Book at all times during an Event. Failure to comply will be subject to Penalty pursuant to Section 10 Violations and Disciplinary Action.

Section 14.1.D: Except in cases explicitly permitted in the NASCAR Rules, installation of additional components, repairs, deletions, and/or modifications to Next Gen Single Source Vendor-supplied parts and/or assemblies will not be permitted.

Section 14.1.2.B: All parts and assemblies must comply with the NASCAR Engineering Change Log.

NASCAR also announced penalties Wednesday in the Craftsman Truck Series.

Crew chief Andrew Abbott has been fined $5,000, Young’s Motorsports has been penalized 25 points and Chris Hacker has been docked 25 points for a violation with the team’s window net.

Crew chief Charles Denike has been fined $2,500 for a lug nut not properly installed on Christian Eckes‘ truck for TRICON Garage.