Friday 5: How a career-best finish was heartbreaking for Josh Williams


Josh Williams tightened his belts and prepared for chaos.

Restarting 11th with four laps to go in last weekend’s Xfinity race at Kansas Speedway, Williams saw his chance for a top-10 finish, something he had done only five times in 90 previous starts.

He had fresh tires and hope. There are no more powerful allies in racing. Especially for one who calls himself an old-school racer for how he worked his way up to driving for a small-budget Xfinity team. 

“Late in the race like that, when everybody is really trying to get after it, it is kind of like roulette,” Williams told NBC Sports. “You really never know what number it is going to land on.”

As the field entered Turn 1 on the restart, a lane opened on the bottom. Williams charged. The DGM Racing driver climbed to eighth by the backstretch. He gained two more spots to finish a career-high sixth.

After the checkered flag, he returned to pit road. Williams unbuckled his belts. He removed his helmet. Williams paused as he climbed from his car. He sat on the driver’s side window. And bowed his head.

He was not celebrating.

He was mourning.

Josh Williams reflects on his career-high sixth-place finish at Kansas and mourns the loss of a friend. (Photo: Parker Kligerman)

Josh Williams, 27, starts conversations with “hey brother.” So maybe it isn’t surprising that he once hired a person he met at a gas station.

Williams had come across the guy a couple of times at the track but didn’t know his name. He had also seen him at the gas station near Williams’ shop before. On this particular day a few years ago, Williams was preparing to go to Daytona for an ARCA race and needed some help. When he saw the familiar fellow at the gas station, Williams struck up a conversation. He asked the guy if he wanted to help him at the track. Williams got a quick “yes.” Williams said they would leave from the shop, got his phone number and told Tim Hayes: “Let’s go racing.”

Hayes worked on and off for Williams for a spell before he joined Josh Williams Motorsports full-time. Williams’ operation takes care of racing vehicles from Bandolero cars and Legends Cars to Late Models for others.

“We try to get these kids to where I was,” Williams said of his development program.

Hayes helped Williams’ Xfinity crew at times, but Hayes’ focus was working on the cars at Williams’ shop and helping the young drivers who piloted them.

Hayes was easy to get along with, Williams said. The bond between Williams and Hayes grew quickly.

“I don’t think I ever went a day in the shop without laughing my ass off about something (Hayes) had to say,” Williams said. “He was one the funniest dudes I’ve ever been around.”

Hayes’ life wasn’t always full of laughter, though.

“I know he was battling depression for a long time,” Williams said. “When I met him, he was in a pretty rough place. He told me probably about nine months ago, he said, ‘Man, if I hadn’t met you and your wife I don’t know if I would be here today.’ ”

Hayes died at his home last Friday, a day before the Kansas Xfinity race. He was 25.

As Williams buried his head before climbing from his car after last weekend’s race, he faced conflicting emotions.

“Every time we’ve had a good run, we’d get back to the shop on Monday, he would talk about it,” Williams said of Hayes. “I was mad because he wasn’t going to be at the shop on Monday telling me how good we did.”

Josh Williams has six top-10 finishes in 91 Xfinity starts. (Photo by Kyle Ocker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That Williams races in the Xfinity Series is a testament to his dedication and a love of speed that developed at an early age.

When he was 2 years old, Williams’ father, who was a racer, would put Dawn dish soap and speedy dri on the pavement and put up cones for Williams to maneuver his Big Wheel around.

“He taught me car control,” Williams said.

His father also put him in a go-kart at an early age.

“It was probably faster than it should have been,” Williams said. “My mom wasn’t too excited about it.”

Williams was hooked on racing and moved from his family’s home in Port Charlotte, Florida, to North Carolina at age 15 to pursue his racing dream. He finished high school online.

“I’ve slept on people’s couches, I’ve slept on floors, I’ve traveled around with other people and worked on my own equipment and helped build race cars,” he said.

Williams learned how to build cars from Barry Owen, who worked on Richard Childress’ car when Childress drove and also worked for Richard Petty.

“(Owen) was old school,” Williams said. “We built a whole race car from a used parts store. We didn’t go buy anything new. He taught me how to do it and save money. That’s the reason I’ve been able to do this for so long.”

Williams’ career has been filled with limited budgets, long hours and even longer drives. In 2016, he was racing for his family’s ARCA team. They had problems with an engine and didn’t have another one. They decided to skip the next event.

