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.

Where are they now? Scott Riggs races with son, Layne

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Scott Riggs, who raced for 15 years in NASCAR’s top three national series, now is guiding the racing career of his 20-year-old son, Layne.

And things are going well.

Layne won this year’s NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series Late Model championship, scoring 16 wins in 43 starts and edging former series champion Peyton Sellers by four points for the title.

Riggs thus became the youngest champion in Weekly Series history.

“It all started when Layne was 10 years old, mostly just something to entertain him and to have some fun,” Scott told NBC Sports. “But it’s turned into a full-fledged job. My life and plate have been full.”

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes

The Riggs family’s race shop is located in Bahama, North Carolina, Riggs’ home base during his NASCAR career. Scott describes himself as the “truck driver, spotter, crew chief and in-shop mechanic.”

“I am very tired,” he said.

The team, which depends on volunteers, didn’t plan to race in so many events this season, but when Layne started the year with a string of victories, it made sense to chase the national championship and give him a chance to be the youngest winner ever.

“To chase it that hard and be that close and then to win it, it was very exhausting,” Scott said. “It was a very big relief to finish the year.”

Success on short tracks resulted in Layne racing in three Camping World Truck Series events this year with Halmar Racing. He had a best finish of seventh at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park in his series debut.

MORE: Snowball Derby attracts top NASCAR drivers

Scott Riggs ended his NASCAR driving career in 2014 in the Truck Series. He won five Truck races and four Xfinity races and ran 208 Cup races without a win. He made his Truck debut in 1999, moved to Xfinity in 2002 (winning Rookie of the Year) and then to Cup in 2004.

Riggs, now 51, raced in the Cup Series from 2004-13 with stops at MB2 Motorsports and with teams owned by Gene Haas, Tommy Baldwin and Ray Evernham, among others. He had four top-five finishes.

“I think I was very fortunate and the timing was right for me to move up through the ranks and get so many good opportunities,” Riggs said. “I raced late models for a long time, and then all of a sudden I got the opportunity to get in a truck. Won some races and poles and won races and poles in Xfinity.”

MORE: Jody Ridley’s upset for the ages

He ran out of chances in Cup as team models shifted, including some downsizing and mergers.

“I felt like I couldn’t get an opportunity that I had worked for and earned,” Riggs said. “It was hard for me. I was bitter for a year or so. But I look back, and a realization came over me that I was fortunate to have that time with my kids when they were at the right ages. I got to watch them do their things and just be the dad I wanted to be — not being gone four out of every seven days racing.

“I don’t think I’d have the relationship I have today with my kids if I had had a longer time in the sport.”

 

 

NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes through the years

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The best quotes from drivers and others involved in NASCAR competition often come in the heat of the moment — after a crash or a close finish or a controversial decision by officials.

NASCAR’s history is filled with memorable quotes from drivers who won races to drivers who watched wins slip away to officials caught in a moment of history.

Here’s a look at 10 that stand out:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. “I didn’t mean to turn him around. I meant to rattle his cage, though.” — Dale Earnhardt, describing how he didn’t mean to wreck Terry Labonte after he wrecked Labonte on the last lap at Bristol Motor Speedway to win the Aug. 28, 1999 race.

2. “They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their ass. There’s no way to get around that.” — Kevin Harvick, Feb. 21, 2010, offering his opinion on why Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team won so many races after Johnson outran him to win at Auto Club Speedway.

MORE: An upset for the ages: Jody Ridley wins at Dover

3. “It’s a stump-puller.” — Sterling Marlin, emphasizing the strength of his engine after he won the Daytona 500 Feb. 19, 1995.

4. “It’s probably not his fault. His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do.” — Joey Logano, talking about Kevin Harvick after they were involved in a late-race crash at Pocono Raceway June 6, 2010. Harvick’s wife, DeLana, often wore a firesuit similar to those worn by team members during races.

5. “Do you have a brother?” — Ward Burton, responding to a reporter who asked if it was tougher to finish second because the race winner was his brother, Jeff, March 7, 1999 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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6. “I couldn’t hear him. He’s got that little yap-yap mouth. I couldn’t tell what he was saying.” — Ricky Rudd, commenting on what Kevin Harvick said to him after they wrecked at Richmond Raceway, Sept. 6, 2003.

7. “We can’t race with tears in our eyes.” — team owner Robert Yates, explaining why his team would not participate in the next week’s race after its driver, Davey Allison, was killed in a helicopter crash, July 1993.

8. “He’d have to toast everyone with milk.” — Dale Earnhardt, commenting on the celebratory drink choice Jeff Gordon might make if he ever won the Cup championship. After he won the 1995 Cup title, Gordon followed through, toasting his championship with a glass of milk at the awards banquet.

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9. “You know they say there’s talkers and doers. I’ve done this twice.” — Tony Stewart, winning the pre-race trash-talk contest with Carl Edwards prior to the 2011 race for the championship. Stewart had won the title in 2002 and 2005 and notched another over Edwards in 2011.

10. “This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever personally had to make, but after the accident in Turn 4 of the Daytona 500 we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” — NASCAR President Mike Helton, confirming Earnhardt’s death at Daytona International Speedway, Feb. 18, 2001.

Honorable mentions: David Pearson, after being told that Richard Petty had said Pearson was the best driver he ever raced against: “I agree with him.” … CBS broadcaster Ken Squier, calling the famous finish of the 1979 Daytona 500: “And there’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison! The tempers, overflowing. They are angry. They know they have lost. And what a bitter defeat.” … NASCAR founder Bill France, providing a unique ending to a pre-race prayer after temporarily forgetting to use Amen: “Sincerely, Bill France.”

