Team Penske’s strength at 750 horsepower lays blueprint, invites challengers

0 Comments

When NASCAR turned its top division into a split-horsepower series in 2019, then made a 750-horsepower track its host for the championship race in 2020, drivers and teams with a prowess for shorter tracks benefited. While some relied upon preexisting short-track strength, organizations like Team Penske saw the writing on the wall and knew a critical pivot was in order.

“As soon as they put Phoenix as the last (race), everybody started grabbing the wheel on the ship and started trying to turn it,” said Penske competition director Travis Geisler in the days leading up to last season’s finale.

“It’s a difficult thing to say, ‘Let’s be faster at this style of track,’ because you’re always trying to do that, but we were really weak,” Geisler said. “We thought a couple years ago we were — I would honestly say — terrible at a lot of short tracks. We probably had our weakest stretch of short-track races in a while.”

Geisler’s point was salient: Between Martinsville and Phoenix, respectively the 750-horsepower tracks acting as the cutoff race for the semifinal round and championship race, Penske secured just two wins in a combined 24 attempts (across eight races) for its three teams between 2018-19. Mid-pack teams would have, of course, happily settled for a similar record, but for Penske, two wins and a bad combined norm for Brad Keselowski (an 8.1-place average finish over two years), Ryan Blaney (11.0) and Joey Logano (13.6) didn’t pass muster.

“There’s a lot of points at (750-horsepower) tracks throughout the year and we knew we needed to improve,” Geisler said. “As soon as the Phoenix announcement came out, there was a pretty good fire under everyone at that point. And we certainly went to work on it.”

The attempt at a pivot manifested in improved finishing averages across Martinsville and Phoenix for Logano (2.8) and Keselowski (5.0) and a pair of runner-up results for Blaney at Martinsville.

In last fall’s finale, conspiracy theories permeated from social media where confused fans were skeptical that the Championship 4 represented the fastest, most competitive entries in the race, but a fix was hardly in: Chase Elliott, Logano and Keselowski ranked as the three fastest teams on 750-horsepower tracks for the whole of 2020, while Denny Hamlin had one of the three fastest cars at Bristol, New Hampshire and Dover which, like Phoenix, fell into the 750-horsepower category.

The final day of the season rewarded the specialists, those who channeled the majority of their time and energy on the track type responsible for crowning champions and one that’s seen its representation on the schedule grow from 33% to 56% between 2020 and 2021. But this is a specialization that prompts a diminished focus elsewhere.

Geisler admitted such a reallocation of R&D meant a punt on some of NASCAR’s largest venues like Daytona and Talladega.

“We probably did marginalize some of our other developments a little bit,” Geisler said. “I would say the superspeedway package probably is the one that takes a little bit of the hit. When you look at it, it used to be its own discipline, with its own cars and everything was very specific. And now with it having a lot of the same rules that we run on our 550s every week, it was kind of like, ‘Hey, let’s try to … pile them together and maybe focus on the short track thing a little bit more.’”

It’s possible Penske’s recalibrated focus on 750 horsepower doomed more than just the drafting tracks. The program’s output across all 550-horsepower tracks, namely the 1.5-mile facilities, saw a dip in performance based on underlying numbers:

Logano’s expected and actual adjusted pass efficiencies on 550-horsepower tracks dropped incrementally each season since tracks were split into two primary rules packages. Despite wins last year in Las Vegas and Kansas, the latter in part to his pit crew gaining him 16 spots under yellow, he’s effectively been a minus passer the last two years. He’s yet to score a positive adjusted pass differential in a 550-horsepower race this season.

Articulating these struggles last year as “a lost puppy, that’s what we are,” Logano understood the depth of his team’s competitive chasm to the likes of Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. That divide persists: Logano is currently the third-least efficient passer on 550-horsepower tracks (only Justin Haley and B.J. McLeod fare worse) and his car ranks 11th in average median lap time.

Clearly, little to no improvement was made from last year to this year, a price Penske seems willing to pay in order to be proficient on 750-horsepower tracks and champion by season’s end. It’s also a showing of strength that invites challengers.

In the glow of his win last month in Phoenix, JGR’s James Small indicated he’d been working all offseason on improving the baseline car setup for Martin Truex Jr. at that particular 1-mile track, a dedication that prevents deliberate gains elsewhere.

“We got back from Phoenix last year, we sucked, we finished 10th,” Small said. “We were unhappy with how we ran. (Engineer Jeff Curtis) and I started working straight away the week after on what we’re going to do to get better. All offseason we’ve worked on that.

“You saw all the dividends for all the work we put in, the changes we made. Hopefully, he can be back in the (Championship 4) and we can get better then.”

Surely, if any new teams are going to crack the top of the speed charts on 750-horsepower tracks, it will have emanated from big improvements made last winter. Such efforts will be a tacit admission that Penske (and Hendrick Motorsports with Elliott) pulled fast ones on the field in 2020. While those two organizations might be firmly positioned as the two to beat across the next two weekends, both at short tracks in Martinsville and Richmond, it’s fair to assume continued dominance won’t be as easy of a pathway.

NASCAR, with its recent rules changes, created a series in which teams are forced to compartmentalize efforts based on their desired routes to achieving goals. The upcoming slate of races on 750-horsepower tracks will benefit the teams choosing this specific path, potentially symbolizing strength among championship contenders.

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

0 Comments

NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

2 Comments

NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. 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.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

1 Comment

CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

0 Comments

Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).