But racers don’t quit. Encouraged by his wife, Williams called his team members late that night and they worked on the car into the next day. They never fixed the engine but figured they’d see how long it would last. After working through the night, they drove from North Carolina to Wisconsin for the race.

The motor lasted all 200 laps at Madison International Speedway. Williams won the race.

“It’s times like that, you’re like, well, we can do it,” Williams said.

That determination eventually led to a phone call from Mario Gosselin to start and park a car in the Xfinity Series in 2016.

“He just kept calling me,” Williams said. “It turned into we were running races. Then, we were finding some sponsor money to run some more races. Now, he can’t get rid of me.”

Williams has run the full Xfinity season for Gosselin’s team since last year. Williams’ sixth-place at Kansas marked his second top 10 in the last three races.

“Mario really gave me an opportunity that I don’t think anybody else would have,” Williams said. “There’s races where I haven’t had a dime and he’s taken a chance on tearing up his equipment … to put me in a race car.”

It was inside that car last weekend where Williams felt so many emotions after the checkered flag waved. His thoughts returned to Tim Hayes.

“You experience the lowest of lows the night before and the highest of highs the next day,” Williams said. “You’re happy and sad all at the same time.”

2. On a roll

Kevin Harvick goes into Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) having won the past three playoff races there.

He also has scored a top-10 finish in 12 consecutive races at the track, a streak dating back to Nov. 2014.

But Harvick has seen his greatest success there since 2017 when the track was repaved and the banking in Turns 1 and 2 decreased 4 degrees to 20 degrees.

Since the changes, Harvick has finished no worse than eighth at Texas. He’s won three races in that time and finished second another time.

I’d really like to thank Eddie Gossage for redesigning the racetrack because for whatever reason since Eddie has redesigned the track, things have kind of fallen into being favorable for us,” Harvick said, referring to the track’s president and general manager. “The things that we do with our race car and myself as a driver it just kind of fits everything, so it’s just finally the last few years we’ve been able to capitalize on what we had on the old racetrack as well and that was fast cars. 

“I think as you look at really everything that’s happened at Texas it’s just been A-plus, and when you have that confidence in a racetrack and the guys have confidence in the setup and the car and the things that they change from year to year it’s hard to beat confidence. There’s always things that can happen, but I truly believe that we’ll go there and have a really fast car and be comfortable the week leading up to it that you made the right decisions because we’ve made a lot of really good decisions there in the past. It’s just been a great place for us.”

Harvick enters this weekend 41 points ahead of the cutoff for the final transfer spot. Even if he doesn’t win, he could clinch a spot in the championship race based on points with a strong enough run Sunday.

3. No need to go?

Sunday’s Cup race at Texas is seemingly meaningless for Joey Logano and his team.

He’s already clinched a spot in the championship race with his Kansas win. The title race is at Phoenix, a track unlike Texas. While a driver and team have to run every race to be eligible for the crown, there’s nothing that says the crew chief has to be there.

Still, Paul Wolfe will be at Texas.


“The biggest thing to me is keeping our team and our momentum, our flow, things like that going,” Wolfe said after the Kansas win. “While I may be spending a lot more of my time during the week working through some of my Phoenix stuff … I still think it’s important for all of us to go and race every week just like we’re going to race at Phoenix in three weeks.

“If I’m not there, someone is not there, something is different. We want to keep in sync. I feel like our team’s made strides as we’ve got into the playoffs this year, building momentum, having strong races. … We want to kind of keep that flow and rhythm going, but we’ll also be focusing a lot more on Phoenix.”

Two of the last four years the driver who won the opening race in the third round — and gave his team two weeks to focus its preparation on the championship race — won the title. Logano did it in 2018 when he had Todd Gordon as his crew chief.

“I definitely think it’s somewhat of an advantage to us,” Wolfe said of having the extra time to focus on Phoenix. “Whether we want to look at stats of who won the first race winning the championship, that’s great. I look at it as we feel like Team Penske’s short track program is strong. We were obviously able to win Phoenix earlier this year.  Just knowing that, that we are advanced now, yeah, definitely gives you a little extra time.”

4. Finishing strong

Daniel Suarez admits that it has been “difficult to go to the racetrack knowing that your car will not be as good as some of the others” this season.

Suarez heads into Sunday’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway 31st in the points. He joined Gaunt Brothers Racing until late January. This is the team’s first full season after running no more than a partial schedule since debuting in 2017.

