Ryan: Dover criticism at interesting juncture for leadership, rules

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How much would Kyle Busch’s excoriation of the racing Monday at Dover International Speedway draw the ire of NASCAR?

Discussions took place Tuesday (as part of the sanctioning body’s weekly postrace analysis) on whether to punish the 2015 series champion. Late Tuesday afternoon, a NASCAR spokesman said Busch wouldn’t be fined.

It was an interesting window into the new dynamics of NASCAR leadership and the sanctity of a rules package that has been a central storyline of the 2019 season.

By previous standards, Busch’s harsh assessment of the racing at Dover might have crossed NASCAR’s boundaries for language detrimental to stock-car racing.

Series officials previously have said drivers are welcome to criticize them for their calls but draw the line on assailing the entertainment value of the on-track product. In announcing the abolition of its “secret fine” policy, Brian France said sanctions publicly would be levied on those perceived as denigrating NASCAR, and it’s been applied (sometimes capriciously) to Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart for their views on restrictor plates, the Gen 6 car and loose wheels.

However, Busch’s comments weren’t completely out of line given NASCAR’s expectations for a radically different rules package in 2019.

During a critical preseason test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, vice president of development and innovation John Probst told JeffGluck.com and other reporters that NASCAR “wanted cars close together. We don’t want people falling off and going laps down. We don’t want people checking out.”

Martin Truex Jr. won Monday’s rain-delayed race at Dover by 9.5 seconds, a margin of victory greater than the previous 10 races combined this season, and even Truex said passing was difficult for his No. 19 Toyota.

It’s also worth noting that Probst said during the Las Vegas test that most drivers were opposed to the new rules – and many seem to have been biting their tongues when asked to evaluate the rules. The introduction of 550 horsepower at larger speedways was intended to keep cars closer together, but the reviews have been mixed.

Though Kevin Harvick offered a stronger opinion Monday after Dover, his restraint after a March 23 qualifying session at Martinsville Speedway reflected the reticence many drivers have had about the package this season.

“Look, I bailed on having an opinion on rules and downforce the middle of last year,” Harvick said, apparently referring to when NASCAR moved in the direction of the 2019 rules after a version was used in the All-Star Race.

Martinsville was among the 2019 races in which drivers were more vociferous about the impact of the rules on passing.

Those complaints have undoubtedly been heard by Jim France, who took over as NASCAR CEO for his nephew, Brian, nine months ago and has been a much more visible presence and sounding board at the racetrack.

Though his leadership style has been universally praised for its connectivity, Jim France also has an old-school approach that is in line with his late older brother who ran NASCAR for more than 40 years.

Traditional hard-line leadership at NASCAR has been less receptive to rebukes from drivers, and a punishment for speaking out against the 2019 rules – which likely will remain for the foreseeable future – might have sent the message that some sacred cows remain in Cup.


Perhaps more at risk for NASCAR sanction was Leavine Family Racing owner Bob Leavine, who began tweeting his support of Busch and his dissatisfaction with the rules since shortly after Monday’s race ended in a tweetstorm that lasted more than a day.

“It’s unfortunate, especially when a team owner does social media,” NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell told SiriusXM’s NASCAR channel Tuesday morning. “I don’t think that’s the right way to do it at all. It’s a choice that was made. We’re available every race and talk to every constituent we have. Jim France is at every race, which is phenomenal. The ability to say that you don’t have a chance to talk to us about your feedback is a bit questionable.”

NASCAR ultimately declined to punish Leavine, too.

The team owner has some leverage. As he noted, he is a Race Team Alliance board member. He also has a midpack team that joined the Toyota Racing Development fold this season.

With open speculation about Toyota’s desire and need to add another car to its lineup, an expansion of LFR would be the easiest option. If Leavine were to leave NASCAR (and this tweet didn’t exactly inspire confidence about his long-term belief in the product), it would leave a gaping hole that would take a lot of effort and money to fill.


