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.

Chad Knaus to move off pit box for executive role at Hendrick

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Chad Knaus, whose success as a crew chief is nearly unparalleled in NASCAR, will step down from that role after this season and move into a leadership position at Hendrick Motorsports, the team announced Tuesday.

Knaus will become vice president of competition. He will oversee technical development for Hendrick Motorsports, including implantation of the Next Gen car in 2022. He also will be responsible for personnel for each of the four teams, including crew chiefs, pit crews, engineering, fabrication, assembly and other team-related staff.

Knaus won seven championships as Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief. Only Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman won more titles. Inman won eight, scoring seven with Richard Petty and one with Terry Labonte. Knaus has 82 career Cup wins. All but one came with Johnson. William Byron scored his first career Cup win in August at Daytona with Knaus as his crew chief. Byron was eliminated from the playoffs last weekend. The 49-year-old Knaus is the only crew chief to have competed in NASCAR’s postseason all 17 years.

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus before the 2005 Coca-Cola 600. They combined to win that event four times.  (Photo by Harold Hinson/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

“When I started at Hendrick Motorsports (in 1993) working for Ray Evernham, my goal was to be a crew chief,” Knaus said in a statement from the team. “Starting at a young age, I wanted to win every race we entered and battle for every championship.

“Mr. (Rick) Hendrick has given me the chance to do exactly that, and I could not be more thankful to him. After all these years, my competitive desire has not changed at all, but now I have a family that deserves my attention. This new executive role will allow me to compete in a different way with all four of our teams while spending more time with my wife and two young children.

“I appreciate the company supporting my decision, and I’m truly excited about the challenge ahead of me to help us grow and win. I’m also looking forward to working closely with Jeff (Andrews), who I admire and have great respect for. I owe so much to Mr. Hendrick and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports, and I’m ready for the next chapter.”

Knaus and his wife Brooke welcomed a baby girl July 30. Vivienne Mae Knaus is the couple’s second child. Son Kipling was born in 2018.

A new crew chief for Byron will be announced at a later date.

Chad Knaus, car owner Rick Hendrick and Jimmie Johnson displaying their rings after Johnson claimed the 2013 Daytona 500. (Photo by John Harrelson/NASCAR via Getty Images)

“In life, it’s rare to witness true excellence first-hand, but that’s precisely what we’ve been treated to with Chad,” Hendrick said in a statement. “Today’s announcement is bittersweet because, in my opinion, he is the finest crew chief our sport has ever seen.

“Although we’re going to miss him atop the pit box, I’m heartened that Chad has made this decision for himself and his growing family and that he is energized about the opportunity to move us forward in a new capacity. There is no one with higher standards or a stronger passion for winning. He will continue to elevate Hendrick Motorsports and instill his championship mentality throughout the company.”

Knaus served two races as crew chief for Casey Atwood in 2000 and then did one race for Stacy Compton that season. In 2001, Knaus was paired with Compton. Knaus rejoined Hendrick Motorsports to be Johnson’s crew chief in 2002. They remained together until 2019 when Knaus moved to Byron’s team.   

Knaus will report to Andrews, 55, who has been promoted to executive vice president and general manager, effective immediately.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus celebrate their seventh NASCAR Cup championship after winning the 2016 season finale in Miami. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Andrews joined Hendrick Motorsports in 1992 and most recently served as vice president of competition. He had held that role since 2017.

Previously, Andrews held a leadership position in the team’s engine department, including director of engine operations. In his expanded role, Andrews will oversee all competition-related departments, including powertrain, manufacturing and racing operations. He will continue to support the organization’s technical relationship with Chevrolet and remain its primary liaison with NASCAR’s competition group. Andrews reports to Hendrick Motorsports president Marshall Carlson.

“In my almost 29-year NASCAR career, I’ve been fortunate to work for just one organization,” Andrews said in a statement from the team. “Mr. Hendrick is a racer and a fierce competitor. His drive to win is contagious, and I’m grateful to have a team of like-minded people who share that passion. Racing is all I have ever done professionally. When I left my home and my family 33 years ago to pursue this dream, I never could have imagined the opportunities that have been provided by so many people, most importantly Mr. Hendrick.”

Said Hendrick in a statement: “As we look to the years ahead, Jeff and Chad are going to play significant roles in our success. They’re tremendous leaders who are respected within our organization and across the entire auto racing world. In addition, they each bring unique strengths and skillsets that will complement each other extremely well and benefit all of Hendrick Motorsports. We’re in the business of winning, and this combination is going to help us do just that.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick still No. 1 after quiet Vegas

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Kevin Harvick didn’t have a flashy night Sunday in Las Vegas, but it didn’t keep him from retaining the No. 1 spot in this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings.

After winning the Bristol night race, Harvick finished in the top 10 in the first two stages in Vegas before placing 10th at race’s end.

Kurt Busch’s win at his home track vaulted him into the top 10 as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Las Vegas

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): In the last eight races he’s won three times and finished outside the top 10 only twice.

2. Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 5): Placed fourth for his 11th top-five finish in the last 14 races.

3. Alex Bowman (Last week unranked): Finished fifth for his second top five and fifth top-10 finish in the last six races.

4. Denny Hamlin (Last week unranked): Left Vegas with a third-place finish to snap a three-race streak of finishing outside the top 10.

5. Kurt Busch (Last week unranked): Snapped a 46-race winless streak with his victory and advanced to the Round of 8.

6. Kyle Busch (Last week No. 3): Finished sixth after a “dismal” night. He has four consecutive top 10s.

7. Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): Finished 13th to give him two finishes outside the top 10 since he won at Richmond.

8. Chase Briscoe (Last week unranked): Opened the Xfinity playoffs with his second consecutive win.

8. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 2): Led 73 laps, but had to settle for a 22nd-place finish in Vegas.

8. Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Finished 14th for his second straight finish outside the top 10.

Also receiving votes: Erik Jones and Chris Buescher.

NASCAR announces changes to Kansas playoff weekend

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Citing “programming changes,” NASCAR announced shifts in the race dates and start times for its visit next month to Kansas Speedway.

The Xfinity, ARCA and Truck Series races have been shifted, while the Cup race remains at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday, Oct. 18.

The biggest move is the Truck Series race shifting from Friday night to Saturday afternoon.

Here are the changes.

Friday, Oct. 16, 8:30 p.m. ETARCA Menards Series on FS1 or FS2; network TBD at a later date (previously at 10 p.m. ET)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 4 p.m. ETTruck Series on FOX (previously Friday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. ET on FS1)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 7 p.m. ET Xfinity on NBCSN (previously 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

 

Xfinity Series playoff standings after Las Vegas

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Chase Briscoe opened the Xfinity Series playoffs by earning his second consecutive win.

His victory Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway gives him 57 playoff points and an automatic spot in the Round of 8.

Harrison Burton holds the final transfer spot. He has a two-point advantage over Ross Chastain.

Behind Chastain below the cutline are Michael Annett (-10 points), Riley Herbst (-14) and Brandon Brown (-20).

Below is the full Xfinity Series playoff standings going into Saturday’s race at Talladega (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Drivers in red are below the cutline to advance. Drivers in yellow are in the remaining playoff spots.

Xfinity Series playoff standings