Suarez’s best finishes this year have been 18th at Bristol and Kansas in the regular season.

“They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Suarez said. “I truly believe that. I’m much better mentally and physically than I was in the middle of the year. I feel like I can’t really wait till the start of 2021.”

He’ll join Justin Marks’ new team, Trackhouse Racing, for next season. The team will have a charter and be aligned with Richard Childress Racing.

Suarez said even as he looks to next year, he’s not ignoring the final three races of this season.

“Last week, I noticed a few people on the team looking down, but I told them I’m not done yet,” Suarez said. “I know I’m not going to be here next year, but I’m still here (now). So, if you guys want to be in a good position for next year, you better put yourself together and get to work. In my opinion, you are as good as your last race. If we do good job in Phoenix, who knows, maybe that can help everyone for next year.”

5. A baker’s dozen

Chase Briscoe’s promotion to Cup next season means that 13 of the 36 teams with charters will have drivers who came through organizations owned by Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Briscoe became the latest to earn a Cup ride, taking over the No. 14 at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2021.

Briscoe will be one of four alums from Brad Keselowski Racing’s defunct Truck program racing in Cup next year. Briscoe’s lone win with the team came in BKR’s last race in the 2017 season finale at Miami.

Others who ran at least half a season with Brad Keselowski Racing and will be in Cup next year are Ryan Blaney, Tyler Reddick and Ross Chastain. Austin Cindric also competed for BKR and will drive in select Cup races next year before moving to the Cup Series full-time in 2022 with Wood Brothers Racing.

I’m glad to see other drivers get an opportunity like I got to be at the top level and to have someone support them,” Keselowski said. “I had multiple people that helped me in my career, whether that was at the Late Model level, the Truck level, the Xfinity level. Without any of those people I couldn’t be where I’m at today.”

Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Truck program will have five alums in Cup next year, just as it did this year. Cup drivers who ran at least half a season with the team are Christopher Bell, Daniel Suarez, William Byron, Erik Jones and Bubba Wallace.

JR Motorsports will have six drivers who went though its program in Cup, same as this year. The drivers who competed in the Xfinity Series were Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola, Reddick, Byron and Keselowski. JR Motorsports fielded a Truck team in 2016 for Cole Custer, who will be this year’s Cup Rookie of the Year.

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Saturday Portland Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather


There have been different winners in each of the last nine Xfinity Series races this season. Will the streak continue Saturday at Portland International Raceway?

Those nine different winners have been: Sammy Smith (Phoenix), Austin Hill (Atlanta), AJ Allmendinger (Circuit of the Americas), Chandler Smith (Richmond), John Hunter Nemechek (Martinsville), Jeb Burton (Talladega), Ryan Truex (Dover), Kyle Larson (Darlington) and Justin Allgaier (Charlotte).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Portland International Raceway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:38 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:46 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 10 a.m. … Practice begins at 11:30 a.m. … Qualifying begins at 12 p.m. … Driver introductions begin at 4:15 p.m. … The invocation will be given by Donnie Floyd of Motor Racing Outreach at 4:30 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed at 4:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 75 laps (147.75 miles) on the 1.97-mile road course.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

STARTING LINEUP: Qualifying begins at 12 p.m. Saturday

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 4:30 p.m. ... Coverage begins at 4 p.m. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 4 p.m. and can be heard on … SiriusXN NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 73 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: AJ Allmendinger won last year’s inaugural Xfinity race at Portland by 2.8 seconds. Myatt Snider finished second. Austin Hill placed third.

NASCAR Friday schedule at WWT Raceway, Portland


Craftsman Truck Series teams will be on track Friday at World Wide Technology Raceway to prepare for Saturday’s race. Cup teams will go through inspection before getting on track Saturday.

Xfinity Series teams will go through inspection Friday in preparation for their race Saturday at Portland International Raceway.

Here is Friday’s schedule:

World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (Cup and Trucks)


Friday: Partly cloudy with a high in the low 90s.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 1 – 8 p.m. Craftsman Truck Series
  • 4 – 9 p.m. Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 6:30 p.m. — Truck practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. — Truck qualifying (FS1)

Portland International Raceway (Xfinity Series)

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly sunny with a high of 77 degrees.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 6-11 p.m. Xfinity Series (no track activity on Friday)

Friday 5: NASCAR’s $1 million question is can the culture change?


NASCAR Cup teams have paid nearly $1 million in fines this season, more than triple what they paid last season for inspection-related infractions.

