Analysis: In shadow of Kyle Larson, Cliff Daniels enjoying his own breakout

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To this point, Year 1 of Kyle Larson at Hendrick Motorsports has been remarkable. He’s won three times with the fastest car in the series, proving he’s every bit the driver analytics suggested he was. But in the shadows of Larson’s rise is Cliff Daniels, a young crew chief becoming one of the NASCAR Cup Series’ foremost strategists before our eyes.

Last season — Daniels’ first full year atop a pit box — he struggled to supplement Jimmie Johnson’s efforts on green-flag pit cycles, defending the No. 48 team’s running position 22% of the time when relinquishing a top-five spot and 53% of the time across all positions. This season, Daniels’ retention rates have improved to 83% and 75%, respectively, for Larson’s new-look No. 5 team.

The difference in the execution of a green-flag stop was on display in two Las Vegas spring races, a year apart:

Las Vegas 2020

In the pit cycle running from laps 196-220, Johnson relinquished the fifth-place position to pit on lap 217, during which pit road was heavily populated with frontrunners, including Joey Logano (eventual winner), Matt DiBenedetto (eventual second-place finisher) and cars from Hendrick and Stewart-Haas Racing. His two-lap sequence lasted 106.96 seconds. The pit stop itself, for four tires, lasted 13.53 seconds, nearly a second and a half better than the crew’s median four-tire box time that season.

And while a caution flag on lap 221 halted the cycle, providing those who long-pitted an ample advantage, Johnson’s positional loss was made more extreme because a trailing driver, William Byron from ninth, leapfrogged the No. 48 car in the running order. Byron pitted on the same lap and executed a two-lap pit sequence over 0.7 seconds faster than Johnson.

What went wrong? Both Johnson and Byron had similar sub-14-second box times and pit road travel times clocking in at 27.9 seconds. Johnson’s approach to pit road and his blend back onto the track upon exiting, slower than Byron’s pit-in/pit-out effort by nearly one full second. Daniels’ timing of the stop could’ve used a delay; a stop one lap later, away from the most populated pit lap, taking advantage of a cleaner track for Johnson, would’ve potentially alleviated the driver’s pit entry and voided some of the delta created by Byron.

The only thing right about the stop was the stop itself, a performance by the pit crew that was something of an outlier on their yearlong output.

In all, Johnson lost five positions — three because of long-pitting teams who benefited from the abrupt ending to the cycle, one to Brad Keselowski‘s two-tire stop and one to Byron. It took him 56 laps to reclaim a top-five position on the final lap. Any hope for a better finish was stymied by the pit cycle, due to the driver’s contribution and the timing of the stop itself.

Las Vegas 2021

Larson won this year’s spring race in Las Vegas, thanks in large part to two green-flag pit cycles — one in which Larson moved from second to first, courtesy of Daniels, and another in which he retained the lead that resulted in the victory.

In the cycle running from laps 106-152, Larson leapfrogged Keselowski for the lead, thanks to the precise timing of the stop. Daniels, recognizing Larson’s five sub-31-second laps on worn tires, held his driver out one lap longer than a slower Keselowski. It was simultaneously a one-lap hedge on the potential of a caution flag and a bet on clean, fast laps in advance of the stop providing cover for whatever small advantage Keselowski would gain on fresh rubber.

The gambit worked, overcoming the 0.2-second deficit created by Keselowski in the two-lap pit sequence; Larson’s four laps surrounding the stop were faster than those turned in by Keselowski.

During the race’s final green-flag pit cycle from laps 215-246, Larson successfully defended his lead on Keselowski and all others by replicating the previous effort. Larson’s two-lap pit sequence was a half-second slower than Keselowski’s effort, but Daniels again pitted Larson one lap later, maximizing fast laps on worn tires to nullify the majority of Keselowski’s gain.

What a difference a year made.

“I’m actually excited when I see a green-flag pit cycle come around”

It’s one thing to build the fastest car in the series, but it’s another to understand its speed in relation to tire wear and how to best optimize that strength in a pit sequence. The entire dynamic — pit crew performance, Larson’s ability to get on and off pit road efficiently and the timing of the stops around tire wear — was a central focus for Daniels heading into this season.

