Talladega Cup takeaways: William Byron, Michael McDowell stay solid


A lucky escape set the stage for William Byron to click off another strong finish Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Byron, along with Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman, were sent spinning into the infield grass as part of a multi-car incident just before the final lap of Stage 2.

But Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet avoided splitter damage in the grass and then oncoming traffic.

“Once I saw (Denny Hamlin) getting turned into the fence, I saw it developing,” said Byron, who recovered from the incident to finish second. “As soon as you start to see somebody kind of lose momentum, you see some contact, even the slightest contact, I usually try to either check up at these places, or turn and go around it.

“I don’t know if that was the right thing to do or not. Obviously I got spun out, was able to keep it out of the outside wall. Our guys were able to execute good, fix the car up, get it reasonable to where we could be a good pusher.”

As it turned out, he almost pushed himself to a win.

Taking the overtime restart in ninth on the inside lane, Byron appeared to get into Daniel Suarez after the white flag. Suarez briefly went sideways before saving it and dropping to the apron.

When the field came back to Turn 4, Byron was tucked behind Michael McDowell and leader Brad Keselowski. But when McDowell tried to go to the outside of Keselowski in the tri-oval, Byron didn’t go with him.

“As soon as he tried to go outside of (Keselowski), I just didn’t have enough momentum to kind of get to (Keselowski) and do something,” said Byron. “I was kind of a sitting duck. Like I said, we had damage. Obviously, once the car would see clean air, it wasn’t that fast. But in the draft, we were pretty good still.”

For McDowell’s part, he said he was trying to “drag back” to Byron in order to set up a run on Keselowski.

“From what I could tell, I just didn’t drag Brad back enough when I got to his right rear,” McDowell said. “He did a good job of pulling to the left, kind of getting me off of his right rear.

“It was close. If (Byron) would have stayed up with us, we would have definitely had the momentum. We would have got Brad. But I understand, too, (Byron) is trying to win the race. You’re trying to look out the front and the back at the same time and make a good decision.”

MORE: Michael McDowell lands first national TV ad after Daytona 500 win

Near-misses aside, Byron and McDowell’s good seasons continued with their results.

Byron has rattled off eight top-10 finishes in a row starting from his win in February at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He, crew chief Rudy Fugle and the No. 24 team are living up to weekly contender status.

“There’s been a few obstacles that we’ve already cleared,” Byron said of his year so far. “Now we’re going into the racetracks that are kind of the bread and butter of our team.”

As for McDowell, he has four top 10s this season to match his career high set last season. In 2020, he didn’t get his fourth top 10 until September at the Bristol Night Race.

“It’s a dream come true,” McDowell said. “This is what I’ve worked so hard to be in a position like this: To run well consistently, to have the opportunity to perform.”

Save of the day?

Suarez’s booting on the final lap relegated him to a 23rd-place finish after he had to make perhaps Sunday’s biggest save.

Trackhouse posted a clip of the incident on social media, and it’s clear that it could’ve gone worse.

As for Suarez himself, he tweeted Monday that “we were where we needed to be when it counted. Not the result we deserved.”

Keep in mind that it’s the second time in three weeks that a bump from Byron has cost Suarez.

At Martinsville, Byron bumped Suarez out of the way and into the wall, causing Suarez to fall back in the field. Not long after, Suarez was collected in a 12-car crash that red-flagged the race with 115 laps to go; Suarez subsequently expressed his displeasure with Byron by throwing his water bottle at him.

Going back to Sunday, it also cost Richard Childress Racing an opportunity to come out of Talladega with three top 10s (Trackhouse, a new Cup organization this season, is aligned with RCR).

RCR drivers Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon avoided problems on the final lap to finish seventh and eighth, respectively.

While Reddick took himself to task for choosing not to help Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney on the last lap, Dillon was glad to take the result after running around 15th at the white flag.

“We were really good to start the race, and then for portions of the race, we couldn’t make anything work unless I was on the top,” said Dillon. “We made some moves at the end of the race to get that eighth-place finish. Everyone was all over the place and that was some work.

“We hit someone on the outside quarter panel, but I’m not even sure who it was. We were all wrecking on the backstretch, but somehow it didn’t happen. I don’t know how we all came out of that. It was crazy.”

This time, the right side

Keselowski’s victory continued Ford’s recent run of dominance on NASCAR’s biggest track.

The Blue Oval has won 11 of the past 14 Talladega Cup races. Nine of those 11 wins have come from Team Penske. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing – May 2017) and Aric Almirola (Stewart-Haas Racing – October 2018) chipped in victories as well.

From the perspective of Keselowski’s crew chief, Jeremy Bullins, Ford’s keys to superspeedway success are the drivability of its cars and its driver/spotter tandems.

