16 drivers, 16 questions: Analyzing the Cup playoff competitors

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No matter what has come before, the playoffs represent hope. For those who have been strong all season, there is a hope that such performances will continue. For those who have struggled, there is hope that things will change.

Reality will intercede when cars get on track this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Until then, there is hope.

Here is a key question for each playoff driver:

Kyle Busch (2050 points)

Is this his title to lose?

Yes. Two of his six wins this year were at tracks that will host playoff races (Texas and Richmond), and he finished second at three other tracks this year that will host playoff races (Las Vegas, Phoenix and Martinsville).

(Photo: Getty Images)

A key for him could be the second round, which features Dover (35th in the spring, mechanical issue), Talladega (13th in the spring) and Kansas (10th in the spring). He failed to lead a lap in all three races, making that the only time he’s failed to lead a lap in three consecutive races this season.

The 50 playoff points he has should provide a cushion for him but he knows all too well how cruel the playoffs can be. He was second in the points entering the second round cutoff race at Talladega in 2014. While riding toward the back, he was involved in a crash and eliminated from title contention.

He should go further in the playoffs. Much further.

 

Kevin Harvick (2050)

Is this his title to lose?

Yes. Four of his seven wins this year have come on tracks the series will go to in the playoffs (Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dover and Kansas).

He has not finished worse than fifth this year at a track that will host a playoff race and has an average finish of 2.5 at those tracks.

How is anyone going to beat that?

If he’s not racing for the title in Miami, it will be shocking.

 

Martin Truex Jr. (2035)

Is there too much for Martin Truex Jr. to overcome to win another championship?

This team will no longer exist in 10 weeks and enters the playoffs with some uneven performances. It’s either setting up to be a disappointing finish for Truex or a feel-good story that could match last year’s championship run.

The performances lately, though, leave some questions.

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

The team failed inspection three times at Indy and had to start at the rear. Truex said during the pace laps that his brakes didn’t feel right. A brake failure ended his day after 41 laps, leaving him with a season-worst 40th-place finish.

At Darlington, Truex was fast and ran in the top three in the first half of the race before a penalty for an uncontrolled tire caused him to fall off the lead lap. It took most almost the rest of the race to get back on the lead lap because there were so few cautions. He recovered to finish 11th but the mistake cost him.

He started 17th at Bristol — the only time in the last seven races before Indianapolis that he started so far back. He was collected in an early accident, overcame that and was running near the front when contact from Kyle Busch sent him into the wall.

At Michigan, Truex spun, his team struggled on pit road and he ran out of fuel, ruining what could have been a much better finish than 14th.

“Being fast and doing all the little things right is important,” Truex told NBC Sports. “I feel like the guys that are on top of their game and … can bring speed to the race track are going to be hard to beat.”

Maybe these recent races mean nothing. Maybe they are a sign that this team isn’t as solid as it was last year. We’ll soon find out.

 

Brad Keselowski (2019)

He’s won the past two races by his team executing well instead of having the fastest car. Can that be the pathway to a title or will the lack of speed hurt this team?

So often the fastest car doesn’t win the race. Over time, though, a fast car is more likely to succeed. At some point in the playoffs, Keselowski will need to win.

At Darlington, his pit crew helped him take the lead off the final pit stop. At Indianapolis, pit strategy and a timely caution put him in position to win. He wasn’t the fastest in either race but won.

(Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

“We want more speed,” crew chief Paul Wolfe said after the Indy win. “We know we’re off a little bit there. But I believe we can get through the first round for sure by just executing and not making mistakes. 

“As I look at the second and third round, there’s some great opportunity races there. We know we can go to Talladega and win, and we know we can go to Martinsville and win. We have a little bit of work to do on the intermediate tracks to find a little more speed, but winning the last two weeks definitely is a little booster for everyone at Team Penske.”

 

Clint Bowyer (2015)

Can he be consistent enough to contend for a spot in Miami?

His longest streak of top-10 finishes is four in a row this season. Worse is that he has failed to finish in the top 10 in seven of the last nine races.

The Stewart-Haas Racing cars are fast, but he’s not been faster than teammate Kevin Harvick and hasn’t matched the consistency of teammate Kurt Busch. With many expecting at least two of the Big 3 — Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — to make it to the finals in Miami, that leaves little room for the rest of the field and inconsistent finishes won’t do it.

 

Joey Logano (2014)

He made the championship race in 2014 and 2016. Can he keep the even-year streak going?