The money — $975,000 after just 14 of 36 points races — goes to the NASCAR Foundation. While the fines help a good cause, it is a troubling number, a point that a senior NASCAR official made clear this week.

Stewart-Haas Racing was the latest Cup team to be penalized. NASCAR issued a $250,000 fine, among other penalties, for a counterfeit part found on Chase Briscoe’s car following Monday’s Coca-Cola 600. The team cited a “quality control lapse” for a part that “never should’ve been on a car going to the racetrack.”

Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said this week that if violations continue, the sanctioning body will respond. NASCAR discovered the infraction with Briscoe’s car at the R&D Center. Series officials also discovered a violation with Austin Dillon’s car at the R&D Center after the Martinsville race in April.

“If we need to bring more cars (to the R&D Center), we’ll do that,” he said. “Our part of this as the sanctioning body is to keep a level playing field for all the competitors, and that’s what they expect us to do and that’s what we’ll continue to do. … Whatever we need to do, we will do that.”

Sawyer also noted that the “culture” of race teams needs to change with the Next Gen car.

“From a business model and to be equitable and sustainable going forward, this was the car that we needed,” Sawyer said. “To go with that, we needed a deterrent model that would support that.

“We’ve been very clear. We’ve been very consistent with this … and we will continue to do that. The culture that was in our garage and in the race team shops on the Gen-6 car was more of a manufacturing facility. The Next Gen car, that’s not the business model.

“The race teams, they’re doing a better job. We still have a lot of work to do, but they have to change that culture within the walls of the race shop.”

While NASCAR has made it clear that single-source vendor parts are not to be modified, teams will look for ways to find an advantage. With the competition tight — there have been 22 different winners in the first 50 races of the Next Gen car era — any advantage could be significant.

Twelve races remain, including Sunday’s race at World Wide Technology Raceway, before the playoffs begin. The pressure is building on teams.

“Some race teams, at this stage in the game, their performance is not where they would like for it to be and they’re going to be working hard,” Sawyer said. “If they feel like they need to step out of bounds and do things and just take the risk, then they may do that. That’s not uncommon. We’ve seen that over the years.

“The one thing that we have to keep in mind is we’ve raced the Next Gen car for a full season. We’re in year two, just say 18 months into it. So last year, they were just getting the parts and pieces, getting ready, getting cars prepared and getting to the racetrack.

“Now they’ve had them for a year. They’ve had them for an offseason. It’s given their engineers and the people back in the shop a lot more time to think, ‘Maybe we could do this, maybe we could do that.’

“By bringing these cars back (to the R&D Center) and taking them down to basically the nuts and bolts and a thorough inspection — and we will continue to do that — I believe we will get our message across. We’ll have to continue to do this for some period in time, but I have great faith that we will get there.”

A similar message was delivered by Sawyer to drivers this week when NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in retaliation for being forced into the wall.

Sawyer told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that “in the heat of the battle things happen, but (drivers) have to learn to react in a different way.”

Sawyer also noted that the message on how to race wasn’t just for those in Cup.

“We have to get that across not only to our veterans, guys that are superstars like Denny, like Bubba (Wallace) and like Chase and all our of national series Cup drivers, but also our young drivers that are coming up through the ranks that are racing in the Northeast in modifieds and in short tracks across the country,” he said. “That’s just not an acceptable behavior in how you would race your other competitors.

“There are a lot of things you can do to show your displeasure. That’s just not going to be one of them that we’re going to tolerate.”

2. Special ride 

Corey LaJoie gets to drive a Hendrick Motorsports car this weekend due to Chase Elliott’s one-race suspension.

“It’s a far cry difference from when I started my Cup career six years ago,” LaJoie said on his “Stacking Pennies” podcast this week. “There was a Twitter page “Did Corey crash?” … Going from that guy just trying to swim and stay above water and trying to learn the ropes to filling in for a champion like Chase Elliott for Hendrick Motorsports, it feels surreal.”

It was a little more than three years ago that LaJoie gave car owner Rick Hendrick a handwritten note to be considered to replace Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 car after the 2020 season.

“This was the first time I’ve gotten a letter from the heart,” Hendrick told NBC Sports in February 2020 of LaJoie’s letter. “I’ve gotten letters and phones calls, usually from agents. It was really a heartfelt letter and it was really personal.

“I was impressed with him before and am more impressed after.”

LaJoie admitted on his podcast this week that he wouldn’t have been ready to drive the No. 48 car then.

