Friday 5: High expectations follow teen Sam Mayer, just as he wants it


As Sam Mayer prepares for his Xfinity Series debut Sunday at Pocono Raceway, the JR Motorsports driver is not afraid to share his lofty goals.

“Whenever I hear someone say, ‘You always want to underestimate something and then exceed your expectation,’ … you’re pretty much giving up before you get there,” he told NBC Sports.

“I don’t want to get to my expectations right away. I’m going to shoot for eight (Cup) championships and 201 race wins in the Cup Series because I want to break all the records in the world.

“So, I’m going to put all the expectations all the way out there — where it is borderline impossible to reach — and if I can’t get there, a close second is 150 wins and seven championships. … Even if you don’t get to your expectations, you’re still breaking a lot of records, you’re still making a lot of people proud, and you’re doing well.”

Those are gargantuan goals for a driver who doesn’t turn 18 until Saturday, making him eligible to compete in the series.

But Mayer isn’t like most competitors.

The son of a racer, who grew up running laps on a mini Road America go-kart course on the family’s Wisconsin property, Mayer is poised to continue the surge of young drivers changing the face of NASCAR. He’s had a contract with JR Motorsports to race in the Xfinity Series since September 2020 — nine months before he was eligible to compete. He’ll race a full season for JRM in 2022.

A youth movement that saw last year’s Cup champion (Chase Elliott, age 24), Xfinity champion (Austin Cindric, 22) and Camping World Truck Series champion (Sheldon Creed, 23) all in their 20s, continues this season.

  • Ten of 17 Cup races have been won by drivers in their 20s, led by 28-year-old Kyle Larson’s four victories.
  • Seven of 15 Xfinity races have been won by drivers in the their teens or 20s.
  • Eight of 11 Camping World Truck Series haves have been won by drivers in their 20s.

Scott Lagasse Jr., who has raced with and fielded TA2 cars in the Trans Am series for Mayer, is impressed with what he’s seen from the teenager.

“He’s special,” Lagasse told NBC Sports. “I think the sky’s the limit. He’s become almost like a little brother to me, and I’m pretty hard on him because he frankly is that special. He’s got all the ability in the world to go wherever he wants to go to. The cool thing for me is I’ve seen the work he’s willing to put in.”

With any quest for records comes the first step and the first victory.x

Mayer said on Wednesday’s NASCAR America MotorMouths that he is “expecting to win” any of his first three Xfinity starts in the No. 8 car for JRM. That car already has won this season with Josh Berry at Martinsville.

If Mayer wins in the next three races, he would become the youngest series winner, breaking Joey Logano’s record. Logano was 18 years, 21 days when he won the Xfinity race at Kentucky Speedway in 2008.

“It’s special to be able to hold it,” Logano said of the record, “but you want to see progression in this sport, so in a ways, you hope it gets beat.”

Should Mayer win this year, he would join Ty Gibbs as the second 18-year-old to win in Xfinity this season. Gibbs has two victories, including a win in his first series start. Gibbs was 18 years, 4 months, 16 days when he won at the Daytona road course in February.

Gibbs’ wins fuel Mayer.

“If he’s beating all these guys in the Xfinity Series, I feel like I can go out and do the same,” Mayer told NBC Sports.

Meyer and Gibbs have raced against each other for years. They’ve often dueled at the front in ARCA races. Both are entered in Friday’s ARCA race at Pocono Raceway.

“We’ve kind of got a relationship where we’re like frenemies, I guess,” Mayer said. “We’re kind of buddies off the racetrack and then when on the racetrack, we race like hell to win.”

Asked about Mayer in a media session this week, Gibbs said: “Sam is a really great kid, and I’ve raced him a lot the last couple of years. I really don’t spend too much time with a lot of race car drivers, honestly. I’ve got three close friends that are racers. … He’s a great kid. I’ll race everybody the same, and I want to beat them all.”

So does Mayer, who started racing go-karts at age 4. Even then, Scott Mayer thought his son could be headed for success.

“It just seemed like it was meant to be, it was what he wanted to do,” Scott Mayer told NBC Sports. “I knew I would have the opportunity and resources through connections and funding to be able to do that. … Looking back, it was really naive of me to think that, but hindsight is also 20/20, it’s proven to be true. What I thought of him at 4, 5, 6, 10 years old, I see coming to fruition now.”