“The obvious answer when you come to Talladega and Daytona is that your car needs to be fast, but it also needs to handle well,” Bullins said. “I think we’ve done a good job of having a balance of both. I think that showed in the fact we were able to get all the cars towards the front as many times as we did.

“I think the drivers and the spotters put a lot of emphasis in it. (Spotter) Coleman Pressley and Brad have worked so well together. To Brad’s point of learning how to make the moves to get where you need to get at the end of these things, I thought they did a perfect job at the end of putting themselves in a position to where opportunity came about for us to get to the front. They do that by studying these races and understanding what it takes to make those passes at the end.”

The win was also a bounce-back for the No. 2 team after a strategy call from Bullins went awry one week ago on the short track at Richmond Raceway.

During a round of green flag pit stops in Stage 2, Bullins kept Keselowski on the track in an attempt to keep track position and save an extra set of tires for the final stage. But Keselowski fell off the lead lap before the stage ended. He didn’t return to the lead lap until a late wave-around and finished 14th.

Was it redemption for Bullins?

“I kind of laugh,” he said. “When things go wrong like that, you just have to learn from it. Obviously, that didn’t play out like we wanted it to. At the end of the day, there’s 36 of these (races) for a reason. Sometimes you get it wrong and sometimes you get it right.

“…We’ll learn from last week and won’t make that mistake again. It’s just part of it. You’re always going to lose more than you win in this sport. I don’t think there’s been anybody yet that won more than they got wrong. That’s just part of it. It certainly feels good to bounce back this week.”

Dr. Diandra: How level is the playing field after 50 Next Gen races?


Last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 marks 50 Next Gen races. The 2022 season produced 19 different winners, including a few first-career wins. Let’s see what the data say about how level the playing field is now.

I’m comparing the first 50 Next Gen races (the 2022 season plus the first 14 races of 2023) to the 2020 season and the first 14 races of 2021. I selected those two sets of races to produce roughly the same types of tracks. I focus on top-10 finishes as a metric for performance. Below, I show the top-10 finishes for the 13 drivers who ran for the same team over the periods in question.

A table comparing top-10 rates for drivers in the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars, limited to drivers who ran for the same team the entire time.

Because some drivers missed races, I compare top-10 rates: the number of top-10 finishes divided by the number of races run. The graph below shows changes in top-10 rates for the drivers who fared the worst with the Next Gen car.

A graph showing drivers who have done better in the next-gen car than the Gen-6 car.

Six drivers had double-digit losses in their top-10 rates. Kevin Harvick had the largest drop, with 74% top-10 finishes in the Gen-6 sample but only 46% top-10 finishes in the first 50 Next Gen races.

Kyle Larson didn’t qualify for the graph because he ran only four races in 2020. I thought it notable, however, that despite moving from the now-defunct Chip Ganassi NASCAR team to Hendrick Motorsports, Larson’s top-10 rate fell from 66.7% to 48.0%.

The next graph shows the corresponding data for drivers who improved their finishes in the Next Gen car. This graph again includes only drivers who stayed with the same team.

A graph showing the drivers who have fewer top-10 finishes in the Next Gen car than the Gen-6 car

Alex Bowman had a marginal gain, but he missed six races this year. Therefore, his percent change value is less robust than other drivers’ numbers.

Expanding the field

I added drivers who changed teams to the dataset and highlighted them in gray.

A table comparing top-10 rates for drivers in the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars

A couple notes on the new additions:

  • Brad Keselowski had the largest loss in top-10 rate of any driver, but that may be more attributable to his move from Team Penske to RFK Motorsports rather than to the Next Gen car.
  • Christopher Bell moved from Leavine Family Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2021. His improvement is likely overestimated due to equipment quality differences.
  • Erik Jones stayed even, but that’s after moving from JGR (13 top-10 finishes in 2020) to Richard Petty Motorsports (six top 10s in 2021.) I view that change as a net positive.

At the end of last season, I presented the tentative hypothesis that older drivers had a harder time adapting to the Next Gen car. Less practice time mitigated their experience dialing in a car so that it was to their liking given specific track conditions.

But something else leaps out from this analysis.

Is the playing field tilting again?

Michael McDowell is not Harvick-level old, but he will turn 39 this year. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 35. Both have improved with the Next Gen Car. Chase Elliott (27 years old) and William Byron (25) aren’t old, either, but their top-10 rates have gone down.

Drivers running for the best-funded teams earned fewer top-10 finishes while drivers from less-funded teams (mostly) gained those finishes.

Trackhouse Racing and 23XI — two of the newest teams — account for much of the gains in top-10 finishes. Ross Chastain isn’t listed in the table because he didn’t have full-time Cup Series rides in 2020 or 2021. His 9.1% top-10 rate in that period is with lower-level equipment. He earned 27 top-10 finishes in the first 50 races (54%) with the Next Gen car.