Prior to Martin Truex Jr.’s wins at Dover (1-mile track) and Richmond Raceway (the 0.75-mile layout where he scored his first short-track win in Cup), his previous 12 wins had come at ovals either 1.5 miles and longer or road courses.

Because his 2017 championship was built on the 1.5-mile tracks (a record seven wins, including the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway), it’s easy to overlook Truex’s versatility. His 0-for-80 winless stretch on short tracks was an anomaly, and his team’s only weakness is on superspeedways, which are largely immaterial to winning a title once a driver has qualified for the playoffs.

With two wins in three races, Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn seem fully assimilated into Joe Gibbs Racing and poised to continue a five-season run as a first-tier championship-caliber duo.


Truex’s win also helped make a strong case for cementing JGR as the reigning top team in NASCAR’s premier series. Between Busch, Truex and Denny Hamlin, Toyota is the only manufacturer with a trio of multiple winners, and Erik Jones has shown signs of righting the ship in the past two races.

Team Penske might remain a clear second in the pecking order, but there weren’t many highlights at Dover with Joey Logano (who fought for a sixth after getting mired deep in traffic from playing two-tire strategy to win a stage), Brad Keselowski (who faded greatly to 12th after leading 58 of the first 181 laps) and Ryan Blaney (15th).

Those struggles, coupled with Hendrick Motorsports’ four top 15s, underscored that the battle behind Gibbs has been tightening.


The tactics of Logano and William Byron revealed how strategy can be tricky with races that run largely incident-free. Both drivers sacrificed track position for Stage 1 points and then spent much of the remaining 280 miles trying to regain ground.

Dover marked the sixth of 11 races in 2019 that didn’t feature a multicar wreck, and the resultant lack of yellows can make it difficult to catch a tactical break. Logano and Byron both abandoned long-run strategies to short pit and get on sequence with the other lead-lap cars for their final stops with around 80 laps to go.

Gambles on being able to stay out longer under the final green-flag run (which lasted 131 laps) went unrewarded for Daniel Suarez, Jimmie Johnson and Aric Almirola, who would have benefited if there’d been a late caution.


The return of single-car qualifying at Dover was kindest to the less experienced. Four of the top five qualifiers (Chase Elliott, Byron, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman) weren’t running Cup full time in 2013, the last season before the debut of group qualifying.

With only one driver starting in the top 10, qualifying at Dover was surprisingly unkind to JGR. During the 2013 season, JGR had three of the top four qualifiers (Matt Kenseth, Busch and Hamlin), and Truex also ranked in the top 10.


The demise of Furniture Row Racing sadly cut short one of NASCAR’s great underdog stories, but it’s good to see at least one thread remains to the Denver-based team.

Though only a handful of several dozen team members at Barney Visser’s defunct organization migrated with Truex to the No. 19 Toyota, Pearn keeping his postrace victory selfies tradition alive is a welcome reminder of the iconoclastic camaraderie that powered Furniture Row (even if the beards are gone).

Jesse Iwuji Motorsports seeks $4.125 million in lawsuit against sponsor

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Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team, has filed a $4.125-million lawsuit against Equity Prime Mortgage, one of the team’s sponsors.

In the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the team alleges that EPM committed a breach of contract. JIM alleges that EPM agreed to pay the team $2.25 million for sponsorship in the 2022 season and $3.75 million for 2023.

The lawsuit attempts to recoup what Jesse Iwuji Motorsports calls two missed payments totaling $375,000 from 2022 and the $3.75 million for 2023. The filing of the lawsuit was first reported by TobyChristie.com.

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The team scored one top-10 finish in 30 Xfinity starts in 2022. The team’s cars were driven by Kyle Weatherman and Iwuji. Weatherman had a best finish of eighth; Iwuji’s best run was an 11th.

The team was founded by Iwuji, former National Football League player Emmitt Smith and a group of investors.

The lawsuit claims that an EPM executive informed the team in September 2022 that EPM had been “margin called” and was dealing with problems because of rising mortgage rates and that EPM could not make any more payments to Jesse Iwuji Motorsports .

