5 Sprint Cup drivers who need help heading to back-to-back short tracks

(All photos: Getty Images)
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The 36-race NASCAR Sprint Cup season still is two races shy of the one-quarter mark.

However, the next two races could be among the most important of 2016 thus far for several drivers who have struggled and need major bounce backs if they hope to salvage their seasons.

This Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway and the April 24 Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway could go a long way toward making or breaking these five drivers’ overall 2016 campaigns:

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1. Clint Bowyer

Clint Bowyer continues to go from bad to worse.

Although he’ll replace Tony Stewart in 2017 at Stewart-Haas Racing, for now Bowyer is a forgotten man in his single-season stint with HScott Motorsports.

Sitting 32nd in the standings, Bowyer is off to one of the worst starts of his Sprint Cup career. He’s finished 30th or lower in four of the first seven races of 2016, including a season-worst finish of 38th at Texas (also his first DNF of the year).

His best finish is 18th (Fontana), which is also his only top-20 showing thus far. His average start is 32.0 and average finish is 28.9.

He also hasn’t won a race since 2012.

Based on past history, Bowyer has a better chance of doing better at Richmond in two weeks at Bristol:

* Bowyer’s career record at Bristol: 20 starts, 0 wins, six top-fives, nine top 10s.

* His career record at Richmond: 20 starts, two wins, four top-fives and 12 top 10s.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 - Practice

2. Greg Biffle

The 2016 season was supposed to be a big comeback year for Roush Fenway Racing, especially for its most veteran driver, Greg Biffle.

Unfortunately, instead of things getting better, they’ve gotten worse – and we’re through only the first seven races.

Biffle currently sits 27th in the Sprint Cup standings. His best finish has been 12th (Martinsville), but he has finished 20th or worse five other times, including a season-worst 39th Saturday at Texas.

The Vancouver, Washington, native has had a decent average start (16.9), but his average finish of 25.1 – if it continues – is on track to be the worst of his 15-year Sprint Cup career.

Biffle has not won a Sprint Cup race since 2013. His season finishes have plummeted from fifth in 2012, to ninth in 2013, 14th in 2014 and tied his career-worst showing (20th) in 2015.

Biffle has a markedly better record at Bristol than he does at Richmond:

* Bristol: 26 starts, zero wins, six top-fives, 13 top-10s.

* Richmond: 27 starts, zero wins, two top-fives, six top-10s.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 - Practice

3. David Ragan

David Ragan was expected to lead BK Racing to new heights when he joined up for the 2016 season.

Unfortunately, the 30-year-old Georgia native seems as if he’s been stuck in first gear in the first seven races. His best finish has been 21st, while his worst showing was 33rd, incurred Saturday night at Texas.

He has an average start of 30.0 and an average finish of 27.6.

Unfortunately, if past experience is any indicator, Ragan’s struggles are likely to continue – at least at Bristol, where he has just one top-10 finish to show for in 18 career Cup starts there.

His chances may be a bit better at Richmond, where he has three top-fives in 18 starts – though the last in 2011.

Daytona 500 - Practice

4. Brian Scott

Though improvement was expected when he came on board, things haven’t gone much better for Brian Scott than with his predecessor at Richard Petty Motorsports, Sam Hornish Jr.

Scott is 25th in the standings. All but one of his finishes in the first seven races have been 24th or worse. He’s had just one top-20 finish, 12th at Fontana.

Scott’s average start in his first full Sprint Cup is 25.9, while his average finish is 24.9.

Even though he has 24 career Sprint Cup starts, Scott hasn’t raced in the series at Bristol and only once at Richmond (22nd, last summer).

Like fellow rookie Chris Buescher, Scott has made a number of starts in the Xfinity Series at Bristol (13 starts, five top-10 finishes) and Richmond (13 starts, four top-5s and five top-10s).

While the same kind of optimism about Scott coming into the season remains after seven races he definitely has his work cut out in the next two races – let alone the rest of the season.

