What matters at Pocono: Elite speed tends to translate

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What matters in this weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series races? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping the doubleheader at Pocono Raceway (3 p.m. ET Saturday and 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday, both on NBCSN).

Pocono is on its own island, but 550-horsepower success tends to translate

The 2.5-mile triangle-shaped Pocono Raceway is lauded for its uniqueness, but in terms of its translation to other tracks, specifically those with playoff representation, it offers title-contending teams little reason for additional research, development and preparation beyond the bare minimum. It’s a notion Travis Geisler, Team Penske’s competition director, wrestled with this week.

“Pocono is one of those tracks that’s just way off the map as far as the bell curve of distribution of tracks,” Geisler said. “It’s kind of out there on the tail, but it’s still a very good opportunity to go and try some things.”

Success across the doubleheader weekend is like found money. If teams have a good two days, great. If they don’t, there’s no reason to panic, as a bad race at Pocono bears little predictive validity for the rest of the season. Given Penske’s playoff positioning, Geisler believes the twin bill is ripe for trial and error in live-race conditions.

“We’re very fortunate that we’ve got our wins with each of our cars, so (we) are in a position where (we) can try some different things and get outside the box a little bit,” Geisler said. “I think we need to do that and try some different directions and see that even if it doesn’t work for that race, can you check something off the list or can you put something over that says ‘This was a positive’ and we just need to figure out how to work around that.”

It was Geisler who, last fall, confirmed the organization had turned its focus to 750-horsepower tracks, which makes the distribution of speed on 550-horsepower tracks for all of the Penske-branded cars a bit peculiar. Brad Keselowski ranks third this season in average median lap across all tracks utilizing the rules package, while Ryan Blaney ranks fifth and Joey Logano ranks 14th. Blaney scored his lone win of the season on the high-banked, 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway.

For Keselowski and Blaney, there’s enough evident speed for decent outings this weekend, but winning, as recent Pocono history suggests, requires industry-leading speed. In the four races at Pocono with the low-horsepower, high-downforce rules package, three of them were won by Joe Gibbs Racing — twice by Denny Hamlin, the other by Kyle Busch — with the outlier claimed by Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick. Each win was part of a broader stretch of races in which those teams’ rolling speed was at its pinnacle.

The 2021 analog is Kyle Larson, who turned the fastest median lap time in eight of the first 17 races: Daytona, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Kansas, Dover, Charlotte, Sonoma and Nashville. He’s yet to win at Pocono in 12 career starts, but based on what’s required to win there, this weekend represents his best opportunity, one practically isolated to just him.

The chasm to Hendrick Motorsports’ Larson is one Geisler insists Penske is working to eliminate, despite the driver’s recent surge coming on tracks without playoff representation.

“Right now it’s 110 percent, I can promise you that,” Geisler said. “We’re not sitting here saying, ‘Well, it’s just the tracks. These tracks aren’t really in the playoffs.’ The amount of speed that they have had week in and week out, it’s obvious that it doesn’t matter if we’re in the rain, if we’re at Sonoma, if we’re at Texas, if we’re at wherever you want to go race, their package is really fast right now.

“To close the gap at any of these tracks would feel like progress and that’s what we’ve got to do.”

Pocono’s restarts aren’t what you think they are

Restarts at Pocono provide a cool visual, seeing cars splay out in a way that’s reminiscent of the inverted funnel onto Phoenix’s dogleg. Pocono offers ample room to cars occupying the inside line, but that room yields little gain. It’s the line that’s the statistically non-preferred of the two, and with the choose rule in place this weekend, it contains spots that should be avoided:

  • Across the last two years at Pocono (four races), no car launching from the second row’s inside spot completed a pass within two laps of the restart, averaging a 1.59-position loss within that span.
  • Cars restarting from the inside of the third row retained position just 18.52% of the time. The spot averaged a 2.44-position loss, one of the biggest drop rates for any restart spot across all NASCAR tracks.
  • The inside (averaging a 1.77-position loss) and outside (averaging a 1.3-position gain) of the fifth row saw a swing of over three positions. After two laps, the 10th-place car averages an 8.7-place running position, while the ninth-place car holds a 10.77-place average.

If drivers and teams aren’t privy to the exact math, they’re familiar with the sensation. Matt DiBenedetto, whose restarting acumen is his biggest statistical strength, easily comprehends the disparity between the two grooves.

“If it’s Pocono, you know once you get off Turn 1, man, if you’re stuck on the bottom down the backstretch, the whole train on the outside is going to drive by you,” DiBenedetto told NBC Sports in February.

Saturday’s race will be Pocono’s first since the inception of the restart choose rule last August.

Clean laps will influence green-flag pit stops

With 47 laps to go in the second Pocono race last year, Denny Hamlin passed Kurt Busch for third place. Despite it being the final on-track pass Hamlin made that day, he went on to win the race. His victory was a direct result of a well executed green-flag pit cycle.

Leader Brad Keselowski peeled off the racetrack and onto pit road on Lap 96, followed by Kevin Harvick, second at the start of the pit cycle, on lap 105. Hamlin wasn’t brought down by crew chief Chris Gabehart until lap 120, a decision that gave him a relatively traffic-free track on which he ran lap times under 53 seconds.

Harvick’s pit sequence leapfrogged him past Keselowski, but after blending back onto the track, his lap times in dirty air (under 54 seconds) failed to mimic Hamlin’s in clean air. Expanding his lead as the laps trickled down, Hamlin decreased the amount of fuel needed — as much as a two-tire stop was long. He blended back onto the track, untouched by the second-place runner, sailing to victory.

Key in this strategy was the lack of lap-time falloff — practically none — on worn tires. Hamlin’s winning plan is one that could be replicated in the final stages of this weekend’s races, 53 and 55 laps in duration, respectively.

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).

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.