What matters in Las Vegas: Tires offer pit-window flexibility

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What matters in today’s Cup race? Let’s dive into the analytics, trends and strategy that will shape the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox):

Tires matter, even when they don’t

Last weekend’s race in Homestead spoiled us, offering tires with lap-time falloff as much as three seconds. Contenders like Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson saw some of the biggest deviations, which impacted the long-run handling conditions of their cars. But what we witnessed was on the extreme end of tire wear possibility in NASCAR races on 1.5-mile tracks.

Whereas last year’s regular-season race in Texas represented Homestead’s polar opposite with practically no falloff and a surprise winner in Austin Dillon who eschewed new tires late in the event, a race like today’s sits firmly in the middle of the two extremes. Last fall’s playoff race in Las Vegas saw 1-1.5 seconds worth of falloff on worn tires, making all strategies — short-pit, conservative-pit and long-pit — workable, though not entirely equal.

Certainly, it’d behoove teams to short-pit the fuel window to take advantage of fresh rubber and fast laps sooner than surrounding competition. But Kurt Busch scored the win with the 13th-fastest car in last year’s Las Vegas playoff race, the result of a long-pit bet on a caution flag. Chris Buescher similarly finished ninth with the 23rd-fastest car. The long-pit isn’t the strategy with the best odds, but it offers legitimate opportunity since cars on fresh tires can’t cut into the on-track delta as effectively as they could at Homestead. Don’t consider it an outright safety net, but it’s something which didn’t exist last weekend.

That’s music to the ears of an unorthodox strategist like Travis Mack, who long-pitted Daniel Suárez twice in the Homestead race. Mack cost his driver four spots in bets for a timely caution flag to lock in track position. Effectively, these were bad calls, but they weren’t without logic. If Suárez and his Trackhouse Racing team were to win Homestead — the third race in the team’s existence — it’d likely be the result of a race breaking in an unforeseen way. In order for any team to take advantage of a fluke conclusion, they’d most likely need to be on a strategy counter to the field. Mack kept his strategy weird in order to put his team in this specific position.

Such maneuvering didn’t work in Homestead and likely never would have, but in Las Vegas, where lap-time falloff is less severe and more flexible, a strategy like Mack’s has more of a fighting chance.

The tire’s impact on setup, track position

If you noticed a difference in the racing on 550-horsepower tracks between 2019 and early 2020, you have a keen eye. Goodyear’s tire compounds on these facilities changed between the two seasons and again in the second half of last year. This was a point of contention among drivers and teams who didn’t have significant practice time on the tires in early 2020 — hence, the lack of parity among frontrunners — and felt more comfortable with the tire combinations featured last fall in Las Vegas, Kansas and Texas.

“Tires make a big difference. They dramatically change the way cars drive,” Keselowski said during a 2020 media availability. “The tire we ran (in 2019) seemed like it was more about how you get through traffic. The tire we ran (in early 2020) seemed more about how the car handles and getting that balance right. Now, we’re back to pretty much the same tire we had (in 2019).”

This begs the question: If this tire combination forces teams to steer their setups for getting through traffic, does it mean 550-horsepower tracks are finally rewarding the best passers? Not necessarily. The two Las Vegas races last season saw no meaningful shift in correlation coefficient, measuring the strength of the relationship, between surplus passing ranking and finishing position from the February race (+0.1) to the September race (+0.2).

It seems track position remains an elusive commodity.

Restarts are the most realistic opportunity for track position

If we’re to see any driver singlehandedly create track position today, it’ll most likely be the result of a restart.

The two-lap window following restarts served as Homestead’s hive for activity, influencing positioning for the eventual winner — William Byron moved from sixth to second on lap 208 — and third-place finisher — Martin Truex Jr. navigated from 17th to fifth on fresh tires at the onset of the final stage.

Both drivers rank among the most efficient position defenders on restarts through three races this season:

The restart dynamic should look similar in Las Vegas. Like Homestead, the location of the statistically preferred groove shifted from the inside line to the outside line past the first row. It’ll lead to choose-zone decisions based largely on driver comfort:

Top single-attempt gains in last fall’s race in Las Vegas came from Truex (+8, from 12th to fourth, on lap 267), Hamlin (+6, from 13th to seventh, on lap 256) and Kyle Busch (+5, from 11th to 6th, on lap 267). In the February 2020 race, Harvick secured 11 spots across seven attempts.

