Friday 5: Brad Keselowski tells team ‘Why not us?’ for title

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At a socially distanced gathering Wednesday, former Cup champion Brad Keselowski sought to inspire his crew with the rallying cry of “Why not us?” winning the title.

For a team with three wins this season — more than any other except playoff co-favorites Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin — the slogan seems tame.

Shouldn’t the mantra be more aggressive and evocative?

Keselowski’s team is about to enter a 10-week stretch that likely will challenge them but could reward them should they make it to the Nov. 8 title race at Phoenix Raceway. The journey begins with Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Keselowski said he chose the slogan to reflect the recent results for his team.

“I think what gets caught up in all of that is the mentality oftentimes that you’re only as good as your last race, as good as your last few weeks, and the last two or three weeks have not been as strong as I’d like them to be as a team,” said the 2012 Cup champ who is seeded third in the 16-driver playoff field.

Brad Keselowski’s most recent win came in August at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“We went out and kicked some serious butt at Loudon, New Hampshire. I was really proud of that, but we weren’t as strong as I hoped we’d be at Daytona and Dover. I think there’s moments as a team where sometimes people reflect on that a little deeper than is needed — not just as a team but media — and you have to remind yourselves what you’re capable of. Sometimes the easiest way to remind yourself what you’re capable of is, in my mind, eliminating the fears of what you’re not capable of.

“I think ‘Why not us?’ is my way of saying, ‘Give me a legit reason why we can’t win this championship right now?’ And we’ll come up with it and we’ll hammer it down in the ground with a 100-pound sledgehammer and we’ll fix it. ‘Why not us’ is as much a rallying cry to addressing and fixing all the little gaps.”

Keselowski said examining the matter that way can help a team evolve into a championship unit.

“What becomes of it is a culture, a mentality and a mindset of continuous improvement to eliminate your weaknesses,” he said. “Hopefully, there’s a tenacity born out of that that will serve us.”

Keselowski’s team is an intriguing option to counter Harvick, Hamlin and others in the NASCAR playoffs.

Keselowski won in May at Bristol, which will host the cutoff race in the first round. He scored a dominant victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a track that shares qualities with Richmond and Phoenix. He finished second at Kansas, which hosts the opening race in the third round of the NASCAR playoffs.

Kansas is where Keselowski’s title hopes ended last year. He entered that race 20 points ahead of the first driver outside a spot to advance to the third round. The final restart doomed Keselowski. He lost six spots on the overtime restart. Keselowski finished three points behind Chase Elliott for the final spot to advance.

Despite that disappointment other years stand out to Keselowski in failing to win a second title.

“I had a great team and it didn’t come together — ‘14 probably for reasons just as much of luck as anything else, ‘15 was probably more my fault with some things I didn’t execute at the level I needed to execute. But all together the scorecard was still zero and we had efforts that were capable of winning the championship those two years, so that stings.”

So this year, it’s “Why not us?”

While other sayings might have more vigor, that slogan has a good history.

It was the rallying cry of the 2004 Boston Red Sox. They won their first World Series in 86 years that season.

2. Is this Chase Elliott’s time?

One of the key lessons about the NASCAR playoffs came last year with Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski. Elliott entered the Kansas race 24 points behind the Team Penske driver. Elliott beat Keselowski for the last transfer spot to the third round.

“It just kind of shows you that it’s not over until it’s over in a lot of those cases,” Elliott said.

Elliott’s playoffs would end in the third round after three finishes of 32nd or worse. He’s yet to advance to the championship race in four previous playoff appearances.

Chase Elliott’s wins this year have come at Charlotte, the Daytona road course and the Bristol All-Star Race. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

“I mean you can’t win the championship without making that final four; and that’s been that point of the playoffs that we haven’t been able to bust through yet,” said Elliott, who is seeded fifth in the 16-driver playoff field. “I feel like we’ve been really close at times, to doing it. I think we’re very capable of making the final four.

