Five things to watch in tonight’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It was here at Daytona International Speedway where fans were introduced to a young driver from California by way of Indiana.

Jeff Gordon, then a rookie, scored his first career victory at this track in a 1993 qualifying race. He admitted he needed help finding victory lane that day. That was the first of 14 such visits at this track during his career, which will end after this season.

Tonight’s race – which marks NBC’s return to broadcasting Sprint Cup races – marks Gordon’s final Cup start at this famed 2.5-mile speedway. He enters the event searching for his first victory of the season.

“It’s hard for me to really put all those thoughts and feelings into perspective, knowing that I have half the season still to go,’’ Gordon said of his last Daytona start. “I don’t think it’s really going to hit me until we get further down into the final part of the season, but this place has meant a lot. It’s going to be tough not coming back here and being behind the wheel.’’

His final trip could end in victory lane based on what he’s done earlier this year in restrictor-plate races. He led a race-high 87 laps in the Daytona 500 but got stuck deep in the pack and was collected in a last-lap crash. At Talladega, he led 47 laps but a speeding penalty dropped him back in the pack and he again was involved in a late crash.

“I come into restrictor-plate races feeling like we have very fast race cars and that we have a chance to come out of here with a great finish, if not a win, as much or more so as the field,’’ said Gordon, who starts 23rd. “And at the same time, that thought and confidence is followed right up with, when was the last time I finished one of these races?

“So, all you can do is just come up with the best plan that you can possibly put in place, knowing that it’s going to change at any moment.’’

Gordon’s quest for a win is just one of the storylines tonight.

Kyle Busch competes in his first race at Daytona since being injured here in February. It was not a good start to the weekend for Busch, who was involved in a crash about 10 minutes into Friday’s first practice. He was uninjured but had to go to a backup car – along with nine other drivers, including Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards.

Busch suffered a broken right leg and left foot in a crash during the season-opening Xfinity race in February when he hit an unprotected concrete wall. SAFER barriers have been added to where Busch hit and other locations and some areas of grass were paved, but Busch called for more to be done Saturday.

Busch’s biggest quest, though, is to stay out of trouble on the track. With his victory last weekend at Sonoma Raceway, he needs to gain enough points in the next 10 races to be in the top 30 in the standings before the Chase begins to be eligible for it. If he gets collected in a crash tonight and has a poor finish, it could doom those hopes.

Could there be another surprise winner? Aric Almirola might not have been a name most would have picked to have won this race last year but he did. With horsepower-choking restrictor plates keeping the field bunched, the number of drivers who can win here multiplies.

Austin Dillon, who won Saturday night’s Xfinity race, said he’s focused on winning a race in Cup because he believes he’s likely too far back to make the Chase via points. He’s not alone. For many, this could be one of their last true chances to slip into the Chase. Tony Stewart could be among those in that group. He and his team have not shown the speed to compete for wins at most tracks, but the four-time winner at this track knows where to place himself in the field to be in contention and could be one to watch.

Richard Childress Racing could use a good night. The organization enters tonight with a 53-race winless streak. If Paul Menard, Ryan Newman or Austin Dillon do not win tonight, RCR’s winless streak will match it’s longest in a decade.

Richard Childress Racing’s last victory came at Phoenix in Nov. 2013 with Kevin Harvick. Dillon starts second tonight with Menard fourth and Newman 17th.

Crew chiefs will matter tonight. Daytona’s hot conditions – even at night – will make handling a key. Make the wrong adjustment and a driver won’t be able to challenge for a win. Watch how the cars perform the longer into a fuel run they go, noticing who falls back and who moves up. It’s all about positioning for that final restart.

 

Dr. Diandra: How much does Talladega shake up the playoffs?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for shaking up the playoffs. But how well deserved is that reputation?

Playoff drivers usually view the first race in the second round of the playoffs as the best chance to earn points, earn stage points and maybe even a win given that Talladega is the second race. Now that Texas is in the rear-view mirror, let’s turn our data analysis tools to Talladega.

The shake-up index

Determining how much one race shuffles the playoffs standings requires a simple metric that is applicable to all the years NASCAR has had stages and playoffs. In a rare point of consistency, Talladega has remained the 31st race of the season since 2017, when stage racing started.

After trying a couple different approaches, I finally settled on playoff rankings. These rankings are a zero-sum game. For each driver who moves up a position, another driver must move down.

