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.