Friday 5: A one in a million shot never before seen in NASCAR

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Lightning and NASCAR have frustratingly intertwined this summer, leading to numerous race delays, but who could have imagined their connection to one person?

The probability of Martin Truex Jr.’s five consecutive third-place finishes nearly equals the chances a person has of being struck by lightning in a given year.

The odds of Truex scoring back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back third-place finishes were 1 million to one, according to Jeremy Losak, assistant professor at the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University.

The odds of being stuck by lightning in a given year are 1 in 1.2 million, according to the National Weather Service.

Never in NASCAR’s history has a driver finished in third place for five races in a row.

That doesn’t impress Truex.

“Seems like third place is just where we’re at right now,” he said with a hint of disdain after last weekend’s race on the Daytona road course.

Crew chief James Small calls those third-place finishes “frustrating” because the team has been so close to wins.

He tries to console himself, though. Small notes that finishing third is “better than fourth. It’s better than crashing.”

But then he adds, “it’s not fun.”

Martin Truex Jr., shown during the Daytona road course race, has gone more than a month since he finished in a position other than third place in a Cup race. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Truex’s streak almost ended Aug. 8 in the first Michigan race, which marked his third consecutive third-place finish. He was eighth on the overtime restart. Truex passed five cars on the first lap of overtime but could not gain any other positions on the final lap. He finished behind winner Kevin Harvick and runner-up Brad Keselowski.

Truex will have a chance to break the streak — or extend it for a sixth consecutive race — Saturday at Dover International Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The odds of Truex finishing third in all six of these races is 23.5 million to 1, said Losak, who determined the probabilities for NBC Sports.

The odds of winning the jackpot in the Mega Millions is 302 million to 1. So compared to that, there’s a good chance Truex will finish third again Saturday.

However long Truex’s run lasts, it will become a part of Losak’s sport data and analysis class at Syracuse.

“I’m probably going to show (the students) this as an example of how to do this sort of thing,” he said.

Losak discovered the probabilities with the help of a teaching assistant, who provided research. Losak, used DraftKings odds on drivers, reviewed historical data, wrote a code and ran 100 million simulations to determine the odds.

“The more simulations I run, the more accurate the number is,” Losak told NBC Sports. “Given how unlikely an event this is to occur, if I didn’t run enough simulations, you would have a bunch fo times it would happen zero times. So I had to run the simulation enough times to get some times where it actually hit.”

Losak noted that Truex’s odds are better than most drivers because Truex has a better record. Most drivers, Losak noted, would have about a 4 million to one chance of placing third in five races in a row. Losak also said that for those drivers, they would have an 85.7 million to one chance of finishing third in these six consecutive races.

“I enjoy doing stuff like this,” Losak said. “It’s just fun to fiddle with the data.”

Truex will save his fun for when he’s back in Victory Lane.

2. Personal changes

Noah Gragson has endured much on the track this season. He’s had a run-in with teammate Justin Allgaier, a fight with Harrison Burton and contact with Riley Herbst and Myatt Snider. But it is off the track that Gragson has focused on recently.

“I’ve kind of made a lot of changes in my personal life in the past week and a half, two weeks,” Gragson said after his third-place finish last weekend on the Daytona road course. “Just trying to clean up things on my end, not even on the racetrack, just trying to be in a better headspace when I get to the racetrack.”

Asked about what he’s done in particular to achieve that, Gragson said:

“Just trying to focus on my priorities and focus on what is going to better myself for our team at JR Motorsports and how I apply myself more. Whether it be friendships that aren’t really the best that are kind of bringing drama in my life or just different things, just trying to eliminate those options.

“I’ve spent a lot of time by myself at home, really not doing anything, studying film, playing Xbox and going to the shop. … Trying to clean up my friends, trying to clean up stuff that brings extra drama to my life, things that the less I can think about during the day, the better I can be on the racetrack. There are a lot of things that are rolling through my head right now.”

Gragson enters this weekend’s Xfinity Series doubleheader at Dover third in points with victories in the season-opening race at Daytona and at Bristol. He goes into Saturday’s race (12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) with top-10  finishes each of the past two weeks.

3. Choose your path

The choose rule returns this weekend at Dover International Speedway.

The rule, which was tried at the Bristol All-Star Race, and used at Michigan earlier this month, will be in place the rest of the season except at the Charlotte Roval and races at Daytona and Talladega.

The rule allows drivers to choose whether to restart on the inside lane or outside lane. Chase Elliott used it to take the lead at Michigan. He was fifth in line but the top four cars took the outside lane, so he took the inside lane and restarted next to leader Kevin Harvick. Elliott passed Harvick and led nine laps. Harvick retook the lead and went on to win the first of two races that weekend. Elliott fell to seventh.

For all the preparation teams might put into figuring what lane to choose based on what other drivers do, William Byron says it isn’t that complicated on what to do.

“I think Dover is fairly even on lane choice,” he said. “I know the bottom lane doesn’t accelerate as well on the restart zone. So if you’re maybe second, you might choose to restart fourth (outside lane row 2) instead of on the inside in second. I think it’s all just feel and how your car is handling. Obviously, the engineers can try to science it out as best they can. But typically, just common-sense plays into a rule like this for sure.”

4. Looking ahead

Car owner Jack Roush explained this week to reporters what he liked among the changes this season and one thing in particular that could be better for owners.

Roush is a fan of one-day races, echoing sentiments from others, including Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart and JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty.

“We’ve demonstrated we can do one-day races and there may be a chance to go to some place we hadn’t otherwise planned to go to that maybe doesn’t have enough hotel room capacity,” Roush said. “Some of the other things would tend to rule out having one of our Cup events, so I think that we may be able to take some one-day races, that’ll be fun.”

He also noted another change he liked.

“The one thing that comes from the short tracks that I hadn’t experienced before, but the choice or opportunity to have every car and every driver make a choice if he wants to start inside or outside (on a restart) … that’s an interesting dimension of strategy and consideration that I think makes the racing more exciting for me,” Roush said.

On the challenges owners face, Roush said: “NASCAR is in a position to take a look at most of the money that comes into the sport and what it takes to run the racetracks or their affiliations with the racetracks, what it takes corporately to make their organization work. I’m not the person to comment on either, but for the money that gets portioned out to the teams it’s not enough to make it very exciting from a business point of view.”

5. Out of sync

If Kyle Busch fails to win either Cup race at Dover this weekend, it will mark the first time in his Cup career he has failed to win by race 26 in a season.

Busch has one win in the last 45 races. That victory came at Miami in last year’s season finale, giving Busch his second career series title. During that same time, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have 15 wins.  Busch has 56 career Cup victories, one ahead of Kevin Harvick.

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).