Analysis: Appreciating the best strategists among crew chiefs


Among NASCAR’s crew chiefs, several productive strategists stand out from the rest, impacting race results from a variety of different running whereabouts this season.

Here’s a look into what five crew chiefs, separated by average running position (ARP), have accomplished on behalf of their drivers during green-flag pit cycles through the first 22 races:

Cliff Daniels, ARP 7th-12th

Potentially lost in Kyle Larson’s ascent is the rise in crew chief Cliff Daniels’ reputation as a strategist; he’s sufficiently weaponized Larson’s speed around green-flag pit cycles as an aggressive method for defending top-five spots.

And it’s worked well, to the tune of a 70.37% retention rate for all of Larson’s running positions within that range, over 18 percentage points better than the series-wide average. Without many spots up for grabs when running toward the front this frequently, the No. 5 car has actually gained one position this season on non-drafting ovals, a rare feat among the fastest teams.

“Knowing that one of our strengths is physically pitting the car, the guys do such a good job,” Daniels said in May. “I’m actually excited when I see a green-flag pit cycle come around because I know that’s one of our strengths.”

Defense aside, Daniels’ offense was integral to Larson’s second-place finish at Darlington. Across four green-flag pit cycles, Daniels found 11 positions on Larson’s behalf, which included a jump from sixth to second in the cycle running from laps 207-240.

Similarly, the crew chief netted four spots for his driver in the Sonoma race win, where a multitude of strategies were executed around him. In a backup car in the Sunday tilt at Pocono Raceway, Daniels kept Larson afloat in the running order with a whopping 41-position net for the day, helping the 20th-fastest machine, per its median lap rank, achieve a second-place finish.

Greg Ives, ARP 13th-18th

In two of Alex Bowman’s three wins this season, the strategic designs of crew chief Ives proved instrumental. At Richmond, Ives scored nine positions across the final three green-flag pit cycles, moving the fourth-fastest car into a winning position against the likes of Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin.

At Pocono, Ives’ six positions gained on Bowman’s behalf, including a leap from seventh to fourth on the final cycle, placed the No. 48 car in a spot high enough to benefit when Larson and Hamlin before him eschewed the second-most valuable launching spot at the 2.5-mile track prior to the final restart. It was that restart that propelled Bowman to the front, in optimal sniffing distance to capitalize on Larson’s blown left front tire.

For the year, he’s supplied Bowman an additional 10-position net, with 24 coming on non-drafting ovals. His 16 cycles consisting of at least a two-position gain ranks as the fifth most in the series.

Ives’ 76.74% retention rate across all green-flag pit cycles ranks fifth among full-time crew chiefs and first among those qualified for the playoffs. He’s retained Bowman’s spot on 66.67% of cycles when relinquishing a top-five position, over 14 points higher than the series average.

Mike Shiplett, ARP 19th-22nd

Shiplett’s been a revelation among strategists since he was promoted from the Xfinity Series along with Cole Custer in 2020. Last season, he earned 109 positions — the second most among all crew chiefs — on Custer’s behalf, including 19 in their win at Kentucky.

After a sluggish start to 2021, Shiplett is back on the same trajectory, with 64 positions gained — with 42 coming on road courses — and a 72.97% retention rate. The latter number is particularly impressive when considering his ability to defend position; in 37 total cycles in which Custer’s No. 41 car participated, it suffered just one loss of five or more spots, a total not replicated by any other team averaging a top-30 running position.

He recently chipped in 14 positions during the second part of the Pocono doubleheader, a necessary effort given Custer’s 38th-place starting spot that day in a backup car.

Drew Blickensderfer, ARP 19th-22nd

Michael McDowell’s finishing average has improved to 18.2, beyond the 20.9 that was the previous best of Front Row Motorsports’ history last year. Key in this progression is the strategy of Blickensderfer, who’s supplied his driver 181 positions across the last two seasons with 55 across this year’s first 22 races.

And that’s a tally that’s a taken a hit recently — the No. 34 car lost 16 positions via green-flag pitting at Road America earlier this month — but a broader view suggests Blickensderfer’s maneuvering is relatively airtight; his 21 cycles with gains of two or more positions ranks first among all crew chiefs, as does his 43-position net on non-drafting ovals.

