What matters at New Hampshire: Success is a playoff springboard

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What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

New Hampshire as a playoff springboard?

The 2020 blitzkrieg of key 750-horsepower tracks by Brad Keselowski and Jeremy Bullins that saw a dominant chassis secure a playoff win at Richmond and the fastest median lap time in the finale at Phoenix (en route to a second-place finish) began last August at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

With only Denny Hamlin in his competitive vicinity, Keselowski smashed the field, leading 61% of the race in the very vehicle that’d become a personal favorite, one for which he publicly begged Bullins to take to Phoenix following a victory of similar dominance at Richmond.

Flat, a mile long and with cornering a chief concern, New Hampshire doesn’t fit the mold of any one track in the playoffs. It does contains elements — Martinsville is flat, Richmond’s corners also confound, as do a few at Phoenix — that can translate elsewhere, though it’s not a guarantee; to wit, Chase Elliott’s nondescript ninth-place finish in last year’s New Hampshire race portended no doom in Races 35 and 36.

But the winner of today’s race is probably one we should hold in high regard when considering key tracks on this season’s playoff schedule, contrary to the other four remaining regular-season races. And though this was the springboard for Keselowski’s deep playoff run and the origin point for the most talked-about chassis last fall, his assault on this particular 750-horsepower track came as no real surprise. He won earlier that season on Bristol’s pavement and placed third at Martinsville, his speed ranking for the season going on to fare third best on tracks utilizing the rules package.

With just over a half of a season in the books, Keselowski’s speed isn’t in the same spot as it was a year ago, but fellow Team Penske driver Joey Logano boasts the second-fastest car on 750-horsepower tracks, trailing only Hamlin, one of two Joe Gibbs Racing drivers primed for a standout performance today, according to their speed ranks:

Interestingly, only two of the four fastest teams on 750-horsepower tracks this season have actually won, and one of them — Logano — triumphed exclusively on Bristol’s dirt.

Martin Truex Jr.’s first two wins this season, atypical compared to the manner in which he claimed victories in past years, were snatched from the more dominant Logano and Hamlin; his third, at Darlington, was a walk in the park in which he led nearly 85% of the race. A win today would only reestablish him as an obvious title favorite, a not-so-subtle remainder that the majority of tracks NASCAR visited this summer — where Hendrick Motorsports proved dominant — hold little bearing to a playoff slate that’s 50% occupied by 750-horsepower tracks.

Drivers fast on the 750-horsepower tracks were rewarded in 2020. Elliott, Logano and Keselowski ranked first, second and third in speed and each qualified for the Championship 4. Three of the four fastest drivers on 550-horsepower tracks — Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick and Truex — failed to secure championship eligibility in the finale.

If anything, today’s race will remind us of who is properly geared towards a credible playoff run, a sneak peek of what might come in the fall.

New Hampshire presents opportunity for a realistic new winner

To be fair, a win in any race delivers a playoff invitation, but New Hampshire is one of two races on normal non-drafting ovals left in the regular season, meaning it’s one of the last opportunities for a new, somewhat realistic race winner to emerge.

Hamlin and his industry-leading speed is an obvious choice to take his first win of the season in New Hampshire, secure a playoff spot (officially) and, in turn, bury the lame narrative of his supposed season-long struggle. Kevin Harvick, too, is in need of his first win this season, though comfortably in playoff contention. While crew chief Rodney Childers isn’t publicly bullish about the team’s chance at forming a juggernaut in time for playoff contention, the car does ranks seventh in average median lap time on 750-horsepower tracks. A win by them today wouldn’t constitute a surprise.

But with lap-time falloff just a hair over one second on worn tires and restarts, based on last year’s race, more compact and competitive, today’s winner won’t shock, needing many of the traditional strengths to properly execute a race worthy of victory.

Aric Almirola’s Stewart-Haas Racing car ranks 10th in average median lap time on 750-horsepower tracks but his pole-winning effort at Nashville, one with a car ranked as the third fastest in the race and able enough for a fourth-place finish, was arguably SHR’s best crack at a win this year for any of its non-Harvick drivers.

Both Almirola and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz have turned in technically sound seasons, per their advanced stats, but the overall lack of speed has washed over the airtight fundamentals. With good speed, a win at New Hampshire is somewhat realistic given Almirola’s past; he secured a pair of top-six finishes when driving for Richard Petty Motorsports and hasn’t finished worse than 11th since 2018.

Another realistic long shot, one with a bit of irony given the week’s events, is Matt DiBenedetto, an ARCA East winner at the track in 2009 who finished fifth (with the 10th-fastest car) in 2019 and sixth (with the eighth-fastest car) last year. His affinity for the facility runs counter to his production skew — towards 550-horsepower tracks — but this appears to be the clearest track falling firmly in the Venn diagram for what the driver does well and what the Penske alliance is admittedly most focused on in 2021.

This track saw a more competitive restart dynamic in 2020

Restarts will matter — we’re guaranteed three today, plus the initial start — but 20 of them took place across each of the last two races and the disparity between the two grooves has drawn closer in recent seasons.

A 45% disparity favoring the outside groove closed to 7% between 2019 and 2020, potentially due to the combination of a PJ1 application and the shift in downforce from one year to the next. Last year’s race saw the most competitive New Hampshire restart dynamic of its last four races, dating back to 2017:

NASCAR didn’t apply PJ1 in advance of today’s race, but there’s no statistical evidence suggesting PJ1 alone dramatically alters the retention rates of restart grooves. The current low-downforce package, introduced at 750-horsepower tracks last year, saw the wide disparities of restart grooves diminish at most tracks from 2019 to 2020 with Sonoma Raceway being the lone exception.

If the the more competitive dynamic remains, it could help foster a more straightforward race, one where a fast pit stop and keen aero-blocking fails as a winning formula on its own. The savviest restarters would be at an advantage relative to other tracks; on paper, these drivers will be able to retain position or move forward regardless of the launching point.