In 2014 and 2016, Logano came into the playoffs on a hot streak. He had scored three consecutive top 10s before playing 13th at Indy on Monday.

The sting of his Indy performance left him viewing the playoffs more critically.

We just have to get going, that’s all,” Logano said. “The playoffs are about to start and hopefully we’ll do better than that.”

One thing that Logano fans can look forward to are the tracks in the playoffs. He scored six top-10 finishes in the eight races at playoff tracks earlier this year, including his win at Talladega.

 

Kurt Busch (2014)

Is consistency enough to get him far in the playoffs?

The Bristol winner enters the playoffs with eight consecutive top-10 finishes, which ties Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick for the longest active top-10 streak. That also matches what Kyle Busch did earlier this season for the longest top-10 streak of the season.

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Kurt Busch said the turnaround came at New Hampshire in July when he won the pole, led 94 laps and finished eighth. He’s encouraged that the team has been good on a variety of tracks even though none of the tracks in his current streak will be in the playoffs.

As for the playoffs, he has a simple philosophy.

“There is no reason to change anything going into the playoffs,” Kurt Busch told NBC Sports after finishing sixth at Indianapolis. “This is one of the best Brickyard cars that I’ve ever had, I just didn’t execute on restarts to the best of my ability.”

 

Chase Elliott (2008)

Can momentum carry this team forward?

Last year, Chase Elliott finished no better than eighth in the eight races leading into the playoffs. But that didn’t matter. He had three runner-up finishes in the first four playoff races and finished the year with four top 10s in the last five races.

This year, Elliott enters the playoffs having scored six top 10s in the last seven races, making him among the hottest drivers.

“I think our speed has been better,” Elliott said. “We’ve just got to keep improving.”

 

 

Ryan Blaney (2007)

Is he a contender or pretender?

The Team Penske driver is an interesting case study. Eight of his 12 top-10 finishes this season came in the first 15 races of the year.

But since his 40th-place finish at Daytona in July, he has not placed worse than 15th in a race. To be a true title contender, those finishes need to be better in the coming weeks.

Some of his best tracks — other than Bristol — are playoff tracks. He finished third at Martinsville in the spring and was fifth at Texas and fifth at Las Vegas earlier this year. So there’s a foundation for him to be a contender.

 

Erik Jones (2005)

Can he step it up in his first Cup playoffs?

He enters the playoffs after a runner-up finish at Indianapolis and nine top 10s in the last 11 races, but the playoffs are so much different from the regular season.

It’s a point Jones discovered in 2016 in the Xfinity Series.

(Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

“I thought it was going to be a breeze to get to the final four because we were so fast and had won races all year, but really it wasn’t,” Jones told NBC Sports. “It was very challenging. We almost missed out in the final four.

“It’s going to be tough. Even the round of 16 (this year), as much as you want to think yea, it will be easy, just top 10 our way through it, it never seems to go like that.”

But if Jones can do what he’s done lately — he has averaged 34.3 points a race — that should get him through the opening round comfortably.

“We’ve done a good job the last month of really sticking with it, and when we’re not having a great day,  making it into one that is more than salvageable,” he said.

 

Austin Dillon (2005)

Can this team get beyond the first round?

This team has shown improvement in the second half of the season with an average finish of 16.3 in the last nine races.

That likely won’t be good enough in the playoffs. He failed to advance out of the first round last year with an average finish of 17.0. Teammate Ryan Newman had an average finish of 16.3 in the first round of last year’s playoffs and also failed to advance.

“We have had fast cars here lately and that is a good thing,” Dillon said. “So, we are capable of bringing some speed to the track, and Vegas has been a good track for us in the past. Hopefully, we can just take what we have been good with the last couple of weeks and run it there.”

 

Kyle Larson (2005)

Can he find a way to Miami and win the title at what is his best track?

Kyle Larson is encouraged by the speed he’s had in the car the past two weeks at Darlington and Indianapolis.

(Photo: Getty Images)

The key is to get to Miami. Even if the Big 3 all made it to the championship race, some observers would view Larson as the favorite there if he also qualified for that race because of how good he is there.

Getting there has been the challenge for Larson even when he’s been better.

Larson was vocal after Monday’s race at Indianapolis about what needs to be fixed if he is to make it to Miami.

“We’re still horrible on pit road,” he told NBC Sports. “That’s discouraging. We’ll clean it up. I made mistakes on pit road as well. So I wasn’t happy with myself and my performance on pit road, but our pit crew needs to be better if we want to win the championship.”

 

 

Denny Hamlin (2003)

Was Indianapolis a sign of things to come?