Snowball Derby entry list includes NASCAR Cup, Xfinity, Truck drivers

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Four Cup drivers are among those entered for Sunday’s 55th annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.

The Cup drivers entered are former series champion Brad Keselowski, playoff competitor William Byron, two-time Southern 500 winner Erik Jones and incoming Cup rookie Noah Gragson, who advanced to the Xfinity title race this year.

Also entered: Josh Berry, who competed in the Xfinity championship race this year, and Ty Majeski, who competed in the Truck championship race this year.

Majeski won the 2020 Snowball Derby. Gragson won the race in 2018. Jones won the event in 2012 and ’13.

Others entered include:

Chandler Smith, who won the 2021 Snowball Derby and will drive for Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series in 2023, is listed on the entry list but stated on social media he will not be competing.

The Snowball Derby is among the more prestigious Super Late Model races on the calendar and coming after the NASCAR season makes it easier for more Cup, Xfinity and Truck competitors to take part in the event.

Qualifying takes place Saturday. The Snowball Derby is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET Sunday. Racing America will stream Sunday’s race for $49.99. A three-day viewing pass can be purchased for $74.99.

 

 

An upset for the ages: Jody Ridley’s 1981 victory at Dover

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NASCAR’s history is sprinkled with upsets, from unlikely winners riding the Talladega draft to short tracks that yielded unexpected wins when favored leaders crashed on the final lap.

Survey the list of surprise winners over the decades, and Jody Ridley’s name likely will stand out.

On May 17, 1981, two days shy of his 39th birthday, Ridley won a 500-mile race at Dover Motor Speedway in Delaware. It was the only victory of Ridley’s Cup career and the only win scored by Virginia team owner Junie Donlavey, who participated in the Cup Series for 45 years, with 863 starts.

Donlavey’s team was perpetually underfunded, and his drivers often raced with tired, overused engines and tires that had too many laps. He survived with a mostly volunteer crew and enough sponsorship to carry him from race to race. Rival drivers and team owners considered Donlavey one of the most popular residents of NASCAR garage areas across those many years, but he rarely had the chance to reach for victory lane.

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On that spring day at Dover, one of NASCAR’s toughest tracks, everything fell the right way. Many of the tour’s leading drivers parked with engine or overheating problems, and the day’s best car – the Wood Brothers entry driven by Neil Bonnett — was sidelined with an engine issue late in the race after leading 404 laps.

Ridley, running a steady race, benefited from an unusual day at Dover. The race had only two cautions, and the final 471 laps of 500 were run under green-flag conditions. A general lack of cautions prevented top teams from changing tires frequently, putting Ridley, who was used to running tires longer than normal, on better footing.

When Cale Yarborough left the race with engine trouble 20 laps from the finish, Ridley inherited the lead — he had been two laps down to Yarborough — and led the rest of the way. He won by 22 seconds over Bobby Allison, who was the only other driver on the lead lap. Dale Earnhardt finished third, a lap down. Illustrating the problems experienced by many in the field — not an unusual result in those days — was the fact that the fourth-place driver, D.K. Ulrich, was nine laps off the lead pace.

Ridley drove into Victory Lane for the first time, much to the delight of Donlavey’s crew.

“Junie took it all in stride,” Ridley, now 80, told NBC Sports. “He wasn’t as excited as the team guys were. Junie was the type of guy who didn’t want to cash in on other people’s bad luck. He kind of felt sorry for the guys who blew up. That’s just the way he was.

“For me, it was the highlight of my career. Once I got into Cup racing, I knew we probably wouldn’t do much winning because we didn’t have the equipment. It was icing on the cake to win that one.”

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Jody’s son Anthony, then 22 years old, was listening to the race via radio in Chatsworth, Georgia, where the family lived.

“I was upstairs at my girlfriend’s house, and I think I bounced all over the upstairs and then floated down to the first floor,” Anthony said. “It was all pretty cool. Dad called home. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t get real excited about anything, but he was happy.”

The win paid $22,560. Ridley’s cut from the check (40 percent, generally standard in those days) was $9,024, a nice payday but not Ridley’s biggest in Cup. He would win more for finishing in the top 10 in the Daytona 500.

“We were having a good day,” Ridley said, “but I never thought about winning it. We just didn’t have the cars. But we stayed in the hunt, and the other teams couldn’t get too many new tires, and Junie had put a different gear in the car. Normally he would put in a taller gear and drop the RPMs down (to protect the engine), and you couldn’t keep up. For some reason that day, he didn’t. And it paid off.”

Before joining the Cup tour full time in 1980 at age 37, Ridley had established himself as one of the top short-track drivers in the country. Across the South, at top Eastern Seaboard tracks and into the Midwest, a visit by Ridley usually meant a tough night for the locals.

MORE: Five laps that impacted Cup season

Ridley’s older brother, Biddle, and Anthony kept the Ridley short-track cars running.

“We did all that together for 36 years,” said Anthony, who started changing tires during pit stops at the age of 14. “It was how we made a living, but trying to feed three families out of a race car is tough.”

Ridley still lives in Chatsworth, where his 1981 victory was a sports highlight for years.

“He can’t hear well, but he’s still tough as a pine knot,” Anthony said.