“Our pit crew went through a bit of a building process last year,” Daniels said. “One of our guys actually stepped away at the end of the year and we got a new jackman in, so we had to do some work just getting our team kind of up to speed and working together, and now those guys are just lights out.”

The over-the-wall crew under Daniels ranks fourth in median four-tire box time, up from 17th in 2020.

“Knowing that one of our strengths is physically pitting the car, the guys do such a good job,” Daniels said. “I’m actually excited when I see a green-flag pit cycle come around because I know that’s one of our strengths.”

Pit cycle execution was key in Larson’s second-place finish in Darlington, in which Daniels’ designs helped earn 11 positions across four cycles, and Charlotte, where Larson retained leads on all four green-flag stops en route to his Coca-Cola 600 victory.

“We study a lot (for) maximizing pit-ins,” said Daniels, who also took to feeding Larson track surface data upon learning the driver’s studiousness in advance of his dirt racing endeavors. “Kyle is really good at that. He’s great at deep braking zones and figuring out how to get the car whoa’d up when it’s moving around and it’s all over the place. It’s kind of natural for him.”

The deliberate study has made Daniels a far better strategist at the front of the field in 2021, necessary given the regularity of Larson’s leads. It’s a difficult feat the third-year crew chief attempts on a regular basis. The series-wide green-flag pit cycle retention rate for positions within the top five is 55%; Daniels’ rate is 28 percentage points better, faring as the best retention frequency in the series in such scenarios.

“Timing is (a) big thing, understanding the falloff in a race,” Daniels said. “Do you pit early? Do you pit late within the cycle? We’ve had to brush up a good bit on our own understanding of that last year to what we’ve taken this year.”

So far, it’s worked. The efflorescence of a budding strategist couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.

 

 

Blown tires end race early for several Texas contenders

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FORT WORTH, Texas — A Goodyear official said that air pressures that teams were using contributed to some drivers blowing tires in Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all crashed while leading after blowing a tire. Among the others who had tire issues were Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher Cole Custer and Christopher Bell twice. 

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

MORE: NASCAR says it missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution 

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

Eight of the 16 cautions were related to tire failures that caused drivers to spin or crash.

“It’s not a good look, that’s for sure,” Ryan Blaney said of the tire issues others had. “How many leaders blew tires tonight? Three or four?

“You just don’t understand what is making these things do that. From last week to this week, it’s really unfortunate. It’s just luck now.

“You never know if you’re going to blow one. You go into (Turn) 3 almost every lap with 40 laps on your stuff and I don’t know if one is going to blow out or not. That’s not safe. That’s for sure. Running (180) into (Turn) 3 and the thing blows out and you have no time to react to it. It’s unfortunate. I hope we can figure that out.”

Blaney said he was confused that the tires were blowing partly into a run instead of much earlier.

“It was weird because those tires didn’t blow right away,” he said. “Like the pressures were low. They blew like after a cycle or two on them, which is the weird thing.”

Asked how he handles that uncertainty, Blaney said: “Nothing I can do about it. Just hope and pray.”

After his crash, Elliott was diplomatic toward Goodyear’s situation:

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Tyler Reddick, who won Sunday’s race at Texas, said his team made adjustments to the air pressure settings after Saturday’s practice.

“We ran enough laps, were able to see that we had been too aggressive on our right front tire,” he said. “So we made some adjustments going into the race, thankfully.”

This same time was used at Kansas and will be used again at Las Vegas next month in the playoffs. 

Reddick is hopeful of a change but also knows it might take time.

“I just think to a degree, potentially, as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, maybe, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be,” he said. 

“I know Goodyear will fix it. That’s what they do. It’s going to be a process. I know they’re going to be on top of it. Hey, they don’t want to see those failures. We don’t want to see them either. They’re going to be working on looking through and trying to find out exactly what is going on. We’ll all learn from it.

“It’s a brand-new car. It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.”