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

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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.