Analysis: Chase Elliott among 3 drivers bound for improved results

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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.

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.”