What matters at Phoenix: Keep calm and plan your restart

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What matters in today’s Cup race and how will restarts impact track position? Let’s dive into the analytics, trends and strategy that will shape the Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox):

Wild restarts call for for deliberate driving

Incrementally, NASCAR and Phoenix Raceway have made restarts the defining characteristic of the 1-mile racetrack.

The location change of the start/finish line, the shift to 750 horsepower followed by the 2020 downforce addendum, the addition of a traction compound and the implementation of the choose rule were all deployed as methods for punching up restarts, especially at Phoenix, the site of NASCAR’s championship race.

The result is the two-lap window following each restart now serving as the sport’s equivalent to a jump-ball.

Across the last four Phoenix races, spanning two different downforce packages and containing one race utilizing the choose rule, the restarts contained prevailing common denominators:

  • The inside of the first row was the most reliable, its occupants, often leaders, retaining 71.4% of the time across 28 clean attempts; those in the outside retained position on 57.1% of attempts.
  • The outside groove was better across the first seven rows at maintaining position, doing so 67.4% percent of the time compared to the inside’s 51.5% rate. Last fall’s championship race saw relatively even 62.9-60.0% success rates, a potential impact of the choose rule’s implementation.

The entire restart dynamic allows quick comebacks for those buried in the field following optional or bad pit stops but the memorable, GIF-making gains are the exception, not the rule. Consider that the best single restart for each top-14 running position within the last two years was only duplicated three times:

While successful defense of the position itself is reliable, there are a number of factors driving the gains. Tire wear skews restarts, yes, but tires do not have eyes or hands on the steering wheel; Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson are repeat names on the chart, unsurprising given their reputations.

But how a Phoenix restart materializes, with cars shooting into a wide space — think of an upside-down funnel — is a bit deceiving. More options can be limiting, as the space doesn’t necessarily make for a better restart; similar to Pocono, Phoenix offers wiggle room on the apron, to the left of the inside line, but the outside groove is faster, the statistically preferred of the two. Drivers tend to explore space to their own detriment, while those with cogent plans for their restarts take advantage of wandering cars:

Against cars running three or four-wide on the lap-272 restart in last year’s spring race, Busch (the white Sport Clips-branded No. 18) committed to running the apron in the first two corners. This resulted in an unfettered lane, in which he took the fifth-fastest car on short runs that day from 11th to third. It was an efficient, measured maneuver running against the grain of panicked dancing.

Phoenix’s restarts look wild primarily because they were designed to look wild; however, they can also act as bountiful exercises for the smoothest operators.

Straddling the line between calm and chaos

How restarts factor into today’s result is dependent on the frequency of cautions (which set up restarts) and the timing of cautions (for potential late-race restarts). The spring race in 2020 saw both a high caution volume (3.2 clean restarts per 100 miles) and three restart attempts falling inside the final one-tenth of the race; the fall race contained a tame caution volume (1.6 per 100 miles) and ended on a 112-lap green-flag run.

How drivers react to the extremes varies. Kevin Harvick was universally good in 2020, averaging a 7.6-place finish in races with caution volumes falling below 2.25 per 100 miles and a 6.7-place finish in their more chaotic counterparts. But some have the tendency to skew one way or the other.

Ryan Blaney was five positions better in relatively clean races (an average finish of 12.3) compared to caution-filled races (17.3); his inverse was Erik Jones, who thrived in chaos (11.4) relative to his efforts in tamer events (18.0). The ability to straddle the line can assist on track like Phoenix that can easily flip between polar opposites:

Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski proved the most malleable last year. For Keselowski, today’s pole-sitter, it’s another sign of a translatable competitive strength.

No more places to hide

A popular thought behind the parity through the first four races was that the early-season schedule, consisting of a drafting track, a road course, a unique 1.5-miler and a more traditional intermediate, was so eclectic that we shouldn’t mistake performance as a symbol of relevant competitive strength.

That may very well be the case; however, it’s an excuse that ends today. Phoenix is the first 750-horsepower oval of 2021, the track type made most important by NASCAR’s schedule shift in advance of the year. Phoenix again hosts the championship race this November, while 12 other tilts on tracks fitting this description comprise the 36-race slate. It’s an increase of three events coupled with a decrease in the number of non-drafting races on 550-horsepower tracks (from 20 to 16), magnifying its stature as a subject of offseason and in-season research and development.

