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.

Where are they now? Buddy Parrott enjoying down time

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Buddy Parrott played outsized roles in two of the most dramatic races in NASCAR history.

Now 83 years old and retired from the sport since 2001, Parrott looks back on those two days as highlights of a career that began in the early 1970s.

In the 1990 Daytona 500, champion driver Dale Earnhardt seemed on course to end his frustration in NASCAR’s biggest event. He held the lead roaring down the backstretch on the last lap. Suddenly, Earnhardt slowed with a blown tire.

The lead was inherited by Derrike Cope, who charged to the checkered flag to score one of racing’s biggest upsets.

Parrott was Cope’s crew chief.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes through the years

In 1984, Richard Petty edged Cale Yarborough to win the summer race at Daytona International Speedway. It was Petty’s 200th – and final – win.

Parrott was Petty’s crew chief.

Those victories were high marks in a long pit-road career that saw Parrott’s drivers win dozens of races. He worked with, among others, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Burton and Petty and for team owners Jack Roush and Roger Penske.

Parrott remains active at 83, although he admits to having moved to a slower gear.

“I haven’t been living on the edge,” Parrott told NBC Sports. “I’ve been taking it really easy. I told my sons when you get to be 80 you can do anything you want because basically you’ve already done it.”

MORE: NASCAR, ARCA 2023 schedules

His strongest current connection to NASCAR is as a voter in the annual Hall of Fame balloting.

After more than 20 years roaming pit roads as a crew chief, Parrott moved into a general manager role at Roush Racing in 1997. He retired four years later and didn’t look back.

“I finally told Jack one day, ‘I don’t have time to ride my motorcycle,’ ” Parrott said. “He looked at me and said, ‘What do you want to do about it?’ I said, ‘I’m ready to retire.’ He told me I could work whatever schedule I wanted, but I decided that was it. I didn’t have a going-away thing or whatever.”

Parrott spent much of the next 15 years traveling with his wife, Judy, who died in 2016, and playing with his grandchildren.

“I had a great time in retirement because Judy was ready and I was ready,” he said. “We had a lot of fun. We’d go to Florida for two and three months at a time. I’m so happy that I didn’t hang on and go to the shop every day and try to find something to do. I spent that time with Judy, and we had 16 years of good retirement.”

Parrott, a native of Gastonia, N.C., lives in Statesville, N.C. His sons, Todd and Brad, also were NASCAR crew chiefs.

MORE: Jody Ridley’s Dover win an upset for the ages

Parrott is perhaps best remembered as crew chief for Rusty Wallace, Team Penske and the No. 2 black cars sponsored by Miller Lite. From 1992-94, they won 19 races and were consistently competitive at the front.

“I still get a lot of cards sent to me to sign from those years,” Parrott said. “I can say that was some of the happiest times I had. Those years with Rusty – and then with Jack Roush – really stand out. And who in the hell could not have fun having a beer sponsor?”

 

 

NASCAR Awards to air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Joey Logano didn’t need much time to answer the question.

Who would the two-time Cup champion want to introduce him at the NASCAR Awards?

Racing icon Mario Andretti, Logano immediately said. 

And there was Andretti on the stage at the Music City Center introducing Logano, the 2022 Cup champion. Watch that and the rest of the night’s festivities at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock. You can order Peacock here.

MORE: See the red carpet scene

MORE: Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

NBC Sports’ Marty Snider and Kim Coon co-hosted the show along with Fox Sports’ Kaitlyn Vincie. The Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions were honored. Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, whose father died hours after Gibbs won the Xfinity title last month, received a standing ovation and thanked the industry for its support.

The highlight of the night for Logano was having Andretti on stage to introduce him.

“He’s just been a great role model for me, not only as a racer, but as a person for so long,” Logano said afterward. “I had his picture on my wall. I looked at Mario Andretti before I went to sleep every night as a kid. I thought it was the coolest thing that he signed it to me.”

NASCAR Awards and Champion Celebration
Cup champion Joey Logano on stage with racing icon Mario Andretti during the NASCAR Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Logano and Andretti have gotten to know each other through the years. Logano ran a throwback car that honored Andretti at Darlington Raceway in 2015 and 2021.

But none of that compared to being on stage with Andretti.

“That’s still like a pinch-me moment,” Logano said. “It’s Mario Andretti. He’s the man. The fact that he knows my name I think is really, really cool.”

Catch the NASCAR Awards at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”

Brennan Poole joins Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for 2023

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Brennan Poole will join Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity season, the team announced Friday.

Poole will drive the No. 6 car for the full season. Currey returns to the team’s No. 4 car for the season. Currey scored five top-15 finishes last season for the organization.

JD Motorsports is planning to run the No. 0 car next season. No driver or sponsor has been announced for that ride.

“We’re full throttle here and getting ready to go,” Davis said in a statement from the team. “Bayley and Brennan are signed on and looking forward to chasing races and points next year. We’re actively moving along looking for sponsor commitments and for drivers and sponsors for the No. 0 car.”

“We’ve always taken the approach here that we want to go after the series with multiple cars, and that’s how we’re looking toward 2023. The new schedule is very interesting and provides new challenges to our drivers and team members.”

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.