Analysis: Strengths present, not always utilized by Ganassi teams

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For a dozen laps near the end of last Sunday’s race in Kansas, it appeared Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ross Chastain, hovering around the top five, would create a new best moment for his 2021 season. It’d perhaps surpass his most memorable moment to date — an attempt at viral marketing that didn’t occur on the racing surface — but swept away in a bevy of cautions and restarts, a highlight result failed to materialize. He finished 14th.

To casual observers, Chastain’s been invisible for the majority of his first full season in playoff-caliber Cup Series equipment, but that might not be an indictment on his driving ability. Similarly, Kurt Busch fell below the playoff cutoff following a nondescript 15th-place Kansas finish with no stage points, piloting equipment from the same source.

The current Ganassi lineup consists of an aging former champion (Busch) and an unproven Cup driver who came at a relative pittance (Chastain). How they were built around for the 2021 season suggests the Ganassi operation might finally be aware of its competitive shortcomings, even though this realization has yet to manifest in tangible results.

Busch is failing to take advantage of Ganassi’s biggest strength

On paper, it seems the Ganassi program braced for Busch’s decline.

Now 42, the 2004 champion has long had a knack for getting the most out of restarts, providing the teams for which he drives a fighting chance at wins despite, at times, lacking elite speed. He earned at least one win each season from 2014-20, but as driver performance deteriorates after an age-39 peak on average — this can include the ability to create track position — smart teams build around the driver they have now, and not what the driver once represented.

Busch’s 46.15% position retention rate on restarts ranks 21st in the series while his rate specifically from the non-preferred groove, once a specialty, sits at 28.57%, a steep drop from the series-best 51.85% rate he earned last year. All in, Busch’s adjusted pass differential through 11 races is +0, but that’s over 26 positions worse than the statistical expectation of someone within his average running position.

To combat the problem, Ganassi’s No. 1 team fashioned themselves into a pit road stalwart. Their over-the-wall crew holds the fifth-fastest median four-tire box time while Matt McCall is enjoying the best strategy output in his seven-year career as a Cup Series crew chief, retaining Busch’s running position on 77.78% of stops during green-flag pit cycles — the best rate Busch has experienced across the last nine seasons. McCall’s efforts helped in netting Busch 10 additional positions on the racetrack.

But the good pit stops and the dip in restart performance clash on occasion. One example of this came last Sunday in Kansas when the pit crew supplied their driver with a five-position gain leaving pit road following the first stage break. On the ensuing restart, Busch dropped five spots, from fifth place to 10th, nullifying the crew’s effort and good fortune.

Such isolated moments render Ganassi’s spend on good pit crew talent questionable, especially if the subpar restarting continues. Furthermore, the program’s apparent focus on 550-horsepower tracks — an against-the-grain bid at securing points or a playoff spot at facilities where most title-contending teams are eschewing additional research and development — is coming up empty.

Busch’s team holds the sixth-fastest average median lap rank this season on 550-horsepower tracks (compared to a ranking of 17th on 750-horsepower tracks), but the driver’s Production in Equal Equipment Rating split on 550-horsepower tracks — a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in an attempt to isolate his or her contribution — sits at 0.194, the 26th-most productive rating among all drivers. He hasn’t finished better than eighth (at Homestead, in which he registered the fastest median lap of the race) in six tries on tracks utilizing this horsepower package.

With his contract expiring after this season, the notion of retirement has been bandied by Busch himself. He still has value on the open market, primarily his ability to deliver feedback and general racing IQ as NASCAR turns to a new generation car in 2022, but if his early statistical marks this year are any indication, the return on any future investment might not be enough to attract a marquee team.

Chastain is a productive driver within his running whereabouts

For Chastain, performance on the racing surface has been low-key but quietly effective. Chastain’s team ranks 20th in median lap time on 550-horsepower tracks and 21st on 750-horsepower tracks. Given the speed, his 19.6-place average finish is a tick better than expected, indicative in a 1.045 PEER through the first 11 races that fares better than Busch’s 1.023 rating across all tracks.

Whereas good speed can mask deficiencies, a lack of speed can cloud strengths that aren’t easily observable. His +0.44% surplus passing value ranks 11th in the series and suggests he’s earned a yearlong pass differential nearly five positions beyond his statistical expectation (-19, based on a field-wide slope).

