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.

NASCAR Awards to air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Joey Logano didn’t need much time to answer the question.

Who would the two-time Cup champion want to introduce him at the NASCAR Awards?

Racing icon Mario Andretti, Logano immediately said. 

And there was Andretti on the stage at the Music City Center introducing Logano, the 2022 Cup champion. Watch that and the rest of the night’s festivities at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock. You can order Peacock here.

MORE: See the red carpet scene

MORE: Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

NBC Sports’ Marty Snider and Kim Coon co-hosted the show along with Fox Sports’ Kaitlyn Vincie. The Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions were honored. Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, whose father died hours after Gibbs won the Xfinity title last month, received a standing ovation and thanked the industry for its support.

The highlight of the night for Logano was having Andretti on stage to introduce him.

“He’s just been a great role model for me, not only as a racer, but as a person for so long,” Logano said afterward. “I had his picture on my wall. I looked at Mario Andretti before I went to sleep every night as a kid. I thought it was the coolest thing that he signed it to me.”

NASCAR Awards and Champion Celebration
Cup champion Joey Logano on stage with racing icon Mario Andretti during the NASCAR Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Logano and Andretti have gotten to know each other through the years. Logano ran a throwback car that honored Andretti at Darlington Raceway in 2015 and 2021.

But none of that compared to being on stage with Andretti.

“That’s still like a pinch-me moment,” Logano said. “It’s Mario Andretti. He’s the man. The fact that he knows my name I think is really, really cool.”

Catch the NASCAR Awards at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”

Brennan Poole joins Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for 2023


Brennan Poole will join Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity season, the team announced Friday.

Poole will drive the No. 6 car for the full season. Currey returns to the team’s No. 4 car for the season. Currey scored five top-15 finishes last season for the organization.

JD Motorsports is planning to run the No. 0 car next season. No driver or sponsor has been announced for that ride.

“We’re full throttle here and getting ready to go,” Davis said in a statement from the team. “Bayley and Brennan are signed on and looking forward to chasing races and points next year. We’re actively moving along looking for sponsor commitments and for drivers and sponsors for the No. 0 car.”

“We’ve always taken the approach here that we want to go after the series with multiple cars, and that’s how we’re looking toward 2023. The new schedule is very interesting and provides new challenges to our drivers and team members.”

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.

Friday 5: Will Kyle Busch become NASCAR’s Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The weight of an unfulfilled season, deciding where he’d race in 2023 and the impact on his Truck Series team are off Kyle Busch.

It’s back to racing for the two-time Cup champion, who seeks to reignite his career at Richard Childress Racing this season.

Busch performed his final duty representing Joe Gibbs Racing at Thursday’s NASCAR Awards (show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock) and it’s now all about helping RCR win its first Cup championship since 1994.

MORE: NASCAR Awards red carpet scene

Busch will be with Richard Childress Racing this weekend at Circuit of the Americas for World Racing League endurance events. Busch said the team has turned an old Cup car into an endurance car for the event. Last year, RCR won an eight-hour endurance race there with Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Kaz Grala.

Busch seeks better fortunes at RCR than what he’s had recently at Joe Gibbs Racing.

He has one Cup win in his last 53 starts — 14 drivers have won more races than Busch in that span, dating back to the July 2021 race at Road America.

His 17 top-10 finishes this past season were his fewest since scoring 16 top 10s in 2015. 

He was running at the finish in 29 of 36 points races — the first time he’s been running at the finish in fewer than 30 races since 2015. Two blown engines in the opening round of the playoffs led to failing to advance to the second round for the first time in his career. 

“It’s obviously been a challenging, not just this year, but the last little while,” Busch said Thursday at the Music City Center. “So, it’s kind of maybe a blessing in disguise, honestly, where it might just be time for a fresh start, time for something new, time for something different.”

He looks to future NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for inspiration.

Brady won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots before  joining Tampa Bay and winning a Super Bowl in his first season with the Buccaneers.

Manning won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts before joining the Denver Broncos and winning a Super Bowl there in his final season in the NFL.

“I’m kind of looking at it as a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning aspect where they left great teams, great organizations where they won championships and they were able to win a championship somewhere else,” Busch said. “I’d like to think I still have that opportunity to be able to do that at RCR.

“I look at the opportunity with the new Next Gen race car as an easier move to make now with that vs. years past with previous generation cars.”

He says that because with the previous generation of cars, there was a greater separation between teams because NASCAR did not regulate as much of the car. With the the Next Gen car, teams have the same parts. Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano that his team still has much to learn about the car and maximizing setups. 

Even with his struggles at the end of his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch says he doesn’t go to RCR with a chip on his shoulder. 

