Analytics: Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. face long odds at Talladega

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Obviously, the big story coming out of Kansas was Matt Kenseth‘s spin and Joey Logano‘s second win in a row.

It’s easy to see how the numbers would have played out if Kenseth had won instead of Logano. Kenseth would be in the next round rather than the furthest driver from it. We already had shown a week ago that his only way into the next round was to win at Kansas or Talladega. He missed his best shot.

Logano’s second win hasn’t changed much for him. He and Harvick still basically are neck and neck in the overall title hunt. Harvick’s 16th-place finish actually was the second-worst among the 12 remaining Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers. Harvick’s odds to advance to Round 3 actually dipped to 84 percent from 88 percent last week. Logano now leads the title odds 26-24 percent over Harvick, reversing their numbers from last week.

Here are all the probabilities for making it to Round 3 and beyond.

title chances

The numbers come from a prediction model designed by myself and Andrew Maness at racing analytics firm Pit Rho.

All of that can wait until we see who makes it past Talladega. While many drivers do get random finishes at plate races, a few names stand out on the list as having a better-than-expected chance of finishing up front.

It’s well known that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the best plate racer in the field, and he will need a win. He currently is 11th in the standings and 31 points behind the eighth-place cutoff. There’s only a 5 percent chance he can make it to the third round on points (which could happen if a lot of drivers ahead of him crash or have other problems), but there’s a substantial 18 percent chance of him winning on Sunday and advancing.

These are the career finishing positions at plate races for the 12 drivers, provided by Maness at Pit Rho. They are ranked by average finish. Earnhardt is the best, and Martin Truex Jr. is at the bottom.

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Earnhardt has strong performances on plate tracks with many top-five and top-10 finishes along with random results outside the top 10. Harvick is similar, except he doesn’t have as many top fives.

What might stand out most to casual observers is the strength of Kurt Busch. He has done extremely well on plate tracks in his career with a very strong average finish, including a huge portion of them right up front. Busch hasn’t won a Cup race at Daytona or Talladega.

You’ll notice the bottom two rows of drivers (from Brad Keselowski to Truex) show finishes that look almost entirely random. They are just as likely to finish up front as they are in the middle or the back.

Kyle Busch is among those drivers, and he’s below the Chase cutoff line. Count that as two problems. Busch has not done all that well on plate tracks in his career, and he’ll need to perform better than average to make it to the next round. That’s why his chance of advancing is only 55 percent, or barely better than a coin flip.

A lot of these drivers, such as Kyle Busch, don’t have to win to advance because much of the probability of advancing could come from simply finishing anywhere in the middle of the pack while other Chasers get caught in wrecks.

Eric Chemi runs data journalism for our sister network CNBC, including a heavy dose of sports analytics. Prior to that, his NASCAR analytics have been part of television broadcasts, and he has consulted for Sprint Cup teams on strategy, statistics, data, and analytics. He graduated with an engineering degree from MIT. You can follow him on Twitter @ericchemi.

Alex Bowman confident as he returns to racing from back injury


CONCORD, N.C. — Alex Bowman watched the rain-filled skies over Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday with more than a touch of disappointment.

As weather threatened to cancel Saturday night’s scheduled NASCAR Cup Series practice at the speedway, Bowman saw his chances to testing his car — and his body — dissolving in the raindrops. NASCAR ultimately cancelled practice and qualifying because of rain.

MORE: Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup practice, qualifying

Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car accident last month and has missed three Cup races while he recovers. Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the season’s longest race, is scheduled to mark his return to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It would have been really nice to kickstart that with practice today,” Bowman said. “I haven’t raced or competitively driven a race car in a month. I’m trying to understand where my rusty areas are going to be and where I’m still good.”

Bowman ran 200 laps in a test season at North Wilkesboro Speedway this week, but, of course, that doesn’t compare with the faster speeds and tougher G-forces he’ll experience over 400 laps Sunday at CMS.

Bowman admitted that he is still experiencing pain from the back injury — his car flipped several times — and that he expects some pain during the race. But he said he is confident he’ll be OK and that the longer race distance won’t be an issue.

“I broke my back a month ago, and there’s definitely things that come along with that for a long time,” he said. “I have some discomfort here and there and there are things I do that don’t feel good. That’s just part of it. It’s stuff I’ll have to deal with. But, for the most part, I’m back to normal.

“I’m easing back into being in the gym. I’m trying to be smart with things. If I twist the wrong way, sometimes it hurts. In the race car at the end of a six-hour race, I’m probably not going to be the best.”

The sprint car crash interrupted what had been a fine seasonal start for Bowman. Although winless, he had three top fives and six top 10s in the first 10 races.

“I’m excited to be back,” Bowman said. “Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off and be strong right out of the gate.”

He said he hopes to return to short-track racing but not in the near future.

“Someday I want to get back in a sprint car or midget,” he said. “I felt like we were just getting rolling in a sprint car. That night we were pretty fast. Definitely a bummer there. That’s something I really want to conquer and be competitive at in the World of Outlaws or High Limits races. Somebody I’ll get back to that. It’s probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time for a bit.”




Charlotte NASCAR Cup Series starting lineup: Rain cancels qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — William Byron and Kevin Harvick will start Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the front row after wet weather cancelled Saturday night qualifying.

Rain pelted the CMS area much of the day Saturday, and NASCAR announced at 3:45 p.m. that Cup practice and qualifying, scheduled for Saturday night, had been cancelled.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to cockpit

The starting field was set by the NASCAR rulebook.

Following Byron and Harvick in the starting top 10 will be Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The elimination of the practice session was particularly problematic for Alex Bowman, scheduled to return to racing Sunday after missing three weeks with a back injury, and Jimmie Johnson, who will be starting only his third race this year. Johnson will start 37th — last in the field.

Charlotte Cup starting lineup

Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup Series practice, qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR Cup Series drivers will start the longest race of the season with no practice or qualifying.

Wet weather and predictions of more to come led NASCAR to cancel Saturday night’s Cup Series practice and qualifying in mid-afternoon. The field for Sunday’s 600-mile race was set by the NASCAR rulebook, placing William Byron and Kevin Harvick on the front row for the  scheduled 6 p.m. start.

MORE: Charlotte Cup starting lineup

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to cockpit

Weather also could be an issue Sunday as more rain is predicted for the speedway area.

Drivers were scheduled to practice at 7 p.m. Saturday. That session was to be followed by qualifying at 7:45 p.m. The cancellations were announced at 3:45 p.m.

The time-trial cancellation marked the first time in 64 years that qualifying has been canceled for the 600.

Charlotte Xfinity race postponed to Monday by weather


CONCORD, N.C. — Persistent rain forced the postponement of Saturday’s scheduled 300-mile NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway to Monday.

The race is scheduled to start at noon ET. It will be televised by FS1 and broadcast by the Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Driver introductions and other pre-race activities were held at the track Saturday, but rain that had dampened the track in the morning hours returned. After several attempts at drying the track, the race was postponed after heavier rain returned in mid-afternoon.

Justin Allgaier will start the race from the pole position.