What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race and how do Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. hold an advantage over other drivers? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends that will shape the EchoPark Automotive Texas Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1):
Elliott, Truex share ability to pad stats, stage comebacks
Elliott and Truex occupy a tier to themselves on NASCAR road courses, reflected in the weekend’s betting odds and the superficial stat lines — they’ve combined to win eight of the last 10 road races — across the last four seasons.
Who has the upper hand on the other may come down to the venue in question. COTA, like most road courses, is unique in shape with natural, significant elevation changes. Though not all traits of their talent are translatable, what we’ve seen recently from Truex and Elliott at both natural road courses and stadium road courses appears promising.
They ranked first and second in surplus passing value — the difference in a driver’s adjusted pass efficiency and the expected APE of a driver with the same average running position, based on a field-wide slope — on road courses from 2019-21. Additionally, both drivers showcased an ability to throw down massive single-race passing numbers:
Whereas a +4.00% SPV would represent a dominant showing for a race winner on a normal oval track, sky-high surplus rates are the norm for Elliott and Truex on road courses, where passing numbers are especially volatile.
Elliott’s 2019 win on the Roval came in a come-from-behind effort following his solo crash on Lap 65, a race in which he created 32.8 positions beyond what was statistically expected of someone with his average running position. On the same track a year later, Truex recorded 65 passes and was never passed for position outside of green-flag pit cycles (where he lost 26 spots), more than 59 positions better than what was anticipated.
Truex believes parts of his base road course skillset are transferrable regardless of the track configuration.
“I think a general road course set of skills will translate to other road courses,” Truex said. “They all have a little bit of unique tendencies when it comes to grip and asphalt, elevation changes, the way the curbs are, things like that, that can play into your strengths or weaknesses.
“For me, it’s understanding what it takes to make speed on a road course. It’s understanding what it takes to make a heavy stock car, without a lot of grip and a lot of horsepower, how to make the most time on those road courses.
“Then, it’s really about being able to hold the car on the limit and not make mistakes because you talk about road course having 10, 12, 14 corners, one little mistake — overdrive one corner — you screw up your whole lap. A lot of it is really about discipline and understanding where the limit is and not making mistakes.”
Truex, though, isn’t impervious to mistakes on road courses. His effort in February’s Busch Clash exhibition resulted in a last-place finish after heavy damage and a procedural penalty for missing a chicane under caution-flag conditions.
Elliott is also far from perfect. In addition to his topsy-turvy performance in the 2019 Roval race, his pressing late in February’s Daytona points race led to a spin nine laps from the finish which helped relegate him to a 21st-place result despite having the fastest car for the entire event.
But their imperfections don’t seem to limit their chances at victory. Their abilities to make speed and pass efficiently suit them for epic comebacks and showings of a gaudy statistical caliber.
Strength on 750-horsepower ovals matters … at COTA
— Positive Regression (@PosRegPod) May 21, 2021
Comparing oval strength to road course strength is an exercise in nuance, but given that road courses in NASCAR are utilizing the 750-horsepower, low-downforce package seen on the schedule’s smaller ovals, it’s worth trying to comprehend how one might translate to the other.
Specifically at COTA, the central focuses on aero and grip at 750 horsepower should matter a great deal. The 3.41-mile course is a venue unlike any we’ve seen in the Cup Series across the last 30 years, far different from Sonoma or Watkins Glen.
The glaring difference is COTA’s two monster straights, the longest of which runs 0.67 miles between turns 11 and 12, while the other includes the start-finish line. The need for speed between corner exit and corner entry is real, naturally catering to teams that can reliably coax straight-line speed.
But those heavy straights come with heavier braking zones and offer advantages to drivers who can work brake and throttle well enough for efficient launches into the subsequent section. Interestingly, five of COTA’s most crucial turns are big left-handers, including the final turn before the start-finish line.
Logano and Hamlin have combined for two wins on road courses (Logano in 2015, Hamlin in 2016, both at Watkins Glen) throughout their time in NASCAR, but their brand of speed is ubiquitous on 750-horsepower tracks this season, including the lone road course race, on Daytona’s infield course, where they finished second and third, respectively.
Byron’s road racing acumen on the rise, thanks to repetitions at local karting track
When NASCAR last qualified on a regular basis, William Byron proved himself a reliable one-lap wonder, winning five poles and securing front-row starting spots in each of the three road course races that season. His knack for ripping off fast single lap times continued Saturday, when he secured the best lap during the weekend’s lone, rainy practice session.
But he’s more than a good short-run racer. Across the six road course races in 2019-21, he secured the third-most efficient surplus passing value (+7.09%, good for 71 positions beyond his statistical expectation), trailing only Truex and Elliott. This kind of efficient maneuvering may lead one to believe Byron’s star as a road racer is on the rise, a result of time spent working with one of the industry’s foremost driving coaches.
Max Papis, a former NASCAR, IndyCar and sports car competitor and Rolex 24 winner, has served as Byron’s performance advisor since 2014. Over the last seven years, they spent significant time at GoPro Motorplex, a kart track in Mooresville, N.C.
The 23-year-old driver believes his work with Papis and repetitions on the kart track is what formed his road racing acumen.
“He’s been probably the biggest asset for me when it comes to getting comfortable with a road course,” said Byron, who insists his deliberate kart-track practice with Papis, rain or shine, enhanced his appreciation of the craft. “It sounds silly, but that’s kind of where I grew to like it and enjoy it.
“And then if you like something and enjoy it, you work on it and get better and I’ve done it at the karting track.”
Today’s race is arguably his best chance to date at winning a Cup Series road race, given his speed. He enters the race at COTA with the fastest team in the series based on average median lap rank. The No. 24 car specifically ranks fourth on 750-hp tracks, tops among Hendrick Motorsports entries.