Chase Briscoe, John Hunter Nemechek break down Xfinity debuts

Getty Images
0 Comments

Well ahead of his Xfinity Series debut last weekend, Chase Briscoe was given a list by Ford of all 33 races the series will hold in 2018.

The 23-year-old was asked to rank them by the races he liked and thought would be the most important for him to run.

The track at the top of Briscoe’s ranking was Atlanta Motor Speedway.

A native of Mitchell, Indiana, with a dirt racing background, Briscoe wanted to get the toughest race out of the way.

“To me Atlanta was a crucial one to run just because it’s early in the year … it’s the first mile-and-a-half of the year,” Briscoe told NBC Sports. “To me it’s the toughest mile-and-a-half that we go to when it comes to slickness. You’re constantly on edge and there’s tire fall off.”

Briscoe, a Ford development driver and one of three drivers piloting Roush Fenway’s Racing’s N0. 60 Ford this season, had been to Atlanta before. Driving for Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series last year, Briscoe started 25th and finished fourth in his first visit to the track.

On Saturday, he wasn’t the only rookie Xfinity driver trying to use past Atlanta experience to his advantage in their series debut.

Briscoe was joined by John Hunter Nemechek, driver of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet. The two drivers had very different debuts on NASCAR’s second-biggest stage.

Nemechek, 20, made his third start on the abrasive 1.54-mile oval. The first two, for his family’s NEMCO Motorsports team in the Truck Series, included one win in 2016.

“I think it’s all the same concept of being able to manage your tires and being there at the end when it counts,” Nemechek told NBC Sports. “If I was going in blind and had never run there or in an Xfinity car, I think it’d be a little bit tougher just from the fact of knowing how you have to run there, how much to save tires … the saving factor is definitely different for the Xfinity car to the truck for sure.”

Nemechek had “butterflies” on Friday, but he expected that.

“I feel like the weekend went very well from the perspective of never being in a Xfinity car until Lap 1 of practice,” Nemechek said. “I felt really good. … We were fast Friday in practice. The guys here at Chip Ganassi Racing brought me a really fast piece and as a driver that’s all you can ask for so it’s kind of in my hands not to make a mistake.”

Nemechek was eighth fastest in first practice and Briscoe was 20th. In final practice, Nemechek topped the chart and had the best 10-lap average. Briscoe had only risen one spot to 19th.

By the end of the day, they had varying expectations for how Saturday would go.

“I still had open expectations,” Nemechek said. “My confidence was high in race runs, but I’d never done a qualifying run until the first lap in qualifying on Saturday morning.”

Chase Briscoe competes during the Rinnai 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Briscoe’s had changed significantly.

“I had every expectation that I could run up front and battle for the win,” Briscoe said. “After practice I realized it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. That was one of the things that’s humbling and very eye-opening how tough the field is and the depth of the field is so tough.”

The field was made tougher by the presence of four Cup drivers, including eventual race winner Kevin Harvick.

Briscoe leaned on Harvick as well as fellow Ford drivers Brad Keselowski (Briscoe’s former Truck Series owner) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for guidance.

“There’s a difference between being fast in practice and being able to race good,” Briscoe said. “So all of the guys told me, especially (with) Atlanta, you need to be tight. That’s one thing I’ve always struggled with in my career, I always like being loose compared to everybody.”

Stenhouse, who also comes from a dirt racing background, provided valuable insight in how to get around the track that hasn’t been repaved in 21 years.

“We talk the same language and some guys, typically the sprint car drivers, talk about side bite and forward bite,” Briscoe said. “If I want to get in the corner at a certain speed, I’ll actually start back peddling the throttle down the straightaway way before I get to the corner just so I can get to the corner at the speed I want and not have to go down in there wide open and lift out of the throttle and get into the brake. Stenhouse said he does the same thing, so it was just nice to reassure myself that’s what I should be doing.”

Meanwhile, Nemechek received advice from his Ganassi teammates, Larson and Jamie McMurray. He also got insight from former Cup driver Josh Wise, who works as a trainer for Ganassi.

“He’s definitely been a huge help over the offseason, being able to, I guess more of like a driver coach per say,” Nemechek said.

Wise’s advice?

“Have fun,” Nemechek said. “You want to make the most out of your opportunity. … Just being able to run all the laps and learn as much as you can.”