The bothersome issue with this team has been the speed it has had in qualifying — Hamlin had four front-row starts in the six races before Indy — yet he had not finished better than eighth in those races.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

With qualifying rained out at Indianapolis, Hamlin showed speed in the race. He led 37 laps, tying Clint Bowyer for most laps led, and was in position to win the race until a late caution. Brad Keselowski, whose car had fresher tires, took advantage of the last restart and beat Hamlin.

Indianapolis is a track that shows what teams have the best horsepower and aero package. That said, the question is would Hamlin have led as much had Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick not had various issues on pit road? It’s doubtful.

But maybe it is the surge Hamlin and his team need entering the playoffs.

“Typically in history, we’ve performed better in the playoffs than we have in the regular season just about always,” Hamlin said. “We’ll have to take a bigger jump this year than what we’ve taken in years past. We’ve typically been pretty good and then we’ve been great in the playoffs. This year we’ve been mediocre, and I think that the big jump to great is a big one.”

 

Aric Almirola (2001)

What is a realistic expectation for this team?

For a team that hasn’t won — and is the only Stewart-Haas Racing team without a victory this season — getting past the second round could be considered a success.

He has not scored more than back-to-back top-10 finishes this year. This team will have to step it up to avoid being eliminated early.

I feel like we’ve got fast race cars and we’ve got a chance to go up there and compete to win races and go far into the playoffs,” Almirola said after finishing 23rd at Indianapolis, saddled by a flat tire while running in the top five. “Just thinking about today and another lost opportunity for us. We had a car capable of challenging to win and run up front and we just keep having things pop up.”

 

Jimmie Johnson (2000)

Will his worst season end in an early playoff exit?

It’s hard to discount a seven-time champion, but what has his team shown this year?

This team has not finished better than ninth in its last 12 races. His last top-five finish was a fifth at the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend. Johnson’s winless streak is a career-long 49 races.

“Honestly, we’re not in a position, I think, just to go out and drive our way in right now, sadly,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “It’s hard to admit that, it’s hard to say that, but it’s the truth. That’s not going to change our work effort, our determination, our mindset and we’ll keep swinging.”

 

Alex Bowman (2000)

Could he be the Cinderella story of the playoffs?

Alex Bowman drove underfunded cars earlier in his career, found out on social media he had lost a ride, decided his best opportunity was to join Hendrick Motorsports as the driver for its simulator program and filled in well enough when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was out in 2016 to take over the No. 88 this season.

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

There’s already a lot there. Now add that Hendrick Motorsports has not been as competitive this season, Bowman’s career-best finish of third came a few weeks ago at Pocono, he had to battle through damage from a crash at Indianapolis to clinch the final playoff spot and he enters the postseason as the last seed.

“To come from where I was at in my career is so unobtainable,” Bowman said. “Just driving for Hendrick Motorsports seemed unobtainable, but to make the playoffs in my first year back is really cool. It’s a special thing to be a part of.”

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Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

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Harrison Burton made the first start of his NASCAR Cup Series partnership with the Wood Brothers in the bright lights of Los Angeles.

Burton and the Woods teamed last season as Burton jumped into full-time Cup racing after two full seasons (and four wins) in the Xfinity Series. Their first race was the Clash at the Coliseum, and it was a good start — Burton qualified for the feature and finished 12th on the lead lap.

Then things headed downhill. Crashes at Daytona and Auto Club Speedway left Burton with finishes of 39th and 33rd, respectively. After the first five races of the year, he had four finishes of 25th or worse.

Now, Season Two, and there are higher expectations. Much higher.

MORE: Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

“The start of last year was really, really rough,” Burton told NBC Sports. “It kind of put us in a hole. We got into the wreck in the 500 and crashed at Fontana. Things kind of stack up on you, and all of a sudden you’re buried in points and it’s hard to make it back up.

“But, at the end of the year, three of the last four weekends were big for us (three consecutive top-20 finishes). We need to build off that and try to get out of the West Coast swing and have a clean group of those races. That’s really important. We need to get our average finish up in the first four to five races and not put ourselves in a hole we can’t get out of, and then go from there.”

The Wood Brothers team typically brings strong cars to the Daytona 500, the season’s first point race. Trevor Bayne scored the team’s latest win in stock car racing’s biggest event in 2011.

“We ran well in the 500 last year until I was upside down,” Burton said. “We had a fast car and qualified well and finished third in our duel. Then in the second Daytona race we put ourselves in good position late, so we were in contention in both Daytona races. The speed was there, and the cars drove well.”

