Analysis: Chase Elliott among 3 drivers bound for improved results


After underwhelming starts to the 2021 NASCAR season, three of last year’s playoff drivers — Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola and Matt DiBenedetto — appear poised for improved results going forward.

Seven races might not make for a believable sample size in the grand scheme of a 36-race season, but for these three, it’s enough to indicate their finishing averages are likely to positively regress toward their recent, more believable norms:

Chase Elliott

After seven races, Elliott finds himself zoned for playoff qualification. But his best finish (second, one of two top-five finishes) came on a drafting track, not quite the level of competitive distinction one would expect from the reigning champ.

His team’s inability to score high finishes isn’t due to poor execution: Elliott ranks third in surplus passing value, resulting in a pass differential 52.76 positions better than the expectation of his average running whereabouts. He also ranks third in restart retention rate across both grooves, having successfully defended his spot on 70.37% of attempts from inside the top 14.

Similarly, crew chief Alan Gustafson has enjoyed an improvement of his strategy-based positional output. One of the least productive pit strategists in 2020, Gustafson has retained Elliott’s running position 81.82% of the time across all cycles and on 100% of cycles when relinquishing a top-five spot. The former rate is an increase of 32 percentage points from last year’s efforts, which cost Elliott 149 positions over the course of the season.

Considering the juxtaposition between the team’s top-end speed and median efforts, it seems the woes for Elliott’s team are mechanical, not tactical. The No. 9 car ranks first in average best lap — the average ranking of a team’s best lap in each race — thanks in part to turning the single fastest laps in the Daytona 500, the Daytona road course race and Las Vegas and the second-fastest lap in Homestead.

The issue, though, is this top-end speed, fully optimized with fresh tires and clean air, didn’t sustain throughout races. Elliott ranks sixth in average median lap, with low points coming at Homestead (ranked 18th), Las Vegas (seventh) and Phoenix (ninth). The lack of setup balance appears to have stymied the driver’s best efforts at a win.

What makes a forthcoming statistical progression believable is that the top-end speed — referred to by several crew chiefs as “speed potential” — is quantifiably one of the industry’s best. Once balance is found, Elliott will appear a more suitable contender for wins.

Aric Almirola

Almirola’s year to date has been riddled with accidents — five crashes in all, 0.71 per race — and poor results, with four finishes of 30th or worse. On top of that, he hasn’t displayed competitive speed outside of his Duel-winning car for the Daytona 500, ranking 26th among full-time teams in average median lap.

This missing speed is likely part of an organization-wide struggle with which Stewart-Haas Racing is currently reckoning, but surely a team that’s qualified for the playoffs each of the previous three seasons is capable of more.

It’s difficult to find a silver lining with his year, but one might exist. He places ninth in surplus passing, a ranking steadied by stellar defense of his running spots within the restart window. His 72.73% position retention rate across both grooves ranks second in the series (trailing only Ryan Blaney at 76%).

Ironically, had he been running near the front at the conclusion of most races, he wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of this early-season strength. There wasn’t a single late-race restart through the first six races; thus, there were not many opportunities on which he missed out.

Things might’ve gone south for SHR, but Almirola isn’t error prone to this absurd of a degree: His crash rates from 2014-20 ranged from 0.17 to 0.31 times per race, signifying a category ripe for improvement. If the organization’s speed gets sorted, it can mask a lot of deficiencies. Until then, the driver offers enough to ensure he’s far better than his current 27th-place average finish.

Matt DiBenedetto

DiBenedetto’s status as a lame-duck driver — Austin Cindric will replace him at Wood Brothers Racing in 2022 — isn’t ideal, but it shouldn’t render good performance impossible. DiBenedetto proved it two years ago with a runner-up finish at Bristol among a stretch of good runs after he’d been dropped by Leavine Family Racing.

It was indeed a crummy start to the season, buried from the onset by his inclusion in the big accident on Lap 14 of the Daytona 500, a poor finish that snowballed into bad starting spots (set in part by points position). His only start this year inside the top 20 was in Monday’s race at Bristol.

Like Almirola, DiBenedetto is utilizing restarts and short runs to traverse through the field in an effective manner. His 61.11% retention rate across both restart grooves ranks eighth overall, while his 87.5% rate specifically from the preferred groove ranks first among those with at least eight attempts from inside the top 14.

