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

0 Comments

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 viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway

0 Comments

After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

 

 

 

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.”