JOLIET, Ill. – If this whole basketball and tennis thing doesn’t work out, NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West and tennis great Billie Jean King might want to put together a comedy act and take it on the road.
The two sports legends are serving as co-grand marshals for Sunday’s opening race of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, the MyAFibRisk.com 400.
West was asked by NASCAR Talk if he went through with a pace car ride for a few hot laps that was scheduled Saturday.
“I was so apprehensive that I went back to the hotel and locked myself in so no one would make me come out and ride anything,” West said with a laugh.
To that, King responded, “Are you kidding me? You should have heard him this morning. ‘I want to drive that car, let’s go.’ I was like, ‘Really?’”
West’s retort: “I drive very slow, Billie Jean.”
As he was leaving the media center, West once again laughed when he told NASCAR Talk there was no doubt that he would indeed go through with the pace car ride this time: “I’m going to do it today. I’m going to drive it.”
West then slightly paused and then forewarned those who might watch his venture behind the wheel, “If you’re out there or anywhere near, get away from the track.”
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.