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.

Charlotte Cup race postponed to Monday by weather


CONCORD, N.C. — All-day rain Sunday forced the postponement of the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series race to Monday.

The postponement means that Charlotte Motor Speedway is scheduled to host 900 miles of stock car racing Monday. A 300-mile Xfinity Series race, originally scheduled Saturday and first postponed to noon Monday, has been rescheduled for 11 a.m. ET Monday (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The Cup race is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. (Fox, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Sunday’s Cup race was scheduled to start at 6:21 p.m. ET, but light rain was still falling at that time in the speedway area near Charlotte. Rain intensified a few minutes later and, despite an evening forecast that showed slight improvement, officials decided at 6:30 p.m. to postpone the race.

Monday’s forecast calls for a 34% chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race and a 30% chance at the start of the Cup race.

William Byron will start the race from the pole after qualifying was washed out Saturday night.

RFK Racing gains sponsorship from submarine recruiting group


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR racing and submarines? Yes.

RFK Racing announced Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that it has entered a partnership with BlueForge Alliance, which is involved in securing workers for the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base (SIB) program. BuildSubmarines.com will be a primary sponsor for RFK drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher in 10 Cup Series races this year and in 18 races per season beginning in 2024.

The sponsorship will showcase the careers related to the submarine-building program across the nation.

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“I’m proud to support a cause of such vital significance to our country with this new partnership,” Keselowski said. “The synergies between a NASCAR team and our military’s needs to stay on track fast are countless. We hope to inspire the workforce of the next generation across the country when they see RFK race and hear our message.”

The sponsorship will support the mission to recruit, hire, train, develop and retain the SIB workforce that will build the Navy’s next generation of submarines, the team said.

“We are excited and grateful to be teaming with RFK Racing to drive awareness of the thousands of steady, well-paying manufacturing jobs available across the nation. Innovation, working with purpose and service to others are hallmarks of both of our organizations,” said Kiley Wren, BlueForge chief executive. “Together, we aim to inspire NASCAR fans and all Americans to pursue career opportunities that will support our national defense.”

Kyle Larson visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway to survey the scene


Former NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who is scheduled to run the Indianapolis 500 in 2024 as part of an Indy-Charlotte “double,” visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area Sunday on Indianapolis 500 race day.

Larson said he wanted to familiarize himself with the Indy race-day landscape before he becomes immersed in the process next year.

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Larson later returned to Charlotte, where was scheduled to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Next year, he’s scheduled to run both races.

“I love racing,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I love competing in the biggest races. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time, and I finally feel like the timing is right. It’s pretty cool to have a dream come true.

“I wanted to come here and kind of experience it again and get to experience how crazy it is again before I’m in the middle of it next year. I kind of want as little surprise as possible next year.”

In the 2024 500, Larson will be one of four drivers with the Arrow McLaren team.

Earlier this month, Larson and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon attended an Indy 500 practice day.

Larson said Sunday he hasn’t tested an Indy car.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll get in the car,” he said. “I’ve had no sim (simulator) time yet. I’ve kind of stayed back. I didn’t want to ask too many questions and take any focus on what they have going on for these couple of weeks. I’m sure that will pick up after today.

“I look forward to the challenge. No matter how this experience goes, I’m going to come out of it a better race car driver.”




Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

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And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”