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5. Chris Buescher

While so much attention has been focused on two of the other three Sprint Cup rookies this season – Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney – Chris Buescher has been a forgotten man.

The defending Xfinity Series champion sits a lowly 36th in his first full season in the Sprint Cup Series. He’s finished 30th or worse in four of the first seven races.

His best finish to date has been 26th (Las Vegas), and he’s coming off a 28th in the most recent race at Texas this past Saturday.

Buescher has a 27.3 average start and a 31.0 average finish in 2016.

Some might question whether Buescher was ready for the jump to Sprint Cup. Maybe he would have been better off spending at least one more season in the Xfinity Series.

But when the opportunity arose to join Front Row Motorsports and make the jump to the big show, the Sprint Cup Series, Buescher really didn’t have much of a choice. If he passed on the shot and remained in the Xfinity Series, some other driver gladly would have taken the Cup ride. And Buescher remains under contract to Roush Fenway Racing, which might have a Cup opening for him in the future.

There is a sense of optimism for Buescher in the next two races:

* Bristol: In one prior Sprint Cup start, he finished 25th. But in the Xfinity Series, he has one top-five and three top-10 finishes at the half-mile bullring.

* Richmond: No prior Cup starts, but in five Xfinity races, he has three top-10 finishes.

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RFK Racing reaps benefits of hard work with Bristol win, Texas pole

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When Brad Keselowski arrived at RFK Racing after last season, among the early changes he made included repainting the walls and restructuring the team’s shop.

They were meant to infuse an organization that hadn’t won a Cup points race since 2017 with a new look and feel. And help create a new mindset for the 165 employees.

“The first thing (Keselowski) started changing was colors,” Justin Edgell, tire carrier on Chris Buescher’s team, told NBC Sports. “Everything is satin black. My man is a satin black-type guy. I’m talking about trash cars. I’m talking about equipment. I like it. You know, look good, play good.”

RFK Racing has looked great the last week. Buescher gave the organization its first points win of the season, taking the checkered flag in the Bristol night race. Keselowski followed by winning the pole for today’s second-round playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network). Buescher starts today’s race 13th. 

MORE: Details for today’s Cup race at Texas 

It has taken much for the organization to experience a week like this. The season didn’t start well. Both Keselowski and Buescher failed to make the feature in the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in early February. 

Less than two weeks later, they each won their qualifying race at Daytona. 

RFK Racing wouldn’t be back to Victory Lane until Bristol. In between were disappointments, close calls and plenty of work.

“We’re in a spot where with our company, we’ve made a lot of changes over the last six to 12 months,” Keselowski told NBC Sports after the team’s celebration on Monday. “And there’s a maturation cycle to those. 

“Nobody likes that maturation cycle. There’s still things that we’ve invested that haven’t matured. So there’s a lot of reasons for optimism, but we have a long ways to go.”

Having patience in such a fast-moving sport isn’t easy but it is needed.

“I wish we would have matured earlier,” Keselowski said,” but I ain’t going to look at gift horse in the mouth and scream at him. I will take it and we’re going to build off it. Right now we have two teams that are like 10th-place teams. Our last few weeks have shown that’s where we’re at in speed, that’s where we’re at in finishes. If we ran a whole season like that … we’d be a playoff team.”

When Keselowski spoke to the employees at Monday’s celebration, he told them to enjoy the moment. He also had another message for them.

“Winning at this level is really hard and it’s supposed to be hard,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of fight to get there this year. Certainly some good moments and some really tough moments. I’m really proud of all of us and the work that went in.”

Another key to the organization’s success finding common ground between those who had been at Roush before Keselowski’s arrival and the new hires and their ideas.

After working through those issues, which included how the cars were prepared, Graves saw progress.

“You step back and embrace it and look at it and it’s like, ‘OK, this makes sense,’” Graves said. “You can start to develop and build on some ideas that make progress.”