There’s a line from the crew chief’s output to the driver’s standout finishes. Blickensderfer’s best efforts — a 24-position net at Nashville, a 16-spot gain at COTA and 14 positions earned in the Daytona 500 — respectively led to McDowell’s best finish on a paved 750-horsepower oval, a seventh place finish and a race win.

Ryan Sparks, ARP 23rd-34th

Plucking crew chief Ryan Sparks from GoFas Racing along with driver Corey LaJoie was a masterstroke by Spire Motorsports. Last year, Sparks supplied his driver 74 positions across green-flag pit cycles, and the focus on offense has only grown in their second season together.

LaJoie’s improved all-around passing acumen — he ranks first in surplus passing value among full-time drivers on 750-horsepower tracks and third in the same category on all non-drafting ovals — is a boon, and coupled with Sparks’ 66 positions gained this season on green-flag pit cycles, the No. 7 car is a reliable mover on long runs despite being the 29th-fastest car, per its average median lap ranking.

Sparks has tallied 17 cycles consisting of at least two-spot gains, including the final cycles leading to two of LaJoie’s recent top-20 finishes at Charlotte (from 19th to 17th) and Nashville (from 19th to 16th).

Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to track

MORE: Dr. Diandra: 600 tests man more than machine

And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”







Dr. Diandra: Charlotte’s 600 miles test man more than machine


This weekend’s 600-mile outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s longest race. It’s the ultimate stock car challenge: not just making a car fast but making it fast for a long time.

Although 600 miles is nowhere near the 3,300-plus miles in the 24 Hours of LeMans, the pace is similar. Most of NASCAR’s 600-mile races run between four and five hours.

The 1960 World 600 set the record for this race, requiring five hours, 34 minutes, and six seconds to complete — and it had only eight cautions. The second longest race, the very next year, ran 12 minutes shorter than the previous year’s outing.

The longest race in the modern era (1972 to present) happened in 2005. That race took five hours, 13 minutes, and 52 seconds to complete and set a record for cautions with 22.

Last year’s event was the second-longest modern-era race. With four fewer cautions than 2005, the 2022 race took just 44 seconds less to complete.

The field for the 1960 race included 60 cars. Only 18 of those cars (30%) crossed the finish line.

NASCAR disqualified six drivers for making illegal entrances to pit road. The reasons for the remaining 36 DNFs reads like an inventory of car parts, from “A-frame” to “valve.”

The number of cars failing to finish the race decreased significantly over the years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not uncommon for 50-70% of the field to drop out of the race before its end. As the graph below shows, the DNF rate is now in the range of 10-30%.

A bar chart shows how DNFs have decreased over time and turned the the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

Last year — the first year of the Next Gen car — had an abnormally high 46% DNF rate. That doesn’t signify a problem with car reliability.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Increased car reliability makes people more important

Racecar evolution has changed the nature of NASCAR’s longest race. The car have become so reliable that Charlotte’s 600-mile race is now more a test of drivers than their cars.

“All of the components in the car are pretty standard,” Chase Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “So you just want to make sure you have it all in good condition and dot all your I’s and cross your T’s.”

That wasn’t how it used to be. Kevin Harvick remembers that drivers used to be warned to take care of their equipment early so it would last until the end.

“The engine guys freak out because you have to go an extra 100 miles, but the parts and stuff on the car are a lot more durable than they used to be,” Harvick said. “Back in the day, it was ‘take care of the motor.’ ”

Drivers worry much less about their car’s engine today. The graph below shows how DNFs due to engine failure have decreased since NASCAR started running 600-mile races.

A bar chart shows that engine failures have gone from 50-70% to 10-30%, turning the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

In 1966, more than half the field lost an engine during the race. Only six cars have retired due to engine failure in the last five years.

While cars are more reliable, their drivers are still human. Crash-related DNFs (crashes, failure to beat the DVP clock and inability to meet maximum speed) show no clear trend over time.

A bar chart shows how the number of DNFs due to crashes doesn't show any overall trend with time

Typically, between five to 10% of the cars starting a race will fail to finish due to an accident rather than a mechanical failure. Last year’s race was an exception, setting a record for the largest fraction of the field taken out by crashes since the 600-miler began.