According to the lawsuit, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports sent EPM a Notice of Intent to terminate the sponsorship agreement after the payment due Oct. 1 was missed. The suit claims EPM “took no action” after EPM offered 30 days to remedy the situation.

The suit also claims EPM “allegedly continued to take advantage of their status as a sponsor of the NASCAR Xfinity Series team, as EPM continued to make promotional posts on social media, which featured the company’s logo on the JIM race car.”

EPM is based in Atlanta.

Dr Diandra: The best driver of 2022

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NASCAR’s elimination playoff format means that the driver with the best statistics — arguably the “best driver of 2022” — doesn’t always win the championship.

Races unfinished

Drivers involved in a lot of crashes also failed to finish a lot of races. But not all accidents end drivers’ races. Comparing accidents and spins to DNF (did not finish) totals helps gauge how serious those incidents were.

Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were involved in the most accidents for a single driver with 15 caution-causing crashes each. The difference is that Chastain had only five DNFs (33.3%), while Stenhouse had nine (60.0%).

Ty Dillion tied Stenhouse for the most DNFs in the series with nine DNFs and 10 accidents.

Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Corey LaJoie tied for third place with eight DNFs each. Reddick had 10 accidents, while Dillon and LaJoie were each involved in 11 crashes.

No driver avoided DNFs entirely. Among full-timers, Michael McDowell had the fewest DNFs in 2022 with two. Justin Haley and Ryan Blaney tied for second with three DNFs each.

In 2021, only Denny Hamlin finished every race running. This year he had five DNFs, with four in the first nine races.

This year’s 225 DNFs are up significantly from 179 in 2021. and the most DNFs since 2017. I’ll be watching in 2023 to see if the rise in DNFs continues, or if this was a one-time phenomenon due to the first year with a new car.

Wins

“Best driver” doesn’t necessarily mean most wins.

This year’s champion, Joey Logano, didn’t have the most wins. That’s not at all uncommon in NASCAR. With 19 different winners in 2022, no driver dominated the season the way Kyle Larson did in 2021 with 10 wins.

The winningest drivers in 2022 were: Chase Elliott (five wins) and Logano (four wins). Christopher Bell, Larson and Reddick tied for third with three wins each.

Top-five and top-10 finishes

While wins matter more than good finishes, the number of top-five and top-10 finishes show how close a driver got to taking home the checkered flag. Running up front means being there to take advantage of other drivers’ mistakes and misfortune.

In 2021, Larson had the most top-five finishes (20) and the most top-10 finishes (26). This year, good finishes were much more spread out.2022's best drivers in terms of top-five and top-ten finishes

Chastain deserves a special shoutout for having 13 more top-10 finishes than he earned in 2021.

Also deserving of a shoutout, but for different reasons: Hamlin had the same number of wins this year as last, but nine fewer top-five finishes. William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. also had nine fewer finishes in the top five.

Logging laps

While Truex didn’t make the championship race, he did tie Elliott for the most lead-lap finishes in the season with 29, or 80.6% of starts. Blaney, Byron and Kevin Harvick each had 28 lead-lap finishes.

Elliott led the most laps in 2022 with 857. He’s followed by Logano (784), Byron (746), Chastain (692) and Blaney (636).

I remain slightly wary of metrics that purport to measure quickness because so much of a car’s speed depends on where in the field it’s running. Lap traffic, or even being far back in the field, can slow fast cars. That’s especially true at short tracks.

For completeness, however, the next two tables show the drivers’ numbers of fastest laps and those with the best rank in green-flag speed according to NASCAR’s loop data.

Two tables showing the drivers with the most fastest laps and the highest rank in green-flag speedChampion Logano ranked 11th in fastest laps with 319, and eighth in overall green-flag speed with an average ranking of 9.281.

Best Finishes

The tables below show drivers’ rankings throughout the season for average finishes and average running position.

