Analysis: Sustaining top-end speed key to ending Chase Elliott’s winless run

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After a quarter of a season, both Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott are equally winless; however, that’s the only common denominator between the two, both Championship 4 participants last season, with the latter claiming the series title.

Despite a lead lost in the waning laps at Richmond, Hamlin remained steadfast in the belief of his team, which presently carries the most statistically productive results-getter among all drivers, the fastest car across all tracks and 48 or more points earned in seven of their nine starts.

Lacking Hamlin’s more effective effort, Elliott’s 2021 season is a title defense gone noticeably limp, a nine-race showcase (10 if you count the driver’s botched attempt at a bump-and-run on Ryan Blaney during the season-opening Busch Clash exhibition) in which the driver, crew chief and team appear wounded.

Elliott’s season hit a high point two weeks ago at Martinsville, his own second-place finish after which, void of any extroverted energy, he articulated relief.

“Every week I feel like it’s been one thing or another, a bad run or just whatever,” Elliott said. “No damage, we didn’t break anything. Everything was just smooth. It was uneventful. That’s the days you have to have to compete for wins, ultimately. Some of that is in your hands, some of it’s not.”

The 25-year-old is the only winless driver at Hendrick Motorsports this year, but the why of it all isn’t readily clear. The perception — that the team is failing or the driver is lost — isn’t entirely the reality.

For Elliott, the only driver last season to rank among the top five in Production in Equal Equipment Rating, restart retention rate, surplus passing value and speed, well-roundedness in key statistical categories is the norm, perhaps now the expectation. This season, it’s a trait that’s carried over to his team as a whole in measures of track position procurement:

In terms of reliability in attaining track position, Elliott is largely the same driver he was during his 2020 championship campaign, albeit with a slight drop in positional net via restarts (-0.32 per attempt, down from +0.11). Alan Gustafson, the crew chief who informs Elliott’s green-flag pit cycle (GFPC) offense and defense, has improved significantly over a season in which his biggest impact was mechanical, not strategic. Against other strategists, he ranks in the 59th and 69th percentiles, respectively, providing a bigger safety net for his diligent long-run passer.

The driver has contributed an adjusted pass differential 58 positions beyond his statistical expectation, while the crew chief is responsible for a three-position net gain. Omitting a 33-position net loss for damage repair at Las Vegas, Elliott’s pit crew has helped gain him 10 spots under caution-flag conditions this season. Inherently, there’s nothing blatant to point to in regards to execution, which means their irrelevance among the elite is, at least superficially, a mechanical cause.

This team ranked first in speed across all 36 races last season and on 750-horsepower tracks specifically and, based on common running whereabouts, underachieved, leaving as many as five potential victories on the table. But speed itself is the issue this year, though not in the manner one would expect.

Elliott’s fastest laps in the Daytona 500, the Daytona road course race and Las Vegas ranked first among all drivers. His best laps ranked second at Homestead and third in Martinsville and Richmond. Across those six races, he averaged a 10.7-place finish.

For varying reasons, some publicized, the elite speed being produced in optimal conditions failed to sustain for the entirety of the race in most cases:

To wit, what’s wrong with Elliott and Gustafson exists here, in the difference between the team’s top-end speed and the speed being sustained. Between broken parts, damage or a straightforward imbalance in handling, a dip is present, and any small dip in performance at the highest level creates difficulty.

While having industry-best top-end speed, they also rank sixth in average median lap time overall and seventh on 750-horsepower tracks specifically. Given the first/first splits in similar speed categories last season, these represent jarring dips, potentially symbolizing the rise of Joe Gibbs Racing and Elliott’s competition internally at Hendrick, namely William Byron (ranked second in overall median lap time) and Kyle Larson (ranked fifth). The six drivers ranked ahead of Elliott in median lap time rank on 750-horsepower tracks hold a combined six wins this year, brands of sustainability and success he lacks.

Stock car racing, like other genres of motorsport, tends to reward those with fast cars for an entire race. Since the inception of loop data in 2005, the fastest machine in a given event wins roughly 40% of the time. In 2020, speed ranking with flag-to-flag influence was the metric most correlative to finish; thus, it’s probably not a coincidence that Elliott is winless with his quantifiable speed occupying such an inconsistent space.

This was supposed to have been a season — with a schedule featuring seven road course races and an increase in 750-horsepower tracks — firmly in line with what Elliott does well. Still early days, the hypothesized advantage has yet to manifest, but whereas growth atop a championship-winning foundation was the initial thought, it seems the schedule could soon act as a much-needed crutch.

This weekend’s race in Talladega offers Elliott a chance to win on a track where’s he previously won, in a car perennially optimized for fast laps within the draft. The five other regular-season road course races, a track type on which he’s won four of the last five points-paying races, will morph into must-win situations if the disconnect between top-end speed and median speed on normal ovals isn’t nipped in the bud.

Regardless, Elliott isn’t out of the championship hunt, but without the speed he flashed early last season, an understood indicator of the team’s ability and intentions, it’s clear his playoff march will require some guesswork and, potentially, a much different path than the one he blazed.

Sponsor adds more races in 2023 with Josh Berry

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Jarrett Companies will increase the number of races it will sponsor Josh Berry‘s No. 8 JR Motorsports ride in 2023, the Xfinity Series team announced Monday.