Could this be Elliott’s year to make it to the title race? He’s having one of his best seasons with two wins, 10 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes.

“I feel like we’ve had some really good runs at the beginning of the year and then got into a little bit of a dip there over the last couple of months,” said Elliott, who also won the All-Star Race in July at Bristol. “And then I thought Dover was back competitive again. So, I think for me, I just look at a little bit of the inconsistency.

“I think we need to be more consistent across the board. I’m encouraged by the fact that when I feel like we have things going, we can compete for wins at a lot of different style race tracks, which is awesome. So that definitely gives me confidence. But this deal is all about what has happened lately, what your performance has been up to this date, and what you have ahead to try to improve on and how much you need to improve.”

Only Martin Truex Jr. (seven wins) and Kyle Busch (six) have more than the three victories Elliott has had in playoff races since 2017.

Playoff rookie Matt DiBenedetto calls Elliott his dark horse pick.

Elliott gets an early shot Sunday to show what he can do. He’ll start first in the Southern 500.

“I think even a bigger deal to have is that first pit box, which is super valuable,” Elliott said. “Hopefully we’re fast enough for it to matter and we can put that thing to use.”

3. Quite a streak

The last time Kevin Harvick was penalized for speeding on pit road in a Cup race, it cost him a playoff win.

That was 2018 at Kansas Speedway.

Harvick has not been penalized for speeding on pit road in the last 66 races. 

Kevin Harvick, the No. 1 seed in the NASCAR playoffs, has not had a speeding penalty in a Cup race since 2018. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Harvick, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch and rookie Cole Custer are the only playoff drivers not penalized for speeding this season.

“I think as you look at the things that we do on pit road it’s really the shape of the pit road, the strategy of the location of the pit stall and making sure that my gauges and things are set up to the way that I like them,” he said. “Something that works for me and our team to be able to maximize that. So it’s just like anything else, you want to maximize everything that you do on pit road, but there’s a lot of little details that go into making that happen.”

Bowman notes there are other challenges when going down pit road anywhere between 30-60 mph.

“A Cup car doesn’t drive smoothly at those speeds and the pit roads aren’t perfectly smooth,” he said. “The lights (on the dashboard noting the car’s speed on pit road) jump around a lot, basically. If you want the lights accurate, they jump around a lot. If you make them not jump around, they aren’t very accurate. So, just finding what works for you as a driver in that sense is really important.

“There’s a lot of factors to it. It’s really tough on a busy pit road trying not to run into people, trying to hit your pit box well. It’s definitely important, but it’s a big risk versus reward. Like if you have a green flag speeding penalty, it’s a huge, huge deficit for the rest of your day, especially at a speedway race. So, there are times to push and times not to push, for sure.”

Here is how many speeding penalties each playoff driver has this year:

5 — Austin Dillon

3 — Kyle Busch

2 — Clint Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano

1 — Aric Almriola, Ryan Blaney, William Byron, Martin Truex Jr.

0 — Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Cole Custer, Kevin Harvick

4. A new parking spot

When Joey Logano worked with crew chief Todd Gordon, Logano’s pit stalls often were near pit exit.

Among the changes Logano has experienced with new crew chief Paul Wolfe this season is a different philosophy in picking pits. Wolfe often prefers a stall near pit entrance. In six of the last eight races, Logano’s pit stall has been among the first stalls after pit entrance. For Sunday’s Southern 500, Logano’s pit stall will be the first one after pit entrance.

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Crew chief Paul Wolfe and Joey Logano. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“That’s been the running joke here at Team Penske for a little bit,” Logano said. “Todd will always go furthest forward possible, and Paul will be the guy that kind of goes back and forth on just trying to figure out what’s best for that particular weekend,” Logano said.

“So, the first few weeks was a little bit odd because I’m used to being all the way down at the other end, and I didn’t want to drive by the stall.

