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:
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.
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.
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.