Arguably, the two organizations under the most scrutiny are Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. JGR failed in getting its fastest 750-horsepower team — the No. 19 with Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief James Small — eligible for the championship in the season finale, while fellow playoff drivers Busch (sixth) and Hamlin (seventh) fared worse than Truex’s fourth-place series-wide speed ranking. Truex trailed Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Keselowski in overall speed on these particular tracks.

For SHR, Harvick saw a big deviation in speed across the different 750-horsepower facilities. His car ranked as the fastest in each of the Phoenix spring race, the second leg of Dover’s doubleheader, Richmond and the Bristol playoff race. It ranked 17th in the Martinsville playoff race and 10th a week later in Phoenix, a disappointment given the importance of those races and Harvick’s ubiquitous dominance for the whole of the year.

For certain, any big team curiously lacking speed today isn’t keeping cards close to the chest. It’ll indeed be a misfire, potentially indicative of the season to come. NASCAR limited wind tunnel testing and computational fluid dynamic simulations for all teams, and with R&D focus soon turning towards the Next Gen car, it’s not economical for any organization to invest heavily in improving a lame-duck machine in the eight-month gap between today’s race and Phoenix’s fall finale.

Nevertheless, this is a sport in constant evolution without limits on who get hired (and when) or how workaday research efforts lead to a discovery yielding a competitive advantage. In this sense, a lot can naturally change in eight months and probably will.

Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to track

MORE: Dr. Diandra: 600 tests man more than machine

And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”







Dr. Diandra: Charlotte’s 600 miles test man more than machine


This weekend’s 600-mile outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s longest race. It’s the ultimate stock car challenge: not just making a car fast but making it fast for a long time.

Although 600 miles is nowhere near the 3,300-plus miles in the 24 Hours of LeMans, the pace is similar. Most of NASCAR’s 600-mile races run between four and five hours.

The 1960 World 600 set the record for this race, requiring five hours, 34 minutes, and six seconds to complete — and it had only eight cautions. The second longest race, the very next year, ran 12 minutes shorter than the previous year’s outing.

The longest race in the modern era (1972 to present) happened in 2005. That race took five hours, 13 minutes, and 52 seconds to complete and set a record for cautions with 22.

Last year’s event was the second-longest modern-era race. With four fewer cautions than 2005, the 2022 race took just 44 seconds less to complete.

The field for the 1960 race included 60 cars. Only 18 of those cars (30%) crossed the finish line.

NASCAR disqualified six drivers for making illegal entrances to pit road. The reasons for the remaining 36 DNFs reads like an inventory of car parts, from “A-frame” to “valve.”

The number of cars failing to finish the race decreased significantly over the years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not uncommon for 50-70% of the field to drop out of the race before its end. As the graph below shows, the DNF rate is now in the range of 10-30%.

A bar chart shows how DNFs have decreased over time and turned the the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

Last year — the first year of the Next Gen car — had an abnormally high 46% DNF rate. That doesn’t signify a problem with car reliability.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Increased car reliability makes people more important

Racecar evolution has changed the nature of NASCAR’s longest race. The car have become so reliable that Charlotte’s 600-mile race is now more a test of drivers than their cars.

“All of the components in the car are pretty standard,” Chase Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “So you just want to make sure you have it all in good condition and dot all your I’s and cross your T’s.”

That wasn’t how it used to be. Kevin Harvick remembers that drivers used to be warned to take care of their equipment early so it would last until the end.

“The engine guys freak out because you have to go an extra 100 miles, but the parts and stuff on the car are a lot more durable than they used to be,” Harvick said. “Back in the day, it was ‘take care of the motor.’ ”

Drivers worry much less about their car’s engine today. The graph below shows how DNFs due to engine failure have decreased since NASCAR started running 600-mile races.

A bar chart shows that engine failures have gone from 50-70% to 10-30%, turning the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

In 1966, more than half the field lost an engine during the race. Only six cars have retired due to engine failure in the last five years.

While cars are more reliable, their drivers are still human. Crash-related DNFs (crashes, failure to beat the DVP clock and inability to meet maximum speed) show no clear trend over time.

A bar chart shows how the number of DNFs due to crashes doesn't show any overall trend with time

Typically, between five to 10% of the cars starting a race will fail to finish due to an accident rather than a mechanical failure. Last year’s race was an exception, setting a record for the largest fraction of the field taken out by crashes since the 600-miler began.