Scott Mayer points to those laps his son ran on the family’s half-mile go-kart course as a good training ground.

“It’s not cleaned every day, and it’s in the middle of a corn field, so there’s constantly dust and dirt blowing on it, so it’s always slippery,” Scott Mayer said. “That built car control for him.”

Sam Mayer says only once did he go flying off course, through the grass and into the corn field.

“My left foot got stuck underneath kind of the nose, and I missed the brake pedal and went shooting off into the corner and went probably like 100 yards into the corn,” Sam Mayer said. “It took probably about a half an hour to get the go-kart out. It was pretty bad. (The corn stalk) was pretty short. It was probably only about 3 feet tall.”

For many years, Sam Mayer focused on IndyCar racing, but he suddenly decided at age 11 he wanted to race in NASCAR. He can’t recall what led to the change, just that his drive became focused on stock cars. The decision shocked his father.

“He about started crying because he had no idea of what to do,” Sam Mayer said of his dad. “He had no connection in NASCAR. He did IndyCar for a while and he knew everyone in the sport. He was well on his way of making connections for me (in IndyCar).”

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Toyota Tundra 225 Practice
Sam Mayer finished sixth last month in the Camping World Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas, his most recent Truck race. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Scott Mayer consulted Colin Braun, a former NASCAR driver and teammate to Mayer in select NASCAR Grand Am races in 2012. Braun led them to Lorin Ranier, who has helped guide Mayer’s development.

One of the decisions was to have Sam Mayer race a Legend Car in the Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway. That meant Sam and his dad flying from Wisconsin to Charlotte and back each week during the season.

Mayer went on to win the 2017 Young Lions championship at the U.S. Legends Asphalt Nationals in Las Vegas.

He claimed the 2019 and ’20 championships in the ARCA Menards Series East. He won in his seventh career Truck Series start, taking the checkered flag last year at Bristol Motor Speedway. That made him the second-youngest winner in series history. Later that night, he won the ARCA race at Bristol.

“This is truly what he wants and this is what he’s going to do, no question,” Scott Mayer said of his son’s desire for a racing career.

If there was any doubt, consider what Sam Mayer did last August.

Running third in a TA2 race at Road America, he was collected in a chain-reaction, multi-car crash. The fuel cell ruptured and fire quickly spread. A small burn mark remains on the back of his neck.

With a hairline fracture of his right wrist, he pulled the steering wheel off, lowered the window net and began to climb out as flames were around his car.

“The worst part about that was having to run through the flames on the track because gas was all over track,” he said.

A week later, he finished third in the ARCA race on the Daytona road course with the injured wrist.

The chance now to race with one of the top Xfinity teams is not lost on Mayer, who recently graduated from high school.

“I’m getting the opportunity,” he said, “and I just want to make the most out of it.”

2. Different philosophies

There was a time when car owner Rick Hendrick didn’t permit his drivers to race in other series, primarily sprint car racing, but his mindset has changed in recent years.

That’s allowed Kyle Larson to compete in mid-week events at short tracks throughout the country — just as he did this past week in two events in South Dakota. He is scheduled to run three sprint car races next week in Pennsylvania and one in Maryland.

“I basically told them, ‘If you get hurt, I got to put somebody in the car,’“ Hendrick said of his instructions to his drivers.

“I think as we get closer in the playoffs, I think we’ll slow some of it down. But (crew chief Cliff Daniels) and I have talked about it. It makes (Larson) better to drive all these different cars, especially those high-horsepower cars on dirt.”

Hendrick noted that improved safety measures in other series have made it easier to allow his drivers to compete beyond their Cup ride.

Larson isn’t the only Cup driver who will be racing a sprint car next week. Christopher Bell will drive in the same events with Larson on June 28-29.

Not every Cup team is as lenient about what drivers can race. Ryan Blaney said this week that he’d like to race other types of cars but is not allowed by Team Penske.

“If it was up to me, I would race a lot, I would do as much as I can,” Blaney said. “The way it’s worked out right now is that’s just not an option. I’m a racer, and I would love to race all kinds of series, whatever it is because seat time is seat time and it helps you become a better racer. Unfortunately, that’s just not in the cards right now. I wouldn’t mind definitely even like Xfinity and Truck races, but that’s just, like I said, not in the cards.”

