Parity among winners affects playoff race, bolsters need for calculated risks

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With seven winners through the first seven Cup Series races, the unexpected parity is affecting those on the playoff fringes. The need for wins, and the automatic playoff berths that come with them, is forcing riskier-than-usual pit strategy and more calculated approaches toward unlikely success.

Mike Wheeler’s decision to keep Bubba Wallace out on 7-lap-old tires for Phoenix’s Lap 269 restart was a polarizing call that ultimately proved bad — Wallace rapidly fell down the running order after initially losing three spots within the first two laps. After the race, Wheeler’s Twitter mentions exploded, so much so, he felt the need to explain himself:

There was a sound underlying logic to Wheeler’s actions. Despite Wallace building track position — he earned a single-race pass differential 5.57 positions better than his statistical expectation — he still lacked the speed necessary for securing front-running spots. His Toyota Camry ranked as the 19th fastest in median lap time, meaning a pit call exactly like this one was the most realistic pathway to clean air, an ingredient that allowed the likes of Joey Logano to build a 4.5-second lead before hitting heavy lapped traffic that day.

The plan clearly didn’t work, but it was reflective of the kind of all-or-nothing decision-making we should expect from teams on the periphery of the top 16.

A consistent path towards the playoffs might no longer hack it

In 2019, Ryan Newman and crew chief Scott Graves produced the blueprint for relative lightweights in terms of speed — Newman’s car ranked as the 22nd fastest during the regular season — to make the playoffs in a consistent, traditional fashion.

Newman crashed just three times during the first 26 races, while Graves gamed green-flag pit cycles toward the end of stages to secure 41 additional positions on the racetrack and 11 points. Those extra points came in handy: Newman edged Daniel Suárez by four points for the final playoff spot.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Newman’s Roush Fenway Racing stablemate at the time, took notice of the consistency, constructing this season’s focus with JTG Daugherty Racing around what worked two years ago.

“We really focused on just being more consistent week in and week out,” said Stenhouse, who finished second in last Monday’s race in Bristol. “That’s starting with me, the things I do behind the wheel, the things I do off the racetrack, preparing going into the weekend, just getting that mindset going into each race that it’s one race at a time.”

Stenhouse’s approach is paying dividends. He accumulated the 11th-most points across the last five races, and currently ranks 14th in the standings, above the playoff cutoff with the 20th-fastest car. But his is a plan diminished in impact with every new race winner.

Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 win compressed the number of available playoffs spots after Day 1 of the regular season. Wins by Christopher Bell and William Byron compounded the issue shortly thereafter. It’s not surprising to see cars from Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports qualify for the playoffs, but these particular teams were unexpected winners, originally thought to be in a point-padding battle for the final few playoff slots.

While the usual championship contenders aren’t sweating the pressure — the likes of Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick are each winless but still have 19 realistic chances at victory before the end of the regular season — those unlikely to win have been forced to pivot.

“For me, the playoffs is still the goal,” said Erik Jones, ranked 22nd in points with the 26th-fastest car. “Obviously, it’s getting tougher by the weekend. We’ve had seven different winners now in seven races, so we’re working our way pretty quickly to that 16-winner mark, which would be tough to make the playoffs, obviously, without a win at that point.

“You’ll have to have one.”

How will shock wins originate?

For the most part, unique winners tend to emerge from three specific scenarios.

The first opportunity is a late pit call, either to stay out or take just two tires. Similar to how Austin Dillon snuck in a victory against the lead pack last summer in Texas, tracks with little lap-time degradation on worn tires are ripe for these situations.

Goodyear nipped this particular call in the bud with the introduction of a universal tire combination for the majority of 1.5-mile tracks that saw falloff eclipse 1.2 seconds as recently as the Las Vegas race. But the scenario may present itself elsewhere, as early as Martinsville, where the falloff on worn tires was a half-second in most cases last fall.

The second opportunity manifests when hitting on a caution flag after a long-pitting attempt for that precise outcome.

Whereas the short-pitting tactic is a deliberate call for incremental gains, the long-pit is a shot in the dark for a bounty of spots. This year, we’ve seen exaggerated long-pit attempts from crew chiefs Travis Mack (on behalf of Suárez), Ryan Sparks (for Corey LaJoie) and Seth Barbour (for Anthony Alfredo), but given the teams, they were understandable, albeit long-shot gambles.

Teams with consistent mid-pack speed, like those of Wallace, Stenhouse and Jones, could view this as a best practice, especially in races where they lack track position.

The third and final opportunity is the least cost-effective of the trio: Go all in, for just one race.

Hindsight will tell us whether this has already happened with Byron’s flag-to-flag whipping of the field in Homestead despite statistical signs suggesting it wasn’t an aberration. But it stands to reason that a deliberate focus on one event in hopes of scoring an outlier result could work.

That’s what Richard Petty Motorsports attempted with Wallace in 2019, pouring resources into the team’s Indianapolis car in a fashion unsustainable for the small team for all other races. Their Chevrolet ranked as the 13th-fastest car in the race; Wallace finished third.

The shift away from large facilities and toward shorter tracks and road courses makes additional research and development on the 2-mile tracks a poor use of resources for those with realistic championship aspirations. This conceivably clears room for teams with mid-pack speed to upgrade their engine packages for a single race or allocate their limited hours of wind tunnel time in pursuit of one win at either Pocono or Michigan while faster teams are occupied with loftier goals.

Even though playoff qualification is only realistic to a select few, it’s equally lucrative. With seven spots already settled, teams on the fringes might soon eschew holistic consistency for a win-or-bust mentality.

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.”