What matters at Atlanta: Reckoning with high tire wear

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What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping the Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Blaney, with an affinity for high-tire wear tracks, is built for Atlanta

It’s probably fair to say that Kyle Larson, with the fastest car and having led over 414 miles of the 500-mile contest, should’ve won Atlanta’s spring race. But that’d be unfair to Ryan Blaney, the actual winner.

Blaney made up a three-second disadvantage across the race’s final green-flag run and passed Larson for the lead with less than 10 laps to go. His speed that day was legitimate — ranked third in median lap time and first across the final stage, specifically — and so too was his approach, which took advantage of the 1.8-second lap-time degradation on worn tires.

How well Blaney nursed his tires compared to Larson was evident in their lap times near the end of the green-flag run. Larson’s first lap clocking in at 33.5 seconds — representing a full 1.3 seconds worth of falloff — was lap 309; Blaney’s first lap at 33.5 came 12 laps later.

Conserving tires, Blaney believes, is his strong suit, one cultivated at stock car racing’s grassroots level.

“I prefer tracks where the tires wear out,” Blaney said. “I think I like it so much because I grew up running the (Pro All Stars Series) stuff, we’d run 150 laps on the same set. You’d ride around for 100 laps of that race. And I think that kind of helped me save a little bit of tire from an early age and it kinds of helps me now.”

Blaney, whose acumen is progressing towards one of a well-rounded star, has represented Team Penske’s most consistent hedge on bigger tracks since the organization turned its attention to the 750-horsepower facilities prior to 2020. Blaney’s No. 12 car ranked first in speed among all teams last year on 550-horsepower tracks. This season, it’s tied for fourth in average median lap time on the same tracks.

“We’ve had really good cars on 550 tracks,” Blaney said. “Todd (Gordon, crew chief) does a good job — we have an aero package, whatever you want to call it — that we build them to be able to run hard. We’ve never really been known for amazing straightaway speed. Other teams are known for that. We make sure we handle (well), and that helps me drive the car really hard.

“I enjoy the bigger tracks and can really drive hard in the cars with high downforce stuff. That’s got me in trouble a few times … but it just works out.”

Larson is (still) a problem

Blaney and the rest of the Cup Series field will still have to deal with the problem presented by Larson, whose No. 5 car ranks first on 550-horsepower tracks in average median lap time. Penske’s competition director, Travis Geisler, noted two weeks ago that while Chevrolet, and Hendrick Motorsports specifically, have performed well at the bigger tracks, Larson has been a cut above them.

“I think the 9, the 48, the 24 — those guys seem to be a lot more race-able or beatable,” Geisler said. “(Larson) has a margin on his teammates right now.”

Chase Elliott represents a real threat to Larson in today’s race. Starting from the pole, Elliott recorded the fifth-fastest median lap time at Atlanta this spring but failed to finish, the result of an engine failure. He leads all drivers — with Larson ranked second — in surplus passing value on 550-horsepower tracks, holding a pass differential 87 positions better than his statistically expected +20. His pit crew secured the fastest median four-tire box time through the first half of the season.

And yet, Larson remains the betting favorite, primarily due to the relentlessness of his speed. His car ranked as the fastest (based on median lap) in nine of the 20 races this year, not counting the All-Star Race at Texas, a track shaped similarly to Atlanta and a race he won. With high-tire wear races acting as races of truth — they historically reward speed more so than any other pertinent metric — he’s the rabbit after which the field is chasing until we see otherwise.

Strategizing around Atlanta’s tire wear

Short-pitting, or pitting early or before the most populated few laps within the pit window, is the mathematically advantageous tactic for green-flag pit cycles on tracks with high tire wear like Atlanta. In theory, a car that’s pitted earlier can utilize fresh rubber to cut fast laps while its nearby opponents on old tires are at their most vulnerable.

For the most part, this is a truism that was religiously followed in Atlanta’s spring race; there weren’t any teams of note attempting to long-pit; however, a few teams executed the pit sequence — the timing of the stop, getting onto and off of pit road and the stop itself — better than others.

Rodney Childers, on behalf of Kevin Harvick, helped net nine positions across the race’s three green-flag pit cycles, crucial in Harvick’s march from as low as 30th to his eventual 10th-place finish. Ben Beshore’s six positions earned, including five on the third and final pit cycle, helped Kyle Busch recover from a lap-221 pit road speeding penalty to score a fifth-place finish.

But, arguably, the driver for whom a well executed strategy helped most was Larson. Crew chief Cliff Daniels retained Larson’s lead spot on all three green-flag pit cycles, a scenario which sees a 53% probability based on the series-wide rate. For the season, Daniels has defended Larson’s running spot on 73.2% percent of green-flag pit cycles, a rate ranked second among playoff-qualified crew chiefs, netting 17 positions across all non-drafting ovals.

Daniels’ burgeoning ability to defend Larson’s position has enhanced the No. 5 team’s ability to dominate, increasing the performance gap between them and every other team.

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.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.

 

 

Blown tires end race early for several Texas contenders

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FORT WORTH, Texas — A Goodyear official said that air pressures that teams were using contributed to some drivers blowing tires in Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all crashed while leading after blowing a tire. Among the others who had tire issues were Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher Cole Custer and Christopher Bell twice. 

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

MORE: NASCAR says it missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution 

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

Eight of the 16 cautions were related to tire failures that caused drivers to spin or crash.

“It’s not a good look, that’s for sure,” Ryan Blaney said of the tire issues others had. “How many leaders blew tires tonight? Three or four?

“You just don’t understand what is making these things do that. From last week to this week, it’s really unfortunate. It’s just luck now.

“You never know if you’re going to blow one. You go into (Turn) 3 almost every lap with 40 laps on your stuff and I don’t know if one is going to blow out or not. That’s not safe. That’s for sure. Running (180) into (Turn) 3 and the thing blows out and you have no time to react to it. It’s unfortunate. I hope we can figure that out.”

Blaney said he was confused that the tires were blowing partly into a run instead of much earlier.

“It was weird because those tires didn’t blow right away,” he said. “Like the pressures were low. They blew like after a cycle or two on them, which is the weird thing.”

Asked how he handles that uncertainty, Blaney said: “Nothing I can do about it. Just hope and pray.”

After his crash, Elliott was diplomatic toward Goodyear’s situation:

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Tyler Reddick, who won Sunday’s race at Texas, said his team made adjustments to the air pressure settings after Saturday’s practice.

“We ran enough laps, were able to see that we had been too aggressive on our right front tire,” he said. “So we made some adjustments going into the race, thankfully.”

This same time was used at Kansas and will be used again at Las Vegas next month in the playoffs. 

Reddick is hopeful of a change but also knows it might take time.

“I just think to a degree, potentially, as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, maybe, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be,” he said. 

“I know Goodyear will fix it. That’s what they do. It’s going to be a process. I know they’re going to be on top of it. Hey, they don’t want to see those failures. We don’t want to see them either. They’re going to be working on looking through and trying to find out exactly what is going on. We’ll all learn from it.

“It’s a brand-new car. It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.”