What drivers said after Southern 500

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Here is what drivers said after the 67th annual Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Martin Truex Jr. – Winner: “This is just – this is unbelievable. So many people to thank obviously. I’ve always loved this race track. I’ve led a lot of laps here in my career. I feel like just something always happened and just so proud to get to victory lane with this group. The pit crew was flawless tonight. They won us the race. They took a lot of heat from last week with what happened. I’m glad he’s (Ryan Newman) not riding home with me – he’d be waiting a while. But just a big weekend for us to – we’ve had a terrible string of back luck. We’ve had super-fast race cars. Auto-Owners Insurance, this is their second race with us and one more with us this year and really excited for them. They went a little retro. I’ve got my zoot suit. This is something here that’s really special to us – I ran this wheel today and it’s real special to take that thing to victory lane. We do a lot with our foundation for ovarian and pediatric cancer. It’s awareness month for both of those diseases, so big day for us there, but just can’t say enough about this team and Barney Visser (team owner) and Toyota and TRD (Toyota Racing Development) – the engines have been unbelievable this year – and Bass Pro Shops and Furniture Row, Denver Mattress and everybody that’s made this possible. Cole Pearn (crew chief) and these guys are just amazing. I knew when the bad luck would stop coming we’d start racking them off and tonight we weren’t the best car for once and we actually won, so that was really cool and just couldn’t be more excited to win at Darlington, the Southern 500. I’ve been wanting to win this thing a long time and got to thank Sprint, the fans were great – tons of fans here today – and really excited. Glad they stuck around for a good finish and I don’t know – I could go on and on for hours I guess.”

Kevin Harvick – Finished 2nd: “Our team in the garage did a great job. They brought the fastest race car to the track once again and we just didn’t do a good job on pit road and gave it away … We (re)started 12th and eighth and sixth and we had a great race car all night just got to thank everybody in the shop and in the garage for putting the race cars under us. We can’t just continuously shoot ourselves in the foot every few pit stops … It’s just the same old thing. You get in position where you bring a dominant car. The guys in the shop and the guys in the garage are doing a great job, and the guys on pit road are doing a terrible job. You get in a position to win races, and they continually step on their toes and don’t make it happen. You’re not going to win races like that. I’m really proud of the car that we brought tonight and the things that we’ve done on the race track, but you can only make so many excuses for pit road.”

Kyle Larson – Finished 3rd: “It was long. My spotter said we were halfway and I was like ‘are you kidding me we still have however many to go?’ But it was a good night. We had to fight pretty hard to get to the top four or five. Our pit stops weren’t great there in the beginning, but they rebounded and we had some good stops there at the end to maintain. The last probably five or six stops I thought were pretty good. We were able to get past Denny (Hamlin) and get to the lead and lead some laps. We had a really good car out front. In traffic, I was just too tight for a little while and as we went I would get too loose on exit, but I found some lines that worked for me and that helped, but a tough race. It is good to come back after the win last week and finish third. I’m really happy with everybody on this Target team for working so hard and digging deep there throughout the race to get us in position.”

Denny Hamlin – Finished 4th: “Proud of the top-five run that we got going on, but definitely been a great a track for us. Just want more wins obviously, but we needed long runs really for that to try to materialize. Our car was very good when the track was rubbered up and really slick. Just didn’t go on restarts. Didn’t go on the short run and that was probably our Achilles’ heel tonight.”

Joey Logano – Finished 5th: “Yeah, it just doesn’t matter if it isn’t a win. At this point I guess momentum means something so I guess something matters. I disagree that I didn’t have anything for them. I did on the long run. We were the fastest car on the long run every time. We hit a lot of short runs at the end and that would kill us. I lost two or three spots every restart for the first five or six laps and then it would kick in and off I would go. I was fighting to get them back. We kind of hurt ourselves there with restarts tonight. We needed to go green from about 100 to go. We would have been good then.”