Jarrett Companies will sponsor Berry in six races after serving as the primary sponsor in three races in 2022. Those six races will be Phoenix (March 11), Richmond (April 1), Dover (April 29), Atlanta (July 8), Indianapolis (Aug. 12) and Texas (Sept. 23).

The deal gives Berry at least 26 races with sponsorship for next season. Bass Pro Shops will serve as the primary sponsor of Berry’s car in 11 races in 2023. Tire Pros is back with JRM and will sponsor Berry in nine races in the upcoming season.

Berry, who reached the Xfinity title race and finished fourth in the points, will have a new crew chief in 2023. Taylor Moyer will take over that role with Mike Bumgarner serving as JRM’s director of competition.

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.

 

Where are they now? Buddy Parrott enjoying down time

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Buddy Parrott played outsized roles in two of the most dramatic races in NASCAR history.

Now 83 years old and retired from the sport since 2001, Parrott looks back on those two days as highlights of a career that began in the early 1970s.

In the 1990 Daytona 500, champion driver Dale Earnhardt seemed on course to end his frustration in NASCAR’s biggest event. He held the lead roaring down the backstretch on the last lap. Suddenly, Earnhardt slowed with a blown tire.

The lead was inherited by Derrike Cope, who charged to the checkered flag to score one of racing’s biggest upsets.

Parrott was Cope’s crew chief.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes through the years

In 1984, Richard Petty edged Cale Yarborough to win the summer race at Daytona International Speedway. It was Petty’s 200th – and final – win.

Parrott was Petty’s crew chief.

Those victories were high marks in a long pit-road career that saw Parrott’s drivers win dozens of races. He worked with, among others, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Burton and Petty and for team owners Jack Roush and Roger Penske.

Parrott remains active at 83, although he admits to having moved to a slower gear.

“I haven’t been living on the edge,” Parrott told NBC Sports. “I’ve been taking it really easy. I told my sons when you get to be 80 you can do anything you want because basically you’ve already done it.”

MORE: NASCAR, ARCA 2023 schedules

His strongest current connection to NASCAR is as a voter in the annual Hall of Fame balloting.

After more than 20 years roaming pit roads as a crew chief, Parrott moved into a general manager role at Roush Racing in 1997. He retired four years later and didn’t look back.

“I finally told Jack one day, ‘I don’t have time to ride my motorcycle,’ ” Parrott said. “He looked at me and said, ‘What do you want to do about it?’ I said, ‘I’m ready to retire.’ He told me I could work whatever schedule I wanted, but I decided that was it. I didn’t have a going-away thing or whatever.”

Parrott spent much of the next 15 years traveling with his wife, Judy, who died in 2016, and playing with his grandchildren.

“I had a great time in retirement because Judy was ready and I was ready,” he said. “We had a lot of fun. We’d go to Florida for two and three months at a time. I’m so happy that I didn’t hang on and go to the shop every day and try to find something to do. I spent that time with Judy, and we had 16 years of good retirement.”

Parrott, a native of Gastonia, N.C., lives in Statesville, N.C. His sons, Todd and Brad, also were NASCAR crew chiefs.

MORE: Jody Ridley’s Dover win an upset for the ages

Parrott is perhaps best remembered as crew chief for Rusty Wallace, Team Penske and the No. 2 black cars sponsored by Miller Lite. From 1992-94, they won 19 races and were consistently competitive at the front.

“I still get a lot of cards sent to me to sign from those years,” Parrott said. “I can say that was some of the happiest times I had. Those years with Rusty – and then with Jack Roush – really stand out. And who in the hell could not have fun having a beer sponsor?”

 

 

NASCAR Awards to air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Joey Logano didn’t need much time to answer the question.

Who would the two-time Cup champion want to introduce him at the NASCAR Awards?

Racing icon Mario Andretti, Logano immediately said. 

And there was Andretti on the stage at the Music City Center introducing Logano, the 2022 Cup champion. Watch that and the rest of the night’s festivities at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock. You can order Peacock here.

MORE: See the red carpet scene

MORE: Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

NBC Sports’ Marty Snider and Kim Coon co-hosted the show along with Fox Sports’ Kaitlyn Vincie. The Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions were honored. Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, whose father died hours after Gibbs won the Xfinity title last month, received a standing ovation and thanked the industry for its support.

The highlight of the night for Logano was having Andretti on stage to introduce him.

“He’s just been a great role model for me, not only as a racer, but as a person for so long,” Logano said afterward. “I had his picture on my wall. I looked at Mario Andretti before I went to sleep every night as a kid. I thought it was the coolest thing that he signed it to me.”

NASCAR Awards and Champion Celebration
Cup champion Joey Logano on stage with racing icon Mario Andretti during the NASCAR Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Logano and Andretti have gotten to know each other through the years. Logano ran a throwback car that honored Andretti at Darlington Raceway in 2015 and 2021.

But none of that compared to being on stage with Andretti.

“That’s still like a pinch-me moment,” Logano said. “It’s Mario Andretti. He’s the man. The fact that he knows my name I think is really, really cool.”

Catch the NASCAR Awards at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”