Dips in strategy, restarts behind Matt DiBenedetto’s recent struggles

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Poor pit strategy output, a recent dip in restart performance and an organization heavily focused on tracks outside of the driver’s wheelhouse has left Matt DiBenedetto and Wood Brothers Racing below the playoff cutline with six races left in the regular season.

And if driver and team didn’t hit rock bottom during the Coca-Cola 600, they sure came close.

Crew chief Greg Erwin went long on the first stage’s pit cycle — a completely viable plan given the minimal lap-time degradation on worn tires at Charlotte — pitting DiBenedetto more than 10 laps past the point when the majority of the field had pitted. But this tactic went too far. It dropped DiBenedetto from 24th to 27th in the running order and failed to take into account the pace of race leader Kyle Larson, who lapped the No. 21 car before the end of the stage.

The 600-mile race doled out more points than any other regular-season contest, a treasure trove of value for a team on the playoff fringes. Instead of merely attempting to stay on the lead lap — and in the hunt for point-paying stage results — Erwin’s gambit ran DiBenedetto a lap down. The team would eventually find their way back onto the lead lap, but only after three stages had been settled.

DiBenedetto left Charlotte with an 18th-place finish and 19 points, none from stages. Nine days later, Erwin was replaced as crew chief by Team Penske engineer Jonathan Hassler.

From the onset, this season has been rocky for DiBenedetto, who learned late last year that he’ll be replaced by Austin Cindric in 2022. While Brad Keselowski’s impending departure has thrown a curveball into the plans of the Penske affiliation, DiBenedetto’s future still isn’t known, and his year to date hasn’t helped his chances of a Wood Brothers U-turn or in landing a new gig with a different team.

His Production in Equal Equipment Rating, a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in an attempt to isolate his or contribution, is down after 20 races — currently a 0.650, ranked 24th — compared to last season’s 0.986, ranked 16th. After a disastrous first three races in which the team earned just 14 points, the ship was righted until Darlington, when a string of eight straight top-16 finishes was snapped. He earned just one top-16 finish (a 10th-place score last Sunday at Road America) in his nine most recent starts.

Throughout it all, he mostly enhanced his reputation as a superb short-run driver; his 85.7% position retention rate on preferred groove restarts ranks fifth in the series, while his 3.383 PEER in races containing at least one late restart ranks fourth. But his overall retention rate has taken a hit in recent weeks. In the five-week stretch from Dover to the first leg of the Pocono doubleheader, all eight of his choose-rule restarts from inside the first seven rows originated from the statistically non-preferred groove. He successfully defended his position on just 25% of those attempts and now ranks in the 50th and 47th percentiles among all drivers for restart defense and offense, respectively, visible in the team’s track position spider chart:

But as restarts provide some form of daylight when all is going well, his long-run prowess does not. Across all non-drafting tracks, he’s a minus passer, having earned an adjusted pass differential 52.6 positions worse than his statistical expectation. And while straightforward passing outside of the restart window is indeed a weak area of DiBenedetto’s repertoire, it’s something that can be supplemented by a crew chief’s ability to seek out positions, predominately during green-flag pit cycles.

Erwin, though, did not provide this assistance. His strategic designs defended DiBenedetto’s running position on just 53.1% of green-flag pit cycles — the series-wide rate is 67% — and netted a 35-position loss. These marks represent improvements over Erwin’s 2020 numbers — 40% retention and a 40-position loss — but the crew chief’s yearlong effort in a playoff-worthy campaign were clear signals of a shortcoming that appear to have gone unattended during the offseason.

The strategy component combines with a key stylistic difference: DiBenedetto’s 1.278 PEER on tracks utilizing the 550-horsepower package ranks 15th in the series and is markedly better than his production split for 750-horsepower tracks (0.136, ranked 26th). Penske competition director Travis Geisler admitted to an organizational choice to focus on 750-horsepower tracks prior to 2020; this means DiBenedetto might not receive a fully optimized effort towards his best tracks.

Still, this is an excuse only to an extent for DiBenedetto, whose team ranked 17th in average median lap time under Erwin. Two slower teams — Joe Gibbs Racing with Christopher Bell and Front Row Motorsports with Michael McDowell — captured wins in the first two races of the season to lock in playoff spots. Better finishes, including wins, are not off the table for the Wood Brothers team.

