Analysis: Chase Elliott is a road course riddle in need of solving

0 Comments

What matters in today’s race? Let’s dive into the analytics, trends and strategy that will shape the O’Reilly 253 on the Daytona International Speedway road course (3 p.m. ET on Fox):

Chasing Chase: The competition is trying to solve a complex road course riddle

By Joey Logano’s estimation, there’s no way Chase Elliott, on older tires, should’ve been close enough to Ryan Blaney to make contact. The accident between friends in last week’s Busch Clash forced the Team Penske driver to assess the situation.

“If you look at (Elliott), he was probably the best car or close to the best car again,” Logano said following the exhibition race. “All on the long haul, right? (Blaney) had new tires, ran him down, passed him and at the rate he caught him, even if Blaney was making mistakes, he should’ve drove away. And that’s where (Elliott) is better right now. He just does not fall off.

“His tires are hanging on longer than everybody’s. No one is even close to what he has after 10 laps, so I think that’s why you see him stay close.”

Logano’s hypothesis appears true. Omitting their calamitous final lap, Blaney and Elliott made 22 green-flag laps around Daytona’s infield circuit. Blaney secured seven laps faster than 1:58, three of them faster than any produced by Elliott. Despite just four sub-1:58 laps, Elliott’s green-flag average (2:00.341) was a mere 0.15 seconds slower than Blaney’s (2:00.177), giving credence to the series champion’s ability to hang around as a result of minimal deviation.

“It was definitely surprising he could stay right there, because I was eating him up in braking zones and beat him really hard on the drive off,” Blaney said.

Elliott’s excellence on road courses — he’s won four consecutive point-paying wins dating back to 2019 — isn’t always obvious. He submitted Blaney to a death by a thousand cuts in the Clash, killing with consistency with efficient braking on a night when brakes were toasted throughout the field, a product of the first low-downforce NASCAR race on Daytona’s road course. His delicate use of brakes is a relief on his tires, allowing him more grip than his surrounding competition late in runs.

His road course telemetry has been heavily scrutinized, though what exactly he’s doing different has yet to be pinpointed. Travis Geisler, Penske’s Director of Competition, deemed him “the braking zone master” late last year. Blaney, following the Clash, acknowledged his clear disadvantage to Elliott.

“He was driving in super deep and making it stick and then driving off with me,” Blaney said. “And I was pretty shocked, but I wasn’t really thinking about that. I was trying to do the best I could … not mess up or try to hit my line, which, you know, I didn’t.

“I think we need to improve our late-run speed. Our cars need to hang on a little bit better.”

His competition understands what he’s doing better, but until they discover the how, Elliott’s a road course riddle still in need of solving.

Speed will inform stage strategy

The relationship between speed and results in the 2020 Daytona road course race was meaningful. Finish and rankings for Central Speed — a compilation of speed-per-quarter averages while omitting crash damage and other aberrations — saw a correlation coefficient of +0.74, generally considered a strong correlation. This not only suggests a need for a fast car, but also a high Mendoza Line between those with realistic winning speed and those who might choose to gather obvious stage points in lieu of a better traditional finish.

In NASCAR road course races, where stage points are awarded prior to planned breaks, strategic philosophies are split. Teams realistic about the speed at their disposal can make easy choices out of seemingly difficult decisions. Case in point: William Byron earned a front-row starting spot and led early in Sonoma’s 2019 race, but he didn’t have equal speed relative to other frontrunners in clean air and ranked 10th in Central Speed per timing and scoring data.

Then-crew chief Chad Knaus turned the day into a point-padding opportunity, securing a stage victory en route to a 36-point bounty, the fifth-most points collected among all teams despite their 19th-place finish.

Knaus’ degree of self-awareness and steadfast loyalty to low-hanging points isn’t universal among other crew chiefs. The best and most decorated road course strategists last year emerged from those existing on the playoff fringes, without elite speed:

Of the more interesting crew chief performances across the two road course events of 2020, Greg Erwin created 26 positions through green-flag pit cycles — categorized as GFPC +/- on the above table — on behalf of Matt DiBenedetto, a big reason why the 20th-fastest road course car secured the 10th-most points. To a lesser degree, the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 team, last year consisting of Erik Jones and crew chief Chris Gayle, earned stage points in two of four opportunities while tapping into Jones’ passing ability to help the 12th-fastest car earn the sixth-most points.

For teams with second-tier speed, road course races like the one we’ll see this afternoon present opportunities for points that may not exist on ovals.

A new niche for Chip Ganassi Racing?

Not since the days of Juan Pablo Montoya has Chip Ganassi Racing been considered a NASCAR road racing threat, but its driving duo of Ross Chastain and Kurt Busch may prove formidable in a year heavy on road course events.

Chastain (+69) and Busch (+59) ranked third and fourth across the last two Cup Series seasons, respectively, in surplus adjusted pass differential in road course races, while Busch (75.00%) ranked sixth in position retention rate on restarts in 2020. The 2004 series champion secured a third-place finish in last fall’s race on the Charlotte Roval.

Chastain, new to CGR this season, piloted a back-marker car against similar competition in his three 2019 starts, which resulted in finishes of 33rd at Sonoma, 27th at Watkins Glen and 22nd on the Roval — races in which his car ranked 36th, 30th and 30th in Central Speed. If he overachieves in similar fashion against stiffer surrounding competition on road courses this year, it could create breathing room in a months-long playoff battle made tighter by Michael McDowell’s claimed spot, courtesy of his Daytona 500 victory.

CGR made inroads in road racing events over the last handful of years with former driver Kyle Larson, who collected three of his eight career poles at Sonoma Raceway. It would appear, if only for one lap, that CGR is capable of producing a fast road course car and, on paper, has drivers who routinely create track position.

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

0 Comments

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

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

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

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

2 Comments

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

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

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

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

0 Comments

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

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

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

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

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

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

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

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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