The late pit call is not a Catch-22

Facing an overtime restart on old tires, Todd Gordon relinquished Ryan Blaney’s lead in the spring Las Vegas race last year thinking new tires would assist in reclaiming the lead and securing the eventual win. It proved fruitless; Blaney restarted 12th and finished 11th.

“I wish I had that one back,” Gordon told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio the following Monday. “I wish we had left him out there and let him defend.

“I think in the situation, I was waffling. When (the caution) first came out, I thought we would stay (out). The more we talked about it, the more we scanned people, I let the information we gathered from that point forward skew me to pit and looking at it, and you think about this racetrack and where we were and you’ve got less than a second of falloff.”

The tire combination is different this year, but the spirit remains the same: Relinquishing leads typically never works, making the choice to stay out, grab clean air — an equalizer against competition with fresher tires — and defend the lead the statistically superior choice.

A study last year of 333 clean restarts from 2019-20, indicated the lead car successfully retained its restart position 75.08% of the time. Of the outliers, 36 instances contained obvious, explainable errors, such as the lead car choosing the statistically non-preferred groove. The remaining 47 attempts saw mixed results with different variables, including poorly executed restarts by the leaders after pitting.

The kind of dilemma which anguished Gordon has long been referred to as the crew chief’s Catch-22, but it’s a flawed logic. Ceding the lead late in a race on a track like Las Vegas, especially with an efficient restarter behind the wheel, is a decision with little to no upside.

NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

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NASCAR’s preseason non-points race, now known as the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, was born in 1979 with the idea of testing the sport’s fastest drivers and cars on one of racing’s fastest tracks — Daytona International Speedway.

The concept was driver vs. driver and car vs. car. No pit stops. Twenty laps (50 miles) on the Daytona oval, with speed and drafting skills the only factors in victory.

Originally, the field was made up of pole winners from the previous Cup season. In theory, this put the “fastest” drivers in the Clash field, and it also served as incentive for teams to approach qualifying with a bit more intensity. A spot in the Clash the next season meant extra dollars in the bank.

The race has evolved in crazy directions over the years, and no more so than last year when it was moved from its forever headquarters, the Daytona track, to a purpose-built short track inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

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Over the decades, virtually everything about the race changed in one way or another, including the race length, eligibility requirements, format, calendar dates, sponsorship and title. From 1979-2020, the race was held on Daytona’s 2.5-mile oval and served as a sort of preview piece for the Daytona 500, scheduled a week later. In 2021, it moved to Daytona’s road course before departing for the West Coast last season.

Here’s a look at 10 historic moments in the history of the Clash:

NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 2022 — Few races have been as anticipated as last year’s Clash at the Coliseum. After decades in Daytona Beach, NASCAR flipped the script in a big way and with a big gamble, putting its top drivers and cars on a tiny temporary track inside a football stadium. Joey Logano won, but that was almost a secondary fact. The race was a roaring success, opening the door for NASCAR to ponder similar projects.

2. 2008 — How would Dale Earnhardt Jr. handle his move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports? The answer came quickly — in his first race. Junior led 46 of the 70 laps in winning what then was called the Budweiser Shootout, his debut for Hendrick. The biggest action occurred prior to the race in practice as Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch tangled on — and off — the track. Both were called to the NASCAR trailer, where the incident reportedly accelerated. Both received six-race probations.

3. 2012 — One of the closest finishes in the history of the Clash occurred in a race that produced a rarity — Jeff Gordon’s car on its roof. Kyle Busch and Gordon made contact in Turn 4 on lap 74, sending Gordon into the wall, into a long slide and onto his roof. A caution sent the 80-lap race into overtime. Tony Stewart had the lead on the final lap, but Kyle Busch passed him as they roared down the trioval, winning the race by .013 of a second.

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4. 1984 — A race that stands out in Ricky Rudd’s career, and not in a fun way. Neil Bonnett won the sixth Clash, but the video highlights from the day center on Rudd’s 15th-lap crash. He lost control of his car in Turn 4 and turned sideways. As Rudd’s car left the track, it lifted off the surface and began a series of flips before landing on its wheels, very badly damaged. Safety crews removed Rudd from the car. He suffered a concussion, and his eyes were swollen such that he had to have them taped open so he could race a few days later in a Daytona 500 qualifier.