Two tables comparing 2022's best drivers in terms of average finish and average running position

Elliott ranks first in both average finish and running position. Chastain takes second for best average finish and fourth for best average running position, while Blaney is second for running position and fourth for finishing position.

Logano finished 2022 third in both metrics.

Passing

NASCAR defines a quality pass as a pass for position inside the top 15. Interpreting the meaning of the number of passes is a little tricky. A driver who runs up front a lot doesn’t make many quality passes because he doesn’t need to.

I focus instead on the percentage of quality passes: the fraction of all green-flag passes that qualify as quality passes. A higher percentage means that the driver is efficient: The passes mean something.

Elliott scores first in percentage of quality passes with 63.4%, just edging out Bell, who has 63.3% quality passes. Larson is third with 61.2%.

Who was the best driver in 2022?

I combined the metrics I think matter most for determining the best driver in the table below. I color-coded drivers who appear in the top five in more than one metric to make it easier to see patterns.

A table showing the top five in each of the metrics discussed in the hopes of identifying 2022's best driver.

This table confirms that the NASCAR playoffs format did a good job identifying the top four drivers in the series. Elliott, Logano, Chastain and Bell are well-represented in the top five in each metric.

The table also shows that Larson and Blaney contended strongly in 2022. With a slightly different distribution of luck, one (or both) might have found their way to the Championship Four.

Logano’s consistency is also evident, even though he doesn’t rank first in any of these metrics and fails to make the table in top-five finishes or quality passes. It’s not uncommon for the driver with the most wins not to win the championship. And this year has been anything but common.

But overall, it’s hard not to argue that Elliott had the statistically best year. He led the series in wins, laps led, average finish, average running position and percent quality passes. If his playoffs had been comparable to his regular season, he would have taken the trophy.

But they weren’t and he didn’t. That may have ended the 2022 season on a down note for the No. 9 team, but they can look forward to 2023 knowing they have a strong base on which to build.

While skill is reproducible, luck isn’t.

Kaz Grala, Connor Mosack join Sam Hunt Racing for 2023

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Kaz Grala is scheduled to run the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule for Sam Hunt Racing in 2023.

Connor Mosack will drive a second Hunt car — No. 24 — in 20 races for the team. Grala will drive the No. 26 Toyota.

The new season will mark Grala’s first as a full-time Xfinity driver.

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“I’ve scratched and clawed for each opportunity over the past several seasons, and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s made me appreciate this sport and its difficulty more than I ever could if things had been easy,” Grala said in a statement released by the team. “I feel like everything has finally come together at the perfect time in my life with the right team around me to start that next chapter in my career.”

Grala, 23, has scored five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 44 Xfinity starts. He has raced in all three NASCAR national series and won a Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2017.

Allen Hart will be Grala’s crew chief.

Mosack, who will begin his schedule at Phoenix Raceway March 11, was the CARS Tour rookie of the year in 2020. He drove in two Xfinity and two Truck races in 2022.

Kris Bowen will be Mosack’s crew chief. The team said it will announce other drivers for the 24 car later.

 

Ryan Truex to drive six races for JGR Xfinity team in 2023

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Ryan Truex is scheduled to run six Xfinity Series races in the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023.

Truex ran five races for JGR in 2022, finishing in the top five three times. He ran third at Atlanta.

Truex also drove limited Xfinity schedules for JGR in 2011 and 2012.

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“We are looking forward to having Ryan back in our lineup in 2023 to run the No. 19,” said JGR vice president Steve DeSouza in a statement released by the team. “He has done well in the races he has run at JGR. His previous experience and driving ability will be assets as the No. 19 competes for an owner’s championship next year.”

JGR has not announced which races Truex will run or which drivers will be his teammates in the 19.

“I am thrilled to be behind the wheel of the No. 19 for a few races next season,” Truex said in a team statement. “It was fun to run well with this team this past year. I appreciate the opportunity to race for JGR again next year.”

Jason Ratcliff will be the team’s crew chief.

Truex, 30, has run 26 Cup, 84 Xfinity and 73 Camping World Truck Series races without a win.