The team’s primary goal is to make the playoffs, Burton said. “And we want to be a contender,” he said. “Cup races are so hard. First, you have to contend. Having a good average finish is really important. If you average around 17th or 18th all year, you can kind of point your way into the playoffs, and doing that is on our minds for sure.”

MORE: Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

Burton looks for a strong start in Sunday’s Clash, which will present teams with a mix of the old and the new. Drivers got the experience of racing inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last year, and notes from that race will be useful, but the racing surface will be all new again.

“Every repave has a different tendency,” Burton said. “We’ll see how close it is to last time and how different. Obviously, there is experience on that track, but still it’s a completely new surface, so it’s going to be a mixture of old and new. There’s some knowledge we can build off of, but we kind of have to go into the weekend with that knowledge as tentative because we don’t know if the track is going to be different.”

Burton heads for Los Angeles with a win already under his belt this year. He and teammate Zane Smith, last year’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, won last Friday’s International Motor Sports Association’s Michelin Pilot Challenge Series race on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

Burton drove the finishing laps in the four-hour race. He was third with about 50 minutes to go but moved in front with 22 minutes left when leader Elliott Skeer parked. Burton outran second-place Spencer Pumpelly by .688 of a second for the win.

“I thought we could run well,” Burton said. “After the test we did, we were really fast, so I was pretty excited. But apparently there is a lot of sandbagging that goes on there, so I wasn’t sure where we were. We had to have some things go right for us, and they did.”

 

 

 

 

Dr. Diandra: Muffling racecars won’t change fan experience

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Last week, NASCAR tested the muffler that will be used for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum.

“Heresy,” some fans cried. They argued that it is against the laws of man and nature to muffle racecars. That noise is an integral part of the fan experience. That you’re not supposed to be able to have conversations during races.

Relax.

The cars will be plenty loud.

Loud is fast

Engines produce power by combusting fuel and air in their cylinders. Each combustion produces high-pressure gases that push the piston up. The same gases make a loud popping sound when they escape the cylinder and finally the exhaust.

At 8,000 rpm, an eight-cylinder engine performs about 520 combustions every second. The faster an engine runs, the more combustions per second and the higher the frequency of the tailpipe noise.

That’s why NASCAR engines sound like grizzly bears and F1 engines, which run at higher speeds, sound more like angry mosquitoes.

Maximum horsepower requires getting the spent gases out of the cylinder as quickly as possible so the next combustion reaction can start. And that’s the problem with mufflers, from a racing perspective.

Mufflers on street cars bounce sound waves from the engine around a metal can. The waves interfere with each other, which decreases the overall volume coming from the exhaust.

Mufflers can also mitigate noise by directing the exhaust through a sound-absorbing material. Borla, the sole-source supplier for this weekend’s muffler, makes commercial racing mufflers that feature a robust sound-absorbing material superior to the commonly used fiberglass.

Both methods slow the exhaust gases — the first more than the second. The ideal racing muffler diminishes sound with minimal horsepower reduction.

Decibels

Sound-level measurements come in decibels (dB), a unit named after Alexander Graham, not Christopher — and apparently by someone who wasn’t the best speller.

But decibels don’t tell the whole story. Sound intensity decreases with distance, so you need to specify how far away the sound source was.

The easiest way to explain the decibel scale is to relate it to real-world noises, as I’ve done below.

A bar chart showing representative sound levels expressed in decibels.

  • Zero dB is the threshold of human hearing.
  • A whisper you can just barely make out is about 20 dB.
  • Most everyday noises are in the 60 dB to 100 dB range but are sometimes louder.
  • Exposure to 130 dBs can be painful.
  • A 150-dB sound can cause permanent hearing damage in a very short time.

Ringing in your ears the day after a rock concert was a badge of honor in high school. Older me wishes I had been a little smarter.

Hair cells — not to be confused with ear hair — facilitate hearing. Sound bends these hair-shaped cells, and the cells convert sound into electrical signals that the brain interprets. Loud sounds can bend these cells so much that they break.

Unlike animals such as sharks, zebrafish — and even the lowly chicken — humans cannot grow new hair cells. Once your hearing is damaged, you can’t get it back.

How loud are racecars?

A noise mitigation study for the proposed Nashville Fairgrounds track measured a single Next Gen car at COTA generating 112 dB on a straightaway at 100 feet.

A 2008 study measured the sound level inside a Gen-6 car to be an average of 114 dB. The study also compared sound in the stands, the infield and the pits.