Travis Geisler, competition director at Team Penske, says safety is a key reason for why the organization limits what its drivers can do.

“You look at risk level for your driver, who is an asset for your company,” he said. “It’s somebody that represents all of your sponsors. You have your whole program built around your drivers, and I think when you see them in situations where you don’t really have control over, I think that become uncomfortable for people. 

“When you look at going and jumping in other people’s cars, different things, you don’t necessarily have the same kind of oversight to their safety equipment that you have when it’s one of our cars and we’ve prepared it, we know everything about it. We know all the safety stuff that NASCAR puts into their races, so I would say that’s probably what I see as being the biggest limiter to it.”

Geisler noted that there are cases where the organization has allowed its drivers to race in other series. That happened earlier this year. Both Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano raced on dirt before competing in the Cup race on dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“That’s why you saw Brad Keselowski go race a dirt late model,” Geisler said. “You saw Joey Logano go race at Volusia (Speedway Park in Florida) and Bristol in a modified. We were going to race dirt and nobody knew how to do that, so, ‘OK, we have a performance advantage here, let’s go do it,’ and everybody was on board. 

“That was something everybody supported, and I think that applied to our series, so it made sense. Going and racing otherwise, I think that’s evaluated on probably a case-by-case basis.”

3. Seeking to close the gap

After each of its three drivers won within the first 10 Cup races this season, the fortunes for Team Penske have soured.

Since May, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney have combined for four top-five finishes in points races (all three drivers placed in the top five in the NASCAR All-Star Race).

While Team Penske’s drivers have struggled, Hendrick Motorsports has won the last five points races and the NASCAR All-Star Race.

“Certainly, you get tired of going to the track every weekend not feeling like you have the opportunity to go out and dominate and win a race,” said Travis Geisler, competition director for Team Penske. “That’s what we go there for and that’s not the case right now. 

“It’s not necessarily panic, but the realities of where you are and how much ground you need to cover to close the gap.”

How to do that? Geisler was asked if a team focuses on themselves or looks at what the Hendrick cars are doing.

“I think primarily, you have to focus internally because that’s what you can control,” he said. “You can’t control what Hendrick has and what they’re working on.

“But you certainly compare against the best and the SMT tools that we have to compare the on-track performance, where you’re getting beat, where they’re able to make more speed, whether it’s entry, exit, middle, short, medium, long-term runs. … The best you can do when you’re trying to copy somebody is be just a little bit worse than them. You’re never gonna be as good as somebody that you try to copy, so the only thing you can do is be the best version of yourself.”

Yet, for the challenges Hendrick cars present to the rest of the field, they also provide hope. Especially as one looks back to last season when Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin dominated the regular season.

“I don’t think you would have looked at (Elliott) as the guy you would have said was gonna go win the championship as the playoffs started to unfold,” Geisler said. “But he had some heroics and won the last two races and ends up the champion, so not panic but definitely realistic on the ground that needs to get covered here over the next couple months and then you’ve got to be there when it counts at the end.”

4. Avoiding a repeat of last year

Tyler Reddick enters this weekend holding the 15th of 16 playoff spots. While he has a 49-point lead on Kurt Busch, the first driver outside a playoff spot, Reddick knows how much this weekend’s two races can change a driver’s playoff fortunes.

All Reddick has to do is look at what happened last year at Pocono.

He entered the 2020 Pocono doubleheader holding the final playoff spot by one point. After the track’s two races, Reddick was outside a playoff spot by 26 points.

A crash during the Saturday Pocono race was part of a miserable weekend last year for Tyler Reddick. (Photo: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports)

Reddick scored nine points — out of a maximum 120 — in the two races. A crash in the first race and a mechanical issue in the second ruined his weekend. He missed the playoffs last year.

It is the memory of that weekend that is with Reddick as the series returns to Pocono.

“You got to make sure you have a smooth weekend,” he said. “If you have a really bad day on Saturday and don’t get any points, it’s really going to set you back going into Sunday. … You got to realize every risky decision and everything that you could do on Saturday that could be a risk potentially affects what happens ultimately on Sunday as well.”

