Friday 5: In a moment of confusion, a chance for clarity


Noah Gragson tried to detail his gut-wrenching loss last weekend at Texas, but the words came out in uneven bursts. Pain filled the pauses. Faraway glances searched for a different ending.

In position to win and secure a spot in the Xfinity championship round at Phoenix, Gragson saw it all disappear when Harrison Burton passed him on the final corner of the final lap to take the victory.

Gragson’s NBCSN interview afterward was a combination of a driver’s default setting to thank their sponsors and a driver trying to comprehend what just happened with an accidental expletive slipping out. Justin Allgaier, who had been eliminated by a crash, saw the interview and knew he needed to reach out to his JR Motorsports teammate.

But what would he say?

And would Gragson listen?

While their relationship has improved, there have been times when it has been complicated by actions on the track. They made contact in the final laps at Bristol in June while racing for the lead. Allgaier crashed. Gragson won. Allgaier later said they would remain friends but “it might take a while to get back on good terms.”

As Allgaier searched for Gragson at Texas last weekend, he pondered how to approach his teammate after such a loss. When Allgaier found Gragson alone near the garage, Allgaier stood in front of Gragson, put his hand on Gragson’s shoulder and asked how he was doing.

“I said, ‘Listen, you’re going to lose a lot more races than you’re ever going to win,’ ’’ Allgaier told NBC Sports of the extended conversation he had with Gragson. “If the scenario was different and Harrison passed you with five to go or 10 to go, would you have been as upset as you are right now? All it takes is circumstances to have something happen like what did. I said the difference for you is going to be today is today and you’ve still got an opportunity to go to Martinsville and have a good day and obviously still make the playoffs.’

“He’s got to win to to be in, but he’s got a shot to going and making the (title race). I said I wished in the moment that I had had somebody have a conversation with me because I’ve let stuff like that kind of fester and not be able to necessarily get over it.

“I think that was the biggest reason I wanted to catch him before he really had a chance to go talk to anybody else.”

Justin Allgaier and Noah Gragson talk after Gragson was passed for the win by Harrison Burton on the last corner of the last lap in the Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway. (Photo: JR Motorsports)

While Allgaier’s actions are noble, NASCAR is unique in that teammates compete against each other. Allgaier and Gragson both will race Saturday at Martinsville (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC) for the three remaining spots in the championship race. It is possible that one’s finish could keep the other out of the title race.

So, why didn’t Allgaier just have a short conversation and let Gragson figure it out for himself? If it affects him for the next race, then so be it. They’re competing for the chance to race for a championship.

“This sport has always been and will always be about people,” Allgaier said. “Whether it’s a teammate or not even a teammate. I’ve had other competitors that I’ve helped in the last two or three years that have turned around and beat me with some of the information I’ve told them. Chase Briscoe is a great example of that.

“Chase and I have had a lot of conversations. I remember a conversation we had at Indy two years ago … and he’s taken some of the stuff I’ve told him and he’s beat me with it. You know what? I’m OK with that.

“I’ve had people help me in my career. When it’s all said and done, you can help somebody with something. That doesn’t mean that they can always go out and beat you with it. … I think from my standpoint it’s always about people. Whether Noah was a teammate or not, (he was) somebody who was in that moment and you could see the physical pain that they’re going through. To me, it’s a no-brainer to go help them. That’s just who I was raised to be and who I am. I don’t plan on changing that anytime in the near future.”

The conversation continued between Allgaier and Gragson after they walked away at Texas. They texted back and forth.

“Man, I’ll be honest with you,” Allgaier said he wrote in a text to Gragson. “I struggled to come up and say something. … I didn’t want it to come off as me gloating over top of you or telling you that you were wrong. I was truly genuine in what I said.’

“That goes even further to our challenges that Noah and I have had in our teammate career. I think that a lot of what caused our challenges amongst the two of us was I don’t think he necessarily always understood where I was coming from. I think there was always this question of like ‘Is he trying to help me or is he not trying to help me?’ I think there were some people in Noah’s life that were probably telling him he needed to go, he’s talked about it, about being selfish, and go and do his own thing.

“That’s fine. If that’s what works for him, that’s awesome. Go do it. But I also wanted him to see the other side of it, too. You can have teammates, and you can be a team player and still go out and run good and have wins and do all those things that you need to go do. … At the end of the day, they always say, treat people like you want to be treated. That’s kind of how I’ve been.”