Key in Chastain achieving this number is efficient long-run passing against drivers like Cole Custer (with an 18.52-place average running position), Michael McDowell (19.27) and Bubba Wallace (19.32), who are regularly near his 19.23-place average running position and less efficient in their pass encounters, evident by their negative surplus pass values. The deep runs help in supplementing track position lost on restarts where, against cars in the top 14, he’s retaining position 41.18% of the time. His glowing Kansas performance provided a potential sign of improvement, containing a race-long restart retention rate of 100% inside the first seven rows.

Such an improvement would be necessary for a team in turmoil as recently as last season. Crew chief Chad Johnston was dismissed from his role in August, replaced by engineer Phil Surgen. Surgen’s retention rate this season on green-flag pit cycles (73.68%) is over 12 percentage points better than what Johnston offered Matt Kenseth — who proved himself a minus passer and below-average restarter in 32 starts last season — and 49 points better than Johnston’s 2020 output for Larson.

But as green-flag pit cycles represent an area of growth, stops under yellow aren’t nearly the strength about which Busch’s team can boast. The pit crew for the No. 42 car ranks 18th in median four-tire box time, not especially ideal for playoff contention but better than the teams for three aforementioned drivers nearby in the running order.

Against those in their running whereabouts, there’s a lot of quality, something that wasn’t present at the time of Johnston’s dismissal. At that point, the team ranked 19th in the owner standings with the 22nd-fastest car. While that’s better than the current points standing — 24th with the 18th-fastest car — they lacked track position, specifically a driver who could regularly create it and a crew chief able to defend it.

That’s no longer the case. This is a development yielding optimism, a belief in short supply given the program’s lack of surface-level success.

North Wilkesboro’s worn surface will prove challenging to drivers


NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Three Cup drivers got their first chance to experience North Wilkesboro Speedway’s worn racing surface Tuesday and said tires will play a key role in the NASCAR All-Star Race there on May 21.

Chris Buescher, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick took part in a Goodyear tire test Tuesday. That test was to continue Wednesday.

The verdict was unanimous about how important tire wear will be.

“This place has got a lot of character to it,” Reddick said. “Not a lot of grip and it’s pretty unforgiving. It’s a really fun place.”

Dillon said: “If you use up your tire too early, you’re going to really be in trouble. You really got to try to make those four tires live.”

Buescher said: “The surface here was so worn out already that we expect to be all over the place. The speeds are fairly slow just because of the amount of grip here. It’s hard to get wide open until you’re straight.”

Reddick noted the drop in speed over a short run during Tuesday’s test. That will mean a lot of off-throttle time.

“I think we were seeing a second-and-a-half falloff or so over even 50 laps and that was kind of surprising for me we didn’t have more falloff,” he said. “But, one little miscue, misstep into Turn 1 or Turn 3, you lose a second sliding up out of the groove and losing control of your car.”

“That’s with no traffic. Maybe with more traffic and everything, the falloff will be more, but certainly we’re out of control from I’d say Lap 10 on. You have to really take care of your car. … It’s really hard 30-40 laps into a run to even get wide open.”

Chris Buescher runs laps during a Goodyear tire test at North Wilkesboro Speedway, while Austin Dillon is on pit road. (Photo: Dustin Long)

One thing that stood out to Dillon was how the facility looks.

While the .625-mile racing surface remains the same since Cup last raced there in 1996, most everything else has changed.

In some cases, it is fresh red paint applied to structures but other work has been more extensive, including repaving the infield and pit road, adding lights for night racing, adding SAFER barriers, the construction of new suites in Turn 4 and new stands along the backstretch.

“It’s cool to see how much they’ve done to the track, the suites, the stands that they’re putting in,” Dillon said. “To me, the work that is going in here, we’re not just coming for one race. We’re coming here for a while. I’m excited about that.”

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup race at COTA


Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, has attracted an entry list that includes talent beyond that of the tour regulars.

Jordan Taylor, who is substituting in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet for injured Chase Elliott, brings a resume that includes 31 IMSA class wins, two 24 Hours of Daytona overall wins and two IMSA wins at COTA.

MORE: NBC Driver Rankings: Christopher Bell is No. 1

Jenson Button won the Formula One championship in 2009 and has five F1 starts at COTA. He is scheduled to be a driver for the NASCAR entry in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kimi Raikkonen, entered by Trackhouse Racing as part of its Project 91 program, won the 2007 F1 championship and has eight F1 starts at the Austin track.

