Analysis: Restarts a strength, possible building block for Brad Keselowski


Brad Keselowski’s win last Sunday at Talladega clinched him a playoff spot, settling his team’s top priority during the regular season. In doing so, it provided an opportunity for a mental reset, an altering of focus, for a year marred by empty performances, misguided strategy and subpar results based on statistical expectation.

And regardless of whatever comes next, his restarts should supply a source of strength.

Separating the signal from the noise

A fiery crash with a corporate teammate and unconventional pit strategy at Richmond stand out as the most obvious lowlights of a strange season for Keselowski.

The crash with fellow Team Penske driver Joey Logano came on the last lap of the Daytona 500, and while the culmination of aggressive and ill-advised driving between two hardheaded champions wasn’t an ideal way to end that race, it’s understandable how it came to fruition. Considering the same two drivers clashed a year prior in one of Daytona’s preliminary races, it probably surprised no one when it happened again with points, a coveted trophy and the year’s richest purse on the line.

Ultimately, the drama exceeded the real magnitude of a problem Roger Penske himself sought to squash last week, one with no bearing on Keselowski’s performance or effort.

At Richmond, Keselowski went from fourth to first to 16th across the race’s second green-flag pit cycle, a natural stopping point for fresh tires which crew chief Jeremy Bullins elected to ignore. It was a statistically egregious gambit in the moment, something Bullins admitted afterwards “didn’t (work) in a big way.”

Keselowski’s deep starting position at Richmond (20th) may have informed Bullins’ bid, and to be fair, a long-pitting tactic on a track that saw 1.5 seconds worth of tire degradation somehow worked in his favor, thanks to a Ryan Newman spin prompting a caution flag that abruptly ended the day’s first green-flag pit cycle. As a result, Keselowski was moved from eighth to first.

When Bullins doubled down on this later in the second stage, it amounted to an unnecessary additional gamble; however, the biggest issue with the strategy was not that Bullins utilized it, but that he felt he had to do it.

Keselowski’s car was slow relative to those running near the front of Richmond’s field. His fastest lap ranked 11th among the best laps for each driver, symbolizing a brand of top-end speed most likely incapable of winning and representing a steep drop from the car he had in his 2020 win at the same track, a car so strong Keselowski publicly pleaded with Bullins to save it until the season finale in Phoenix.

The team that had the third-fastest car across all 750-horsepower tracks in 2020, a successful result of a grand organizational design, ranks ninth through five such races this season, potentially due to the rise of Joe Gibbs Racing (ranking first, second and fifth with Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell) and the coming to prominence of Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron (ranked fourth).

It’s a sizable drop, but it shouldn’t render them incapable of winning, assuming they don’t panic and deploy the kind of strategy we saw from them in Richmond. The lack of front-running speed on the tracks most influential in deciding NASCAR’s champion is the underlying problem for Keselowski and company; reactionary strategy only compounds the issue.

Restarts represent Keselowski’s constant strength

In a quarter of a season featuring bad observable crashes, a high crash tally — nine total, the most in the Cup Series — and poor strategy-based output, Keselowski’s restarts were integral in holding the season together.

His performance on restarts in Las Vegas served as his season’s pinnacle — a +17 net gain from within the top 14 positions that didn’t include his 17th-to-eighth journey on laps 185-186 — and created a podium unto himself among all drivers on all restarts dating back to 2017:

But one race isn’t a saving grace; Keselowski ranks first in positions gained (+26) on restarts at choose-rule racetracks and in position retention rate (78.38%) among drivers with 10 or more attempts from inside the top 14.

Across the last three races on 750-horsepower tracks, all facilities with playoff representation, he loaded up on preferred groove spots via the choose rule and executed to a series-best ability. To wit, his position retention at Phoenix was perfect, highlighted by a wild initial start that saw him drive deep onto the dogleg’s apron, nearly grazing the inside retaining wall:

At Phoenix, Martinsville and Richmond, Keselowski scored a perfect retention rate from restart spots containing probabilities for retention higher than 60%. From “toss-up spots,” ranging from 50% to 60% in probability, he retained four times out of seven, a 57% rate. In all, he netted 10 positions, half from tracks offering lower ceilings then usual for positional gains on restarts.