This was evident last Sunday at Road America when DiBenedetto engaged Cindric, his anointed replacement, in a testy battle for the lead that began with a white-knuckled split of Martin Truex Jr.’s machine on the lap-17 restart:

He led 10 laps en route to his top-10 finish. It was a feistiness mixed in with enough legitimate speed that’s necessary in contending for a win in one of the two remaining road course races prior to the start of the playoffs. Given his recent history of road course finishes, namely a fourth-place run at Sonoma in 2019 and a sixth-place finish later that season at Watkins Glen, the upcoming race on the Indianapolis road course and this season’s tilt at Watkins Glen represent somewhat realistic opportunities for a shock victory.

Barring an implosion from one of the four winless teams currently above the playoff cutoff, it’d take a win to guarantee him a second year of “postseason” racing. But with a change atop the pit box and an undecided future, the entire second half of 2021 provides DiBenedetto and his team a chance at improved performance, providing a more accurate assessment of the driver and his rookie crew chief.

In a year containing several low points and shared blame, capitalizing on the remaining races would represent a positive trajectory, beneficial for all parties involved.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.

 

Friday 5: Legacy MC seeks to stand out as Trackhouse did in ’22

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While the celebration continued after Erik Jones’ Southern 500 victory last September, executives of what is now Legacy MC already were looking ahead.

“(September) and October, decisions we make on people are going to affect how we race next (February), March and April,” Mike Beam, team president, told NBC Sports that night.

Noah Gragson had been announced as the team’s second driver for 2023 less than a month before Jones’ win. 

But bigger news was to come. 

The team announced Nov. 4 that Jimmie Johnson would become a co-owner, lifting the profile of a team that carries Richard Petty’s No. 43 on Jones’ cars.

As February approaches and racing resumes, a question this season is how far can Legacy MC climb. Can this team mimic the breakout season Trackhouse Racing had last year?

“I think everybody looks for Trackhouse for … maybe the way of doing things a bit different,” Jones told NBC Sports. “Obviously, starting with the name. We’ve kind of gone that same direction with Legacy MC and then on down from there, kind of how a program can be built and run in a short amount of time.

“There’s some growth in the back end that we still have to do to probably be totally to that level, but our goal is definitely to be on that same trajectory that Trackhouse was over the last two seasons.”

Trackhouse Racing debuted in 2021 with Daniel Suarez. He finished 25th in the points. The organization added Ross Chastain and several team members from Chip Ganassi Racing to form a two-car team last year. Chastain won two races and finished second in the points, while Suarez won once and was 10th in the standings. 

Legacy MC co-owner Maury Gallagher purchased a majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports in December 2021 and merged the two teams. Jones won one race and placed 18th in points last year. Ty Dillon was winless, finishing 29th in points and was replaced by Gragson after the season. 

“Legitimately, we were a pretty new team last year coming in,” Jones said. “There were a handful of Richard Petty Motorsports guys who came over, but, for the most part, it was a brand new team.

“I think what we built in one year and done is similar to Trackhouse in their first year. I think maybe even we were a step ahead of where they were in their first year.”

Legacy MC looks for more with Jones, Gragson and Johnson, who will run a limited schedule this year. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500 field.

Jones said Johnson has infused the team with energy. Gragson has been trying to soak up as much as he can from Johnson.

Gragson told NBC Sports that having Johnson as a teammate is “going to be an incredible opportunity for a young guy like myself, first year in the Cup series, a rookie, to be able to lean on a seven-time champion.

“Incredible person, friend, mentor that Jimmie has become for myself. He’s probably going to be pretty over me by the time we get to the Daytona 500 because I just keep wearing him out with questions and trying … pick his brain.”

2. Kyle Busch’s impact

Car owner Richard Childress says that Kyle Busch already is making an impact at RCR.

Busch joins the organization after having spent the past 15 seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch will pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR this year.

He took part in a World Racing League endurance race at Circuit of the Americas in December with Austin Dillon and Sheldon Creed. The trio won one of those races.