Allgaier also hopes that Gragson can someday help a teammate or another competitor after a devastating finish.

“I told him, I said, ‘Listen this may not help you for (this) weekend at Martinsville,” Allgaier said. “It may not help you for Phoenix. It may not help you for the next five years.’ But he’s plenty talented enough and he knows he’s talented enough that at some point in his life … there’s going to be something that came out of this past weekend that’s going to help him get through something else that happens to him somehow in his racing career.

“I hope that when it does, that conversation creeps back into his memory. On the other side of that, I hope he takes the information I gave him and he can impart that on to somebody else.”

2. Staying power

Kyle Busch’s struggles this season have raised the question of if changes could be made to the No. 18 team after this season.

Just like any sport when a team underperforms, the coach — or the crew chief in this case — is among those looked at first.

Sunday’s win, though, showed what Busch, crew chief Adam Stevens and the No. 18 team can do. So the question becomes do changes still need to be made?

Stevens and Busch are among the top duos in the sport. They’ve won 14.2% of their races together since they partnered in Cup in 2015. That’s the same winning percentage for crew chief Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick, who have been together since 2014 but have one less championship than Busch and Stevens.

Asked about his future after the Texas win, Stevens said he hadn’t had such conversations with Joe Gibbs Racing, but he knew one thing.

“I know that I have a home at Joe Gibbs Racing and that’s most important, but this is a performance business, and we need a lot more nights like (Wednesday), a lot more like what we’re used to having,” Stevens said. “We’ll have those conversations here shortly I’m sure.”

Busch was asked that with some questioning him and Stevens what did the Texas win mean.

“That we can do it under any situation,” Busch said. “We can do it under pressure situations of racing for a championship and winning the final races at Homestead and bringing home two championships there, we can do it in the Coke 600, we can do it here when we’re knocked out of the playoffs and people would say that we’ve got nothing to race for, but we come out here and we’re able to win.

“There’s all kinds of different circumstances and different opportunities for us, and I’d like to think that we can be successful for a long time.”

3. New experience

Saturday’s Xfinity race at Martinsville — which will determine the final three drivers in the title race — is the first time the series has raced there since 2006. It is only the second time there in the last 25 years for the series.

“I would say that Martinsville is the biggest wildcard,” Justin Haley said of the playoff tracks for the series.

Said Ross Chastain: “I love that place. I’d race a wheelbarrow around there if it had a motor on it.”

Even with simulators and iRacing giving drivers a sense of what it will be like to run that track with the Xfinity car, there will still be plenty of learning during the race.

““Everyone is gonna be learning what’s possible and what’s not,” Austin Cindric said. “Obviously, the durable nature of an Xfinity car I think is gonna give a lot of people some second chances in that race, so unless you hit really hard, you’re not out. 

“I think there’s gonna be plenty of playoff drivers that are gonna have to never give up all race with how aggressive the style of racing is at Martinsville as of late in the Xfinity Series.”

Chase Briscoe is the only playoff driver who has qualified for the championship round at Phoenix.

Cindric, Justin Allgaier and Haley are in the remaining three transfer spots heading into the race. Cindric is 14 points above the cutline. Allgaier is eight points above the cutline. Haley is four points above the cutline.

Those who are below the cutline are Brandon Jones (-4 points), Chastain (-15), Noah Gragson (-24) and Ryan Sieg (-43).

4. One last chance

Sunday’s Cup race is the final chance for Chevrolet to snap its championship race drought.

The manufacturer has not had a car in the Cup title race since Jimmie Johnson won his seventh and final crown in 2016.

Chevrolet has three cars left in the playoffs but all are outside a transfer spot. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott are each 25 points behind Brad Keselowski for the final transfer spot. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch is last among the eight remaining playoff drivers. He’s 81 points out of the last transfer spot and can only advance by winning.

On being down 25 points, Bowman said: “I view it like we should have run better all year and accumulated more playoff points. We run third and fifth the last two weeks and only lost points or stayed about the same. It comes down to we needed more playoff points throughout the year. … Martinsville has been very hit or miss for me. I feel like we need to go there and win.”

That’s the same approach for Elliott.

