What matters in Atlanta: Tire wear makes speed deficiency difficult to mask

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What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race and how will heavy tire wear impact the influence of speed on the result? Let’s dive into the analytics, trends and strategy that will shape the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox):

Thanks to tire wear, elite speed is required

The relative randomness of the correlations between speed ranking and finishing position that’s popped up on 550-horsepower tracks the last two seasons apparently has no claim to Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Tire wear — cars on old tires will approach two seconds worth of degradation today — is the factor keeping the running order honest. Last year’s race saw the three fastest cars as the three highest finishers, helping drive the correlation coefficient to a +0.9, symbolizing a strong relationship between the two stat categories. The assured result for those with elite speed is a breath of fresh air following some truly maddening correlations, such as last summer’s races in Texas (a +0.5 coefficient) and Kansas (+0.6).

To that end, speed will be impossible to fake and difficult to mask. Those with the best speed are easy favorites while those without might be limited in magnitude of track position gains made via strategy.

Hendrick Motorsports appears well suited for the 1.54-mile track, with William Byron’s No. 24 car ranking as the fastest on 1.5-mile facilities this season while Kyle Larson’s No. 5 ranks first through the first five races in average median lap time rank and Chase Elliott’s No. 9 sports the best top-end speed, ranking first in average best lap time rank:

But as we saw last weekend, initial speed isn’t final speed. The No. 19 car of Martin Truex Jr. held the 12th-fastest median lap time in Phoenix’s first stage, forcing a diagnosis and adjustment from crew chief James Small. Their troubleshooting worked. Truex ranked as the fastest driver across the final 118 laps, capable of distancing himself in clean air and utilizing the statistically non-preferred outside groove on a restart for the go-ahead pass on Joey Logano.

In lieu of practice time, Small utilized the early runs of the race as a de-facto shakedown, searching for balance in a car that’d been fine-tuned since last November.

“I just don’t think people understand how hard it is with no practice to try to be perfect every week,” Small said. “It takes a lot of effort, a lot of refinement, everything we can do just to be good off of the truck. We started bad. Some of our assumptions were off.

“All offseason we worked (on the Phoenix setup). Once we got the car balance right … you saw all the dividends for all the work we put in, the changes were made.”

The revelation from Small regarding the amount of work Joe Gibbs Racing put into its 750-horsepower program, and Phoenix specifically, is deflating for teams with mildly competitive speed attempting to tread water against the sport’s most prominent organizations. If Small’s on-the-fly battle for balance tapped into a car already optimized for Phoenix, it’s doubtful any balance found during a race will provide a similar boost for those who didn’t unearth a similar race-winning setup prior to unloading.

Pit strategy might not win this race, but it can certainly improve a result

The green-flag strategy known as short-pitting is the mathematically advantageous tactic today, with beneficiaries hopping onto fresh rubber sooner than surrounding opposition. This maneuvering allows drivers who recently pitted for tires to cut into deltas against — or overtake completely — the nearest cars in the running order, taking advantage of the near-two-second degradation.

To this point, Drew Blickensderfer, on behalf of Michael McDowell, has tallied the most positions, 27 in all across nine cycles through the first five races. Just three of those positions, though, came on non-drafting ovals.

Chevrolet teams for Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Austin Dillon have earned 11 positions apiece on non-drafting ovals this season, a shared top rank among all programs, while Randall Burnett, on behalf of Chevrolet driver Tyler Reddick, procured single-cycle gains of two or more spots on five separate occasions, the most among all crew chiefs.

The roots of Chevrolet’s success through pit strategy are tied to Eric Warren’s use of machine-learning software for pit stop decisions while he oversaw competition at Richard Childress Racing. Now GM’s NASCAR programs director, Warren’s reach includes most Chevrolet teams, the early returns for which include four affiliated crew chiefs among those with the biggest quantifiable output.

While good strategy can improve the probability of a result, the result won’t deviate wildly from the car’s overall speed ranking in Atlanta. To wit, Mike Shiplett created a race-high nine positions through three green-flag pit cycles on behalf of Cole Custer last year. Custer finished 19th with the 24th-fastest car, an example of the tire wear hanging a low ceiling on those attempting to strategize their way out of middling speed.

The outside restarting groove is equal to, if not better than, the inside groove

Today marks Atlanta’s first race since the inception of the restart choose rule; however, the two most recent races were still impacted by interesting choices.

The leader opted for the inside groove on all 12 starts and restarts dating back to the 2019 race. For the most part, these decisions saw good returns, with an 83.3% retention rate and occupants averaging a 1.83-place running position two laps after the restart:

But the notion that the outside groove was ignored across the board is curious, considering its equivalent retention rate (83.3%) and smaller positional loss (-0.25 spots per attempt). While any leader should accept a success rate higher than 80%, the second-place runners in Atlanta, originating exclusively from the outside groove, had solid footing. This went beyond the front row.

Rows 2-7 saw outside groove retention rates range from 66.7-100% while those occupying the inside groove defended position at rates ranging from 16.7-50%.

Since drivers and teams don’t tend to fix what isn’t broken, the inside line will most likely be coveted again today for restarts, but the outside groove should prove a formidable foil.

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

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.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.

 

 

Blown tires end race early for several Texas contenders

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FORT WORTH, Texas — A Goodyear official said that air pressures that teams were using contributed to some drivers blowing tires in Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all crashed while leading after blowing a tire. Among the others who had tire issues were Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher Cole Custer and Christopher Bell twice. 

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

MORE: NASCAR says it missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution 

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

Eight of the 16 cautions were related to tire failures that caused drivers to spin or crash.

“It’s not a good look, that’s for sure,” Ryan Blaney said of the tire issues others had. “How many leaders blew tires tonight? Three or four?

“You just don’t understand what is making these things do that. From last week to this week, it’s really unfortunate. It’s just luck now.

“You never know if you’re going to blow one. You go into (Turn) 3 almost every lap with 40 laps on your stuff and I don’t know if one is going to blow out or not. That’s not safe. That’s for sure. Running (180) into (Turn) 3 and the thing blows out and you have no time to react to it. It’s unfortunate. I hope we can figure that out.”

Blaney said he was confused that the tires were blowing partly into a run instead of much earlier.

“It was weird because those tires didn’t blow right away,” he said. “Like the pressures were low. They blew like after a cycle or two on them, which is the weird thing.”

Asked how he handles that uncertainty, Blaney said: “Nothing I can do about it. Just hope and pray.”

After his crash, Elliott was diplomatic toward Goodyear’s situation:

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Tyler Reddick, who won Sunday’s race at Texas, said his team made adjustments to the air pressure settings after Saturday’s practice.

“We ran enough laps, were able to see that we had been too aggressive on our right front tire,” he said. “So we made some adjustments going into the race, thankfully.”

This same time was used at Kansas and will be used again at Las Vegas next month in the playoffs. 

Reddick is hopeful of a change but also knows it might take time.

“I just think to a degree, potentially, as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, maybe, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be,” he said. 

“I know Goodyear will fix it. That’s what they do. It’s going to be a process. I know they’re going to be on top of it. Hey, they don’t want to see those failures. We don’t want to see them either. They’re going to be working on looking through and trying to find out exactly what is going on. We’ll all learn from it.

“It’s a brand-new car. It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.”