Ryan: Shortening races would go well with ending caution laps between stages

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The news that NASCAR might eliminate counting caution laps between stages for 2018 is the latest encouraging development of the best tweak made to the Cup Series in years.

With NASCAR entering its Easter weekend break, now is a good time to appreciate how stage racing has transformed the circuit … and how it can continue to shape the future.

At Phoenix Raceway, stages ensured some of the most compelling action witnessed in a race during which one driver led 85 of the first 87 laps. At Martinsville Speedway, stages provided several days’ worth of talk-radio fodder about the ethics and etiquette of a lapped car moving the leader.

Jimmie Johnson completes the winning pass Sunday (Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

At Texas Motor Speedway, segmentation helped encourage the brilliant gambit by Joey Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon, leaving the outcome in doubt until the final 20 laps. And (much to the chagrin of Ryan Blaney) it magnified how a team can let a great result slip away on a bad pit stop and a critical strategy call.

Stage racing has added a fresh (but substantive) sheen to Cup, and it can advance the cause next year if NASCAR changes the manner in which stages are divided.

In a SiriusXM interview, executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell was candid that the primary reason for stage breaks are to avoid commercial breaks under green.

If NASCAR keeps those timed breaks but doesn’t count the laps (a sound move, given that generally six to seven laps are burned between each stage on a speedway; naturally more on a short track), it will extend a race’s duration by at least several minutes, depending on the track.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule – this year’s spring race at Texas actually was 13 minutes shorter than last year despite the stages – but the elimination of yellow-flag laps in stage breaks presents a logical opportunity for getting aggressive with cutting race distances and subsequently adjusting stage lengths for a better blend in Year 2.

Some tracks, such as Fontana and Pocono Raceway, already have moved – with much success – in the direction of shorter being better

Though Texas didn’t feel nearly as interminable Sunday as in other 500-mile races of the past, there still remains a need for shorter events.

Such a movement will be met by resistance from fans who insist that shorter races devalue a ticket. Texas president Eddie Gossage has intimated the push for shorter races stems from those who want to work less.

Actually, it’s because many of us want to keep working as NASCAR strives for relevance at every turn.

One way to ensure that is by tightening the product (and these wouldn’t need to be drastic reductions). Yes, a shorter race will mean fewer green-flag laps … and it means the remaining laps will have heightened importance.

It also will place a greater emphasis on performing well throughout the course of a race.

Hey, that sounds familiar.

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Someday, Kyle Larson needs to run the Indianapolis 500.

It’ll be a boon to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing to showcase a generational talent just as it did with Tony Stewart (who has predicted the greatness of Larson for years). And it’ll help NASCAR because it benefits from a jolt of exposure and also gets to keep its emerging superstar.

But 2017 isn’t the right time for Larson as team owner Chip Ganassi told reporters in Long Beach last week.

Some of the reasons are obvious: Chip Ganassi Racing is enjoying one of the greatest starts during its 17 seasons in NASCAR’s premier series. And Larson, 24, has learned how to extrapolate his prodigious ability well beyond the limits of a 30-lap feature race.

Why disrupt any of that with a doubleheader?

There is another less obvious reason, though: The sponsorship cloudiness around Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet beyond 2017. Target is in a contract year after leaving Ganassi’s IndyCar team.

Presumably, Ganassi could be seeking an Indy 500 sponsor that also would be interested in funding Larson in Cup. If Larson were to excel at Indy, it would be a tough sell to ask a new sponsor to back him in NASCAR when IndyCar offers a comparably discounted annual sponsorship rate.

“Why should we run him in these more expensive stock cars if he just dazzled us in the world’s most famous race?” a prospective CMO might ask Ganassi. “Why can’t you just keep him in one of your Indy cars?”

There are various counterpoints to be made, of course, but the scenario would seem fraught (at best) with tricky hurdles that could undermine the organization. Until the sponsorship situation is solid long term, it makes sense to wait on bringing Larson to the Brickyard in May.