Kasey Kahne – Finished 7th: “Yeah, we had great pit stops. The guys did a really nice job the entire race, but really at the end it gave us some positions, which was great to get a top 10. We just had a nice car with the Liftmaster Chevrolet. We had a vibration that really hurt us a lot throughout the race and we had it again the final run. When we had that I was nowhere near as good as I was when I didn’t have it. I only didn’t have it like once or twice, but it seemed like that was a pretty big part of our night. But when we didn’t have it I felt like we had a pretty nice car. A couple of things we could work on to be better though.”

Ryan Newman – Finished 8th: “Yeah a good effort, but I mean guys have got to step it up in the pits. I mean we try hard, but trying hard ain’t good enough when you are losing three spots at a time.”

Brad Keselowski – Finished 9th: “It was an up and down night for us out there tonight with the Miller Lite Fusion. We fought real hard but didn’t get the finish out of it that we wanted. We had to fight through a lot of adversity out there tonight. Darlington will do that to you. I am proud of my team for that. They never stop fighting.”

Ryan Blaney – Finished 13th: “That’s a long race to begin with and we made it longer by having bad racing luck with that caution early in the race, which put us down two laps. Then I got into the wall in (Turns) 3 and 4 that caused a flat tire, then got together with the 47 (A.J. Allmendinger) and we were down two laps. At about the halfway part of the race there wasn’t much to feel positive about but the team kept working and battling and we ended up with a decent finish.”

Chris Buescher – Finished 17th: “Yeah, from that side of things it was a good points night for our Love’s Ford. At the end of the night it wasn’t a bad race for us. If we could have qualified and had a better spot maybe it would have been different. We worked hard on this thing all day and the team made good adjustments to get it rolling forward. It isn’t bad for our first Cup series race here in Darlington.” 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Finished 18th: “We got a lucky break there. I got to run up front a little bit but all in all we didn’t get our balance right all night. It was back and forth all night. It was a tough night for us with the Fastenal Ford. We couldn’t do anything to make it fast and ran the same speed all night. Some of those cars got us at the end. They made their cars better and we weren’t able to do that tonight.”

Kurt Busch – Finished 34th: “We had a tough night. You’ve got to be ready for battle on these restarts. Just not enough give. Too much take. For me, we had a tough night. We were trying to get the loose and tight worked out. He’s (No. 27 Paul Menard) just sideways. He just pushed too hard. That’s what happens when I didn’t give him enough room. He overdrove. I was right there on our limit. It’s the end of our night. It was just a tough night for all the hard work that goes into it. All these races come down to the restarts at the end. There’s no such thing as a long green flag run anymore. And you’ve got to be ready to battle on these restarts. The problem is that everybody’s got good give and take at early in the race, nobody has it at the end.”

Tony Stewart – Finished 35th: “Yeah, overheating was the first part of it, and it finally grenaded. It was 375 degrees on water temperature. There’s a screen in there that keeps all the trash from getting into the radiator and it got separated from its mount, so all the trash was getting underneath it and going up inside the radiator and it just kept blocking it until we finally lost the motor.”

Brian Scott – Finished 39th: “I was trying to let those guys go that had newer, fresher tires. I was trying to let Tony (Stewart) go there and I think he got inside of me and got loose there. I was pointing him to the inside to let him go. Apparently he got mad at me … I have a lot of respect for Tony. He has always raced me really clean. I am not sure what he thought was going on there. I am not sure if he thought I was trying to hold him up there, I wasn’t. I was trying to let him go. I even pointed him to the inside. Maybe he thought I was giving him the finger or something. I will talk with him. We will figure it out. It is a tough race. The Southern 500 is a tough race. Everybody is slipping and sliding a lot. It is getting to the point where people’s tempers are getting short.”

Trevor Bayne – Finished 40th: “I really hate that that happened. Matt (Puccia, crew chief) made some great adjustments that got our AdvoCare Ford to handle great but we were in a tough position because we were down a cylinder. I’m proud of all of my guys’ effort this weekend. We’ll give it everything we can next weekend and go for the win to get into the Chase.”

