NASCAR takeaways: Number crunching after seven races

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After claiming his first NASCAR Cup Series championship last year, Chase Elliott made sure to let the media know there would be no title “defense” on his mind for 2021.

“There is no defending,” he said on Feb. 8. “We need to be on offense. We need to keep pushing. I think if you’re back on your heels and trying to protect something, I don’t think your mind is in the right place.

“We want more. We’re not trying to play defense. We just simply want more. That needs to be our outlook and keep it as simple as that.”

Things started out well for Elliott with a runner-up finish in the season-opening Daytona 500. The next week on the Daytona road course, he showed that he remains the series’ top driver in that discipline, even if the result didn’t show it.

That 21st-place finish, however, started a five-race downturn that included four finishes of 13th or worse and a DNF at his home track in Atlanta.

Elliott stopped the slide with a 10th-place finish on the dirt at Bristol. And there’s an argument to be made that there are better weeks ahead for him.

But seven races in, Kyle Larson and William Byron have taken the spotlight for the Hendrick Motorsports stable.

Not only have both earned wins, they’re also among the top five in many loop metrics.

Larson is tops in laps led (379), much of that coming from a dominant run at Atlanta that didn’t end with a victory. He’s also leading in fastest laps run (237), and quality passes (446), which are passes made inside the top 15 under green flag conditions.

In average running position, Larson (9.5) and Byron (10.7) are fourth and fifth respectively. Byron is also fifth in laps led (129) and fastest laps run (99).

That Larson was able to quickly re-adapt to Cup racing wasn’t surprising. Byron, on the other hand, appears to have made a big step toward becoming a weekly fixture at the front (something he stated as his goal back in December). Keep in mind that through the first seven races last year, he had an average finish of 22.1 and average running position of 15.9.

Everything but the W

Last year, Denny Hamlin was the clear No. 1 at Joe Gibbs Racing. But while he and the No. 11 team have carried that performance into 2021, they don’t have a win to show for it.

Perhaps that’s why last Monday’s near-miss on the dirt at Bristol appeared to sting Hamlin a little more.

He hasn’t just been banking strong finishes (series-high six top fives; none worse than 11th). He’s also been banking stage points at near-perfect efficiency.

He’s scored points in 13 of 14 stages with three stage wins. In the 13 stages where he’s scored, he earned a top-five finish in all but one. The outlier was a ninth-place finish in the second stage at Atlanta; he went on to finish fourth in the race.

Hamlin is also tops in several other statistics, including average finish (4.7), average running position (5.9), and laps inside the top 15 (1,549 in total; 91.4%).

It’s added up to a 58-point lead, nearly a full race’s worth, over Joey Logano in the regular season standings.

Through seven races last year, Hamlin was eighth in the regular season standings. But he was already in the playoffs with two wins.

After the Easter break, two of his strongest tracks historically are next: Martinsville Speedway (five Cup wins, avg. finish of 9.9) and Richmond Raceway (three Cup wins, avg. finish of 9.2.). However, Hamlin hasn’t won at Martinsville since March 2015 and Richmond since September 2016.

Stewart-Haas struggles

A downturn in performance across the board have left Stewart-Haas Racing in a diminished state after seven races.

Kevin Harvick sits 10th in the playoff standings and has five top 10 finishes in seven races. But the usual speed of the No. 4 team has been missing. Harvick hasn’t led since the Daytona 500 (17 laps) and has only scored points in five of 14 stages.

It’s still better than where his three teammates are right now. Cole Custer, rookie Chase Briscoe and Aric Almirola are all outside the top 20 in points and have failed to record a single top-10 finish between them. The trio’s best finishes are a pair of 11th-place results, one from Custer, one from Almirola.

But while Custer and Briscoe have at least avoided any DNFs, Almirola has already suffered three – the same number he took over all of last season.

Custer, Briscoe and Almirola, like their champion teammate, have suffered from a lack of speed but in a far more acute way.

All three drivers are ranked outside the top 25 drivers in green flag speed – Custer in 26th, Almirola in 27th, and Briscoe in 30th. Even with his own issues, Harvick ranks ninth in this statistic.

Hit or miss for Kyle Busch

Coming off perhaps his best race of the season at Atlanta, Kyle Busch had to soldier to a 17th-place finish at Bristol after pitting early for overheating and then getting involved in a multi-car incident shortly after the race’s midway point.

It continued a string of up-and-down results over the first seven races. While Busch has earned three top 10s, he’s also had four finishes of 14th or worse.

Busch also was inconsistent through seven races last year. He had four top fives, but also had three finishes of 15th or worse. As we know, he didn’t get to Victory Lane until October at Texas after he’d been eliminated from the playoffs.

Speed-wise, Busch has been decent this season (ranked seventh in green flag speed). However, his average running position of 13.9 lags behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Hamlin (5.9) and Martin Truex Jr. (9.1), and is only slightly ahead of another teammate, Christopher Bell (14.6).

It’s all left him in the middle of an emerging playoff “bubble battle.” Only 15 points separate him in 13th place and the first driver out in 17th, Chris Buescher.

Unless the No. 18 team gets hot coming out of the Easter break, Busch may be in that group for a while.

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.”