Chase Briscoe reckoning with elevated competition level: ‘It’s all tougher’

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For Chase Briscoe, his maiden NASCAR Cup Series season has been a relentless learning curve. For everyone else, it’s a reminder of how daunting the Cup Series is compared to its support divisions.

The talent chasm between the Cup Series and the Xfinity Series is imperceptible to the naked eye, only understood when a driver like Briscoe, who claimed nine Xfinity victories last season, struggles for traction. He’s gone from averaging a running position in the seventh-to-ninth range against the likes of Austin Cindric, Harrison Burton and Justin Allgaier to a 20th-25th range in Cup, regularly racing against Erik Jones, Ryan Preece, Daniel Suárez and Aric Almirola, among others.

Adding to the stiffer competition is a new car with two distinct rules packages, a new crew chief, a new team and races 100 to 200 miles longer than his previous high (and 300 miles longer Sunday in particular). It’s an entirely different world.

“It’s all tougher,” Briscoe said. “In the Xfinity Series, I felt like on a bad day, we would still run seventh or eighth, where now, if you have a bad day, you run 25th to 30th.”

Briscoe believes, at times this season, he’s been roughhoused on the racetrack, potentially a form of initiation from other Cup drivers.

“As a rookie, I feel like you get raced a little bit different,” Briscoe said. “You got to earn your respect in a sense.”

The extent to which he’s been doored and chop-blocked by those in his surrounding area — whether it’s because he’s a rookie or that’s how things tend to go in NASCAR’s top tier — might inform his statistical profile, which is unrecognizable compared to his outlay from the 2020 Xfinity Series season. For one, he isn’t scoring the results of which his car is most regularly capable, clear in his Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER), having gone from the 99th percentile in last season’s running whereabouts to the lowest percentile this season against more experienced competition:

His relative strengths have yet to translate. He’s crashing more frequently, passing less efficiently and hasn’t retained preferred groove positioning as often on restarts, to no real surprise given the caliber of drivers he’s near. Stewart-Haas Racing is experiencing a down year, mechanically, across all four teams, but of all its drivers, Briscoe is having the hardest time making speed, currently 28th in average median lap rank.

Green-flag pit cycles could fare well enough to supplement Briscoe’s absence of track position, but the strategic output between the rookie driver, crew chief Johnny Klausmeier and the team’s pit crew — ranked 21st in median four-tire box time — has yielded a net loss of six spots. Briscoe’s running position has been maintained on just 62.5% of green-flag pit cycles, five points below the series-wide rate, ranking in the 20th percentile among all teams in green-flag pit cycle (GFPC) defense:

By his admission, Briscoe bears some of the responsibility for this.

“Green-flag pit stops (are) obviously a crucial, crucial part of the Cup Series, and I didn’t have a lot of experience with that in the Xfinity Series,” Briscoe said. “With no practice, I just show up and in the middle of the race, that’s my first chance to try it. We don’t have practice or anything like that to kind of figure out where I need to start braking.”

To wit, he took part in 24 green-flag pit cycles in the first 13 races this year, double the total for his entire 2020 Xfinity Series season. While pitting under green is largely an unfamiliar concept to him — a result of the difference in race length — the act of pitting isn’t. Getting in and out of the box is a heightened competitive element, one he’s working to rectify in order to better hang with veteran drivers who realize this is a moment in which track position is vulnerable.

“If you go back to Kansas, I wasn’t hitting my pit sign hardly at all,” Briscoe said. “I was always a couple of feet short or a foot long and our pit stop suffered. So, I went to pit practice (two weeks ago) and really tried to focus on that. And then (at Darlington), I made sure I hit my pit sign every time.

“Those little details is what makes the difference in being in the back half of the top 10 or running 20th. So, that’s been the biggest thing, just trying to do all the little things right, because (if) you do a couple of those little things wrong, it really adds up.”

For certain, he’s in the weeds right now but his poor production isn’t necessarily a permanent status, as former newcomers to the Cup Series can attest. Drivers like Almirola, Preece, Alex Bowman and Cole Custer each flirted with negative production output with their formative Cup efforts and, after some seasoning, have performed closer to or beyond series average at varying points in recent seasons.

One of Briscoe’s signature traits in the Xfinity Series, one pre-dating his nine-win campaign, was his ability to pass efficiently. In the 11 races this year in which passing numbers were recorded by Motorsports Analytics, he earned positive differentials in six of them, with four in the last five races, a potential sign of progress.

Still, there’s a mental toll to overcome while the competitive nuance of the Cup Series becomes old hat and tenable. Briscoe braced himself for the very scenario he’s facing.

“I knew coming into the Cup Series I wasn’t going to win nine races this year,” he said. “I knew that it was going to be a huge learning process for me, just trying to continue to get better week in and week out.

“For me, I know that I’m not a worse race car driver than I was last year. If anything, I’m better now than I’ve ever been because of the experience I’ve been getting.”