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Friday 5: Is it time to change how NASCAR champion is determined?

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Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both raise questions about how NASCAR determines its champion with a one-race event after whittling the 16-driver playoff field to four through a trio of three-race rounds.

Since 2014, the driver who finished the highest among the four championship contenders in the season finale won the title. The format creates a Game 7 type of moment for the sport in an event that has become a winner-take-all race. Joey Logano won the season finale at Phoenix to win his second Cup title. Ty Gibbs claimed the Xfinity title by winning the season finale at Phoenix. Zane Smith won the Truck title by winning the season finale at Phoenix. 

Thursday, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series announced a new way of determining its series champion that mirrors the NASCAR format. The late model series will cut its field of playoff drivers through eliminations, leading to one race where the four remaining championship contenders will vie for the title in 2023.

One of the questions with the NASCAR format is if it provides the most fair way to determine a series champion. Of course, the NFL determines its champion by the Super Bowl, a winner-take-all game. The best team hasn’t always reached that game or won that game, but the event has been played for more than 50 years with no change in sight.

Those who question NASCAR’s way of determining a champion note that the Super Bowl is between two teams, while the championship race for Cup, Xfinity and the Truck Series not only includes the four teams racing for a crown but also the rest of the field, which can include 30 more vehicles. What those drivers and teams do can make an impact on the race and play a role in who wins the championship.

“I think Dale Jr. covered it perfectly,” Hamlin said. “Should one season come down to this three-hour window?”

Hamlin, who seeks his first Cup title, says that the previous Cup champions have been worthy and admits that “I’m the last one that should comment on this” because he doesn’t have a title. 

Still, he raises questions.

“From a purist’s standpoint, it needs to have a bigger sample size,” he said.

Hamlin notes how he knew he wouldn’t win the 2020 Cup title even though he was among the four contenders because his team was not as strong at the shorter tracks such as Phoenix. 

“If you had more of a sample size, you have a chance,” he said. 

Earnhardt expressed the questions he had about the format when he spoke with former NASCAR Chairman Brian France on the Dale Jr. Download this fall.

Earnhardt said the playoff format, which features three-race rounds, is “compelling. It can be argued that it’s relatively fair. Everybody’s got the same opportunity. It’s three races. You can kind of dig yourself out of a hole. But I’ve always kind of struggled with the final race being all or nothing.

“The reason why I struggle with that is because the venue may suit a team or a driver. … You wouldn’t ever consider running it at a road course or a superspeedway because that certainly suits some drivers more than other. You try to have it at a neutral facility, if you will, like a Homestead or a Phoenix.

“But I always had a hard time with saying, ‘OK, it all boils down to this one race where you’ve got to get it right and if you don’t you’re not a champion this year.’ Even though you’ve really got this amazing body of work. You can still have that guy that wins one race be the champion and the guy that wins six not even make the final round.

“I wish we could figure out a way to make that championship moment not an all or nothing three-hour affair. … I’ve really warmed up to everything else we’ve done. It took me a long time because I was too much of traditionalist. But I still feel like there’s got to be a better scenario for the final moment.”

France responded to Earnhardt’s query by saying: “The reason you feel that way is because those are fair points that you make. They are.”

France went on to say that such questions are “part of the challenge of a playoff format in general with auto racing. You’re just going to have to accept that is not exactly perfect.”

France then said: “My decision was we’re not going to hold ourselves back from getting those (Game 7) moments because auto racing doesn’t quite fit perfectly into that. We just couldn’t do it.”

NASCAR changed how its champion was crowned ahead of the 2004 season. From 2000-03, three champions were so far ahead in the points that they clinched the title with one race left in the season (Bobby Labonte in 2000, Jeff Gordon in 2001 and Matt Kenseth in 2003). 

The Chase was created to generate interest in the fall, particularly when NASCAR was going against the NFL on Sundays. The Chase morphed into the playoffs and included eliminations and one race to determine the champion. 

Hamlin says a three-race round to determine the champion will keep the interest of fans.