“Now I’ve kind of gotten used to it and Paul has done a good job at some pit selections. That was one of the things we went through at the beginning of the year is what works for me with pit stalls, and what direction can we get the best rolling times with and each racetrack is different. 

“Some narrow pit roads are different than the wide ones and pit openings are bigger than others and timing lines, there’s a lot that goes into that game. It’s not a random selection sometimes as much as some people think. There’s a lot that goes into that and I don’t know if there’s one more challenging than the other being in the front or the back. It’s just more or less a strategy of how do we have the best rolling time at the end of pit road.”

5. Future of single-car teams

Ty Dillon’s impassioned plea during a media session in August foreshadowed the news this week that owner Bob Germain was pondering his 2021 plans, including a potential sale of the team.

Germain Racing team has GEICO as a sponsor but the deal expires after this season. the team does not have a sponsor signed for next year. 

Dillon told reporters that changes need to be made in the sport to help single-car teams.

“The model is very tough right now for single-car teams,” Dillon said. “I’m hoping that NASCAR is going to change it and help on it. But it needs to change for one-car teams to be more successful that haven’t already been at the top level of the sport or have an incredible about of money to leapfrog into the top spot. If you don’t have three or four teams to spread the wealth with big name sponsors and a lot of money behind the effort, it’s just not a model that’s going to survive long term.”

Bob Leavine sold Leavine Family Racing, a single-car team. Spire Motorsports, a single-car team, will take over that operation after this season.

Leavine has been critical about the business model for teams. Jeff Dickerson, co-owner of Spire Motorsports, said on a recent episode of the Dale Jr. Download that “charter values (for Cup teams) are increasing. There is a real market for these and there are several groups trying to obtain them. Both inside the sport and outside the sport.”

NASCAR has made rule changes in an effort to save teams money. The Next Gen car is designed to do that. The car’s debut was pushed back to 2022 because development was stalled for several months by the novel coronavirus.

“We are working with our teams and frankly have been working with our teams over the last four or five years to try to improve the business model,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said this week. “We want healthy teams.”

Phelps said those outside the sport have noticed what how the team model has changed.

“I would suggest that the number of new owners trying to get into this sport has never been higher,” Phelps said. “Certainly when I’ve been around, and I’ve been around for 15 years. There’s just a ton of enthusiasm for the direction of what team ownership looks like.”

Said Dillon: “I believe in our sport and the direction it is going. And, I know everyone has a mindset to make it better. But we just have to get there. We have to do everything that it takes. … “We can only get better as a sport if we all get better. We can’t just keep focusing on the big-end teams and the guys running up-front week in and week out. So, if we want the sport to thrive, it takes a lot of focus throughout the field.”

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Dr. Diandra: How much does Talladega shake up the playoffs?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for shaking up the playoffs. But how well deserved is that reputation?

Playoff drivers usually view the first race in the second round of the playoffs as the best chance to earn points, earn stage points and maybe even a win given that Talladega is the second race. Now that Texas is in the rear-view mirror, let’s turn our data analysis tools to Talladega.

The shake-up index

Determining how much one race shuffles the playoffs standings requires a simple metric that is applicable to all the years NASCAR has had stages and playoffs. In a rare point of consistency, Talladega has remained the 31st race of the season since 2017, when stage racing started.

After trying a couple different approaches, I finally settled on playoff rankings. These rankings are a zero-sum game. For each driver who moves up a position, another driver must move down.

The first graph is playoff ranking as a function of race for the second playoff segment of 2021. It’s a bit of a mess, but stay with me.

A scatter graph of rank changes to help determine how much shaking-up Talladega actually does

Playoff rank runs along the left side of the graph. The highest ranked driver is at the top and the 12th ranked at the bottom.

The leftmost set of dots shows the rankings coming out of Bristol, after eliminating the lowest four drivers and re-seeding the rest. The second column of dots show the rankings after Las Vegas, which was the first race in the second round in 2021.

