Friday 5: David Ragan says gap between ‘haves and have-nots’ has grown

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It started with a tweet.

Isn’t that often the case?

It was a few days after Travis Pastrana successfully recreated three of Evel Knievel’s iconic Las Vegas jumps earlier this month. Pastrana, who ran full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2013, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he enjoyed his racing experience except for losing his own money.

“The best way to end up a millionaire,” Pastrana told the newspaper “is to start with two and go racing.”

David Ragan, who has made 417 career Cup starts, responded to the comment with a tweet:

In a conversation with NBC Sports a few hours before last weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway, Ragan praised the racing, the safety of the cars and NASCAR’s marketing of drivers, but reiterated his concerns about the financial gap between Cup teams.

“The gap has gotten larger from the haves and have-nots,” Ragan said. “A team like Jasper Motorsports in the early 2000s, they could have a good weekend and a good setup and a good pit crew and they could go and run in the top five. Can Front Row Motorsports run in the top five at Kentucky on a normal weekend? No. There’s no way.

“A team like Roush Racing, they’re off right now, they can’t do it. So the distance between the haves and the have-nots are as great as they’ve ever been.”

How to solve the problem, Ragan admits he isn’t sure. He says the sport needs to be cheaper so teams don’t require as much sponsorship money to be competitive.

Richard Petty Motorsports stated before last weekend’s race at Kentucky that it continues to look for sponsorship this season for rookie Bubba Wallace. The businesses of car owners Richard Petty (Petty’s Garage) and Andrew Murstein (Medallion Bank) were the sponsors on Wallace’s car last week and will be on his car this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“Now a team owner, when they hire a driver, the first question is ‘How much money do you have?’ or ‘Can you sell a sponsor for me?’ ” Ragan said.

Ragan admits that there are some such cases that have worked out well for team and driver.

“You look at Matt Tifft and … Brandon Jones, they bring money to the team and it’s a rent-a-ride and those kids are deserving of a ride,” Ragan said. “They do a good job, but it’s not always like that because you do have some kids – and I don’t need to name names – but there are some kids just having a good time spending their daddy’s money and that doesn’t help our sport.

“They don’t have the passion. There’s probably late model drivers, (Camping World Truck Series driver) Jordan Anderson who is passionate about our sport, who drives his truck and trailer all around the country. He deserves a top-tier ride. It all boils down to expense.”

Ragan says it is important for new people to enter the sport and the Cup level.

“What creates interest in our sport, someone from an owner or a driver that says, ‘Hey I can come in and pay my dues and be successful in a reasonable amount of time,’ ” Ragan said. “(I) think that was possible 25 years ago. I think that Bill Davis or the owner of Jasper Motorsports … someone like a Robert Yates, who is not a billionaire but who is hard worker, who is a good team leader and who has good people surrounding them, they could come and be successful. I think like Morgan-McClure, but we’ve run those teams out because this is a rich man’s hobby. If you don’t have a half a billion net worth or more, you don’t have a chance of making it in NASCAR.”

The Race Team Alliance, which Ragan’s Front Row Motorsports team is not part of by choice, has sought to help teams reduce costs through shared expenses. NASCAR repeatedly has stated that one of its prime objectives is costs and that it works with teams on cutting expenses.

One recent example is NASCAR deciding not to run the All-Star package at any other track this season after concerns from teams about the expense of a mid-season change.

Rob Kauffman, chairman of the Race Team Alliance, said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast earlier this month that the purpose of the RTA “is to promote and grow the sport of stock-car racing and pursue the long-term (common) interests of the teams.”

Kauffman said the RTA worked on cutting costs for teams. That included travel costs, working with carriers to ferry teams to tracks instead of teams needing to have their own jets (although some still do).

Still, the sport faces challenges. That’s among the reasons the charter system was created. Kauffman said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast that the RTA was involved in the negotiations on the charter system and “how the rule process works: When, how, when do changes get implemented. The teams are not against changes. I think in general they’re in favor of evolution and trying to promote and grow the sport, just change needs to be done in a reasonable and planned out and sensible fashion.”

The charter system helps Cup teams budget for a season based on an estimated earning per race. Teams still need to secure sponsorship to fund all that they want or need. A hope among owners is that as the charters mature, they will grow in value so if an owner ever decides to sell, they won’t be losing money just like Pastrana said he did.

2. Playoff battle among teammates

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman hold the final three playoff spots heading into Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Johnson leads Elliott by 15 points and Elliott has a 42-point point advantage on Bowman, who is coming off a last-place finish at Kentucky after a brake rotor failed that caused his crash last weekend.

Bowman admits “it’s definitely crossed my mind” on how to race his teammates if they’re also battling for the final playoff spots.

“I would imagine at that point you just become competitors,” he told NBC Sports. “You’re still going to help each other. The teams are going to share information, but when it comes down to Sunday afternoon, you’re just going to become competitors and can’t race each other easy like teammates at that point.

“Hopefully it doesn’t come down to that and all three of us get in, but it will be an interesting experience and a learning process for me because, you’re right, I haven’t had an experience like that, I don’t know what to expect with that.”

3. Roval concerns

After Cup drivers tested the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway over the past two weeks, the consensus is that playoff race there Sept. 30 should feature a lot of bumping and banging — crashing.

Over the past couple of weeks, minor adjustments were made to the track. The first test day, additional curbing  and a tire barrier were put near the backstretch chicane to keep drivers from cutting through the exit and shortening the distance to Turn 3 on the oval.

During the test this past week, rumble strips were removed from Turn 8, a left-hand turn that leads cars from the infield portion back on to the oval.

Joey Logano has another change he’d like to see but knows he likely won’t.

“I think the goal should be to try to get rid of the bus stop on the back,” Logano told NBC Sports. “Just get rid of it. Just go. Hell with it. We don’t need it any other time we’re here. There’s no passing zone there. It’s kind of hodge-podge in a way.

“It’s going to cause accidents, and there’s no room for error. Someone is going to hit the tire pylon on exit and knock the radiators out of the car. We’re going to have a big caution and a  big cleanup. It would just be better if we didn’t have it.”

That chicane is intended to prevent cars from carrying too much speed into Turns 3 and 4 on the oval. The challenge with a road course that also has high-speed banked turns is for teams to have the proper setup and Goodyear to provide the proper tire that can handle those speeds and the demands of a road course.

That’s not the only concern.

Aric Almirola noted that for the start and restarts, drivers will come down the frontstretch instead of going through the chicane. He worries about the speed drivers will carry into Turn 1, a sharp left-hand turn into the infield road course.

“Turn 1 is very sketchy, and on the restarts I think that’s going to be a really, really sketchy spot,” Almirola told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be going faster because we’re going to be restarting from the oval instead of from the chicane. That’s going to be an interesting thing to watch and see how it develops throughout the weekend. I just don’t know.

“It’s fun to do something different. I enjoy that. I wish it wasn’t a playoff race. I would love for this to be an exhibition race or to run here in May when it means a little less, but to come here for a playoff race to do something this extreme, I’m not totally in favor of it.”

Alex Bowman said that his team considered simulating a restart during their test last week but ran out of time after having parts failures that limited their track time.

4. Something new?

Martin Truex Jr. has 16 wins since the beginning of the 2016 season but he’s not won back-to-back races. Will that change this weekend?

5. Will the domination continue?

Toyota drivers have led 97.2 percent of the laps run in the last four Cup races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Toyota drivers won three of those four races. Will anyone else challenge those cars this weekend?

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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.