Clearly, this is a good run of form translatable to the playoffs, a source of strength that can be relied upon if all else fails or used as a springboard if all that fails has been corrected. In the short term, this skill could help fashion his second and third quarters of the season into periods more becoming a driver with a track position profile heading in a good direction as he nears his statistical peak.

This weekend’s race in Kansas offers a good starting point. A 550-horsepower track, the 1.5-miler falls into the category that’s best suited Keselowski so far in 2021 — the team ranks second in median speed with this rules package — and hosts a race where track position is tough to come by, normalizing frenzied restarts.

It benefits Keselowski that Kansas is the site of his best single-race restarting performance of the last five years. It’d further behoove him if Sunday’s race ended shortly after a late-race restart. It’s no coincidence that his first win of the season came as a result of an overtime restart; his average finish splits between races without late-race restarts and those with at least one (in which he was an active participant) are 11.3 and 8.7, respectively. Nine of his last 12 Cup Series race victories, dating back to 2017, were in races containing late restarts.

This reliable restarting acumen carried him through the early part of the 2021 season. It could act as a cornerstone for a championship charge.

NASCAR penalizes Erik Jones, Legacy MC for L1 violation


NASCAR has docked Erik Jones and Legacy Motor Club 60 points and five playoff points each, suspended crew chief Dave Elenz two races and fined him $75,000 for the L1 violation discovered this week at the R&D Center. The team was found to have modified the greenhouse.

The penalty drops Jones from 26th to 30th in the standings heading into Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway.

MORE: NASCAR’s $1 million question is can the culture change?

“We have been diligently working with NASCAR regarding the penalty and are working internally to determine the course of action in response,” said Joey Cohen, vice president, race operations for Legacy MC, in a statement. “We will announce that decision within the timeframe determined by the NASCAR Rule Book.”

Cohen will serve as interim crew chief during Elenz’s suspension.

Jones’ car was among those brought to NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, after last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway.

NASCAR cited the team for violating:

Section 14.1.C: Vehicles must comply with Section 14 Vehicle and Driver Safety Specifications of the NASCAR Rule Book at all times during an Event. Failure to comply will be subject to Penalty pursuant to Section 10 Violations and Disciplinary Action.

Section 14.1.D: Except in cases explicitly permitted in the NASCAR Rules, installation of additional components, repairs, deletions, and/or modifications to Next Gen Single Source Vendor-supplied parts and/or assemblies will not be permitted.

Section 14.1.2.B: All parts and assemblies must comply with the NASCAR Engineering Change Log.

NASCAR also announced penalties Wednesday in the Craftsman Truck Series.

Crew chief Andrew Abbott has been fined $5,000, Young’s Motorsports has been penalized 25 points and Chris Hacker has been docked 25 points for a violation with the team’s window net.

Crew chief Charles Denike has been fined $2,500 for a lug nut not properly installed on Christian Eckes‘ truck for TRICON Garage.

Kamui Kobayashi to make NASCAR debut with 23XI Racing at Indy


LE MANS, France (AP) — Left out of the NASCAR celebration at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Toyota used Wednesday at the track to showcase its own stock car program and the upcoming Cup Series debut for one of the top racers in the world.

Kamui Kobayashi will make his NASCAR debut on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with Toyota in August driving for 23XI Racing, the team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan.

The announcement made Wednesday had several top NASCAR executives in attendance – including chairman Jim France – as Toyota found Le Mans to be the perfect backdrop to spotlight the one-race deal.

Toyota Gazoo, after all, has won Le Mans the last five consecutive years and Kobayashi, part of the 2021 winning effort, is team principal of the two-car organization that will try to make it six straight wins in the most prestigious endurance event in the world.