“I wouldn’t have been ready, whether it be in my maturation, my game, my knowledge of the race cars,” he said. “The person that I was wasn’t ready for the opportunity like that.”

Now he gets the chance. He enters this weekend 19th in the season standings, 38 points behind Alex Bowman for what would be the final playoff spot at this time.

“It’s an opportunity to hopefully show myself, as well as other people, what I’ve been thinking (of) my potential as a race car driver,” LaJoie said on his podcast. “But I also think you have to just settle in and be appreciative of the opportunity.”

3. Special phone call

With Corey LaJoie moving into Chase Elliott’s car for Sunday’s Cup race, LaJoie’s car needed a driver. Craftsman Truck Series driver Carson Hocevar will make his Cup debut in LaJoie’s No. 7 car for Spire Motorsports.

Once details were finalized this week, the 20-year-old Hocevar called his dad.

“I don’t know if he really believed it,” Hocevar said.

He told his dad: “Hey, this is actually happening.”

His father owns a coin and jewelry shop and is looking to close the store Sunday and have someone watch his two puppies so he can attend the race.

For Hocevar, it’s quite a turnaround for a driver who has been at the center of controversy at times.

Ryan Preece was critical of Hocevar’s racing late in the Charlotte Truck event in May 2022. Preece said to FS1: “All you kids watching right now wanting to get to this level, don’t do that. Race with respect. Don’t wreck the guy on the outside of you trying to win your first race. It doesn’t get you anywhere.”

NASCAR penalized Hocevar two laps for hooking Taylor Gray in the right rear during the Truck race at Martinsville in April.

Hocevar acknowledged he has had to change how he drives.

“Last year was really, really tough for me and that’s no excuse,” Hocevar said this week. “I just was mentally wrong on a lot of things, had the wrong mindset. I wanted to win so badly that I thought I could outwork stuff and it kind of turned some people away. … I wasn’t enjoying the time there. I was letting the results dictate that.

“I was taking results too personal. If we were going to be running seventh, I took it as I was a seventh-place driver and I wasn’t good enough. So I started making desperate moves. I did desperate things at times, even last year, that I’ve been able to calm down and look myself in the mirror and had a lot of heart-to-heart conversations.”

He called the Martinsville race “a turning point” for him and knew he needed to change how he drove. He enters this weekend’s Truck race with three consecutive top-five finishes.

4. Moving forward

In a way, Zane Smith can relate to what Carson Hocevar will experience this weekend. Smith, competing in the Truck Series, made his Cup debut last year at World Wide Technology Raceway. Smith filled in for RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher, who missed the race because of COVID-19 symptoms. Smith finished 17th.

“That one that I got for RFK Racing was a huge opportunity,” Smith said of helping him get some Cup rides this season. “I was super thankful for that. I think that run we had got my stock up and then, honestly, getting the Truck championship helped that rise as well.

“I think just time in the Cup car is so important, and I think once that new Cup car came out, people realized that you don’t have to do the route of Truck, Xfinity, Cup. The Cup car is so far apart from anything, though it does kind of race like a truck, so I don’t think you need to go that round of Truck, Xfinity, Cup. I think a lot of people would agree with me on that.

“I’m happy for these Cup starts that I’m getting. I’m happy for that one that I got last year at a place like Gateway. I think every time that you’re in one you learn a lot.”

Smith has made five Cup starts this season, finishing a career-best 10th in last week’s Coca-Cola 600 for Front Row Motorsports. The former Truck champion has two Truck series wins this year and is third in the season standings.

5. Notable numbers

A look at some of notable numbers heading into this weekend’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois:

5 — Most points wins in the Next Gen car (William Byron, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott)

7 — Different winners in the last seven points races: Christopher Bell (Bristol Dirt), Kyle Larson (Martinsville), Kyle Busch (Talladega), Martin Truex Jr. (Dover), Denny Hamlin (Kansas), William Byron (Darlington), Ryan Blaney (Coca-Cola 600).

17 — Points between first (Ross Chastain) and sixth (Christopher Bell) in the Cup standings

88 — Degrees at Kansas, the hottest temperature for a Cup race this season (the forecast for Sunday’s race calls for a high in the low 90s)

100 — Consecutive start for Austin Dillon this weekend

500 — Cup start for Brad Keselowski this weekend

687 — Laps led by William Byron, most by any Cup driver this season

805 — Cup start for Kevin Harvick this weekend, tying him with Jeff Gordon for ninth on the all-time list.

