Five questions heading into Cup playoffs

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Can anyone catch the Toyotas?

That’s the challenge facing the field heading into Sunday’s playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. EST, NBCSN). Toyota drivers have won six of the last nine races and their speed has competitors worried.

After Richmond, Kevin Harvick said: “I think the Toyotas have run better than the rest of the field. In order to be where we need to be, we have to get the most out of our car and we haven’t done that the last couple of weeks. We’ve struggled in the race the last two weeks and got to get it figured out quick or we’ll be looking for something to do the last 10 weeks besides race for a championship.’’

While Martin Truex Jr. was in position to win the last two races — he was leading with five laps or less left and didn’t win at Darlington and Richmond — don’t overlook Kyle Busch.

When he won the title in 2015, he wasn’t the favorite. It was Harvick that year, but Busch scored enough points to advance through the first two rounds. He advanced to Miami after top-five finishes in each of the three third-round races.

“It’s really similar,’’ Busch said of how he feels he’s entering this year compared to that 2015 title season. “(Truex) is the car to beat week in and week out. (Kyle Larson) and myself are tossing it up for who is second best. Hopefully, we can do our job and execute and everybody does the right things and gets ourselves to Homestead to have a shot for the championship.’’

Is Hendrick Motorsports sandbagging?

We’ll find out. Since Kasey Kahne’s win at Indianapolis in July, Hendrick’s three playoff drivers — Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Kahne — have not finished better than eighth in a race.

Last year, questions were raised about Hendrick after some struggles entering the playoffs. Then Johnson led 118 laps before finishing 12th in the opener at Chicago, and Elliott led 75 laps before finishing third. Both advanced to the second round. Johnson moved to the third round after his Charlotte victory and advanced to Miami after his Martinsville win.

Then Johnson won in Miami for his record-tying seventh series championship.

The point is, it’s difficult to count out at least Johnson, if not the organization.

“My 10 best tracks are coming up,’’ Johnson said after Richmond. “So, I’m excited about that. I’m excited about Fall being right here right around the corner. We will just go racing. You never know. This format really keeps things up in the air. 

Is this Martin Truex Jr.’s title to lose?

He’s got a big advantage with 53 playoff points — 20 more than the next driver. That should get him through the second round and likely the third round.

Odds are he makes it to Miami, but the twist is that some might not view him the favorite in the season finale even for how dominant he has been this year. The reason would be if Kyle Larson, who was eliminated in the first round last year, makes it to Miami. Larson is exceptional at Homestead-Miami Speedway — provided he can avoid hitting the wall while running the high line — and would provide a worthy challenger for Truex in the title race.

“Cars have been just lightning fast and team’s been doing a great job,’’ Truex said after Richmond. “We’ve got a few little things we’ve got to work on, but all in all, I feel like we’re definitely one of the strongest teams. Hopefully, we can just continue to perform at the level we’re capable of, and hopefully we don’t need those bonus points, but it’s going to be nice to have them, that’s for sure.’’

Will youth be served?

Five of the 16 drivers entering the playoffs are 29 and under.

They are Chase Elliott (21 years old), Ryan Blaney (23), Kyle Larson (25), Austin Dillon (27), and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (turns 30 on Oct. 2).

The last driver under age 30 to win the title was Brad Keselowski in 2012. He was 28 years old. Kyle Busch turned 30 during his championship season in 2015.

Larson is the favorite of this group to win the championship and would be the youngest champ since 1995 when a 24-year-old Jeff Gordon won the first of his four series championships.

The average age of the last 10 champions when they won the championship is 34.9.

What’s the biggest storyline?

Admittedly there are so many from Jimmie Johnson going after a record-breaking eight series title to Martin Truex Jr. seeking his first crown after dominating so much of the season.

While Chip Ganassi Racing and Furniture Row Racing go for their first Cup title and Richard Childress Racing looks for its first Cup crown since 1994, it’s hard to top what the Wood Brothers seek.

The family team first competed in NASCAR in 1953 but has only won an owner’s title. That came in 1963, less than three weeks before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Wood Brothers often ran only partial schedules so the team never had the chance to win many championships. This is the team’s first time in the playoffs (the Woods never competed in the Chase).

While the victory lane celebration at Daytona after Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500 remains memorable for the Wood Brothers, it would not compare to what the celebration would be like if Blaney drove the No. 21 to the series crown.

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Dr. Diandra: Strategies in making Clash picks

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Crew chiefs must develop their approach to today’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum using only last year’s data, plus this year’s practice and qualifying.

Fans wagering (for fun and/or profit) must contend with the same lack of data as they make their Clash picks.

The shortest regular-season track is a half mile. A quarter-mile track is a different beast, even with a year’s worth of Next Gen experience.

“Last year everything was brand-new – the track, the format and the car,” Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott, said in a team release. “We’ll have a little bit better of an idea of what we’re going for this time around, but the track is so unique that even with going there last year, we’re still learning.”

As are the fans.

There are a few changes to keep in mind as you make your Clash picks.

NASCAR increased the field from 23 cars to 27. With 36 drivers entered, only nine will miss the Clash. Even without points on the line, no one wants to head home before the main event’s green flag.