“I was down there for that, just watching how (Busch) gets in there and works with everybody,” Childress said. “He’s a racer. He wants to win. That’s what I love about him.”

Childress sees the influence Busch can have on an organization that has won six Cup titles — but none since Dale Earnhardt’s last crown in 1994 — and 113 series races.

“He brings a lot of experience and knowledge,” Childress said of Busch. “I think he’ll help Austin a lot in his career. I think he can help our whole organization from a standpoint of what do we need … to go faster.

Dillon told NBC Sports that the team has changed some things it does in its meetings based on feedback from Busch. Dillon also said that he and Busch have similar driving styles — more similar than Dillon has had with past teammates. 

“I think as we go throughout the year and he gets to drive our race cars, he’ll have some new thoughts that he’ll bring,” Dillon said of Busch. “I think we’re already bringing some new thoughts to him, too.”

3. New role for Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick, entering his final Cup season, has joined the Drivers Advisory Council, a move Joey Logano said is important for the group.

“Kevin is necessary to the sport, even post-driving career,” Logano told NBC Sports. “He’s necessary for our sport’s success. Kevin sees it and does something about it. 

“He’s always been vocal, right? He’s always been very brash, and like, boom in your face. That’s what people love about Kevin Harvick. Something I like about him as well is that you know where you stand. You know where the weaknesses are. 

“He’s going to push until something happens. That’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having him on the Advisory Council now for the drivers, his experience, but also his willingness to push, is important.”

Jeff Burton again will lead the group as Director of the Council. The Board of Directors is: Harvick, Logano, Kyle Petty, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Corey LaJoie, Kurt Busch and Tom Buis.

Logano, Petty, Dillon, Suarez, LaJoie and Busch all return. Buis, a board member of Growth Energy after having previously been the company’s CEO, joins the drivers group and provides a business background. 

4. Finding one’s voice

Chase Briscoe’s contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing means he could be the longest tenured driver there in the near future.

The 28-year Briscoe enters his third Cup season at SHR, but the landscape is changing. This will be Kevin Harvick’s final season in Cup. Ryan Preece is in his first season driving in Cup for the team. Aric Almirola was supposed to have retired last year but came back. How long he remains is to be determined.

Those changes could soon leave Briscoe as the team’s senior driver.

“It’s a role that is crazy, truthfully, to think about because that could be me in the next year or two, being I wouldn’t say that flagship guy, but being a leader as far as the drivers go in an organization,” Briscoe said.

“Truthfully, I feel like that’s something I want to be. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of leader, team building type of stuff. So, yeah, if that role is kind of placed on me naturally, then that’s one that I would love to have and try to do it to the best of my ability. I feel like that’s a role that you don’t choose, it kind of chooses you.”

Briscoe, who won the spring Phoenix race and made the playoffs last year, said that he’s becoming more comfortable speaking up in team meetings. 

“I look back, especially on my rookie year, we’d go into our competition meeting on Tuesday and, truthfully, I wouldn’t really talk much,” he said. “I would say kind of what we thought for the weekend, but outside of that I would just kind of sit there and listen.  

“This past year, I definitely talked a lot more, and I’d bring up ideas and kind of say things I wanted to get off my chest, where in the past I wouldn’t have done that. I feel like as I’ve gotten more confident in myself and my position, I’ve gotten to the point where I speak my mind a little bit more and, I guess, be a little bit more of a leader.”

5. Busch Clash field

NASCAR released the preliminary entry list for the Feb. 5 Busch Clash. No surprise, the entry list features only the 36 charter teams. Those teams are required to be entered.

With 27 cars in the feature — which is expanded by four cars from last year’s race — there’s no guarantee a non-charter car could make the field. That’s a lot of money to go across country and face the chance of missing the main event.

The Daytona 500 field has four spots for non-charter cars. With that race’s payoff significantly more, it will attract at least five cars for those spots: Jimmie Johnson (Legacy MC), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing), Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports) and Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing). Helio Castroneves confirmed Thursday that he will not enter the 500. He had been in talks with the team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather.

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

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“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Though Castroneves is out, Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported that Mayweather’s The Money Team Racing still is considering IndyCar driver Conor Daly for its seat.