Transaction Analysis: What to expect from Austin Cindric, Harrison Burton

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A major driver shakeup will find Austin Cindric driving Team Penske’s No. 2 car in 2022 and Harrison Burton in Wood Brothers Racing’s No. 21 car.

What should we expect from Cindric and Burton, the two newly promoted drivers, and how should Matt DiBenedetto, Burton’s predecessor, be viewed on the open market? Let’s dig in:

Austin Cindric to Team Penske

Brad Keselowski’s era in Penske’s No. 2 car brought a championship and 34 victories in Cup. Finding an equivalent driver, one able to keep the team’s legacy afloat in the Next Gen era, was never going to be easy. It’s not known whether Cindric will develop into a Hall-of-Fame-caliber talent a la Keselowski, but the building blocks are there and, conveniently for Penske, he’s family — father Tim is the company’s president — nurtured internally for the last six years.

Thanks to a rigorous cross-training regimen that included F2000 and Global RallyCross — he claimed an X Games bronze medal in the latter — Cindric is a uniquely built talent, a world-beater on NASCAR’s road courses since the day he climbed behind the wheel of a stock car. He’s won 13 times at NASCAR’s national level, five of them coming in road races.

His aggression is a polarizing attribute but one for which Penske — which employed Kurt Busch, Keselowski, AJ Allmendinger and Joey Logano within the last 10 years — clearly pines in its drivers. And while this trait rubs competitors wrong at times, its effectiveness is plain as day:

With his 76.09% retention rate, Cindric is the best non-preferred groove restarter among Xfinity Series drivers aged 24 or younger — a group consisting of 17 drivers with six or more starts this season. It was a restart that helped him win last fall’s Xfinity Series title in Phoenix and it’s short runs that stand as his calling card, practically a requirement in replacing Keselowski, the best short-run driver in the series right now. His predecessor is more cultured in the nuances of Cup Series restarts, but in time, Cindric could mimic Keselowski’s feistiness within the sport’s most crucial two-lap windows.

Cindric’s ability to overtake on long runs is probably not where it needs to be, given he’ll soon face a slate of races 100 to 200 miles longer than his current norm. He is a positive surplus passer from a top running position in the Xfinity Series, but that’s a skill in large abundance among prospects; he only ranks in the 59th percentile compared to other drivers in his age group and far below the likes of Ty Gibbs, Noah Gragson and Brandon Jones. When slotting into a perennial playoff seat, this is a potential weakness, an area he’ll look to improve upon prior to 2022.

While it appears some in-roads have been made in his passing — his +4.80% surplus passing value in five Cup Series races this year on non-drafting tracks is a higher mark than any current series regular — it’s most likely a result of cherry-picking his tracks. The easy takeaway is that he’ll make an immediate impact on road courses, already Penske’s best bet to cut into Chase Elliott’s advantage on a track type that occupies nearly 20% of the current schedule.

How quickly he develops for the remaining 80% of the schedule will dictate the totality of his initial production, but for the long haul, this is about as good of a like-for-like replacement for Keselowski that Penske could find among the existing crop of prospects.

Harrison Burton to Wood Brothers Racing

When TRD president David Wilson stated last fall that Toyota “doesn’t have anybody that is ready to go in a Cup car,” that included Burton, who won four times in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in 2020. At that point, the writing was visibly on the wall, making Burton’s jump to Ford and Wood Brothers Racing a little less surprising.

After a season in which his 2.318 Production in Equal Equipment Rating fared better than Chase Elliott’s rookie-year Xfinity Series PEER (2.152), Burton’s encore effort in 2021 has amounted to a significant letdown; JGR has collected seven wins in 18 races, but the 20-year-old hasn’t chipped in any of his own. Part of this could be due to the promotion of crew chief Ben Beshore from Burton’s pit box in 2020 to that of Kyle Busch in the Cup Series this season. But Burton’s made some improvement in his underlying numbers that provide some positivity in an otherwise difficult campaign:

Compared to drivers aged 24 or younger, he’s a below-average passer but his current ranking (the 47th percentile) and his surplus passing value (+0.60%) are leaps above last season, which saw him turn in a negative surplus (-2.09%). Improvement in long-run passing and on non-preferred groove restarts – where he’s cut his average positional loss per attempt from 1.07 to 0.55 – have factored into a 73-position swing in spots created on the racetrack beyond what’s statistically expected. It’s progress for a young driver that isn’t totally visible when poring over his results.