The results started to show. Buescher finished second at Sonoma in June. He was sixth at Road America in July. He placed third at Richmond ninth at Watkins Glen in back-to-back weekends in August. 

“It’s been really nice to go to these race tracks and be in the hunt, be up there at the front,” Buescher told the employees at Monday’s celebration. “We’re learning every week. We’ve made huge progress really through the whole year.”

Buescher and Keselowski combined to lead 278 of the 500 laps at Bristol. Buescher found himself toward the front late in the race. Graves made a two-tire call on the last stop. Buescher went from entering the pits fourth to exiting first when no one else made such a move. Buescher led the final 61 laps to win. 

Then he got to do something he hadn’t in years. 

A burnout.

“I’ve only been able to do like three in my career,” he told NBC Sports, noting he didn’t do burnouts in ARCA because he often needed those tires for another event. “Xfinity wins, we were able do do some burnouts. 

“After the Pocono Cup win, it was rained out so we just had to push it to victory way, so it’s been a really long time since I’ve done any legal burnouts in a race car. So that part was nice. 

“It was nice to actually be able celebrate on the frontstretch with the team the real way, in the moment, not hanging around for that that rainout. That’s what made it that much better in my eyes.”

Keselowski looks to join Buescher in winning a points race this year. In a season with 19 different winners, Keselowski admits it’s challenging to be among those who have yet to win.

“Now we are in a spot where we are ready to play some offense,” he said. “It is a good feeling. It comes with a pragmatic view and a lot of humility of being able to walk away from some races where you were legitimately 20th or 25th and go to work the next morning and say, ‘Alright, we aren’t going to burn the house down. We are going to repaint the living room and then we are going to go to the next room and work on it piece by piece.’

“The easy thing to do is to lose control over yourself. That is the easy thing to do. The hard thing to do is to work through it and be methodical in that approach.”

It’s an approach that has led RFK Racing back to Victory Lane.

Dr. Diandra: Surprises in playoff performance

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The first round of playoff performances defied expectations in both good and bad ways.

That is my excuse for why my very first attempt at making predictions was an abject failure. I projected Alex Bowman, William Byron, Chase Briscoe and Austin Dillon would be the first four drivers out of the playoff. Only Dillon failed to move on to the round of 12.

Of course, my algorithm did not account for Kyle Busch having two engine failures in three races. Especially after his not having had a single engine failure in the previous 92 races.

Nor did the algorithm predict Kevin Harvick’s Darlington race being ended by fire.

Or that none of the 16 playoff drivers would win even one of the first three playoff races.

On the positive side, playoff drivers took 11 out of 15 possible top-fives (73%), and 21 of 30 top-10s (70%.) That’s consistent with a season boasting 19 different winners.

Chase Elliott is the only driver to win more than two races this season. Drivers made the playoffs by finishing well rather than winning of lot of races.

Playoff performance by the numbers

In the table at right, I list drivers in order of points after Bristol — but before re-seeding. Red numbers indicate DNFs.A table showing drivers' finishing positions for the first three playoff races

DNFs played a major role in the first round. Each of the four eliminated drivers had at least one DNF. Harvick and Busch had two each. Both of Busch’s DNFs and one of Harvick’s were due to equipment failure.

Only three drivers earned top-10 finishes in all three playoff races: Christopher Bell, Denny Hamlin and Byron. Two of my predicted eliminations over-performed. And the one driver I expected to dominate the playoffs didn’t.

Relative to the regular season

Excluding equipment failures and crashes, one expects most drivers to perform, on average, at about the same level they ran during the regular season. That mostly didn’t happen.

In the first two elimination rounds, top 10s are enough to stay in the game. So that’s the metric I’ll focus on here.

The graph below compares drivers’ top-10 finish percentage in the first three playoff races to the same metric from the regular season.

