Analysis: Bubba Wallace, Corey LaJoie among NASCAR’s most improved

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Significant improvements in key statistical categories have made four NASCAR Cup Series teams stronger than how they were perceived coming into the 2021 season.

After 16 races, NBC Sports has identified improved performances — from passing, restarts, speed and strategy — that have helped alter the competitive viability of each team for the better.

Most Improved Passer: Bubba Wallace

Expectations are key in understanding the improvement of Bubba Wallace and the performance of 23XI Racing.

The short-term expectations for the team were high considering the star power attached but should’ve been far more rational. It’s mostly comprised of former Leavine Family Racing team members tasked with learning and fielding cars that’ll be obsolete early next year. The ceiling for performance and incremental improvement in its machines was kept a constant — the team ranks outside the top 20 in average median lap with a 49.09% expected adjusted pass efficiency, a percentage influenced by its average running whereabouts where cars with higher average run spots garner higher expected efficiencies.

Wallace, through 16 races, has shown a marked improvement in his long-run passing and is exceeding that statistical expectation.

Ranked 31st in surplus passing value on non-drafting ovals last year, he ranks 12th right now, frequently driving against — and passing the likes of — Cole Custer, Michael McDowell and Daniel Suárez, all with nearby running whereabouts. He’s totaled a pass differential 17.41 spots better than his expectation on non-drafting ovals, a shift from what he previously offered.

Last year, his performance on long runs yielded a surplus 267-position loss, a liability compounded for Richard Petty Motorsports; crew chief Jerry Baxter helped tally a 39-spot net loss across green-flag pit cycles on tracks fitting this description.

This year, Wallace’s most efficient passing efforts across long runs at all tracks are helping shape results for the better. His three best races in terms of surplus passing value (Homestead, Darlington and Sonoma, a road course), saw an average finish of 19th in a car that had an average median lap rank of 24th across those specific events; he averaged a 22.3-place finish in all other races, Daytona and Talladega omitted.

Most Improved Restarter: Corey LaJoie

For his two seasons at GoFas Racing, Corey LaJoie couldn’t count short runs as a realistic gain opportunity. He was rarely positioned on the lead lap and inside the top 14 on restarts, just 17 times across 72 races. On the few occasions he did restart next to the sport’s elites, he went backwards, retaining his spot at a 11.7% clip across the two-year period.

In his first season with Spire Motorsports, short runs offer a chance at gains, one bordering on a coin flip. He’s retained position on exactly 50% of his restart attempts (10 in total through 16 races) from inside the top 14 and 67% of his attempts from the preferred groove. While his overall retention rate isn’t near the series-wide average (59%) and ranks 20th among series regulars, it does fare better than rates for Austin Dillon (49.23%), Tyler Reddick (47.92%), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (41.38%) and Ross Chastain (40.00%), all Chevrolet drivers bestowed more speed than LaJoie’s 29th-fastest car per average median lap rank.

Any improvement by LaJoie beyond this would signify the second GoFas alum becoming a revelation on restarts. His predecessor, Matt DiBenedetto, attempted only seven restarts from inside the top 14 in 2018. DiBenedetto’s move to LFR unearthed a quality restarting acumen and a move a year later to Wood Brothers Racing helped make him one of the sport’s best on short runs, currently ranked first in retention rate at 550-horsepower tracks.

Most Improved Speed: Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 Team

To be fair, other big gains in speed from 2020 to 2021 exist: The No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team with Kyle Larson is the fastest team in the Cup Series, less than a year removed from Cliff Daniels’ outfit ranking 12th in speed with Jimmie Johnson behind the wheel. Similarly, the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 team moved from 22nd to 16th in the speed rankings, thanks in part to the driver change from Matt Kenseth to Ross Chastain.

But Chris Buescher, Luke Lambert and Roush Fenway Racing are constant variables with a positive trajectory. Driver, crew chief and team were new to one another in 2020, a year affected by COVID-19, with restrictions on practice time and the frequency with which driver and crew chief could interface in an effort to foster a worthwhile working relationship.

They rank 17th in average median lap this season, an improvement over a 24th-place ranking. It’s a sign that the familiarity of a second year is working wonders, leading to improved performance in both totality — their 15.3-place average finish is over four positions better than last season’s mark — and in singular moments, like at Homestead when Buescher earned a stage victory courtesy of a legitimate on-track pass for the lead.

To this point, Roush Fenway as an organization has keyed in on 550-horsepower tracks, a decision benefiting Buescher, who ranks 14th in average median lap on the track type, tied with a car from Team Penske (Joey Logano) and ahead of a car from Joe Gibbs Racing (Christopher Bell).

Most Improved Strategist: Matt McCall

Green-flag pit cycles gave Kurt Busch a path to his most memorable 2020 moment: a win in his native Las Vegas, thanks to positioning supplied by Matt McCall’s long-pit gambit. But too often, long runs were a source of frustration for Busch, in part due to McCall’s strategy output. Their running position was retained on 48.84% of green-flag pit cycles, incurring a 54-position loss across the entire season.

This year, their retention rate has increased to 74.07% — strategy has rapidly become one of Chip Ganassi Racing’s most identifiable strengths — matching Busch’s positive surplus passing numbers on all oval track types to eradicate their vulnerability on long runs. It’s an increase that’s also elevated an element of McCall’s competitive repertoire; he’s a former driver turned mechanical engineer known for his ability to coax speed out of cars, a reputation still intact given the team’s 10th-place ranking in average median lap on 550-horsepower tracks.

This change is a relief to Busch, who’s suffered bad long-run retention for much his last decade behind the wheel. The 74% mark is the driver’s best retention rate on green-flag pit cycles in the last nine seasons, since the metric was first recorded by Motorsports Analytics in 2012.