What matters at Darlington: High horsepower, tire allotment create new ballgame

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What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race and how will teams be impacted by an increase in horsepower? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends and that will shape the Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1):

Darlington: Now with 200 more horsepower!

Though relegated to just 550 horsepower, Cup Series races at Darlington across the last two years carried staples of the storied track — the high lines, the Darlington stripes and a surface that gnawed on Goodyear rubber.

What lacked was heavy brake use. The impact of braking at high horsepower forces more tire degradation the deeper a run goes and, at this track, it was a sight for fans to behold and a riddle for drivers and teams to solve.

It’s back. Darlington’s quintessential element — coming to grips with a lack of grip — returns with the decision by NASCAR in advance of this season to utilize the 750-horsepower, lower-downforce package on the 1.366-mile track, a rules shift that renders last year’s results predominately useless.

What should we expect? Crew chiefs and engineers have scoured their notes from the 2018 race, Darlington’s last before the era of reduced horsepower, for trends and insight into what worked and what didn’t, but not everything will perfectly correlate. Still, some expectations are better than none.

The lone Darlington race three years ago saw regular lap-time falloff upwards of two seconds, a less forgiving amount than the falloff ranging from 1.5 to 1.7 seconds on worn tires that allowed for 2v1 stop strategy across the final stage of last fall’s 500-mile contest. Surely, this is enough for game-planning to take a different shape, but teams will also be thrown a cost-cutting curveball.

Cup Series teams will be given 11 sets of tires today, one less set than what they were given for last season’s 400-mile race. Understanding how quickly teams burned through all nine of their allotted sets across a rain-shortened race last year (scheduled for 311 miles but ultimately only 284), drivers will be asked to baby the brakes in order to protect their tires, as strategy will center around how to best optimize fresh rubber.

Today’s race offers the right amount of mystery at a familiar setting, a trial-by-fire exercise for teams, at worst, looking to build a reliable set of notes for this season’s playoff opener in September.

A sea change on restarts?

Darlington’s outside groove from the second row on back retains positions on restarts at a historically higher clip than its inside groove, a trend that predates the current rules package. One key difference offered by the shift from 550 to 750 horsepower might be the competitiveness of cars restarting from the front row.

Across 35 clean restarts at 550 horsepower, the car restarting from the outside of the first row retained position 82.8% of the time compared to the inside’s 48.5% retention rate. This was a striking difference from Darlington races in 2017 and 2018:

Cars restarting from the inside of the front row from 2017-18 never lost position, a reliance that went away with the horsepower reduction, moving all reliability to the top groove.

Teams caught wind of the shift in groove preference during the 2019 race. Pole-sitter William Byron selected the inside groove for the initial start but was defeated within the ensuing two laps by Brad Keselowski. The inside was selected again by race leader Kurt Busch for the lap-107 restart, but Kyle Larson overtook him for the lead. In all 39 of the restart attempts that took place since, the outside was the chosen launching point for the race leader.

With additional horsepower, Darlington’s inside line might ride again, a potential busting of a trend that emerged over the last two years.

Logano, seeking first Darlington win, looks to capitalize

In the 2018 Darlington race, Joey Logano was out-dueled by Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe, saddled with a second-place result. It was, to date, the closest the 30-year-old driver has come to winning at the South Carolina track. Today’s race might represent his best shot at checking it off of his bucket list.

There’s arguably no other driver standing to benefit from the shift in horsepower at Darlington than Logano, who not only will reap the rewards of Team Penske’s deliberate pivot towards specializing in this specific package but should produce well given what he’s managed this season:

Per his Production in Equal Equipment Rating — a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in an attempt to isolate his or her contribution — Logano is the most productive driver in the series on 750-horsepower tracks. The difference in his production splits between 550 and 750 horsepower is not only noticeable, but also one of the series’ biggest. A standout strength of his driving acumen is his efficient use of brakes on tracks, like Darlington, where braking is abundant. This trait should allow him to compete for the outright win in today’s race.

Such an effort, with Wolfe now on his pit box, would avenge his 2018 loss and further separate him from his peers on a style of driving and track type with the highest degree of import during the playoffs. It’d also close an apparent gap to other obvious title contenders on playoff tracks: Omitting Talladega, Logano’s averaged a 7.4-place finish this season at facilities with playoff representation. Martin Truex Jr. (3.8), Denny Hamlin (4.8) and Byron (7.2) each fare better.