Dr. Diandra: How level is the playing field after 50 Next Gen races?


Last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 marks 50 Next Gen races. The 2022 season produced 19 different winners, including a few first-career wins. Let’s see what the data say about how level the playing field is now.

I’m comparing the first 50 Next Gen races (the 2022 season plus the first 14 races of 2023) to the 2020 season and the first 14 races of 2021. I selected those two sets of races to produce roughly the same types of tracks. I focus on top-10 finishes as a metric for performance. Below, I show the top-10 finishes for the 13 drivers who ran for the same team over the periods in question.

A table comparing top-10 rates for drivers in the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars, limited to drivers who ran for the same team the entire time.

Because some drivers missed races, I compare top-10 rates: the number of top-10 finishes divided by the number of races run. The graph below shows changes in top-10 rates for the drivers who fared the worst with the Next Gen car.

A graph showing drivers who have done better in the next-gen car than the Gen-6 car.

Six drivers had double-digit losses in their top-10 rates. Kevin Harvick had the largest drop, with 74% top-10 finishes in the Gen-6 sample but only 46% top-10 finishes in the first 50 Next Gen races.

Kyle Larson didn’t qualify for the graph because he ran only four races in 2020. I thought it notable, however, that despite moving from the now-defunct Chip Ganassi NASCAR team to Hendrick Motorsports, Larson’s top-10 rate fell from 66.7% to 48.0%.

The next graph shows the corresponding data for drivers who improved their finishes in the Next Gen car. This graph again includes only drivers who stayed with the same team.

A graph showing the drivers who have fewer top-10 finishes in the Next Gen car than the Gen-6 car

Alex Bowman had a marginal gain, but he missed six races this year. Therefore, his percent change value is less robust than other drivers’ numbers.

Expanding the field

I added drivers who changed teams to the dataset and highlighted them in gray.

A table comparing top-10 rates for drivers in the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars

A couple notes on the new additions:

  • Brad Keselowski had the largest loss in top-10 rate of any driver, but that may be more attributable to his move from Team Penske to RFK Motorsports rather than to the Next Gen car.
  • Christopher Bell moved from Leavine Family Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2021. His improvement is likely overestimated due to equipment quality differences.
  • Erik Jones stayed even, but that’s after moving from JGR (13 top-10 finishes in 2020) to Richard Petty Motorsports (six top 10s in 2021.) I view that change as a net positive.

At the end of last season, I presented the tentative hypothesis that older drivers had a harder time adapting to the Next Gen car. Less practice time mitigated their experience dialing in a car so that it was to their liking given specific track conditions.

But something else leaps out from this analysis.

Is the playing field tilting again?

Michael McDowell is not Harvick-level old, but he will turn 39 this year. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 35. Both have improved with the Next Gen Car. Chase Elliott (27 years old) and William Byron (25) aren’t old, either, but their top-10 rates have gone down.

Drivers running for the best-funded teams earned fewer top-10 finishes while drivers from less-funded teams (mostly) gained those finishes.

Trackhouse Racing and 23XI — two of the newest teams — account for much of the gains in top-10 finishes. Ross Chastain isn’t listed in the table because he didn’t have full-time Cup Series rides in 2020 or 2021. His 9.1% top-10 rate in that period is with lower-level equipment. He earned 27 top-10 finishes in the first 50 races (54%) with the Next Gen car.

This analysis suggests that age isn’t the only relevant variable. One interpretation of the data thus far is that the Next Gen (and its associated rules changes) eliminated the advantage well-funded teams built up over years of racing the Gen-5 and Gen-6 cars.

The question now is whether that leveling effect is wearing off. Even though parts are the same, more money means being able to hire the best people and buying more expensive computers for engineering simulations.

Compare the first 14 races of 2022 to the first 14 of 2023.

  • Last year at this time, 23XI and Trackhouse Racing had each won two races. This year, they combine for one win.
  • It took Byron eight races to win his second race of the year in 2022. This year, he won the third and fourth races of the year. Plus, he’s already won his third race this year.
  • Aside from Stenhouse’s Daytona 500 win, this year’s surprise winners — Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney — are both from major teams.

We’re only 14 races into the 2023 season. There’s not enough data to determine the relative importance of age versus building a notebook for predicting success in the Next Gen car.

But this is perhaps the most important question. The Next Gen car leveled the playing field last year.

Will it stay level?