They will draw attention at COTA this weekend, along with these other drivers to watch:


Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best seasonal finish: 2nd (Atlanta I)
  • Past at COTA: 19th and 14th in two career starts

Keselowski hasn’t been a star in road course racing, but his 2023 season has started well, and he figures to be in the mix at the front Sunday. He led the white-flag lap at Atlanta last Sunday before Joey Logano passed him for the win.

AJ Allmendinger

  • Points position: 17th
  • Best seasonal finish: 6th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 5th and 33rd in two starts

The Dinger is a road course expert. Last year at COTA, he was involved in tight racing on the final lap with Ross Chastain and Alex Bowman before Chastain emerged with the victory.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Auto Club)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top fours, including a win

Chastain lifted Trackhouse Racing’s profile by scoring his — and the team’s — first Cup victory at COTA last season. He’s not shy about participating in the last-lap bumping and thumping that often mark road course races.


Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best seasonal finish: 4th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 13th and 21st in two starts

Buescher has never led a lap at COTA and is coming off a 35th-place finish at Atlanta after being swept up in a Lap 190 crash. Although he has shown the power to run near the front this year, he has four consecutive finishes of 13th or worse.

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: 20th
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Las Vegas I)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top 10s

Bowman’s four-race run of consistent excellence (finishes of fifth, eighth, third and ninth) ended at Atlanta as he came home 14th and failed to lead a lap. At COTA, he is one of only four drivers with top-10 finishes in both races.

William Byron

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (Las Vegas I, Phoenix I)
  • Past at COTA: 11th and 12th in two starts

Involvement in an accident at Atlanta ended Byron’s two-race winning streak. He’ll be looking to lead a lap at COTA for the first time.



Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended by NASCAR


Three members of the Reaume Brothers Racing No. 33 Craftsman Truck Series team have been suspended for three races by NASCAR after a piece of tungsten ballast came off their truck during last Saturday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The suspensions were announced Tuesday.

Crew chief Gregory Rayl and crew members Matthew Crossman and Travis Armstrong were suspended because of the safety violation. Mason Massey is the team’s driver.

MORE: Xfinity driver Josh Williams suspended for one race

In a tweet following the announcement of the penalty, the team said it will not file an appeal. “The ballast became dislodged only after the left side ballast container had significant contact with the racing surface,” according to the statement. “We would like to be clear that there was no negligence on the part of RBR personnel.”

NASCAR also announced Tuesday that Truck Series owner/driver Cory Roper, who had been suspended indefinitely for violating the substance abuse policy, has been reinstated.

The Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series are scheduled to race this weekend at Circuit of the Americas.


Josh Williams suspended for one race after Atlanta infraction


NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Josh Williams has been suspended for one race because of his actions during last Saturday’s Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Williams will be ineligible to participate in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. He would be able to return for the April 1 race at Richmond, Virginia.

Williams was penalized for a “behavioral” infraction, specifically disobeying a NASCAR request.

In a tweet after the suspension was announced, Williams said: “I stand behind what I did and I don’t regret any decisions I made. I stand behind NASCAR for these decisions and will continue and always support them.” He said Alex Labbe will drive the team’s No. 92 car at Circuit of the Americas this weekend.

MORE: Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended

NASCAR officials ordered Williams off the track during Saturday’s race after his car was involved in an accident. Debris falling from his car prompted a caution flag, leading NASCAR to order him to park.

Instead of going to the garage area, Williams parked his car at the start-finish line and walked to pit road.

Williams was escorted to the NASCAR hauler office at the track. He waited there until the conclusion of the race and then met with officials for about 20 minutes.

MORE: NBC Power Rankings: Christopher Bell rises to the top

Section 8.8.9.I of the Xfinity Series Rule Book states that with the Damaged Vehicle Policy, NASCAR can order a car off the track: “At the discretion of the Series Managing Director, if a damaged vehicle elects not to enter pit road on the first opportunity or if a damaged vehicle exits pit road before sufficient repairs had been made and thereafter causes or extends a caution (e.g. leaking fluid, debris, etc.), then said vehicle may incur a lap(s) or time penalty or may not be permitted to return to the Race.”

Williams later admitted he had violated a rule but said he was frustrated by the NASCAR decision.

“We all work really hard and to only run ‘X’ amount of laps and then to have something like a piece of Bear Bond and put us out of the race, it’s really frustrating,” Williams said after his meeting with series officials. “Small team. We work really hard. We’ve got to make our sponsors happy, right? It doesn’t do any good sitting in the garage. It is what it is. We’ll learn from it and move on.

“I told them I was a little bit frustrated,” Williams said of NASCAR’s call, “but it was in the rule book.”