Toyota had initially felt jilted when NASCAR blindsided the industry last year by announcing it would bring its new Next Gen car to centenary Le Mans in a specialized category that showcases innovation, but the project was with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports. Toyota was the first rival NASCAR manufacturer to complain, and NASCAR has since tried to include all its partners in this weekend’s celebration and France signed off on holding the Kobayashi announcement at Le Mans.

It allowed Toyota to display the Camry it races in NASCAR; Kobayashi will drive the No. 67 in the Aug. 13 race. This will be the second race for the No. 67 car for 23XI Racing. Travis Pastrana finished 11th in the car at this year’s Daytona 500.

“We’ve been working on this assignment actually for a couple of years and Kamui has become a friend and we understood it was his dream one day to race in NASCAR,” said David Wilson, president of TRD, U.S.A. “With this great new Next Gen Toyota Camry TRD, the stars and planets started to align themselves and the next question became: Where should we announce this?

“It dawned on me with Kamui’s record of success, and being the team principal, to do it on this global stage at the biggest sports car race in the world.”

Kobayashi will be only the second Japanese driver to race in NASCAR’s top Cup Series and only the fifth to race in one of NASCAR’s top three national series. Kobayashi will be the first driver from Japan to race in the Cup Series in a Toyota, which entered NASCAR’s top series in 2007.

“It’s my dream, actually,” Kobayashi told The Associated Press. “It’s such a big sport in the United States and racing in Europe, I never had the chance or opportunity to race NASCAR. I think the opportunity will be challenging for myself because it is such a different category.

“But if I have success, I think it will make more opportunities for Japanese drivers. Toyota has been in NASCAR a long time, but there has never been any Japanese drivers for Toyota. That’s also why I say I appreciate this opportunity for myself.”

Kobayashi won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Toyota in 2021 and hasn’t finished lower than third since 2018. He has six podium finishes in eight appearances in the iconic endurance race.

Toyota trails only Bentley, Jaguar, Ferrari, Audi and Porsche for most wins at Le Mans. Porsche holds the record with 19 victories.

Kobayashi in 2021, after winning Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship title driving for Toyota Gazoo, was named team principal.

Kobayashi started his racing career karting in Japan but was discovered by Toyota while racing in Europe. He was named one of Toyota’s reserve Formula One drivers and made his debut during the 2009 season at the Brazilian Grand Prix. He raced in F1 through 2014 with one podium finish in 75 career starts.

Following his F1 career, Kobayashi returned to Japan and switched to the Super Formula Series, a class he still actively competes in. He’s since won the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice and was the anchor on an IMSA endurance sports car team in the United States for two seasons that was formed by seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Kobayashi loves racing in the United States, but IMSA’s adoption of new regulations to make its top class eligible to compete at Le Mans created a conflict of interest between Kobayashi’s Toyota responsibilities and continuing to race in IMSA, where Toyota is not represented in the top class. Toyota does field a Lexus in a lower IMSA division and Kobayashi raced for Vasser Sullivan Racing last June in Canada to get a feel for the GT car.

Many consider NASCAR’s Next Gen car to be very similar to the GT Lexus sports car that Kobayashi drove in IMSA last year, and that’s his closest experience to driving a stock car. He’ll be permitted to test with 23XI at a small track in Virginia ahead of the race at Indianapolis, and expects some time on the simulator.

Either way, he isn’t worried about seat time.

“I think I’m a guy who doesn’t need much practice, to be honest,” the 36-year-old Kobayashi told the AP. “I think once we jump in the car, we will be OK in a couple of laps. So I’m not really concerned about form.”

Drivers to watch at Sonoma Raceway


This weekend begins a key period for Cup drivers. Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway begins a stretch of four road course events in the next 10 races. The race to make the playoffs and to score playoff points is intensifying.


Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 10th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Circuit of the Americas)
  • Past at Sonoma: Does not have a top 15 in two previous starts

Reddick has won three of the last five Cup races on road courses, but Sonoma has been his kryptonite. He has yet to lead a lap there. Reddick’s three road course wins have been at Road America, Indianapolis and COTA.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best finish this season: 2nd (Fontana)
  • Past at Sonoma: Four top 10s, including a runner-up, in six starts

Elliott returns to the series after sitting out last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway due to suspension. He’s in a must-win situation to make the playoffs. Known for his prowess on road courses, Elliott’s last win at such a track came in 2021 at Road America. In the nine races at road courses since that win, Elliott has two runner-up finishes and six top 10s.

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 7th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Fontana, Talladega I, WWT Raceway)
  • Past at Sonoma: Had six straight finishes of seventh or better before placing 30th last year

Busch is tied with William Byron for the most wins this season with three. Busch has placed in the top three in the last two road course races. He has led in five of the last seven Sonoma Cup races. He is a two-time Sonoma winner, taking the checkered flag in 2008 and ’15.


Denny Hamlin 

  • Points position: 8th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Kansas I)
  • Past at Sonoma: Five consecutive top 10s until finishing 31st last year

Hamlin has not had a top-10 finish at a road course in the Next Gen car. He has an 18.4 average finish at road courses since last season. His best finish at a road course in that time is 13th at the Charlotte Roval.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best finish this season: 2nd (Dover)
  • Past at Sonoma: Two straight top-10 finishes

Chastain lost the points lead last weekend after his third consecutive finish outside the top 20. His fourth-place finish at Circuit of the Americas this season broke a streak of three consecutive finishes outside the top 20 at road courses.

Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best finish this season: 3rd (Talladega I)
  • Past at Sonoma: His runner-up finish last year was his first top 10 there in six starts

Until last year, Sonoma had not been kind to Buescher. He enters this weekend have scored six consecutive top 10s at road courses.

NASCAR Power Rankings: William Byron, Kyle Busch rank 1-2


Kyle Busch moved closer to the top spot after his win Sunday at WWT Raceway, but William Byron keeps hold of No. 1 after another top-10 run.

The series heads to Sonoma Raceway this weekend, the second race of the season on a road course.


(Previous ranking in parenthesis)

1. William Byron (1) — He goes into Sonoma with six consecutive top-10 finishes after his eighth-place result at WWT Raceway. Byron has led a series-high 717 laps this season.

2. Kyle Busch (4) — Recorded his third win of the season Sunday. He is tied with Byron for most wins this year. Busch scored 59 of a maximum 60 points and won his first stage of the year Sunday. He has 16 playoff points. Only Byron has more with 17 this season.

3. Kyle Larson (3) — His fourth-place finish continued his up-and-down season. In the last nine races, Larson has two wins, four top fives, a 20th-place result and four finishes of 30th or worse. He has led 588 laps this season, which ranks second this year to Byron.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (2) — His fifth-place finish is his sixth top 10 in the last eight races. He ranks third in laps led this year with 383.

5. Denny Hamlin (7) — Runner-up result at WWT Raceway is his fourth top 10 in the last seven races.

6. Ryan Blaney (10) — Followed Coca-Cola 600 win with a sixth-place run at WWT Raceway. He had an average running position of 2.6 on Sunday, second only to winner Kyle Busch’s average running position of 1.9.

7. Joey Logano (9) — Third-place finish is his second top 10 in the last four races.

8. Kevin Harvick (NR) — His 10th-place finish is his fourth consecutive finish of 11th or better.

9. Ross Chastain (6) — Lost the points lead after placing 22nd, his third consecutive finish outside the top 20.

10. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (NR) — Headed for his eighth top 15 in a row until he was collected in a crash after the contact between Austin Cindric and Austin Dillon late in Sunday’s race.

Dropped out: Chase Elliott (5th), Tyler Reddick (8th)