Friday 5: With pressure on, time for Denny Hamlin to perform

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For all that Denny Hamlin has accomplished, what he does this weekend at ISM Raceway could alter the narrative for one of NASCAR’s most successful drivers without a Cup championship.

Among the favorites to win the title when the playoffs began in September, Hamlin is in danger of seeing his championship hopes end with Sunday’s race (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

Hamlin trails rival Joey Logano, a driver he’s feuded with in these playoffs and over the years, by 20 points for the final spot in the Championship 4 field despite a stellar season that ranks among the best in Hamlin’s 14 seasons in Cup.

Hamlin is in this position after a crash last weekend at Texas dropped him from a transfer spot. Kevin Harvick is the only driver to race his way into the championship race at ISM Raceway, winning that event in 2014 and then claiming the title a week later.

While the pressure is on now, Hamlin professed before the playoffs began “pressure doesn’t get to me, nothing like it probably did 10, 12 years ago.”

Hamlin’s best chance for a title before this season came in 2010 when he led the points going into the season’s penultimate race at ISM Raceway but had to make an extra pit stop for fuel late. That allowed Jimmie Johnson and Harvick to close the points gap.

Miami weekend started with the press conference for the title contenders. Johnson and Harvick ganged up on Hamlin. Harvick said of Hamlin: “He definitely seems like the most nervous.”

While Hamlin still led going into Miami, he had a poor qualifying effort and an incident early in the race that doomed his title hopes, allowing Johnson to win his fifth consecutive title in a row.

That late-season collapse will always be a part of Hamlin’s history. He made the championship race in 2014 but hasn’t been back since.

If he doesn’t advance this year, it does not diminish the two Daytona 500 wins, two Southern 500 victories and 36 career Cup victories, but it leaves a gap for a driver who likely is Hall of Fame bound (just maybe not as soon as others without a championship). Only Junior Johnson (50 Cup wins) and Mark Martin (40) have more Cup wins than Hamlin and also not a title.

“I’ve seen it all,” Hamlin told NBC Sports before the playoffs of his postseason disappointments. “Any way I can get taken out of a championship battle, I’ve had happen.

“But I know as long as I prepare each week, the way I’ve been doing, as long as I do the work during practices, give the right feedback like I’ve been doing, we’re going to be fine. That makes me rest easier than anything.”

Those experiences help Hamlin, who will turn 39 the day after the title race. While it’s easy to wonder what might have been, Hamlin says he’s moved past that in regards to 2010.

“It probably took a year to get over that,” Hamlin said earlier this week at Toyota’s national headquarters in Plano, Texas. “After that, you’re so week-to-week, you can’t let stuff linger, and if you do, you’re not doing your job 100 percent.”

Few thought Hamlin would be in this position based on his season and his playoffs. His five wins trail only teammate Martin Truex Jr. for the most this season. Hamlin has finished third or better in 10 of the season’s 34 races. In the playoffs, Hamlin has a win and five top-five finishes in eight races. Yet, that might not be good enough after finishing 28th at Texas.

Hamlin, the NBA fan, can look to LeBron James and the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers for inspiration this weekend.

Hamlin says his favorite moment in sports came in the NBA Finals between the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors that year. Golden State led the best-of-seven series three games to one before Cleveland rallied to force a seventh game.

Late in that series-deciding contest came the play that Hamlin says “I remember like it was yesterday.”

“(Andre) Igoudala fast break at the end of the game, and LeBron chasing him down,” Hamlin said. “If (Igoudala) makes that basket, it’s over. LeBron chases him down, beats it off the backboard, and they (later) go down and score and change the whole game.

“Anyone down 3-1, they always talk about the odds and statistics of how impossible it is to come back, but that was the moment that someone just wanted it more.”

Such is the position Hamlin is in. Can he provide a memorable moment Sunday?

2. A NEW APPROACH

Austin Dillon’s 13th-place finish last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway wasn’t particularly noteworthy on the surface, but it was significant in other ways.

Dillon’s result marked one of his team’s better finishes on a 1.5-mile speedway this season.

“I feel like we need to try to find a baseline that we can kind of go to, and we haven’t had that this year,” Dillon said before the race. “We have had some fast cars but haven’t been able to race very well with them. We’re trying to kind of tune our cars to more a race-style setup. (At Texas) and Homestead we’re going to try to develop a little more of that baseline.”

The Richard Childress Racing cars were set up with less downforce easier in the season, giving them more speed in qualifying, but when they fell into the pack during a race, the cars were more unstable and harder to drive.