Still, there’s plenty of risk here for the Wood Brothers team, going from one of the best restarters in the Cup Series to one who just found footing on restarts in NASCAR’s second tier, even considering Burton’s moments of brilliance, like his final restart from a non-preferred groove launch point that led to a win at Homestead in 2020. The rookie-to-be is in for a rude awakening when he discovers the level of pre-meditated physicality on Cup Series restarts.

His high ceiling seems to come with a low floor; he’s produced negative PEERs at the ARCA East level (in 2016) and in a part-time Xfinity effort (in 2019), statistical blips that should cause any evaluator some pause. But if a slow assimilation is correctly expected by his new team — he’ll be the youngest driver in the Cup Series, after all — then there’s no readily available reason why he shouldn’t turn out a serviceable spell in what’s largely a stepping-stone ride.

Matt DiBenedetto is without a ride for 2022

DiBenedetto is simultaneously overrated and underrated.

Adored by his fans as a consistent underdog, DiBenedetto is, unfortunately, not a star driver, lacking an all-around acumen that can carry teams with borderline elite speed to multiple race wins.

He is, though, a driver with elite tendencies, namely his restarting, where he ranks as a top-five restarter from the preferred groove (based on position retention rate) and across all 550-horsepower tracks. It’s an acumen that fueled the fourth-best PEER in races ending with at least one late restart, making him one of the sport’s most reliable short-run threats.

And while his overall production output appears easily replaceable at first blush, drivers of his ilk don’t grow on trees. His efforts on short runs are the result of deliberate studyKevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. are his favorite subjects — and the fact that’s he’s able to execute in these vulnerable moments of races is enough to make him a worthwhile hire for a team seeking a more pronounced short-run identity.

In that sense, the Penske alliance, featuring a fair share of superb restarters, was a good spot for him to hone his craft; however, the organizational focus on 750-horsepower tracks doomed him to an extent. His PEER currently skews towards 550-horsepower tracks and coupled with a season that’s predominately seen a low caution volume (with fewer restart opportunities) and just six races culminating with a late restart, it’s yielded a relatively poor overall PEER (0.786, ranked 21st overall) at an inopportune time:

Additionally, the Wood Brothers team, primarily with crew chief Greg Erwin, failed to assist DiBenedetto in the area where he lacked — long-run passing. To this point in the year, it’s fair to say DiBenedetto’s done precisely what’s expected of him, based on his peripheral stat profile, while the team and crew chiefs — Jonathan Hassler was promoted as Erwin’s replacement on June 8 — haven’t done the requisite amount of heavy lifting needed to push a fringe playoff team past the cut line. Despite the good vibes brought by Hassler, the team’s had a slower average median lap rank since he took over, 21st, down from 19th with Erwin.

It’d suit DiBenedetto well to land with a team desiring to focus on 550-horsepower tracks — but by virtue of this, likely not a serious title threat — and willing to build on his short-run prowess. He’ll be fortunate to find a job at all, much less one perfectly aligned with what he does well as a driver.

It’s very likely that the Wood Brothers, a fringe playoff program, had in DiBenedetto a driver of an equal status, only to discard him in an effort to find someone better. For DiBenedetto, the parting is hard; finding a team on even footing with the one he’ll leave will prove difficult, especially with a slew of other interesting driver options available on the market.

But DiBenedetto does bring a usable skill and a stat profile most other teams should find attractive. Whether they engage him to drive their car is another question entirely, a commitment to a particular, precise style of success.

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

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

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

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

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.