Kyle Larson’s hot start validates advanced stats, Hendrick’s measured path

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The beginning of the 2021 NASCAR season represented validation for Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports and the idea that Larson was in dire need of a more competitive team.

Even before the incident that prompted his indefinite suspension and eventual firing from Chip Ganassi Racing, the few remaining skeptics questioned the amount of energy given to Larson, who had been deemed the most sought-after free agent in all of NASCAR prior to 2020.

Their argument was that the hype was too much; after all, he’d won just six times in 223 starts. In the eyes of those who judged drivers by observable superficial stats or comparisons to older, more experienced stable mates, the logic was sound; to some, including Kyle Busch, it never made sense that he secured a Cup Series ride before winning an Xfinity Series race.

But Larson was and still is a deep-cut analytics darling. Though winless for Turner Scott Motorsports, he led Xfinity Series regulars in pass efficiency in 2013, his rookie season. It was a trait that immediately translated to the Cup Series in 2014, when he ranked third (trailing only Jeff Gordon and fellow statistical standout AJ Allmendinger) in the same category, the youngest driver to rank third or better since advanced passing stats were initially measured by Motorsports Analytics in 2011.

Through his six full seasons driving for CGR, his star shined bright on the spreadsheets despite a lack of outward, team-dependent performance:

CGR’s organizational speed turned a corner in 2017 — Larson’s best year to date, in which he earned four victories, including his first short track win at Richmond — but proved a dubious, albeit unsurprising sign. In the 19 years since Chip Ganassi purchased into Felix Sabates’ preexisting operation, CGR teams have failed to build on any success. Its banner multi-win seasons in 2002, 2010 and 2017 were followed with winless efforts in 2003, 2011 and 2018.

Prior to Larson’s dismissal last year, his performance through the first four races highlighted the organization’s persistent failings. He’d carried the 15th-fastest car to high percentile marks in track position procurement — namely from restarts and long-run passing — heavy lifting all his own:

Crew chief Chad Johnston, most responsible for green-flag pit cycle (GFPC) offense and defense turned in abysmal early numbers, retaining Larson’s running position a mere 25% of the time (for a net loss of 41 positions) in those scenarios. CGR parted ways with Johnston after his numbers failed to improve to a tenable point for Matt Kenseth, Larson’s replacement, but the damage had been done.

Just as Johnston won once in 89 races overseeing Martin Truex Jr.’s team at Michael Waltrip Racing, he also failed to maximize results for Larson, another driver hindsight suggests should’ve fared far better.

Making that hindsight abundantly clear for Larson is the notion of having the fastest car in the series at his disposal, based on average median lap rank.

Consider the timing fortuitous, a result of the development of Hendrick Motorsports’ current cars dating back to 2019, a low point by the admission of Hendrick GM Jeff Andrews, who pointed to poor early-season performances that year as a catalyst for change.

“We weren’t happy with the way we ran at all, for example, at Las Vegas and Fontana,” Andrews told Motorsports Analytics last year. “At that point, we were still developing, I don’t want to say a ‘new car’ — we were certainly a year into it — but any time that you have a body change in a significant aero platform change with these race cars, it takes you a while.”

Key in Hendrick’s rise back to prominence was Cliff Daniels, who became Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief in August 2019. When he inherited the team from predecessor Kevin Meendering, the car ranked as the 17th fastest in the series. Before the end of the year, it placed 13th in the same ranking and fourth during the final quarters of playoff races, making Johnson’s desire for wins and a playoff spot in his final season more than wishful thinking.

Johnson pointed to Daniels’ streamlined communication efforts as the chief reason for his season’s upturn — “Communication being better (allowed) us to get to changes quicker” — but the young crew chief recognized that improved communication was needed to reestablish the foundations of what was once a championship-winning team to succeed far past Johnson’s time behind the wheel. He made it a point to understand Larson’s communicative comforts well before the driver was even fitted for a seat in a Hendrick car.

Additionally, the expediency in which Larson’s personal preferences are applied to his car is faster than Hendrick’s previous norm. Fellow Hendrick driver Chase Elliott recently noted the promotion of Chad Knaus, now the organization’s VP of Competition, has resulted in cars being delivered in a more race-ready fashion, leaving plenty of time for attention to detail.

“When a crew chief sees his car for the first time, about a week before the race, that crew chief has less work to do,” Elliott said last week. “I think Chad has had a big impact in having that car show up in a manner that that particular crew chief wants it to be in.”

Each incremental step taken by Hendrick in advance of Larson’s first start last month in Daytona has led to what we witnessed through the first six races of 2021:

He ranks as the series’ most efficient and prolific passer on non-drafting ovals, having secured a pass differential 58 positions better than his statistical expectation. He ranks first among those with double-digit attempts in preferred groove restart retention, having successfully defended his position on 86.7% of restarts from inside the top 14.

The difference between this year and previous years is that the statistically proficient Larson, a reliable track position creator for the majority of his career, has a dominant car underneath him. He scored a win in Las Vegas, produced a relentless runner-up showing — and possible statement of intent — in Atlanta and even recorded the fastest median lap time in the Daytona 500, a style of race Larson’s never won.

Larson and Hendrick was an intriguing combination from the onset. So far, it’s proving the spreadsheet signs of superstardom true while validating every step the organization took to prepare for a driver like him.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).

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.