“I think when you spread it out amongst a bigger sample size, such as a three-race (round), I don’t see how that’s not a positive thing for ratings. People will be compelled every week to tune in because this is the championship round. I think there’s something to be gained there.”

Asked about what if one of the title contenders wins the first two races to all but assure them the title ahead of the final race, Hamlin said: “Will not happen. There’ll be no lockup. No one will be locked going into the final race.”

Hamlin acknowledges that his viewpoint will not be shared by all.

“I’m a traditionalist like Dale,” Hamlin said. “This is just my opinion. I think that everyone is going to have a different opinion on it, but I just believe a larger sample size of our champion makes it more legitimate. I think it would be hard for anyone to argue that, especially in the industry. 

“If you ask the drivers, ‘Do you see championships as valuable today as they did 10 years ago?’ I don’t think any one considers them as valuable just because it’s one race. It’s one race.”

2. Plugged in

Tyler Reddick moves to 23XI Racing and will have Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan as his bosses. Reddick says that Jordan is not an absent owner.

“We’ve gotten to spend time (together) a little bit, here and there,” Reddick said of Jordan. “His involvement with the team is, I think, more than most realize.”

Reddick referenced the Martinsville race in October when he pulled out of the event because he wasn’t feeling well after contact on the track. Jordan reached out to Reddick afterward.

“It was really cool that you have a guy like him checking in on you to make sure you’re OK,” Reddick said. “He’s definitely locked in, and he really wants the team to do well. I’m excited to be working with him.”

3. Staying home

Kyle Larson said he will race very little this offseason. He’s staying at home for the birth of his third child with wife Katelyn Sweet.

Larson will compete in the Wild West Shootout, a dirt late model event at Vado (New Mexico) Speedway Park on Jan. 7-8 and Jan. 11-15.

Larson will not compete in the Chili Bowl this year. 

He said his focus will be on family this offseason.

“Help out where I can and just spend as much time with the family,” Larson said. “I normally go race a lot, but this year I’m not. I’m actually excited about it. I’ve only run one race so far this offseason. I’m surprised that it already feels like the offseason is going by really fast because I thought it’d be really slow with me not racing. It’s been good to just not race for once.”

4. Looking to improve

Ryan Blaney said he and crew chief Jonathan Hassler have looked back on the season and compiled a list of things to do for next year.

Blaney won the All-Star Race but did not win any points races. He finished eighth in points. It’s the sixth consecutive year he’s finished in the top 10 in points, but he’s never placed higher than seventh in the standings at the end of a season.

“We were up front so many races and led a lot of laps and won a bunch of stages, just never won (a points race),” Blaney said. “It is kind of a bummer. 

“So what kept us out of victory lane? Was it me? Was it a bad pit stop? It was kind of everything in some certain races. Sometimes they don’t work out for you. Some are self-induced. I felt like we took ourselves out of a handful of races I felt like we had a good shot of winning. … It is a bummer we didn’t win, but I was proud of the consistency and just hope to build on that.” 

Blaney is ready for the new season to begin.

“I’m kind of like two weeks is nice and then I kind of get itching to get back going,” he said. “It is nice to reset, and you kind of go through things you want to be better at. You have your own little list between myself and my team. … It’s a perfect time to work on that stuff.”

5. New partnership 

Among the new driver/crew chief pairings for 2023 is Austin Dillon working with Keith Rodden.

Rodden last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne. Rodden served as crew chief for William Byron in one race in 2020 but returns to full-time duty with Dillon, who finished 11th in points this past season, tying his career best. 

Rodden most recently worked on the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors. He takes over for Justin Alexander.

“Keith and I first got to work together in a wheel-force test for the Next Gen car at Richmond,” Dillon said. “It was a two-day test. We had dinner that night. It was good to talk to him. … Just knowing his passion was still very high to get back to the Cup level and crew chief. Him having the ability the work with Chevy this past year and seeing the different odds and ends of the Next Gen car was really the key to us (for him) to come over and crew chief for.”

