Analysis: Miami sensitive to strategy, speed and style

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What matters in today’s race? Let’s dive into the analytics, trends and strategy that will shape the Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox):

A strategy sensitive track for those near the front

Chris Gabehart, though triumphant in his team’s victory, kicked himself.

Denny Hamlin scored the 2020 win at Homestead, thanks in part to the timing of Gabehart’s call to stop during the final green-flag run. But the crew chief felt he flew a bit too close to the sun, singeing wings by pitting a lap later than second-place Chase Elliott. On a tire-sensitive surface, Elliott overcame the on-track delta to Hamlin and leapfrogged him in the running order after one clean lap on fresh rubber.

Fortunately, Gabehart mitigated the loss of control by pitting immediately, the textbook fallback plan. Hamlin received four tires himself, cycled out close to Elliott and made the go-ahead pass with 30 laps remaining.

“Yeah, in hindsight, I certainly wished I (had) set the tone,” Gabehart said. “I had made up my mind that I was going to try to react to (Elliott) because I thought I could get Denny on pit road the same lap. I just couldn’t. As quickly as I reacted, it turns out 180 miles an hour is faster than I can listen, push a button and talk. Alan (Gustafson, Elliott’s crew chief) did a really good job. I missed it by a second.

“Had I been able to get on the button a second sooner, we could have been down (pit road). It cost us a little bit of time. Luckily, our car was good enough and Denny was good enough on the long run that we had everything we needed.”

The heartburn over one lap is a testament to the Homestead track, itself a near-perfect oval accentuating speed, strategy and driving technique while throwing in enough lap-time falloff on worn tires to create wiggle room and panic. Hamlin, for one, recognized the speed of Elliott’s car and understood what a deficit created by a mistimed green-flag stop meant.

“It seems like the end of these races are Chase’s best suit,” Hamlin said. “He was able to short pit us there. I wasn’t able to come to pit road, I kind of missed pit road there and he was able to get us on that cycle. I just knew if I ran the pace I knew I needed to save the tires that I was going to be good in the long run.”

Gabehart’s immediate response to Elliott’s stop probably saved the race for Hamlin. Had he pitted a lap or two later, Elliott would’ve distanced himself more in clean air and Hamlin’s winning pass may not have occurred.

This situation perfectly encapsulates the plight of crew chiefs when pitting under green from the front of the field.

Across the entirety of the field, NASCAR Cup Series teams retained their positioning last year on green-flag pit cycles 64.2% of the time. That rate shrunk to 40.4% among teams relinquishing top-five spots. Gabehart was one of the best strategists in the series for defending his driver’s front-running whereabouts, successfully retaining Hamlin’s top-five positioning on 57.9% of qualified pit cycles:

It stands to reason that defending lead positions is a delicate dance; after all, these are the positions most coveted in the running order. But crew chiefs for typical frontrunners tend to skew conservative on stops, both in the timing of the stop and the kind of stop — four tires, two tires or fuel only — despite track characteristics that may force one mathematically obvious answer. At Homestead, tire wear is a massive hindrance to handling, so much so that short-pitting and ripping of clean lap times on fresh rubber provides a quantifiable advantage. To long-pit on a track like Homestead is to gamble for a caution, but is also a risk made worse with every passing lap, when the competition is beginning its run on fresh tires.

Unless some crew chiefs change their habits — and that’s entirely possible — the ones who routinely work green-flag pit cycles to their advantage should fare well. Those on the opposite end of the spreadsheet may prove themselves as liabilities for their respective teams.

The need for speed … and style

Hamlin’s unorthodox driving style and the rim-riding styles of others have been popular subjects this week. It’s with good reason: Homestead is a rare 1.5-mile track where throttle mastery matters in the corners.

In reviewing throttle traces from last year’s race, the fastest drivers experienced a minimum throttle threshold of 40-50% and given the magnitude of how tires wear — leading to a lap-time falloff of around two seconds in some cases — some of them found themselves completely off of the throttle toward the end of runs.

Driving style and speed create a powerful blend. Hamlin had the fastest car in last year’s Homestead race, but his style — he rolls deeper into the corners with more throttle and no brake pressure, relative to others — allowed Gabehart some flexibility in setup, a luxury other crew chiefs didn’t have, including his stable mates at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Yeah, it definitely is different,” Gabehart admitted. “He’s able to get speed out of a car in ways that his data traces may not suggest he’s getting speed out of it, specifically at these style tracks.”

The driver informs the speed of the car, but the car’s foundational setup is equally important. To wit, rookie Tyler Reddick was a standout at Homestead in 2020 utilizing a high line taught to him by Kyle Larson. But Reddick’s Richard Childress Racing car also ranked as the second fastest in the race per timing and scoring data. Reddick helped make a fast machine faster, sure, but the car pulled its share of the weight, an inarguable need for this specific track.

Despite the random nature of results last season on 1.5-mile tracksBrad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Austin Dillon won at Charlotte, Las Vegas and Texas, respectively, with cars ranked 10th, 13th and 15th in speed for those individual races — Homestead’s event saw a correlation coefficient of +0.9, nearly perfect, between speed ranking and finishing position. Indeed, speed always matters, but its relevance towards the finish was pronounced compared to other facilities utilizing the 550-hp package.

The impact of the choose zone

The choose zone awakens from a three-month slumber today to help influence Homestead’s restarts, though its impact is up in the air, doubted this week by Hamlin.

“It will mean a little less at Homestead, but that being said, it will still be significant,” he said. “It’s a great addition to the strategic part of making decisions on what you are going to do in these races. I like that element. It’s fun, but it will be important on the last restart if we have a green-white-checkered, but outside of five laps to go it won’t be too much of a detriment either way.”

Driving him to this opinion is an atypical restart dynamic: Homestead’s inside groove was statistically stronger in last year’s race, but the preference flipped to the outside, beginning with the third row. The outside of the third row, traditionally the sixth-place position, successfully retained position 90.9% of the time across the last two Homestead races. Its occupants average a running position of 5.09 after two laps, better than the average for those in the fifth-place spot (5.36):

The fourth row saw the biggest gap between its occupants: Those in the inside (seventh place) retained position on just 18.2% of attempts, while those originating from the outside (eighth place) retained 81.8% of the time, averaging a running position (7.18) over 1.25 positions better than their counterparts (8.45).

Homestead’s restart dynamic may indeed offer enough flexibility as to accentuate the skill of NASCAR’s top restarters, but the choices offered to competitors aren’t entirely obvious. A wrong choice could result in a statistical disadvantage, certainly hindering an ensuing green-flag run.

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.