Reddick also said that doesn’t mean he can be conservative all the time.

“Pocono is the type of race where I feel like racing hard on restarts is important, but the way that you win that race or get a good points day out of it is picking and choosing battles and executing the race strategy perfectly,” he said.

“You don’t want to get caught up racing a guy for one point, one spot, and lose 1.5-2 seconds battling someone and lose touch with the rest of the field ahead of you.

“It totally changes up your strategy and what options you have available to you to try and maybe get ahead of them in a pit cycle; whatever it might be. You have to race smart. That’s just the type of race that Pocono is with the package we have. You have to race a little bit smarter than hard.”

5. Key strategy at Pocono 

With Pocono Raceway so large that teams can pit under green and not lose a lap, pit strategy could play a key role in both Cup races this weekend (3 p.m. ET Saturday and 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday, both on NBCSN).

In both of last year’s races, the winner pitted three laps before the end of stage 1, giving up stage points. Kevin Harvick used that strategy to win the Saturday race. Denny Hamlin used that strategy to win the Sunday race. That win tied Hamlin with Jeff Gordon with most victories at Pocono at six.

Winning stages is not typically a route the race winner takes at Pocono. Only two of 16 stage winners there won the race. Two of the last eight stage winners at Pocono finished the race in the top 10. Three of the last five Pocono winners did not lead until past the halfway mark.

Harvick and Hamlin were among five drivers who finished in the top 10 in both Pocono races last year. The others were Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer.

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Saturday Portland Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather


There have been different winners in each of the last nine Xfinity Series races this season. Will the streak continue Saturday at Portland International Raceway?

Those nine different winners have been: Sammy Smith (Phoenix), Austin Hill (Atlanta), AJ Allmendinger (Circuit of the Americas), Chandler Smith (Richmond), John Hunter Nemechek (Martinsville), Jeb Burton (Talladega), Ryan Truex (Dover), Kyle Larson (Darlington) and Justin Allgaier (Charlotte).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Portland International Raceway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:38 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:46 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 10 a.m. … Practice begins at 11:30 a.m. … Qualifying begins at 12 p.m. … Driver introductions begin at 4:15 p.m. … The invocation will be given by Donnie Floyd of Motor Racing Outreach at 4:30 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed at 4:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 75 laps (147.75 miles) on the 1.97-mile road course.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

STARTING LINEUP: Qualifying begins at 12 p.m. Saturday

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 4:30 p.m. ... Coverage begins at 4 p.m. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 4 p.m. and can be heard on … SiriusXN NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 73 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: AJ Allmendinger won last year’s inaugural Xfinity race at Portland by 2.8 seconds. Myatt Snider finished second. Austin Hill placed third.

NASCAR Friday schedule at WWT Raceway, Portland


Craftsman Truck Series teams will be on track Friday at World Wide Technology Raceway to prepare for Saturday’s race. Cup teams will go through inspection before getting on track Saturday.

Xfinity Series teams will go through inspection Friday in preparation for their race Saturday at Portland International Raceway.

Here is Friday’s schedule:

World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (Cup and Trucks)


Friday: Partly cloudy with a high in the low 90s.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 1 – 8 p.m. Craftsman Truck Series
  • 4 – 9 p.m. Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 6:30 p.m. — Truck practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. — Truck qualifying (FS1)

Portland International Raceway (Xfinity Series)

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly sunny with a high of 77 degrees.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 6-11 p.m. Xfinity Series (no track activity on Friday)

Friday 5: NASCAR’s $1 million question is can the culture change?


NASCAR Cup teams have paid nearly $1 million in fines this season, more than triple what they paid last season for inspection-related infractions.

The money — $975,000 after just 14 of 36 points races — goes to the NASCAR Foundation. While the fines help a good cause, it is a troubling number, a point that a senior NASCAR official made clear this week.

Stewart-Haas Racing was the latest Cup team to be penalized. NASCAR issued a $250,000 fine, among other penalties, for a counterfeit part found on Chase Briscoe’s car following Monday’s Coca-Cola 600. The team cited a “quality control lapse” for a part that “never should’ve been on a car going to the racetrack.”

Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said this week that if violations continue, the sanctioning body will respond. NASCAR discovered the infraction with Briscoe’s car at the R&D Center. Series officials also discovered a violation with Austin Dillon’s car at the R&D Center after the Martinsville race in April.

“If we need to bring more cars (to the R&D Center), we’ll do that,” he said. “Our part of this as the sanctioning body is to keep a level playing field for all the competitors, and that’s what they expect us to do and that’s what we’ll continue to do. … Whatever we need to do, we will do that.”

Sawyer also noted that the “culture” of race teams needs to change with the Next Gen car.

“From a business model and to be equitable and sustainable going forward, this was the car that we needed,” Sawyer said. “To go with that, we needed a deterrent model that would support that.

“We’ve been very clear. We’ve been very consistent with this … and we will continue to do that. The culture that was in our garage and in the race team shops on the Gen-6 car was more of a manufacturing facility. The Next Gen car, that’s not the business model.

“The race teams, they’re doing a better job. We still have a lot of work to do, but they have to change that culture within the walls of the race shop.”

While NASCAR has made it clear that single-source vendor parts are not to be modified, teams will look for ways to find an advantage. With the competition tight — there have been 22 different winners in the first 50 races of the Next Gen car era — any advantage could be significant.

Twelve races remain, including Sunday’s race at World Wide Technology Raceway, before the playoffs begin. The pressure is building on teams.

“Some race teams, at this stage in the game, their performance is not where they would like for it to be and they’re going to be working hard,” Sawyer said. “If they feel like they need to step out of bounds and do things and just take the risk, then they may do that. That’s not uncommon. We’ve seen that over the years.

“The one thing that we have to keep in mind is we’ve raced the Next Gen car for a full season. We’re in year two, just say 18 months into it. So last year, they were just getting the parts and pieces, getting ready, getting cars prepared and getting to the racetrack.

“Now they’ve had them for a year. They’ve had them for an offseason. It’s given their engineers and the people back in the shop a lot more time to think, ‘Maybe we could do this, maybe we could do that.’

“By bringing these cars back (to the R&D Center) and taking them down to basically the nuts and bolts and a thorough inspection — and we will continue to do that — I believe we will get our message across. We’ll have to continue to do this for some period in time, but I have great faith that we will get there.”

A similar message was delivered by Sawyer to drivers this week when NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in retaliation for being forced into the wall.

Sawyer told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that “in the heat of the battle things happen, but (drivers) have to learn to react in a different way.”

Sawyer also noted that the message on how to race wasn’t just for those in Cup.

“We have to get that across not only to our veterans, guys that are superstars like Denny, like Bubba (Wallace) and like Chase and all our of national series Cup drivers, but also our young drivers that are coming up through the ranks that are racing in the Northeast in modifieds and in short tracks across the country,” he said. “That’s just not an acceptable behavior in how you would race your other competitors.

“There are a lot of things you can do to show your displeasure. That’s just not going to be one of them that we’re going to tolerate.”

2. Special ride 

Corey LaJoie gets to drive a Hendrick Motorsports car this weekend due to Chase Elliott’s one-race suspension.

“It’s a far cry difference from when I started my Cup career six years ago,” LaJoie said on his “Stacking Pennies” podcast this week. “There was a Twitter page “Did Corey crash?” … Going from that guy just trying to swim and stay above water and trying to learn the ropes to filling in for a champion like Chase Elliott for Hendrick Motorsports, it feels surreal.”

It was a little more than three years ago that LaJoie gave car owner Rick Hendrick a handwritten note to be considered to replace Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 car after the 2020 season.

“This was the first time I’ve gotten a letter from the heart,” Hendrick told NBC Sports in February 2020 of LaJoie’s letter. “I’ve gotten letters and phones calls, usually from agents. It was really a heartfelt letter and it was really personal.

“I was impressed with him before and am more impressed after.”

LaJoie admitted on his podcast this week that he wouldn’t have been ready to drive the No. 48 car then.

“I wouldn’t have been ready, whether it be in my maturation, my game, my knowledge of the race cars,” he said. “The person that I was wasn’t ready for the opportunity like that.”

Now he gets the chance. He enters this weekend 19th in the season standings, 38 points behind Alex Bowman for what would be the final playoff spot at this time.