5. 1980 — The second Clash was won by Dale Earnhardt, one of Daytona International Speedway’s masters. This time he won in unusual circumstances. An Automobile Racing Club of America race often shared the race day with the Clash, and that was the case in 1980. The ARCA race start was delayed by weather, however, putting NASCAR and track officials in a difficult spot with the featured Clash also on the schedule and daylight running out. Officials made the unusual decision of stopping the ARCA race to allow the Clash to run on national television. After Earnhardt collected the Clash trophy, the ARCA race concluded.

6. 1994 — Twenty-two-year-old Jeff Gordon gave a hint of what was to come in his career by winning the 1994 Clash. Gordon would score his first Cup point win later that year in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, but he also dazzled in the Clash, making a slick three-wide move off Turn 2 with two laps to go to get by Dale Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan. He held on to win the race.

7. 2006 — Upstart newcomer Denny Hamlin became the first rookie to win the Clash. Tony Stewart, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, had the lead with four laps to go, but a caution stacked the field and sent the race into overtime. Hamlin fired past Stewart, who had issues at Daytona throughout his career, on the restart and won the race.

8. 2004 — This one became the duel of the Dales. Dale Jarrett passed Dale Earnhardt on the final lap to win by .157 of a second. It was the only lap Jarrett led in the two-segment, 70-lap race.

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9. 1979 — The first Clash, designed by Anheuser-Busch to promote its Busch beer brand, drew a lot of attention because of its short length (20 laps) and its big payout ($50,000 to the winner). That paycheck looks small compared to the present, but it was a huge sum in 1979 and made the Clash one of the richest per-mile races in the world. Although the Clash field would be expanded in numerous ways over the years, the first race was limited to Cup pole winners from the previous season. Only nine drivers competed. Buddy Baker, almost always fast at Daytona, led 18 of the 20 laps and won by about a car length over Darrell Waltrip. The race took only 15 minutes.

10. 2020 — This seemed to be the Clash that nobody would win. Several huge accidents in the closing miles decimated the field. On the final restart, only six cars were in contention for the victory. Erik Jones, whose car had major front-end damage from his involvement in one of the accidents, won the race with help from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, who was one lap down in another damaged car but drafted behind Jones to push him to the win.

 

 

 

SunnyD to sponsor Kevin Harvick in two races, Riley Herbst in Daytona 500

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Kevin Harvick has picked up a sponsor for the new season, and Riley Herbst has picked up a ride in the Daytona 500.

Stewart-Haas Racing announced Tuesday that orange drink SunnyD will be the primary sponsor for Harvick’s No. 4 Ford at Darlington Raceway (May 14) and Kansas Speedway (Sept. 10).

SunnyD also will be the sponsor for Herbst as he joins the entry list for the Daytona 500 in the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing car. The orange drink also will be an associate sponsor for Herbst in the No. 98 Xfinity car fielded by Stewart-Haas Racing in the Xfinity Series.

The 2023 season will be Harvick’s final year as a full-time Cup driver.

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The Daytona 500 will mark Herbst’s first Cup Series start. The 24-year-old native of Las Vegas has made 109 Xfinity Series starts.

“It’s great to have Riley making his first NASCAR Cup Series start with RWR and be a part of the next step in his career,” said team owner Rick Ware in a statement released by the team.

“As a kid you always dream of being able to race in the Daytona 500, and I’m able to accomplish that with Rick Ware Racing,” Herbst said. “It’s such a big event and for it to be my first Cup start will be a crazy experience.”

 

 

RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each announced primary sponsorship deals Monday.

King’s Hawaiian, which served as a primary sponsor in three races last year, returns to RFK Racing and Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car this year. King’s Hawaiian will expand its role and be a primary sponsor for nine races. 

The first race with the sponsor will be this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King’s Hawaiian also will be the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car for Atlanta (March 19), Bristol Dirt (April 9), Kansas (May 7), World Wide Technology Raceway (June 4), Sonoma (June 11), Pocono (July 23), Daytona (Aug. 26) and Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Jockey returns to sponsor the Trackhouse cars of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez for three races each this season with its Made in America Collection.

Jockey will be on the No. 99 car for Suarez at this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9) and  Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Chastain’s No. 1 car will have Jockey as the primary sponsor at Richmond (April 2), Dover (April 30) and Michigan (Aug. 6).

Hooters returns to Hendrick Motorsports and will be the primary sponsor on the No. 9 car of Chase Elliott for the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9), the Chicago street course event (July 2) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 22).

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.