Last year, equipment failures caused four out of five DNFs in the main race. Expect fewer mechanical issues this year.

But perhaps more aggression.

Don’t pay too much attention to practice

Last year’s practice times showed no correlation with Clash performance. Eventual winner Joey Logano finished practice last year with the 26th fastest lap — also known as the 11th-slowest lap. But he qualified fourth.

This year, despite losing about 40 hp to mufflers, Martin Truex Jr. set a fastest lap of 13.361 seconds. Truex’s lap beats last year’s best practice lap time of 13.455 seconds, set by Chase Elliott.

Although only seven-tenths of a second separate the fastest practice lap and the slowest, the change is far from linear.

A graph showing practice times for the Busch Light Clash field

  • The top 11 drivers are separated by just 0.048 seconds out of a 13- to 14-second lap
  • Brad Keselowski, who didn’t make the race last year, had the third slowest practice time.
  • Tyler Reddick ran the most total practice laps with 117. He was followed by Kevin Harvick (116), and Noah Gragson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., both of whom made 115 laps.
  • Most drivers ran their best times in their first or second session. Austin Dillon, however, ran his best time on lap 109 of 112.
  • The top three in practice also had the three best 10-lap averages.

Qualifying is the key to good Clash picks

Last year, qualifying position correlated well with driver finish in the Clash. If your driver qualified on the front two rows for his heat race, last year’s results suggest that the only thing keeping him from making tonight’s Clash is an accident or mechanical failure.

That’s bad news for Ty Gibbs, who wasn’t allowed to qualify and will start in the back of the field. It’s also a negative for Ryan Blaney, who posted a 40-second lap, however, Blaney has a shot at the provisional and Gibbs doesn’t.

The heat races are only 25 laps, which doesn’t leave much time for passing. Heat race starting position is highly correlated to heat race finishing position.

  • Last year, the pole-sitter for each of the four heat races held the lead for the entire race.
  • Of the 12 drivers starting in the top three for each heat race, nine drivers — 75% — finished in the top three.
  • Only the top-four finishers of each heat race advanced last year. This year, the top five move on. Last year, 16 of the 25 drivers (64%) starting in positions one through five finished in the top five of their heat races.
  • No driver who started a heat race from ninth finished better than sixth. That’s not encouraging news for Blaney and Gibbs, among others.

That means Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron are pretty much guaranteed locks for a good starting spot in the Clash.

The 20 drivers who qualified in the top five for their heat race have a very high probability of making it through to the main — and of finishing well there.

As was the case last year, practice showed little correlation with qualifying. Martin Truex Jr. qualified 22nd despite posting the best practice time.

The Last Chance Qualifiers

Three drivers from each of the two last chance qualifiers fill out the final rows of the Clash starting grid. Last year, drivers were more aggressive in these 50-lap races than the first four heats.

Again, the closer to the front a driver starts, the better his chance of making the race. Last year, both pole-sitters finished in the top three and advanced.

The last chance qualifiers are long enough for a driver starting in the rear to make it to the front. Last year, Ty Dillon came from 10th place to win the second race. He was subsequently disqualified for jumping the final restart and Harrison Burton, who had started seventh, advanced. If you’re looking for long-shot Clash picks, don’t count the back of the field entirely out.

The Big Show

Last year, the 150-lap main had five lead changes and five cautions.

  • Of last year’s four heat-race winners, two finished in positions one and two, while the other two didn’t finish the race.
  • Of the six drivers who advanced from the last chance qualifiers, none finished higher than A.J. Allmendinger in ninth.
  • Allmendinger tied with Erik Jones for most spots gained. Jones started 16th and finished fourth.
  • Excluding drivers who failed to finish the race, Danial Suárez had the biggest position loss, starting fifth and finishing 14th.

If you want to avoid the frontrunners, you might want to keep an eye on Aric Almirola, who qualified fifth, and had the seventh best 10-lap average run during practice. Austin Dillon didn’t put together a strong 10-lap run, but his team found something in the last minutes of practice that allowed him to go from finishing practice in 22nd to qualifying sixth.

And although Bubba Wallace qualified 16th, he ranked first in runs of 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 laps. He was second in five-lap speed.

Good luck with your Clash picks!

NASCAR Sunday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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It’s race day for the NASCAR Cup Series.

The Clash at the Coliseum will open the 2023 season for NASCAR on Sunday with the featured 150-lap race scheduled for 8 p.m. ET at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The field for the non-points race will be set by a series of heat and last chance races Sunday afternoon. The top five finishers in each of four 25-lap heat races will advance to the feature, and the top three finishers in two 50-lap last chance races will join the grid.

Joey Logano won last year’s Clash as it moved from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to the Coliseum.

The Cup Series regular season is scheduled to begin Feb. 19 with the Daytona 500.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Sunday: Partly cloudy with a high of 64 degrees in the afternoon and no chance of rain. It is expected to be sunny with a high of 62 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the Clash.

Sunday, Feb. 5

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. Sunday – 12:30 a.m. Monday — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 5 – 5:45 p.m. — Four heat races (25 laps; Fox, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 6:10 – 6:35 p.m. — Two last chance qualifying races (50 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8 p.m. — Feature race (150 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.