The first graph is playoff ranking as a function of race for the second playoff segment of 2021. It’s a bit of a mess, but stay with me.

A scatter graph of rank changes to help determine how much shaking-up Talladega actually does

Playoff rank runs along the left side of the graph. The highest ranked driver is at the top and the 12th ranked at the bottom.

The leftmost set of dots shows the rankings coming out of Bristol, after eliminating the lowest four drivers and re-seeding the rest. The second column of dots show the rankings after Las Vegas, which was the first race in the second round in 2021.

Each driver is represented in a different color, with lines connecting his rankings. For example, the dark purple lines show Denny Hamlin rising from third to first over these three races. The light blue lines at the bottom show Alex Bowman plummeting from seventh to 12th.

The messier the lines between two races, the more the playoffs were shaken up. Because it’s hard to quantify “messiness,” I counted each time one driver’s line crossed another driver’s line.

Each crossing indicates two drivers changed places in the rankings. The number of intersections between Bristol and Las Vegas, for example, tells you how much Las Vegas shook up the standings.

Three intersecting lines count as three shake-ups because there are three pairs of drivers crossing.

In 2021, Las Vegas had nine intersections, Talladega 13 and the Roval only five. This seems consistent with our hypothesis that Talladega is the biggest shaker-upper in the second round.

Talladega Timeline

In addition to being only one point, the 2021 Talladega contest poses another problem. Bubba Wallace won the rain-shortened race, which went 311 miles instead of the scheduled 500 miles.

That raises the possibility that 2021 might not be the most representative year for Talladega races. I therefore repeated the analysis going back to 2017. Since we didn’t have stage racing — and thus stage points — before 2017, it doesn’t make sense to compare previous years.

The table below shows the shake-up index from 2017-2021. Note that the first and third races changed from year to year.

A table summarizing the shake-up index for Talladega and other races in the second playoff round from 2017-2021

This five years of data show that Talladega wasn’t always the race that most shook-up this round of playoffs. From 2017-19, Dover and Charlotte held that honor. That’s surprising, especially in 2017. That’s the year 26 of 40 cars failed to finish the Talladega race and NASCAR parked Jimmie Johnson and Matt DiBenedetto.

In 2020, the three races had just about equal shake-up indices.

The Roval has been the third playoff race for only two years. It was equally chaotic with Talladega in terms of affecting the standings in 2020, but less so in 2021. Kansas beat the Roval for switching up the playoff standings twice.

 A caveat for the first race

If you’re surprised to see a larger shake-up for the first race in the second round of the playoffs, you’re not alone.

The 2021 fall Las Vegas race was remarkably uneventful. There were only two DNFs, both non-playoff cars. And one single-car accident that, again, didn’t involve a playoff car. Yet it had a shake-up index of nine.

It turns out that this is a side-effect of the re-seeding protocol.

The graph below shows the same time period as the rankings graph, but reports total points for the top-12 drivers.

A scatter plot showing how points changed for the top-12 playoff drivers in 2021 in the second round of the playoffs

Immediately after re-seeding, the drivers are separated by 57 points from first to 12th. If you omit Kyle Larson’s 30-point lead, the bottom 11 drivers are separated by only 27 points.

Since a driver can earn a maximum of 60 points in a single race, the first race in a round has a lot more impact in changing the standings. In effect, the first race decompresses the re-seeding compression.

After Las Vegas, the 12 playoff drivers were separated by 78 points. After Talladega, the margin grew to 98 points.

The larger numbers for the first races in any round are more due to the re-seeding-induced points compression than to the nature of the track.

Applied to 2022

Drivers don’t have to win at Talladega. They just have to finish ahead of the other playoff drivers. In fact, if a given driver can’t win, the next best case for him is if none of the other playoff drivers win, either.

The largest drop in positions a driver has seen from Talladega is five — and that’s from the rain-shortened 2021 race. On the other hand, drivers have also seen as much as an eight-position gain in the standings following Talladega. That gain was after the 2017 race where more than half the field failed to finish, but at least one driver has come out of the fall Talladega race each of the last four years up at least three positions.

As far as the stats for this year’s second round playoffs so far: Last week’s Texas race had a shake-up index of 14. That’s higher than all but the first year of the stage-racing playoff era.

And the William Byron penalty (which Hendrick Motorsports is contesting) has a shake-up index of seven.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.