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.

Dr. Diandra: Strategies in making Clash picks

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Crew chiefs must develop their approach to today’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum using only last year’s data, plus this year’s practice and qualifying.

Fans wagering (for fun and/or profit) must contend with the same lack of data as they make their Clash picks.

The shortest regular-season track is a half mile. A quarter-mile track is a different beast, even with a year’s worth of Next Gen experience.

“Last year everything was brand-new – the track, the format and the car,” Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott, said in a team release. “We’ll have a little bit better of an idea of what we’re going for this time around, but the track is so unique that even with going there last year, we’re still learning.”

As are the fans.

There are a few changes to keep in mind as you make your Clash picks.

NASCAR increased the field from 23 cars to 27. With 36 drivers entered, only nine will miss the Clash. Even without points on the line, no one wants to head home before the main event’s green flag.

Last year, equipment failures caused four out of five DNFs in the main race. Expect fewer mechanical issues this year.

But perhaps more aggression.

Don’t pay too much attention to practice

Last year’s practice times showed no correlation with Clash performance. Eventual winner Joey Logano finished practice last year with the 26th fastest lap — also known as the 11th-slowest lap. But he qualified fourth.

This year, despite losing about 40 hp to mufflers, Martin Truex Jr. set a fastest lap of 13.361 seconds. Truex’s lap beats last year’s best practice lap time of 13.455 seconds, set by Chase Elliott.

Although only seven-tenths of a second separate the fastest practice lap and the slowest, the change is far from linear.

A graph showing practice times for the Busch Light Clash field

  • The top 11 drivers are separated by just 0.048 seconds out of a 13- to 14-second lap
  • Brad Keselowski, who didn’t make the race last year, had the third slowest practice time.
  • Tyler Reddick ran the most total practice laps with 117. He was followed by Kevin Harvick (116), and Noah Gragson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., both of whom made 115 laps.
  • Most drivers ran their best times in their first or second session. Austin Dillon, however, ran his best time on lap 109 of 112.
  • The top three in practice also had the three best 10-lap averages.

Qualifying is the key to good Clash picks

Last year, qualifying position correlated well with driver finish in the Clash. If your driver qualified on the front two rows for his heat race, last year’s results suggest that the only thing keeping him from making tonight’s Clash is an accident or mechanical failure.

That’s bad news for Ty Gibbs, who wasn’t allowed to qualify and will start in the back of the field. It’s also a negative for Ryan Blaney, who posted a 40-second lap, however, Blaney has a shot at the provisional and Gibbs doesn’t.

The heat races are only 25 laps, which doesn’t leave much time for passing. Heat race starting position is highly correlated to heat race finishing position.

  • Last year, the pole-sitter for each of the four heat races held the lead for the entire race.
  • Of the 12 drivers starting in the top three for each heat race, nine drivers — 75% — finished in the top three.
  • Only the top-four finishers of each heat race advanced last year. This year, the top five move on. Last year, 16 of the 25 drivers (64%) starting in positions one through five finished in the top five of their heat races.
  • No driver who started a heat race from ninth finished better than sixth. That’s not encouraging news for Blaney and Gibbs, among others.

That means Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron are pretty much guaranteed locks for a good starting spot in the Clash.

The 20 drivers who qualified in the top five for their heat race have a very high probability of making it through to the main — and of finishing well there.

As was the case last year, practice showed little correlation with qualifying. Martin Truex Jr. qualified 22nd despite posting the best practice time.

The Last Chance Qualifiers

Three drivers from each of the two last chance qualifiers fill out the final rows of the Clash starting grid. Last year, drivers were more aggressive in these 50-lap races than the first four heats.

Again, the closer to the front a driver starts, the better his chance of making the race. Last year, both pole-sitters finished in the top three and advanced.

The last chance qualifiers are long enough for a driver starting in the rear to make it to the front. Last year, Ty Dillon came from 10th place to win the second race. He was subsequently disqualified for jumping the final restart and Harrison Burton, who had started seventh, advanced. If you’re looking for long-shot Clash picks, don’t count the back of the field entirely out.

The Big Show

Last year, the 150-lap main had five lead changes and five cautions.

  • Of last year’s four heat-race winners, two finished in positions one and two, while the other two didn’t finish the race.
  • Of the six drivers who advanced from the last chance qualifiers, none finished higher than A.J. Allmendinger in ninth.
  • Allmendinger tied with Erik Jones for most spots gained. Jones started 16th and finished fourth.
  • Excluding drivers who failed to finish the race, Danial Suárez had the biggest position loss, starting fifth and finishing 14th.

If you want to avoid the frontrunners, you might want to keep an eye on Aric Almirola, who qualified fifth, and had the seventh best 10-lap average run during practice. Austin Dillon didn’t put together a strong 10-lap run, but his team found something in the last minutes of practice that allowed him to go from finishing practice in 22nd to qualifying sixth.

And although Bubba Wallace qualified 16th, he ranked first in runs of 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 laps. He was second in five-lap speed.

Good luck with your Clash picks!

NASCAR Sunday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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It’s race day for the NASCAR Cup Series.

The Clash at the Coliseum will open the 2023 season for NASCAR on Sunday with the featured 150-lap race scheduled for 8 p.m. ET at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The field for the non-points race will be set by a series of heat and last chance races Sunday afternoon. The top five finishers in each of four 25-lap heat races will advance to the feature, and the top three finishers in two 50-lap last chance races will join the grid.

Joey Logano won last year’s Clash as it moved from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to the Coliseum.

The Cup Series regular season is scheduled to begin Feb. 19 with the Daytona 500.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Sunday: Partly cloudy with a high of 64 degrees in the afternoon and no chance of rain. It is expected to be sunny with a high of 62 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the Clash.

Sunday, Feb. 5

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. Sunday – 12:30 a.m. Monday — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 5 – 5:45 p.m. — Four heat races (25 laps; Fox, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 6:10 – 6:35 p.m. — Two last chance qualifying races (50 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8 p.m. — Feature race (150 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.