A graph comparing the regular season top-10 rate to the top-10 rate in the first three playoff races to

Each arrow starts at the driver’s regular-season average and travels to his playoff average. Blue indicates playoff performance better than the regular season and red indicates the opposite.

Six drivers performed better than their regular-season averages would suggest.

Byron entered the playoffs seeded 10th with only five top-10 finishes in the regular season. With three top-10s in the first round of the playoffs, he earned the second-most points of any driver in the round of 16.

Hamlin had the second-largest improvement with two second-place finishes and a ninth. That continues his season-long trend of trying to overcome a slow start.

Bell’s 53.8% top-10 rate for the regular season doesn’t give him much room to improve. But he did. He’s also the only driver with three top-five playoff finishes.

Bowman, whose crew chief, Greg Ives, will retire at the end of this season, increased from 38.5% to 66.6% top-10 finishes.

“I think we are super motivated,” Bowman said, “because its Greg’s last 10 races with me and we want to end on a high note. We know the summer doesn’t matter anymore, our troubles, and it’s a good reset for us going into the playoffs.”

The biggest surprise, perhaps, was Elliott. He has the most top-10 finishes of any driver with 18. But only one came from the first playoff round.

Momentum

Driver finishes rise and fall throughout a season. The ups and downs are even larger this year because of the new Next Gen car. For that reason, it’s worth comparing playoff performance not only to the entire regular-season average, but also to just the last five regular-season races.

The arrows on the next plot start at the top-10 rate for each driver’s last five regular-season races and travel to their playoff rate.

A graph comparing the regular season top-10 rate to the top-10 rate in the first three playoff races to the last five races of the regular season

Seven drivers improved relative to their last five regular-season races — the six from before, plus Daniel Suárez. Suárez rose from 20% to 33.3%. That’s typical of a season that has been fairly consistent, but not at a level that will take him to the final four.

Byron’s turnaround is even more impressive in view of his having zero top-10 finishes in the last five races of the regular season.

“I think we had a lot of really good tracks in the beginning of the year,” Byron said. “As we started to chase some speed and chase some things, we got off a little bit throughout the summer.”

He believes the team has returned to where it needs to be.

“We know what works; we know what doesn’t work,” Byron said. “We definitely know what doesn’t work after the last month or so, so that’s a good thing.”

Joey Logano has the largest downward trend relative to the last five races, going from a 80.0% top-10 rate to 33.3%.

This graph shows Elliott’s playoff decline to be a trend continuing from the end of the regular season. That might be good news for the other drivers struggling to catch up with him.

Scoring and re-seeding

The table below summarizes points and playoff points earned during the three playoff races and each drivers’ final score before re-seeding. The lineup looks quite different than it did going into this round of three races.

A table showing how many points each playoff driver earned in the first round But that’s before re-seeding.

I hadn’t appreciated playoff points until I did the math. Each driver moving on to the round of 12 gets 3000 points, plus their total playoff points.

Because none of these drivers won a race, only five of the 21 playoff points available in the last three races impact the new standings. Bell won two stages; Byron, Bowman and Busch one each.

So we’re mostly back to where we were leaving Daytona.

A table showing the re-seeded rankings entering the second round of playoff racesRyan Blaney fell a spot. Byron’s dramatic turnaround didn’t impact his playoff standing. Most of Bowman’s move up the charts is due to eliminating the drivers originally ranked seventh, ninth and 11th.

The current standings reflect NASCAR’s eternal struggle between winning and consistency. On the one hand, I understand the desire to mimic other sports’ playoffs and not let the results of the last round impact the next. But carrying over regular-season playoff points means that Elliott returns to P1 despite having earned fewer points in the three playoff races than seven of the 16 drivers.

That’s why Bell, who earned almost twice as many points as Elliott and won two stages, ties for sixth place with Hamlin and Blaney. Elliott goes from 40 points behind Bell to 27 points ahead of him.

If Bell or any of the other remaining drivers wants to challenge Elliott, even top-five finishes won’t be enough.