Nemechek ran all 163 laps. But he had to survive the two most hair-raising moments of the race to do it.

John Hunter Nemechek starts to get loose from racing with Kevin Harvick early in Saturday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway  (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The first came within laps of the initial green flag. With his No. 42 Chevrolet hugging the line at the bottom of Turn 4, Harvick nearly made contact with his rear bumper, getting Nemechek loose and then some, but he somehow saved it.

“It’s kind of a driver’s instinct of being able to save it throughout the years,” Nemechek said. “I still think there’s some luck involved there.”

Briscoe experienced the same issues with aero in the early going.

He “limped a little bit” into Turn 1 on the first lap when he could have gone all out and was passed by three cars.

“That was probably the first one where I thought, ‘Well, you screwed that up,” Briscoe said. “The whole race is just so much different in the Xfinity car than the Truck was in dirty air. All of the first couple of laps were kind of that for me because I didn’t know what to expect being in that much air and that many cars around you.”

Nemechek’s second scare came again out of Turn 4 on Lap 11 as he raced with Cole Custer and Elliott Sadler behind him. The No. 42 drifted up in front of Sadler, who hit his rear end. That sent Nemechek down into Custer, who spun and hit the outside wall nose-first.

Cole Custer’s No. 00 Ford after his accident with John Hunter Nemechek. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“I didn’t expect (Sadler) to hit me like that,” Nemechek said. “He had the run on the top side and Cole had a run on the bottom. I was loose as it is and had to use up all the track. They were being really aggressive and I can understand that. … Apologize to those guys. It’s kind of one of those deals, I was in the wrong spot at the wrong time and so was (Custer).”

Before the first 40-lap stage was over, Nemechek had to endure one more near-miss in the form of a shredded right-front tire. Pitting to replace it sent the Nemechek one lap down.

He was back on the lead lap following the stage-ending caution a few laps later. Nemechek failed to finish in the top 10 in the first two stages, but he kept his No. 42 safe and drove to a fourth-place finish.

Nemechek attributed his spotter Derek Kneeland and crew chief Mike Shiplett with getting him back on track.

“More or less having the spotter and crew chief keep me calm and keep me focused and make sure I’m hitting my marks and not doing anything crazy,” said Nemechek, who will next be back in the No. 42 car on March 17 at Auto Club Speedway. “Then knowing there’s a lot of race left and things can play out in your favor if you’re patient enough and don’t put yourself in bad position.”

Briscoe had an uneventful day at Atlanta before finishing 15th, one lap down. But he’ll take it. His result came a week after No. 60 teammate Austin Cindric wrecked at Daytona on Lap 11.

“It builds team morale if you come back every weekend without scratches on the car and it’s not tore up,” said Briscoe, who will drive the No. 60 next on April 7 at Texas Motor Speedway. “Obviously there’s a difference between tearing it up battling for the win and tearing it up running 20th. That goes a long way and I think Jack (Roush) respected that and he said he was proud. Fifteenth wasn’t what I wanted to run, but I think in the big scheme of things he was happy with it and hopefully we can continue to build on and get better and better as the year goes out.”

Tire issues end race for Chase Elliott, Christopher Bell

0 Comments

FORT WORTH, Texas — Chase Elliott, who entered Sunday’s second-round playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway leading the points, crashed and finished 32nd.

A right rear tire issue caused Elliott to lose control while leading on Lap 184 of the 334-lap race. 

He was the second playoff driver to be eliminated after tire issues. Christopher Bell finished 34th after having two right rear tires go down. After his second tire went down, Bell hit the wall. Cole Custer and Alex Bowman also had incidents after tire issues. 

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault. Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car,” Elliott said. “I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Elliott did not score stage points in the first stage and was eliminated before the end of the second stage, leaving him with no stage points.

“It’s not a great position to be in for sure, but it is what it is now,” Elliott said. “I hate it for our No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet team. We were actually decent here for once, so that was nice while it lasted. We’ll go to Talladega (Superspeedway) try to get a win and go on down the road.”

Bell also scored no stage points. Bell entered the race in a three-way tie for the final three transfer spots to the next round. 

“To have two right rears go in the first half of the race is very strange,” Bell said. “I don’t know. It’s a very disappointing day. We are probably going to be in a deep hole now.”

The second round continues next Sunday at Talladega and concludes Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Roval.

 

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

0 Comments

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

0 Comments

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

0 Comments

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).