“It’s an opportunity to hopefully show myself, as well as other people, what I’ve been thinking (of) my potential as a race car driver,” LaJoie said on his podcast. “But I also think you have to just settle in and be appreciative of the opportunity.”

3. Special phone call

With Corey LaJoie moving into Chase Elliott’s car for Sunday’s Cup race, LaJoie’s car needed a driver. Craftsman Truck Series driver Carson Hocevar will make his Cup debut in LaJoie’s No. 7 car for Spire Motorsports.

Once details were finalized this week, the 20-year-old Hocevar called his dad.

“I don’t know if he really believed it,” Hocevar said.

He told his dad: “Hey, this is actually happening.”

His father owns a coin and jewelry shop and is looking to close the store Sunday and have someone watch his two puppies so he can attend the race.

For Hocevar, it’s quite a turnaround for a driver who has been at the center of controversy at times.

Ryan Preece was critical of Hocevar’s racing late in the Charlotte Truck event in May 2022. Preece said to FS1: “All you kids watching right now wanting to get to this level, don’t do that. Race with respect. Don’t wreck the guy on the outside of you trying to win your first race. It doesn’t get you anywhere.”

NASCAR penalized Hocevar two laps for hooking Taylor Gray in the right rear during the Truck race at Martinsville in April.

Hocevar acknowledged he has had to change how he drives.

“Last year was really, really tough for me and that’s no excuse,” Hocevar said this week. “I just was mentally wrong on a lot of things, had the wrong mindset. I wanted to win so badly that I thought I could outwork stuff and it kind of turned some people away. … I wasn’t enjoying the time there. I was letting the results dictate that.

“I was taking results too personal. If we were going to be running seventh, I took it as I was a seventh-place driver and I wasn’t good enough. So I started making desperate moves. I did desperate things at times, even last year, that I’ve been able to calm down and look myself in the mirror and had a lot of heart-to-heart conversations.”

He called the Martinsville race “a turning point” for him and knew he needed to change how he drove. He enters this weekend’s Truck race with three consecutive top-five finishes.

4. Moving forward

In a way, Zane Smith can relate to what Carson Hocevar will experience this weekend. Smith, competing in the Truck Series, made his Cup debut last year at World Wide Technology Raceway. Smith filled in for RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher, who missed the race because of COVID-19 symptoms. Smith finished 17th.

“That one that I got for RFK Racing was a huge opportunity,” Smith said of helping him get some Cup rides this season. “I was super thankful for that. I think that run we had got my stock up and then, honestly, getting the Truck championship helped that rise as well.

“I think just time in the Cup car is so important, and I think once that new Cup car came out, people realized that you don’t have to do the route of Truck, Xfinity, Cup. The Cup car is so far apart from anything, though it does kind of race like a truck, so I don’t think you need to go that round of Truck, Xfinity, Cup. I think a lot of people would agree with me on that.

“I’m happy for these Cup starts that I’m getting. I’m happy for that one that I got last year at a place like Gateway. I think every time that you’re in one you learn a lot.”

Smith has made five Cup starts this season, finishing a career-best 10th in last week’s Coca-Cola 600 for Front Row Motorsports. The former Truck champion has two Truck series wins this year and is third in the season standings.

5. Notable numbers

A look at some of notable numbers heading into this weekend’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois:

5 — Most points wins in the Next Gen car (William Byron, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott)

7 — Different winners in the last seven points races: Christopher Bell (Bristol Dirt), Kyle Larson (Martinsville), Kyle Busch (Talladega), Martin Truex Jr. (Dover), Denny Hamlin (Kansas), William Byron (Darlington), Ryan Blaney (Coca-Cola 600).

17 — Points between first (Ross Chastain) and sixth (Christopher Bell) in the Cup standings

88 — Degrees at Kansas, the hottest temperature for a Cup race this season (the forecast for Sunday’s race calls for a high in the low 90s)

100 — Consecutive start for Austin Dillon this weekend

500 — Cup start for Brad Keselowski this weekend

687 — Laps led by William Byron, most by any Cup driver this season

805 — Cup start for Kevin Harvick this weekend, tying him with Jeff Gordon for ninth on the all-time list.

Dr. Diandra: How level is the playing field after 50 Next Gen races?


