Analysis: Education, awareness hallmarks of elite NASCAR restarters


The first restart of NASCAR’s choose-rule era saw four of the first five cars in the running order select a launching point from Michigan International Speedway’s outside line, its statistically preferred groove. One of them — Kurt Busch — relinquished a fifth-place spot, traditionally the inside of the third row, for the eighth-place spot, the outside of the fourth row.

He promptly made his choice appear wise, gaining four spots — a positional net of +1 — while simultaneously justifying the existence of the choose rule, previously a feature of youth races on quarter-mile tracks, among others in short track racing. This invited others to attempt the same bid — Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Christopher Bell and Erik Jones would follow suit that day in dumping top-five spots for that magical eighth-place springboard.

Kurt Busch as the choose zone’s pied piper is fitting. Potentially the best restarter since the 2009 inception of the double-file format, he ranked first or second in position retention on non-preferred groove restarts in 2013-15, 2018 and 2020. His knack for scoring positions out of the non-preferred groove is a talent only he seems to carry from year to year, rules package to rules package. From 2013-16, he netted 27 positions from the lesser of the two grooves, while all other full-time drivers during that span registered net negatives. On a Lap 236 restart last season in Darlington’s Southern 500, he launched from the fifth row’s inside line — the non-preferred spot from which occupants saw a 12.5% success rate in defending position — and not only bucked the race’s pronounced statistical trend, but also gained one spot.

Busch is a mercurial soul, but thoughtful about his craft, studious of restarts. He watches videos of himself and his competitors so that he can plot his pounce on the fly.

“When you drive down into Turn 1, you have to have a plan already in place on those restarts and you have to anticipate what others are thinking and what they’re doing,” Busch told NBC Sports. “Sometimes you’re on four fresh tires and then sometimes there’s restarts where you just did fuel only or two tires. You have to absorb your car’s handling and be able to know what it’s going to give you when you land down in Turn 1.”

Watch Busch on successive restart attempts and you’ll notice he rarely does the same thing twice. His unpredictability is an asset, but it’s a spontaneity influenced by reflection. Depending on the drivers around him, their positioning and their habits — repetitious restarters tend to be poor restarters — he’ll flip the script. A defensive position might allow a chance at some offense, offensive spots might require defense and calm restarts may demand a touch of chaos.

“It’s like if you’re in football and you’re the quarterback,” Busch said. “Up at the line, changing the play call because he sees how the defense is lined up or he sees the cornerback not on top of his receiver as close as he had been.

“You find those small windows, those little openings, and that’s done off of tape review, it’s done off of experience. And it’s that feel of that next dimension that you have to apply to have a competitive edge over the next guy.”

Anyone who’s viewed Busch’s 2013 restart in Atlanta knows the depths of his capability. A clogged launch and some nifty maneuvering while working the gears created the setting for one of the most memorable restarts in NASCAR history:

He’s more than a GIF-maker, though. Each of his last two wins — Kentucky in 2019 and Las Vegas last year — required a late-race restart savvy, for which he was happy to oblige. He’s the current bar other non-preferred groove restarters are attempting to clear:

Defending a non-preferred groove position is a predominately fruitless endeavor. Occupants in that groove see an average disadvantage of 35 percentage points to their peers with preferred spots. Last year, Busch was one of two drivers to successfully defend position on more than 50% of his attempts from inside the top 14.

The other is Ryan Blaney, seemingly a natural. Since his Cup Series debut, he’s managed good restarting numbers, a rare attribute among drivers under 30 who score the bulk of their track position on long runs.

“If you can’t go forward on the restart, you better make sure that you’re at least staying where you’re at,” Blaney told NBC Sports. “You can’t just give up spots. That’s kind of the mentality I’ve always had. I’ve always tried to be good at timing restarts and runs.

“I think I’ve been doing it ever since late models, because those guys were so on it on restarts. If you weren’t paying attention, they took advantage of you. I was really young when I started in PASS (the Pro All-Stars Series, a late model series in the Southeast) and those guys had many years on them. I learned from an early age to be an aggressor on restarts, and I think it carried over to where I am now.”

Blaney’s elite restarting acumen is a foundational attribute made more valuable in the era of stage racing and competition cautions, guaranteeing at least three opportunities for a wholesale position shuffle. He views the vulnerable two-lap windows following each restart for what they are: Open invitations to seize track position.

“It’s one of the easiest places to pass people,” Blaney said. “One of the easiest is pit road, the other is restarts.”

Most drivers don’t experience the easy assimilation Blaney did. Matt DiBenedetto, for one, forced himself to study video over the last few years — his favorite subjects are Truex and Kevin Harvick — to make up for the lack of experience restarting next to stock car racing’s elites. For sure, it was a big chasm to close: He made just 15 restart attempts from inside the top 14 across 2017-18 while driving for GoFas Racing.

He’s now one of the best preferred groove restarters in the series, ranking third last year in position retention:

DiBenedetto credits knowledge accrued over time for his rapid improvement but cautions against sticking with the most pragmatic game plan.

“There’s a point where you can take in good information and use it to your advantage and be aware of certain things,” DiBenedetto told NBC Sports. “Like the basics of Michigan, you can try to drive down to the bottom but you better make sure you’re clear on exit, or if it’s Pocono, you know once you get off Turn 1, man, if you’re stuck on the bottom down the backstretch, the whole train on the outside is going to drive by you.

“That’s what’s helpful study material but you also don’t want to overanalyze certain things. You want to take those things into account but also be ready for different situations, like at the last second, there’s a hole up the middle. If I shoot there, I won’t have to let off the gas, you know, and I can keep my momentum and kind of hope that it works out.”

DiBenedetto’s education as a restarter was on display last year in Darlington, when he correctly assessed the low probability for positional gain and quickly retreated to safe mode. That his move mirrored that of Harvick, one of his admitted muses, was a fun coincidence:

His 43.21% retention rate from the non-preferred groove ranked eighth in the series last season, a sure sign of a well-rounded restarter.

“It’s a really, really tough balance,” he said. “You have to be so aggressive, but you also can’t be wadding your stuff up.”

The differences in retention rates from one driver to the next are slim, separated anecdotally by situational awareness. Drivers are consistently searching for better intel, leading to bigger gains. To wit, the best all-around restarter last year, Truex, made a spotter change specifically to improve his positional gain on 550-hp tracks. Seemingly, it’s a move akin to Stephen Curry changing shooting coaches, desiring to enhance an already accurate 3-point field goal percentage. But any improvement for Truex could assist in better finishes, if not more wins. His +0.64 positional net per preferred groove attempt was low given how other top position defenders performed last year. It’s an area for improvement that’s realistic and firmly within his control.

Control is the prevailing theme among the good restarters. Calculation amid perceived chaos is what’s winning them spots, the result of their experiences and individual efforts to improve.

There’s far more thought put to these hectic moments than meets the eye and it’s what is separating the great restarters from the rest of the herd.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway


After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

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

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 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

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

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





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

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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


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

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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.”