It’s only one data point as far as 600-mile races are concerned. It is, however, indicative of a trend observed since the Next Gen car debuted. The car is so sturdy that contact is no longer the deterrent it used to be.

Man versus machine

NASCAR’s only 600-mile outing has become an endurance race for humans. Drivers draw upon research in hydration, nutrition and fitness, hoping to create an advantage by preparation and conditioning.

“As a driver,” Daniel Suárez said, “your goal is to be as fresh at the end of the race as you are at the beginning. It isn’t about making it to the end of the race. It’s about being at your best at the end and taking advantage of other drivers who are tired.”

Harrison Burton, who ran his first 600-mile race last year, was surprised by how taxing that extra stage was.

“I figured it’s only 100 more miles than 500 and we do that fairly frequently and didn’t think it would be that different,” Burton said, “but for whatever reason when that fourth stage starts it’s definitely daunting.

Burton also noted that last year’s Coca-Cola 600 was the first time he got hungry during a race.

“It’s actually a really important race to have something to snack on in the car during the race,” Ross Chastain said. “I typically have some sort of protein bar that I can eat during a stage break just to try and keep my stamina up.”

The driver isn’t the only one whose mental acumen gets tested during the Coca-Cola 600. Crew chiefs and pit crews must work at peak form for a longer time.

“There’s more pit stops, there’s more restarts, there’s more strategy calls and there’s more laps,” Gustafson said. “There’s more everything.”

That means more opportunities to make mistakes or lose focus — or to take advantage of other drivers who do.

Alex Bowman confident as he returns to racing from back injury


CONCORD, N.C. — Alex Bowman watched the rain-filled skies over Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday with more than a touch of disappointment.

As weather threatened to cancel Saturday night’s scheduled NASCAR Cup Series practice at the speedway, Bowman saw his chances to testing his car — and his body — dissolving in the raindrops. NASCAR ultimately cancelled practice and qualifying because of rain.

MORE: Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup practice, qualifying

Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car accident last month and has missed three Cup races while he recovers. Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the season’s longest race, is scheduled to mark his return to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It would have been really nice to kickstart that with practice today,” Bowman said. “I haven’t raced or competitively driven a race car in a month. I’m trying to understand where my rusty areas are going to be and where I’m still good.”

Bowman ran 200 laps in a test season at North Wilkesboro Speedway this week, but, of course, that doesn’t compare with the faster speeds and tougher G-forces he’ll experience over 400 laps Sunday at CMS.

Bowman admitted that he is still experiencing pain from the back injury — his car flipped several times — and that he expects some pain during the race. But he said he is confident he’ll be OK and that the longer race distance won’t be an issue.

“I broke my back a month ago, and there’s definitely things that come along with that for a long time,” he said. “I have some discomfort here and there and there are things I do that don’t feel good. That’s just part of it. It’s stuff I’ll have to deal with. But, for the most part, I’m back to normal.

“I’m easing back into being in the gym. I’m trying to be smart with things. If I twist the wrong way, sometimes it hurts. In the race car at the end of a six-hour race, I’m probably not going to be the best.”

The sprint car crash interrupted what had been a fine seasonal start for Bowman. Although winless, he had three top fives and six top 10s in the first 10 races.

“I’m excited to be back,” Bowman said. “Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off and be strong right out of the gate.”

He said he hopes to return to short-track racing but not in the near future.

“Someday I want to get back in a sprint car or midget,” he said. “I felt like we were just getting rolling in a sprint car. That night we were pretty fast. Definitely a bummer there. That’s something I really want to conquer and be competitive at in the World of Outlaws or High Limits races. Somebody I’ll get back to that. It’s probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time for a bit.”




Charlotte NASCAR Cup Series starting lineup: Rain cancels qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — William Byron and Kevin Harvick will start Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the front row after wet weather cancelled Saturday night qualifying.

Rain pelted the CMS area much of the day Saturday, and NASCAR announced at 3:45 p.m. that Cup practice and qualifying, scheduled for Saturday night, had been cancelled.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to cockpit

The starting field was set by the NASCAR rulebook.

Following Byron and Harvick in the starting top 10 will be Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The elimination of the practice session was particularly problematic for Alex Bowman, scheduled to return to racing Sunday after missing three weeks with a back injury, and Jimmie Johnson, who will be starting only his third race this year. Johnson will start 37th — last in the field.

Charlotte Cup starting lineup