Dillon qualified in the top 10 in eight of the nine 1.5-mile races before Texas, including a pole at Chicago, but never finished better than 10th in any of those races. He showed that speed also at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in March, winning the pole but failing to score any stage points despite the favorable track position and pit stall.

At Texas last weekend, Dillon qualified 21st, his worst starting spot at a 1.5-mile track this year. He joked ahead of qualifying that if they were any better than 15th to 20th, “we will have tricked ourselves.”

The point being is the team put more downforce in the car to make it more stable in traffic, knowing it would hurt the qualifying speed.

“It’s been pretty obvious where our cars are and what they’ve had,” Dillon said of the setup. “There’s a happy medium in there. You see some of the guys that make it work and the other teams that don’t even try to run that concept. The Chevys that are fast don’t seem to be doing what we were doing.”

Another change is that crew chief Danny Stockman will give way to Justin Alexander after this season. Alexander was at Texas and will be with at the track the final two races to assess the team.

3. LOOKING AHEAD

As Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finishes the season with Roush Fenway Racing, he’s looking ahead to 2020 with JTG Daugherty Racing.

Stenhouse joins JTG in a virtual swap that sees Chris Buescher taking over Stenhouse’s ride in the No. 17 next year.

Stenhouse says he’s begun preparing for his ride by talking to Ernie Cope, competition director at JTG Daugherty Racing, and team owner Tad Geschickter after races.

Stenhouse says he’s discussed with Cope and Geschickter “the things that they fought through (with the car) in the weekend, kind of compare that to what I’m feeling and then also just looking at the potential that they have.

“I thought both their cars had really good short-run speed at Martinsville. We had better long run speed. Going over there it’s like, ‘Alright, how do we get that long-run better and keep that short-run speed?’ I look at Kansas … we raced around (Buescher) a lot and felt like in the end they were probably a little bit better overall.

“I’m interested to see how Phoenix goes. We ran decent there in their spring, but (JTG Daugherty Racing’s) short track stuff, I feel like, seems better than what we have right now and that’s an area that I feel like needs to get better.”

Until Stenhouse finished last after a crash last weekend at Texas, he had placed in the top 20 in six consecutive races, his longest stretch since 2017 when he won two races and made the playoffs.

“I am focused on making sure we finish the job here,” Stenhouse said of his final races with Roush Fenway Racing. “We’ve had some solid runs. We haven’t had any stellar runs, but we’ve had solid runs since the announcement came out in Charlotte. Just looking to continue that … and end on a decent note.”

4. BETTER HELP

One of the issues with the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, particularly at Daytona and Talladega, is that its pointed nose made it more challenging to push as compared to the Fords and Toyotas, which each had flatter noses.

While Chevrolet won at Daytona (Justin Haley in July) and at Talladega (Chase Elliott in the spring), the nose on the Camaro ZL1 1LE that Chevy teams will use in 2020 should prove beneficial at those tracks.

“It was definitely a challenge for us being able to push like some of our competitors were doing,” Elliott said. “I think all the drivers wanted (a flatter nose). We’re just lucky that Chevrolet saw it and wanted to make an effort and try to make it a little better. I think they did. We’ll see when we get to Daytona how it affects things, but I certainly think with all the pushing and how aggressive restarts are … hopefully that helps us.”

Cars pushing one another could become more important at those tracks in 2020. The Talladega playoff race showed more cars could form a two-car tandem and pull away briefly from the pack. With the rules stable for next season, teams will have more time to maximize that, and the tandem could play greater role in those races next year.

5. LAST CHANCE

Chevrolet will need a big day Sunday from Kyle Larson or Chase Elliott to avoid missing the Cup championship race for a third year in a row.

Chevrolet last had a team racing for the Cup title in 2016 when Jimmie Johnson won his record-tying seventh series crown.

In 2017, the Chevy teams of Elliott and Johnson were eliminated in the Round of 8 at ISM Raceway. Last year, Elliott was eliminated in the Round of 8 at ISM Raceway.

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Dr. Diandra: Strategies in making Clash picks

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

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

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

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

As are the fans.

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

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

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

But perhaps more aggression.

Don’t pay too much attention to practice

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

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

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

A graph showing practice times for the Busch Light Clash field

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

Qualifying is the key to good Clash picks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Chance Qualifiers

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

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

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

The Big Show

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

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

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

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

Good luck with your Clash picks!

NASCAR Sunday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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It’s race day for the NASCAR Cup Series.

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

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

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

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

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

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

Sunday, Feb. 5

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

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

Track activity

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

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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

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

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

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

Heat 2

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

Heat 3

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

Heat 4 

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

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

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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

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

Clash qualifying results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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