In these playoffs, performance isn’t enough. You have to win.

Texas Xfinity results: Noah Gragson wins playoff opener

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Noah Gragson is rolling through the NASCAR Xfinity Series like a bowling ball headed toward a strike.

Gragson won for the fourth consecutive race Saturday, taking the lead with 11 laps left and winning the 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway. The victory put Gragson in the second round of the playoffs.

Finishing behind him in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

Texas Xfinity results

The race was pockmarked by wrecks, scrambling the 12-driver playoff field.

POINTS REPORT

Noah Gragson remains the points leader after his win. He has 2,107 points. AJ Allmendinger is next, 26 points behind.

Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg hold the final two transfer spots. They are one point ahead of Riley Herbst, eight points ahead of Daniel Hemric, 13 points ahead of Brandon Jones and 29 points ahead of Jeremy Clements.

Texas Xfinity driver points

The Xfinity playoffs will continue Oct. 1 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, USA Network).

Noah Gragson wins Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway

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Noah Gragson opened the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs the same way he has run much of the season.

Gragson sidestepped a web of issues plaguing playoff drivers and won Saturday’s 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway, tying a decades-old Xfinity record by winning for the fourth consecutive race. Sam Ard, formerly a series mainstay, won four in a row in 1983.

Gragson, continuing to establish himself as the championship favorite, took the lead with 11 laps to go from Jeb Burton as most of the day’s leaders were running different tire and fuel strategies over the closing laps.

Gragson, 24 and set to jump to the Cup Series next season, led 85 laps. He won by 1.23 seconds.

“This number 9 team, man, they’re on fire,” Gragson told NBC Sports. “Luke Lambert (crew chief) and the boys executed a great race.”

MORE: Texas Xfinity results

The win was Gragson’s seventh of the year. Following in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

The victory pushed Gragson into the second round of the playoffs.

A big crash at the front of the field on lap 117 changed the face of the race. John Hunter Nemechek lost control of his car on the outside and was clipped by Justin Allgaier, starting a wreck that scrambled most of the field. Damages forced playoff drivers Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones and Allgaier from the race.

“The 7 (Allgaier) chose the top behind me, and I haven’t seen the replay of it, but the 7 chose the top behind me and started pushing,” Nemechek said. “The 21 (Hill) made it three-wide on the 9 (Gragson), and I was three-wide at the top, and I think we ended up four-wide at one point, which doesn’t really work aero-wide in the pack.”

Pole winner Jones, a playoff driver taken out in the crash, said Nemechek “was pushing a little too hard. Nothing to fault him there for, but probably a little early to be going that far. It is what it is.”

Six laps earlier, another multi-car crash scattered the field and damaged the car of playoff contender and regular season champion Allmendinger.

The wreck started when Brandon Brown slipped in front of Allmendinger and went into a slide, forcing Allmendinger to the inside apron. Several cars scattered behind them trying to avoid the accident.

Allmendinger’s crew repaired his car and he later had the race lead.

Playoff driver Jeremy Clements had a tough day. He parked with what he called mysterious mechanical issues about halfway through the race.

Below the cutline after the first race are Herbst, Hemric, Jones and Clements.

Stage 1 winner: Daniel Hemric

Stage 2 winner: AJ Allmendinger

Who had a good race: Noah Gragson is threatening to turn the final weeks of the Xfinity season into a cakewalk. He clearly had the day’s dominant car Saturday in winning for the fourth race in a row. … AJ Allmendinger’s car was damaged in a wreck in heavy traffic, but his crew taped parts of the car and gave him an opening to finish fourth.

Who had a bad race: Jeremy Clements, in the playoff field, finished 36th after parking with mechanical trouble near the race’s halfway point. … Jeffrey Earnhardt crashed only 17 laps into the race and finished last.

Next: The second race in the first round of the Xfinity playoffs is scheduled Oct. 1 at 4 p.m. ET (USA Network) at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.