Unlike Almirola, DiBenedetto has been running on the lead lap at the conclusion of recent races. Since Homestead, he’s finished no worse than 16th but was forced to fend off positions on long runs. The lack of late-race restarts would’ve suited him well; his two best finishes last season came in races containing overtime restarts.

Races defined by and ending on long runs are DiBenedetto’s biggest bugbear. He currently holds a negative surplus passing value — given his proficiency on restarts, it’s clearly due to leaky position defending deeper into runs — but crew chief Greg Erwin has offered little assistance in alleviating the problem. Active on 10 of the 12 green-flag pit cycles this season, Erwin defended DiBenedetto’s running spot just 50% of the time, amassing a net loss of 30 positions.

Based solely on median speed — DiBenedetto ranks 16th — the No. 21 team appears of a playoff caliber. Their 24th-place position in the standings, 56 points removed from what’s now the playoff cutoff, indicates a chasm requiring a more deliberate focus on stage points and race results than what we’ve seen.

But even without tangible improvement on strategy, a bigger helping and more timely distribution of restarts could put DiBenedetto back in playoff contention.

Charlotte Cup race postponed to Monday by weather


CONCORD, N.C. — All-day rain Sunday forced the postponement of the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series race to Monday.

The postponement means that Charlotte Motor Speedway is scheduled to host 900 miles of stock car racing Monday. A 300-mile Xfinity Series race, originally scheduled Saturday and first postponed to noon Monday, has been rescheduled for 11 a.m. ET Monday (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The Cup race is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. (Fox, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Sunday’s Cup race was scheduled to start at 6:21 p.m. ET, but light rain was still falling at that time in the speedway area near Charlotte. Rain intensified a few minutes later and, despite an evening forecast that showed slight improvement, officials decided at 6:30 p.m. to postpone the race.

Monday’s forecast calls for a 34% chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race and a 30% chance at the start of the Cup race.

William Byron will start the race from the pole after qualifying was washed out Saturday night.

RFK Racing gains sponsorship from submarine recruiting group


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR racing and submarines? Yes.

RFK Racing announced Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that it has entered a partnership with BlueForge Alliance, which is involved in securing workers for the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base (SIB) program. will be a primary sponsor for RFK drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher in 10 Cup Series races this year and in 18 races per season beginning in 2024.

The sponsorship will showcase the careers related to the submarine-building program across the nation.

MORE: Jimmie Johnson on his NASCAR team and his approach to Le Mans

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns from injury

“I’m proud to support a cause of such vital significance to our country with this new partnership,” Keselowski said. “The synergies between a NASCAR team and our military’s needs to stay on track fast are countless. We hope to inspire the workforce of the next generation across the country when they see RFK race and hear our message.”

The sponsorship will support the mission to recruit, hire, train, develop and retain the SIB workforce that will build the Navy’s next generation of submarines, the team said.

“We are excited and grateful to be teaming with RFK Racing to drive awareness of the thousands of steady, well-paying manufacturing jobs available across the nation. Innovation, working with purpose and service to others are hallmarks of both of our organizations,” said Kiley Wren, BlueForge chief executive. “Together, we aim to inspire NASCAR fans and all Americans to pursue career opportunities that will support our national defense.”

Kyle Larson visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway to survey the scene


Former NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who is scheduled to run the Indianapolis 500 in 2024 as part of an Indy-Charlotte “double,” visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area Sunday on Indianapolis 500 race day.

Larson said he wanted to familiarize himself with the Indy race-day landscape before he becomes immersed in the process next year.

MORE: Jimmie Johnson is building a team and pointing to Le Mans

Larson later returned to Charlotte, where was scheduled to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Next year, he’s scheduled to run both races.

“I love racing,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I love competing in the biggest races. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time, and I finally feel like the timing is right. It’s pretty cool to have a dream come true.

“I wanted to come here and kind of experience it again and get to experience how crazy it is again before I’m in the middle of it next year. I kind of want as little surprise as possible next year.”

In the 2024 500, Larson will be one of four drivers with the Arrow McLaren team.

Earlier this month, Larson and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon attended an Indy 500 practice day.

Larson said Sunday he hasn’t tested an Indy car.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll get in the car,” he said. “I’ve had no sim (simulator) time yet. I’ve kind of stayed back. I didn’t want to ask too many questions and take any focus on what they have going on for these couple of weeks. I’m sure that will pick up after today.

“I look forward to the challenge. No matter how this experience goes, I’m going to come out of it a better race car driver.”




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.”