“For us, we need to go win,” he said. “That’s really the bottom line. I am not even going to look at points because, in my opinion, it really just doesn’t matter. If you can’t win races and win them consistently in the series you aren’t going to win a championship, anyway. We need to go there with the mindset of trying to win.”

5. Playoff comebacks

Only twice in the six previous years of the playoff format has a Cup driver outside a transfer spot entering the penultimate race of the season advanced.

Kevin Harvick entered the final race of the Round of 8 last among the playoff drivers in 2014. He won at Phoenix to advance and then won the championship the following week.

Last year, Denny Hamlin entered the final race of the Round of 8 fifth in the standings. He was 20 points out of a transfer spot. Hamlin won at Phoenix to make it to the title race. He finished fourth in the season standings.

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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?

NASCAR weekend schedule at World Wide Technology Raceway, Portland


NASCAR’s top three series are racing this weekend in two different locations. Cup and Craftsman Truck teams will compete at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, and the Xfinity Series will compete at Portland International Raceway.

World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (Cup and Trucks)

Weekend weather

Friday: Partly cloudy with a high of 87 degrees during Truck qualifying.

Saturday: Sunny. Temperatures will be around 80 degrees for the start of Cup practice and climb to 88 degrees by the end of Cup qualifying. Forecast calls for sunny skies and a high of 93 degrees around the start of the Truck race.

Sunday: Mostly sunny with a high of 92 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the Cup race.

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)

Saturday, June 3

Garage open

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

Track activity

  • 10 – 10:45 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 10:45 a.m. – 12 p.m. — Cup qualifying  (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 1:30 p.m. — Truck race (160 laps, 200 miles; FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, June 4

Garage open

  • 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (240 laps, 300 miles; FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)


Portland International Raceway (Xfinity Series)

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly sunny with a high of 77 degrees.

Saturday: Mostly sunny with a high of 73 degrees and no chance of rain around the start of the Xfinity race.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 6-11 p.m. Xfinity Series

Saturday, June 3

Garage open

  • 10 a.m.  — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 11:30 a.m. – 12 p.m. — Xfinity practice (No TV)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 4:30 p.m. — Xfinity race (75 laps, 147.75 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR Cup playoff standings after Coca-Cola 600


The severe penalty to Chase Briscoe and his Stewart-Haas Racing team Wednesday for a counterfeit part dropped Briscoe from 17th to 31st in the season standings. Briscoe now must win a race to have a chance at the playoffs.

The penalty came a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for his retaliation in wrecking Denny Hamlin in Monday’s Coca-Cola 600. Elliott is 28th in the points. The 2020 Cup champion also needs to win to have a chance to make the playoffs.

Ten drivers have won races, including Coca-Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney. That leaves six playoff spots to be determined by points at this time. With 12 races left in the regular season, including unpredictable superspeedway races at Atlanta (July 9) and Daytona (Aug. 26), the playoff standings will change during the summer.

Among those without a win this season are points leader Ross Chastain and former champions Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Elliott.

Here’s a look at the Cup playoff standings heading into Sunday’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois. Drivers in yellow have won a race and are in a playoff position. Those below the red line after 16th place are outside a playoff spot in the graphic below.

NASCAR issues major penalties to Chase Briscoe team for Charlotte infraction


NASCAR fined crew chief John Klausmeier $250,000 and suspended him six races, along with penalizing Chase Briscoe and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team 120 points and 25 playoff points each for a counterfeit part on the car.

The issue was a counterfeit engine NACA duct, said Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition. That is a single-source part.

MORE: Updated Cup playoff standings

The team stated that it accepts the L3 penalty.

“We had a quality control lapse and a part that never should’ve been on a car going to the racetrack ended up on the No. 14 car at Charlotte,” said Greg Zipadelli in a statement from the team. “We accept NASCAR’s decision and will not appeal.”

Asked how then piece could have aided performance, Sawyer said Wednesday: “Knowing the race team mentality, they don’t do things that would not be a benefit to them in some way, shape or form from a performance advantage.”

The penalty drops Briscoe from 17th in the season standings to 31st in the standings. Briscoe goes from having 292 points to having 172 points. He’ll have to win to make the playoffs. Briscoe has no playoff points at this time, so the penalty puts him at -25 playoff points should he make it.

Briscoe’s car was one of two taken to the R&D Center after Monday’s Coca-Cola 600 for additional tear down by series officials.

The penalty comes a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in last weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.