Jesse Iwuji Motorsports seeks $4.125 million in lawsuit against sponsor

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Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team, has filed a $4.125-million lawsuit against Equity Prime Mortgage, one of the team’s sponsors.

In the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the team alleges that EPM committed a breach of contract. JIM alleges that EPM agreed to pay the team $2.25 million for sponsorship in the 2022 season and $3.75 million for 2023.

The lawsuit attempts to recoup what Jesse Iwuji Motorsports calls two missed payments totaling $375,000 from 2022 and the $3.75 million for 2023. The filing of the lawsuit was first reported by TobyChristie.com.

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The team scored one top-10 finish in 30 Xfinity starts in 2022. The team’s cars were driven by Kyle Weatherman and Iwuji. Weatherman had a best finish of eighth; Iwuji’s best run was an 11th.

The team was founded by Iwuji, former National Football League player Emmitt Smith and a group of investors.

The lawsuit claims that an EPM executive informed the team in September 2022 that EPM had been “margin called” and was dealing with problems because of rising mortgage rates and that EPM could not make any more payments to Jesse Iwuji Motorsports .

According to the lawsuit, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports sent EPM a Notice of Intent to terminate the sponsorship agreement after the payment due Oct. 1 was missed. The suit claims EPM “took no action” after EPM offered 30 days to remedy the situation.

The suit also claims EPM “allegedly continued to take advantage of their status as a sponsor of the NASCAR Xfinity Series team, as EPM continued to make promotional posts on social media, which featured the company’s logo on the JIM race car.”

EPM is based in Atlanta.

Dr Diandra: The best driver of 2022

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NASCAR’s elimination playoff format means that the driver with the best statistics — arguably the “best driver of 2022” — doesn’t always win the championship.

Races unfinished

Drivers involved in a lot of crashes also failed to finish a lot of races. But not all accidents end drivers’ races. Comparing accidents and spins to DNF (did not finish) totals helps gauge how serious those incidents were.

Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were involved in the most accidents for a single driver with 15 caution-causing crashes each. The difference is that Chastain had only five DNFs (33.3%), while Stenhouse had nine (60.0%).

Ty Dillion tied Stenhouse for the most DNFs in the series with nine DNFs and 10 accidents.

Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Corey LaJoie tied for third place with eight DNFs each. Reddick had 10 accidents, while Dillon and LaJoie were each involved in 11 crashes.

No driver avoided DNFs entirely. Among full-timers, Michael McDowell had the fewest DNFs in 2022 with two. Justin Haley and Ryan Blaney tied for second with three DNFs each.

In 2021, only Denny Hamlin finished every race running. This year he had five DNFs, with four in the first nine races.

This year’s 225 DNFs are up significantly from 179 in 2021. and the most DNFs since 2017. I’ll be watching in 2023 to see if the rise in DNFs continues, or if this was a one-time phenomenon due to the first year with a new car.

Wins

“Best driver” doesn’t necessarily mean most wins.

This year’s champion, Joey Logano, didn’t have the most wins. That’s not at all uncommon in NASCAR. With 19 different winners in 2022, no driver dominated the season the way Kyle Larson did in 2021 with 10 wins.

The winningest drivers in 2022 were: Chase Elliott (five wins) and Logano (four wins). Christopher Bell, Larson and Reddick tied for third with three wins each.

Top-five and top-10 finishes

While wins matter more than good finishes, the number of top-five and top-10 finishes show how close a driver got to taking home the checkered flag. Running up front means being there to take advantage of other drivers’ mistakes and misfortune.

In 2021, Larson had the most top-five finishes (20) and the most top-10 finishes (26). This year, good finishes were much more spread out.2022's best drivers in terms of top-five and top-ten finishes

Chastain deserves a special shoutout for having 13 more top-10 finishes than he earned in 2021.

Also deserving of a shoutout, but for different reasons: Hamlin had the same number of wins this year as last, but nine fewer top-five finishes. William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. also had nine fewer finishes in the top five.