Last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 marks 50 Next Gen races. The 2022 season produced 19 different winners, including a few first-career wins. Let’s see what the data say about how level the playing field is now.

I’m comparing the first 50 Next Gen races (the 2022 season plus the first 14 races of 2023) to the 2020 season and the first 14 races of 2021. I selected those two sets of races to produce roughly the same types of tracks. I focus on top-10 finishes as a metric for performance. Below, I show the top-10 finishes for the 13 drivers who ran for the same team over the periods in question.

A table comparing top-10 rates for drivers in the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars, limited to drivers who ran for the same team the entire time.

Because some drivers missed races, I compare top-10 rates: the number of top-10 finishes divided by the number of races run. The graph below shows changes in top-10 rates for the drivers who fared the worst with the Next Gen car.

A graph showing drivers who have done better in the next-gen car than the Gen-6 car.

Six drivers had double-digit losses in their top-10 rates. Kevin Harvick had the largest drop, with 74% top-10 finishes in the Gen-6 sample but only 46% top-10 finishes in the first 50 Next Gen races.

Kyle Larson didn’t qualify for the graph because he ran only four races in 2020. I thought it notable, however, that despite moving from the now-defunct Chip Ganassi NASCAR team to Hendrick Motorsports, Larson’s top-10 rate fell from 66.7% to 48.0%.

The next graph shows the corresponding data for drivers who improved their finishes in the Next Gen car. This graph again includes only drivers who stayed with the same team.

A graph showing the drivers who have fewer top-10 finishes in the Next Gen car than the Gen-6 car

Alex Bowman had a marginal gain, but he missed six races this year. Therefore, his percent change value is less robust than other drivers’ numbers.

Expanding the field

I added drivers who changed teams to the dataset and highlighted them in gray.

A table comparing top-10 rates for drivers in the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars

A couple notes on the new additions:

  • Brad Keselowski had the largest loss in top-10 rate of any driver, but that may be more attributable to his move from Team Penske to RFK Motorsports rather than to the Next Gen car.
  • Christopher Bell moved from Leavine Family Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2021. His improvement is likely overestimated due to equipment quality differences.
  • Erik Jones stayed even, but that’s after moving from JGR (13 top-10 finishes in 2020) to Richard Petty Motorsports (six top 10s in 2021.) I view that change as a net positive.

At the end of last season, I presented the tentative hypothesis that older drivers had a harder time adapting to the Next Gen car. Less practice time mitigated their experience dialing in a car so that it was to their liking given specific track conditions.

But something else leaps out from this analysis.

Is the playing field tilting again?

Michael McDowell is not Harvick-level old, but he will turn 39 this year. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 35. Both have improved with the Next Gen Car. Chase Elliott (27 years old) and William Byron (25) aren’t old, either, but their top-10 rates have gone down.

Drivers running for the best-funded teams earned fewer top-10 finishes while drivers from less-funded teams (mostly) gained those finishes.

Trackhouse Racing and 23XI — two of the newest teams — account for much of the gains in top-10 finishes. Ross Chastain isn’t listed in the table because he didn’t have full-time Cup Series rides in 2020 or 2021. His 9.1% top-10 rate in that period is with lower-level equipment. He earned 27 top-10 finishes in the first 50 races (54%) with the Next Gen car.

This analysis suggests that age isn’t the only relevant variable. One interpretation of the data thus far is that the Next Gen (and its associated rules changes) eliminated the advantage well-funded teams built up over years of racing the Gen-5 and Gen-6 cars.

The question now is whether that leveling effect is wearing off. Even though parts are the same, more money means being able to hire the best people and buying more expensive computers for engineering simulations.

Compare the first 14 races of 2022 to the first 14 of 2023.

  • Last year at this time, 23XI and Trackhouse Racing had each won two races. This year, they combine for one win.
  • It took Byron eight races to win his second race of the year in 2022. This year, he won the third and fourth races of the year. Plus, he’s already won his third race this year.
  • Aside from Stenhouse’s Daytona 500 win, this year’s surprise winners — Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney — are both from major teams.

We’re only 14 races into the 2023 season. There’s not enough data to determine the relative importance of age versus building a notebook for predicting success in the Next Gen car.

But this is perhaps the most important question. The Next Gen car leveled the playing field last year.

Will it stay level?