This analysis suggests that age isn’t the only relevant variable. One interpretation of the data thus far is that the Next Gen (and its associated rules changes) eliminated the advantage well-funded teams built up over years of racing the Gen-5 and Gen-6 cars.

The question now is whether that leveling effect is wearing off. Even though parts are the same, more money means being able to hire the best people and buying more expensive computers for engineering simulations.

Compare the first 14 races of 2022 to the first 14 of 2023.

  • Last year at this time, 23XI and Trackhouse Racing had each won two races. This year, they combine for one win.
  • It took Byron eight races to win his second race of the year in 2022. This year, he won the third and fourth races of the year. Plus, he’s already won his third race this year.
  • Aside from Stenhouse’s Daytona 500 win, this year’s surprise winners — Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney — are both from major teams.

We’re only 14 races into the 2023 season. There’s not enough data to determine the relative importance of age versus building a notebook for predicting success in the Next Gen car.

But this is perhaps the most important question. The Next Gen car leveled the playing field last year.

Will it stay level?

NASCAR weekend schedule at World Wide Technology Raceway, Portland


NASCAR’s top three series are racing this weekend in two different locations. Cup and Craftsman Truck teams will compete at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, and the Xfinity Series will compete at Portland International Raceway.

World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (Cup and Trucks)

Weekend weather

Friday: Partly cloudy with a high of 87 degrees during Truck qualifying.

Saturday: Sunny. Temperatures will be around 80 degrees for the start of Cup practice and climb to 88 degrees by the end of Cup qualifying. Forecast calls for sunny skies and a high of 93 degrees around the start of the Truck race.

Sunday: Mostly sunny with a high of 92 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the Cup race.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 1 – 8 p.m. Craftsman Truck Series
  • 4 – 9 p.m. Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 6:30 p.m. — Truck practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. — Truck qualifying (FS1)

Saturday, June 3

Garage open

  • 8 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.  — Cup Series
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series

Track activity

  • 10 – 10:45 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 10:45 a.m. – 12 p.m. — Cup qualifying  (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 1:30 p.m. — Truck race (160 laps, 200 miles; FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, June 4

Garage open

  • 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (240 laps, 300 miles; FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)


Portland International Raceway (Xfinity Series)

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly sunny with a high of 77 degrees.

Saturday: Mostly sunny with a high of 73 degrees and no chance of rain around the start of the Xfinity race.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 6-11 p.m. Xfinity Series

Saturday, June 3

Garage open

  • 10 a.m.  — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 11:30 a.m. – 12 p.m. — Xfinity practice (No TV)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 4:30 p.m. — Xfinity race (75 laps, 147.75 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR Cup playoff standings after Coca-Cola 600


The severe penalty to Chase Briscoe and his Stewart-Haas Racing team Wednesday for a counterfeit part dropped Briscoe from 17th to 31st in the season standings. Briscoe now must win a race to have a chance at the playoffs.

The penalty came a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for his retaliation in wrecking Denny Hamlin in Monday’s Coca-Cola 600. Elliott is 28th in the points. The 2020 Cup champion also needs to win to have a chance to make the playoffs.

Ten drivers have won races, including Coca-Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney. That leaves six playoff spots to be determined by points at this time. With 12 races left in the regular season, including unpredictable superspeedway races at Atlanta (July 9) and Daytona (Aug. 26), the playoff standings will change during the summer.

Among those without a win this season are points leader Ross Chastain and former champions Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Elliott.

Here’s a look at the Cup playoff standings heading into Sunday’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois. Drivers in yellow have won a race and are in a playoff position. Those below the red line after 16th place are outside a playoff spot in the graphic below.

NASCAR issues major penalties to Chase Briscoe team for Charlotte infraction


NASCAR fined crew chief John Klausmeier $250,000 and suspended him six races, along with penalizing Chase Briscoe and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team 120 points and 25 playoff points each for a counterfeit part on the car.

The issue was a counterfeit engine NACA duct, said Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition. That is a single-source part.

MORE: Updated Cup playoff standings

The team stated that it accepts the L3 penalty.

“We had a quality control lapse and a part that never should’ve been on a car going to the racetrack ended up on the No. 14 car at Charlotte,” said Greg Zipadelli in a statement from the team. “We accept NASCAR’s decision and will not appeal.”

Asked how then piece could have aided performance, Sawyer said Wednesday: “Knowing the race team mentality, they don’t do things that would not be a benefit to them in some way, shape or form from a performance advantage.”

The penalty drops Briscoe from 17th in the season standings to 31st in the standings. Briscoe goes from having 292 points to having 172 points. He’ll have to win to make the playoffs. Briscoe has no playoff points at this time, so the penalty puts him at -25 playoff points should he make it.

Briscoe’s car was one of two taken to the R&D Center after Monday’s Coca-Cola 600 for additional tear down by series officials.

The penalty comes a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in last weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.