Each driver is represented in a different color, with lines connecting his rankings. For example, the dark purple lines show Denny Hamlin rising from third to first over these three races. The light blue lines at the bottom show Alex Bowman plummeting from seventh to 12th.

The messier the lines between two races, the more the playoffs were shaken up. Because it’s hard to quantify “messiness,” I counted each time one driver’s line crossed another driver’s line.

Each crossing indicates two drivers changed places in the rankings. The number of intersections between Bristol and Las Vegas, for example, tells you how much Las Vegas shook up the standings.

Three intersecting lines count as three shake-ups because there are three pairs of drivers crossing.

In 2021, Las Vegas had nine intersections, Talladega 13 and the Roval only five. This seems consistent with our hypothesis that Talladega is the biggest shaker-upper in the second round.

Talladega Timeline

In addition to being only one point, the 2021 Talladega contest poses another problem. Bubba Wallace won the rain-shortened race, which went 311 miles instead of the scheduled 500 miles.

That raises the possibility that 2021 might not be the most representative year for Talladega races. I therefore repeated the analysis going back to 2017. Since we didn’t have stage racing — and thus stage points — before 2017, it doesn’t make sense to compare previous years.

The table below shows the shake-up index from 2017-2021. Note that the first and third races changed from year to year.

A table summarizing the shake-up index for Talladega and other races in the second playoff round from 2017-2021

This five years of data show that Talladega wasn’t always the race that most shook-up this round of playoffs. From 2017-19, Dover and Charlotte held that honor. That’s surprising, especially in 2017. That’s the year 26 of 40 cars failed to finish the Talladega race and NASCAR parked Jimmie Johnson and Matt DiBenedetto.

In 2020, the three races had just about equal shake-up indices.

The Roval has been the third playoff race for only two years. It was equally chaotic with Talladega in terms of affecting the standings in 2020, but less so in 2021. Kansas beat the Roval for switching up the playoff standings twice.

 A caveat for the first race

If you’re surprised to see a larger shake-up for the first race in the second round of the playoffs, you’re not alone.

The 2021 fall Las Vegas race was remarkably uneventful. There were only two DNFs, both non-playoff cars. And one single-car accident that, again, didn’t involve a playoff car. Yet it had a shake-up index of nine.

It turns out that this is a side-effect of the re-seeding protocol.

The graph below shows the same time period as the rankings graph, but reports total points for the top-12 drivers.

A scatter plot showing how points changed for the top-12 playoff drivers in 2021 in the second round of the playoffs

Immediately after re-seeding, the drivers are separated by 57 points from first to 12th. If you omit Kyle Larson’s 30-point lead, the bottom 11 drivers are separated by only 27 points.

Since a driver can earn a maximum of 60 points in a single race, the first race in a round has a lot more impact in changing the standings. In effect, the first race decompresses the re-seeding compression.

After Las Vegas, the 12 playoff drivers were separated by 78 points. After Talladega, the margin grew to 98 points.

The larger numbers for the first races in any round are more due to the re-seeding-induced points compression than to the nature of the track.

Applied to 2022

Drivers don’t have to win at Talladega. They just have to finish ahead of the other playoff drivers. In fact, if a given driver can’t win, the next best case for him is if none of the other playoff drivers win, either.

The largest drop in positions a driver has seen from Talladega is five — and that’s from the rain-shortened 2021 race. On the other hand, drivers have also seen as much as an eight-position gain in the standings following Talladega. That gain was after the 2017 race where more than half the field failed to finish, but at least one driver has come out of the fall Talladega race each of the last four years up at least three positions.

As far as the stats for this year’s second round playoffs so far: Last week’s Texas race had a shake-up index of 14. That’s higher than all but the first year of the stage-racing playoff era.

And the William Byron penalty (which Hendrick Motorsports is contesting) has a shake-up index of seven.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.