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After a race in which its highest finisher (Kyle Busch) was 15th, why is Joe Gibbs Racing lacking speed?

It was difficult to find illumination Sunday when none of the team’s four drivers appeared on the postrace release from Toyota. Each manufacturer distributes postrace quotes from its drivers, and it’s unusual for a multicar team to have no representation. JGR, the flagship team for Toyota Racing Development, has three top fives in 28 starts (including none for Denny Hamlin and Daniel Suarez).

It would be convenient to place some blame on the new 2018 Camry’s performance on 1.5-mile tracks. But that hasn’t been a problem for Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., who swept the stages in winning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and led 49 laps in an eighth at Texas for his No. 78 (which paced the Toyotas).

Teammate Erik Jones (22nd) also struggled so perhaps there are handling woes across the board to address with a car developed in tandem by Furniture Row and Gibbs Racing.

It certainly seems fair to wonder, though, if JGR is suffering through understandable fallout from the unexpected departures of No. 19 driver Carl Edwards and crew chief Dave Rogers (who is on indefinite leave from the road).

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There are myriad reasons why nine cars didn’t make qualifying laps at Texas. There’s only one thing that truly matters, and veteran scribe (and the author of another new racing-themed novel) Monte Dutton nailed it.

Sure, some blame can be laid at the feet of teams for attempting to push the boundaries of clearly defined specifications. But that also is the objective of any team with aspirations of winning.

This is one of those situations when even when NASCAR is “right,” the result still is wrong.

Yes, there is merit to enforcing the rules. But no one paid admission Friday at Texas to watch cars frantically rolled through the garage and across the Laser Inspection Station platform, either.

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It was obvious from Jimmie Johnson’s playful yet terse answer last month that Seven-Time would take great glee in finally reaching victory lane for the first time this season. When the opportunity arrived, he didn’t disappoint in his first words on national TV.

It makes perfect sense when pro athletes use perceived slights as motivation for excelling. Tony Stewart virtually has made a career out of it.

That said, all of the questions about Johnson’s slow start this season absolutely were warranted.

This is a No. 48 Chevrolet that has run well only in spurts (notably, the final 10 races last year) over the past two seasons. The prognosis was grim enough last summer that team owner Rick Hendrick actually considered splitting Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

Asking whether the surefire Hall of Famer has lost a step isn’t ridiculous, as some have suggested. What is ridiculous would be to avoid asking about it – particularly in a contract year for Johnson, who turns 42 in September and has been hinting strongly that he won’t drive beyond 45.

Asking if Johnson is showing the inevitable signs of age isn’t a sign of disrespect. It’s quite the opposite.

The threshold of what constitutes a slump is much lower for Johnson than any other driver in the history of NASCAR – as it should be.

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Why was Johnson seemingly mostly behind the pace of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott through the first six races? Knaus offered a very telling answer Sunday, noting that it was difficult to make improvements to his cars during the West Coast Swing of Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana.

It’s a reminder that minute adjustments to the underbody of a Cup car can make a difference between just being competitive vs. contending for wins. And it also bears remembering if the West Coast Swing remains intact in future seasons.

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Team Penske’s appeal Wednesday morning at the R&D Center probably will have minimal impact on the No. 2 Ford’s fortunes: Brad Keselowski is qualified for the playoffs, and he probably can weather the absence of Paul Wolfe at Bristol and Richmond (tracks where he has won) if the crew chief’s suspension is upheld.

But the case will be watched closely by the NASCAR industry. After Keselowski’s win at Martinsville, team owner Roger Penske plainly made it clear that he was challenging the penalty as much on principle as a reduction of the punishment.

Because Keselowski’s Fusion was allowed only one attempt at being legal after Phoenix, Penske will argue on the grounds of consistency and fairness that NASCAR erred. If the appeal succeeds, it could embolden other teams on the circuit.

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.