Logging laps

While Truex didn’t make the championship race, he did tie Elliott for the most lead-lap finishes in the season with 29, or 80.6% of starts. Blaney, Byron and Kevin Harvick each had 28 lead-lap finishes.

Elliott led the most laps in 2022 with 857. He’s followed by Logano (784), Byron (746), Chastain (692) and Blaney (636).

I remain slightly wary of metrics that purport to measure quickness because so much of a car’s speed depends on where in the field it’s running. Lap traffic, or even being far back in the field, can slow fast cars. That’s especially true at short tracks.

For completeness, however, the next two tables show the drivers’ numbers of fastest laps and those with the best rank in green-flag speed according to NASCAR’s loop data.

Two tables showing the drivers with the most fastest laps and the highest rank in green-flag speedChampion Logano ranked 11th in fastest laps with 319, and eighth in overall green-flag speed with an average ranking of 9.281.

Best Finishes

The tables below show drivers’ rankings throughout the season for average finishes and average running position.

Two tables comparing 2022's best drivers in terms of average finish and average running position

Elliott ranks first in both average finish and running position. Chastain takes second for best average finish and fourth for best average running position, while Blaney is second for running position and fourth for finishing position.

Logano finished 2022 third in both metrics.

Passing

NASCAR defines a quality pass as a pass for position inside the top 15. Interpreting the meaning of the number of passes is a little tricky. A driver who runs up front a lot doesn’t make many quality passes because he doesn’t need to.

I focus instead on the percentage of quality passes: the fraction of all green-flag passes that qualify as quality passes. A higher percentage means that the driver is efficient: The passes mean something.

Elliott scores first in percentage of quality passes with 63.4%, just edging out Bell, who has 63.3% quality passes. Larson is third with 61.2%.

Who was the best driver in 2022?

I combined the metrics I think matter most for determining the best driver in the table below. I color-coded drivers who appear in the top five in more than one metric to make it easier to see patterns.

A table showing the top five in each of the metrics discussed in the hopes of identifying 2022's best driver.

This table confirms that the NASCAR playoffs format did a good job identifying the top four drivers in the series. Elliott, Logano, Chastain and Bell are well-represented in the top five in each metric.

The table also shows that Larson and Blaney contended strongly in 2022. With a slightly different distribution of luck, one (or both) might have found their way to the Championship Four.

Logano’s consistency is also evident, even though he doesn’t rank first in any of these metrics and fails to make the table in top-five finishes or quality passes. It’s not uncommon for the driver with the most wins not to win the championship. And this year has been anything but common.

But overall, it’s hard not to argue that Elliott had the statistically best year. He led the series in wins, laps led, average finish, average running position and percent quality passes. If his playoffs had been comparable to his regular season, he would have taken the trophy.

But they weren’t and he didn’t. That may have ended the 2022 season on a down note for the No. 9 team, but they can look forward to 2023 knowing they have a strong base on which to build.

While skill is reproducible, luck isn’t.

Kaz Grala, Connor Mosack join Sam Hunt Racing for 2023

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Kaz Grala is scheduled to run the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule for Sam Hunt Racing in 2023.

Connor Mosack will drive a second Hunt car — No. 24 — in 20 races for the team. Grala will drive the No. 26 Toyota.

The new season will mark Grala’s first as a full-time Xfinity driver.

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“I’ve scratched and clawed for each opportunity over the past several seasons, and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s made me appreciate this sport and its difficulty more than I ever could if things had been easy,” Grala said in a statement released by the team. “I feel like everything has finally come together at the perfect time in my life with the right team around me to start that next chapter in my career.”

Grala, 23, has scored five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 44 Xfinity starts. He has raced in all three NASCAR national series and won a Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2017.

Allen Hart will be Grala’s crew chief.

Mosack, who will begin his schedule at Phoenix Raceway March 11, was the CARS Tour rookie of the year in 2020. He drove in two Xfinity and two Truck races in 2022.

Kris Bowen will be Mosack’s crew chief. The team said it will announce other drivers for the 24 car later.