Let’s add those numbers to our graph.

A bar chart showing representative sound levels expressed in decibels, including sound measurements from the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars

  • The Next Gen car at 100 feet is about the same loudness as a person screaming at top volume 1 inch from your ear.
  • The Next Gen car at 100 feet is just a bit quieter than sitting inside the Gen-6 car.
  • Bristol reached peak sound levels loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage.

The graph data suggests that inside the Next Gen car should be around 10 times louder than inside the Gen-6. Some drivers made new earmolds to cope with the additional noise in the cockpit.

Because of the way sound works, the numbers don’t add like you’d expect them to. A Next Gen car might be 112 dB, but two Next Gen cars are more like 115 dB. A full field would be only 5-7 dB louder.

The mufflers won’t muffle much

NASCAR expects a six to 10-dB reduction in sound with mufflers. A 10-dB reduction would make the Next Gen car about as loud as the Gen-6 car was.

Another way of looking at it: Good earplugs reduce sound levels by 25 to 30 dB. Wearing earplugs just barely gets you into the range of being able to hold a conversation if you stand very close to each other and you both shout.

You won’t notice the change in sound inside the track.

You also won’t notice a change in speed this weekend, despite a drop of 30-40 horsepower. The Next Gen car takes around 14 seconds to traverse the L.A. Coliseum’s quarter-mile track. That means cars won’t be going much faster than typical expressway speeds.

If you’re headed out to the track this weekend — despite the mufflers — bring earplugs or over-the-ear headsets. This is especially important for children, as their hearing is more easily damaged.

Joe Gibbs Racing adds young racers to Xfinity program

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Connor Mosack, 23, and Joe Graf Jr., 24, each will drive select races in the No. 19 Xfinity Series car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Mosack, who has a 20-race Xfinity schedule with Sam Hunt Racing this year, will run three races for JGR: Chicago street course (July 1), Pocono (July 22) and Road America (July 29) while also competing in six ARCA Menards Series races for JGR, including Feb. 18 at Daytona.

Graf, who has a 28-race Xfinity schedule with RSS Racing this year, will run five races in the No. 19 Xfinity car for JGR: Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 25), Las Vegas (March 4), Richmond (April 1), New Hampshire (July 15) and Kansas (Sept. 9).

“I made my Xfinity Series debut with JGR last June at Portland and from the moment I made my first lap in their racecar, I realized why they’ve been so successful,” Mosack said in a statement. “Their equipment was second to none and the resources they had in terms of people and their knowledge was incredible.

“Jason Ratcliff was my crew chief at Portland and he’s got a ton of experience. I was able to learn from him before we even went to the track. Just in our time in the simulator, we made some great changes. So, to be back with him for three Xfinity races is going to be really valuable.

“And when it comes to JGR’s ARCA program, it’s the class of the field. After having to race against JGR cars, I’m really looking forward to racing with a JGR car. No matter what track they were on, they were always up front competing for wins. To have that chance in 2023 is pretty special, and I aim to make the most of it.”

Said Graf in a statement about his opportunity with JGR: “Running five races with JGR is a fantastic opportunity for myself and for my marketing partners. I think I can learn a lot from JGR and showcase my skills I’ve been growing in the series in the past three years. 2023 is shaping up to be a great year and I’m pumped to get started with the No. 19 group.”

Ryan Truex has previously been announced as the driver of the No. 19 Xfinity Series car in six races this season for JGR. The remaining drivers for the car will be announced at a later date.

Mosack didn’t start racing until he was 18 years old. He went on to win five Legends car championships before moving to Late Model stock cars in 2019. He graduated from High Point University in 2021 with a degree in business entrepreneurship. Mosack’s first Xfinity Series race with Sam Hunt Racing this season will be March 11 at Phoenix Raceway.

 

NASCAR weekend schedule for Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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NASCAR’s winter break ends this weekend as Cup Series drivers return to the track for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

The second Clash at the LA Memorial Coliseum has been expanded to 27 (from 23) drivers for the 150-lap main event. Qualifying, heat races and two “last chance” races will set the field.

MORE: Drivers to watch in the Clash

Joey Logano won last year’s Clash, the perfect start to a season that ended with him holding the Cup championship trophy.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (Cup)

Weekend weather

Saturday: Mostly sunny. High of 71.

Sunday: Partly cloudy. High of 66.

Saturday, Feb. 4

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 2 – 11:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 8 p.m. — Cup Series practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 p.m. — Cup Series qualifying (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Feb. 5

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. – 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)