“I don’t think I have anything to prove or I need to have a chip on my shoulder,” Busch said. “I just want to go out there and run well again. … I felt like we had a lot of strong runs this year. There were like six races I can count that we could’ve, would’ve, should’ve won and we didn’t whip is very frustrating. 

“We were so good at giving them away that I need to get back to I’m so good at stealing them and earning them.”

2. Special delivery 

Among the perks with winning a Cup title is getting the Champion’s Journal. Jimmie Johnson started the tradition after his 2010 championship. The existence of the journal remained a secret until 2017 when Johnson posted a picture on social media of him handing the journal to Martin Truex Jr.

The journal passes from champion to champion with the current champion holding on to it for a year and adding an entry for the next champion before handing it to them. Logano will receive the journal from Kyle Larson. 

“I can’t wait to read it again,” Logano said before Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “I’m telling you, it’s probably one of the coolest things. Jimmie deserves all of the credit for coming up with the idea. 

“I wish it started sooner. It’s so interesting. Some drivers are very detailed what they write to the next champion and some are kind of quick and simple. It’s very interesting to read it. It’s cool. It’s a real secret. It’s kind of like an unwritten rule, you can’t take pictures of it and post it. It’s a thing that only the championship drivers know and have read and seen.

“Every time I get it, I’m so nervous. I’m like don’t spill anything on this thing, don’t lose it. It would suck to be the guy that loses that. That would be bad. I’m putting it right in the safe.”

Logano won his first Cup title in 2018. He then gave the journal to Kyle Busch, the 2019 series champion.

“It’s something you put a lot of thought into, at least I did,” Logano said of what he penned. “I wrote a letter to Kyle. You put a lot of thought into it. It’s something that will be there as long as our sport is around. I hope so at least. It’s a really great tradition.”

3. Fun factor 

The day of last year’s NASCAR Awards, William Byron said he wanted compete in more races outside NASCAR in 2022. 

Byron, who seeks to make Sunday’s prestigious Snowball Derby Super Late Model race, has fulfilled his goal, winning, gaining confidence but also having fun.

“What I got out of it was immediate fun, sort of relief,” Byron said of racing various Super Late Model races this year. “It was not racing the Cup car. It was different. It was not as stressful working with the team and things like that because there’s not as much on the line. There’s still prize money and things, and honestly you’re there to have fun. I enjoyed that.

“As I got going in it, I realized how productive it really was for me to do it, how much I was learning. As I did it more often throughout the season, I learned little nuances that were helping me get back in the Cup car with a better skill set.”

That element of fun stood out to Byron. Cup racing is full of pressure with the multi-million dollar sponsors, expectations to win and all the people at the shop relying on the car’s performance. That’s significant pressure, on top of what any driver puts on themself.

“There’s a lot of guys that you are trying to provide for and do a good job for,” Byron said of Cup racing. “There is a weight to that. You want to perform for those guys that work non-stop at the shop. There’s just a much broader net that you are casting as a driver. Whenever you go to the short track level, it’s you and six to 10 guys working on the car. … There’s natural pressure with what we’re trying to do at the Cup level because it is the No. 1 motorsports in the U.S.”

4. Looking for a ride

Ross Chastain says he’s been “trying for years” to get a ride in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway without success but that hasn’t deterred him.

“I’ve met with the president of IMSA,” said Chastain, who finished second to Joey Logano for the Cup title this season. “I’ve met with team owners. I’ve talked to drivers. I just can’t find my way in yet. I haven’t found the right person yet to either tell me how to do it or give me the opportunity. I could show up with sponsorship and get a ride, but how do I get in as a race car driver? I haven’t found that spot yet.”

Chastain said he’s reached out to some this offseason with no luck. 

He said the prestige of the season-opening IMSA event (Jan. 28-29, 2023) draws him but he also wants to gain more experience racing on a road course — even with his win at Circuit of the Americas this past season. And Chastain is not picky on the type of ride he’d like to have for that race.

“I’m not even looking to be in the top class. I want to find a mid-pack Xfinity team of the Rolex and go run there and experience it and then just to be around those road racers that do it year around. I know I could learn something. … I just want to race.”

5. Indy 500-Coke 600 double

It has been eight years since Kurt Busch competed in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, the last time the feat has been accomplished. 

Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson are among those who have expressed interest in running both races in the same day but don’t appear to be in a position to do so in 2023 because of the limited IndyCar rides available. 

Roger Penske, owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said he could see Jimmie Johnson attempting it this year, and others as soon as next year. 

“It’s about having the car and the manufactures, whether it’s Chevy and or Honda,” Penske said, referring to the IndyCar manufacturers. “All would be interested to see somebody run the double. Maybe Jimmie is going to do it, which would be great. 

“He has the experience. He did very well on the ovals. … It’s my understanding that he’s going to run potentially the 600 as one of his races (with Petty GMS). We’ll see.”