Analysis: Ranking NASCAR’s best on short runs, restarts

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Short runs, the kind of which we’ll see in the final 10-lap stage of tonight’s NASCAR All-Star Race, can showcase the way in which teams choose to optimize their cars and a driver’s individual performance on restarts. Having both can act as a discernible identity for a race team.

In a subjective ranking of objective measures such as speed, restart performance and Production in Equal Equipment Rating in races ending with short runs, NBC Sports has identified the 10 best drivers and teams on short runs to this point in 2021.

MORE: All-Star format explained 

What you won’t see are teams relying on legacy performance — Chase Elliott’s restarting this year has dipped from its 2020 title-winning high point — or spots awarded for moments like Alex Bowman’s Richmond win, thanks to a superb restart, which was an outlier based on the totality of his short-run output this season.

What you will see are 10 of the most well-rounded short-run performers, with statistical rationale backing their place in the rankings:

  • Average speed ranking at the beginning of runs
  • Position retention rate, the percentage of restarts inside the top 14 in which a driver defends his or her initial running position in the two laps following a restart
  • The average net positional gain from within the top 14, usually ranging from -1 to +1
  • Production in Equal Equipment Rating (or PEER), a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in an attempt to isolate his or her contribution, in races concluding with short runs

Without further ado:

1. Brad Keselowski, Team Penske No. 2

There’s no better restarter right now, offensively or defensively, than Keselowski, whose 29 positions gained this season on choose-rule restarts towers over the next-best tally (Ryan Blaney’s five). His 75.93% retention rate on restarts is a boon to a team ranked ninth in speed at the beginning of runs (second among Penske’s four affiliated teams).

In pockets, he’s a delight to watch. His effort at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was nearly a record-breaking feat. He earned 26 positions within the two-lap window following each restart, with 14 of them from a launching point within the first seven rows:

Keselowski made short runs easy for himself during the season’s initial half, selecting preferred groove positioning on 59% of his choose-rule attempts. He’s capitalized nicely in races ending with a late restart, ranked fifth in PEER in that scenario, courtesy of a win at Talladega and third-place finish in Kansas.

2. Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports No. 5

Larson’s team, led by breakout crew chief Cliff Daniels, ranks second in speed at the beginning of runs (and the fastest overall based on median average lap rank), but the driver is also an exceptional restarter, ranking third in position retention rate on choose-rule attempts (73.33%) and third in average positional net (-0.05 overall, +0.31 from the preferred groove).

Races containing late restarts, though, are a bugbear on paper, a notion Larson confirmed two weeks ago — “I just kind of wanted to cruise to the checkered flag” — regarding the prospect of seeing one in the Coca-Cola 600.

Ranking first in PEER in races without a late restart (with an average finish of 5.6), he ranks dead last in races with at least one (with a 22.2-place average finish), a staggering juxtaposition. With the sample size of the latter relatively small, his yearlong short-run performance suggests he deserves some benefit of the doubt going forward.

3. Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11

Hamlin didn’t take advantage of an opportunity to rough up Joey Logano late in the Bristol dirt race, and he lost late leads on short runs at Martinsville and Richmond. But those moments only serve to muddy up the narrative.

In reality, Hamlin’s team is one of the five fastest this season on short runs. He’s an efficient restarter, ranked fifth in retention, eighth in net gain and second in net gain on non-preferred groove attempts, specifically. He sits second in PEER in races ending with a short run. Finishes of third, third and second in the aforementioned races is a testament to this kind of balance. While he isn’t the series’ best in any one category per se, he does well enough — without real weaknesses — to be dangerous regardless of how a race breaks.

4. Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18

With similar balance to Hamlin but less prolific numbers — sixth in retention and seventh in our scenario-based PEER — Busch’s lone win came in a race (Kansas) that concluded on a two-lap run. He’s one of four drivers averaging a positive positional net (+0.06) on all choose-rule restart attempts, ranked third overall.

His car ranks as the slowest among JGR’s quartet in speed at the beginning of runs, eighth overall in the series, a mark on which improvement could help lift Busch’s numbers to loftier heights and fetch better results.

5. William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports No. 24

Byron won a Homestead race culminating with a 60-lap green-flag run, but his restarting was influential to his dominance in the 400-mile contest. He earned 11 spots across six restart attempts, never once ceding position within the two-lap windows following each attempt, including his critical leap from sixth to second on the lap-208 restart:

In his first Cup season paired with Rudy Fugle, Byron ranks as the fastest driver at the beginning of runs. While his positional defense of late has been spotty — his 61.43% retention ranks 16th — he’s an earner when he’s on offense, averaging +0.06 spots per attempt and capable of turning late restarts into tangible results, ranked third in PEER in races ending on short runs.

6. Ryan Blaney, Team Penske No. 12

Ranked 11th in speed at the beginning of runs (and just 10th late in runs), Blaney isn’t working with an elite car when he’s putting up such big restart numbers. He ranks second in position retention (with a 73.77% rate) and second in average gain (+0.08 overall, +1.03 per preferred groove attempt).

He’s had an affinity for restarts since his early years in the Cup Series, something for which he credits his formative seasons in super late models, but this season, the 27-year-old has evolved into a more balanced racer — his surplus passing value, fueled predominately by long-run performance, is currently at a career-best level — so much so that his PEER splits favor races ending in long runs (like his lone victory in Atlanta). He ranks 16th in PEER in races containing a late restart.

7. Matt DiBenedetto, Wood Brothers Racing No. 21

DiBenedetto ranks first in PEER in races containing a late restart. That’s not a typo.

He proved himself an efficient restarter in his lone season with Leavine Family Racing and since moving into the Penske camp, he’s transformed into a premier short-run driver, currently ranked first in retention on 550-horsepower tracks and seventh across all choose-rule tracks.

The results driving his first-place PEER ranking, though, are relative to his equipment. His car ranks as the 18th fastest on short runs, a failing of the team to maximize its driver’s biggest strength.

8. Joey Logano, Team Penske No. 22

Ranked fourth in both short run speed and PEER in races containing a late restart, Logano’s performance has lacked the consistency of some of his closest competitors. His 64.41% retention rate ranks 13th in the series, shaky positional defense that was on display at Phoenix against the driver ranked directly below him here, but his 0.07-position net loss is enough to keep him viable (and ranks sixth overall) in these scenarios.

His savvy decision making is helping him stay competitive. He’s selected the statistically preferred groove in 56% of his choose-rule restart attempts.

9. Martin Truex Jr., Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19

Truex’s top highlight for the season came against Logano at Phoenix in what ultimately proved a result-defining restart. As Truex put it, “He drove in deep. I drove in deeper.”

The No. 19 car hauls on short runs, ranking third overall, but while Truex’s PEER split in races ending with short runs fares well (ranking sixth), his restart numbers have dipped into a pedestrian territory near the front of the field. He currently ranks 15th in position retention and 14th in net gain.

This isn’t a reason to panic (yet), because Truex is traditionally a productive restarter. A realistic improvement in these numbers before the end of the season would mold him into more of a force during the playoff stretch than he already seems.

10. Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4

Harvick, regardless of his running whereabouts, tends to achieve balance or overachieve altogether, and that’s present in his short runs in 2021.

The 45-year-old has the seventh-best average positional gain (-0.16) and retention rate (63.93%) and eighth-best PEER split with the 10th-fastest car on short runs. Barring an uptick in raw speed, something on which Rodney Childers has worked diligently since the start of the season, the ceiling for improvement in the near term appears limited.