It’s only one data point as far as 600-mile races are concerned. It is, however, indicative of a trend observed since the Next Gen car debuted. The car is so sturdy that contact is no longer the deterrent it used to be.

Man versus machine

NASCAR’s only 600-mile outing has become an endurance race for humans. Drivers draw upon research in hydration, nutrition and fitness, hoping to create an advantage by preparation and conditioning.

“As a driver,” Daniel Suárez said, “your goal is to be as fresh at the end of the race as you are at the beginning. It isn’t about making it to the end of the race. It’s about being at your best at the end and taking advantage of other drivers who are tired.”

Harrison Burton, who ran his first 600-mile race last year, was surprised by how taxing that extra stage was.

“I figured it’s only 100 more miles than 500 and we do that fairly frequently and didn’t think it would be that different,” Burton said, “but for whatever reason when that fourth stage starts it’s definitely daunting.

Burton also noted that last year’s Coca-Cola 600 was the first time he got hungry during a race.

“It’s actually a really important race to have something to snack on in the car during the race,” Ross Chastain said. “I typically have some sort of protein bar that I can eat during a stage break just to try and keep my stamina up.”

The driver isn’t the only one whose mental acumen gets tested during the Coca-Cola 600. Crew chiefs and pit crews must work at peak form for a longer time.

“There’s more pit stops, there’s more restarts, there’s more strategy calls and there’s more laps,” Gustafson said. “There’s more everything.”

That means more opportunities to make mistakes or lose focus — or to take advantage of other drivers who do.

Alex Bowman confident as he returns to racing from back injury


CONCORD, N.C. — Alex Bowman watched the rain-filled skies over Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday with more than a touch of disappointment.

As weather threatened to cancel Saturday night’s scheduled NASCAR Cup Series practice at the speedway, Bowman saw his chances to testing his car — and his body — dissolving in the raindrops. NASCAR ultimately cancelled practice and qualifying because of rain.

MORE: Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup practice, qualifying

Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car accident last month and has missed three Cup races while he recovers. Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the season’s longest race, is scheduled to mark his return to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It would have been really nice to kickstart that with practice today,” Bowman said. “I haven’t raced or competitively driven a race car in a month. I’m trying to understand where my rusty areas are going to be and where I’m still good.”

Bowman ran 200 laps in a test season at North Wilkesboro Speedway this week, but, of course, that doesn’t compare with the faster speeds and tougher G-forces he’ll experience over 400 laps Sunday at CMS.

Bowman admitted that he is still experiencing pain from the back injury — his car flipped several times — and that he expects some pain during the race. But he said he is confident he’ll be OK and that the longer race distance won’t be an issue.

“I broke my back a month ago, and there’s definitely things that come along with that for a long time,” he said. “I have some discomfort here and there and there are things I do that don’t feel good. That’s just part of it. It’s stuff I’ll have to deal with. But, for the most part, I’m back to normal.

“I’m easing back into being in the gym. I’m trying to be smart with things. If I twist the wrong way, sometimes it hurts. In the race car at the end of a six-hour race, I’m probably not going to be the best.”

The sprint car crash interrupted what had been a fine seasonal start for Bowman. Although winless, he had three top fives and six top 10s in the first 10 races.

“I’m excited to be back,” Bowman said. “Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off and be strong right out of the gate.”

He said he hopes to return to short-track racing but not in the near future.

“Someday I want to get back in a sprint car or midget,” he said. “I felt like we were just getting rolling in a sprint car. That night we were pretty fast. Definitely a bummer there. That’s something I really want to conquer and be competitive at in the World of Outlaws or High Limits races. Somebody I’ll get back to that. It’s probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time for a bit.”




Charlotte NASCAR Cup Series starting lineup: Rain cancels qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — William Byron and Kevin Harvick will start Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the front row after wet weather cancelled Saturday night qualifying.

Rain pelted the CMS area much of the day Saturday, and NASCAR announced at 3:45 p.m. that Cup practice and qualifying, scheduled for Saturday night, had been cancelled.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to cockpit

The starting field was set by the NASCAR rulebook.

Following Byron and Harvick in the starting top 10 will be Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The elimination of the practice session was particularly problematic for Alex Bowman, scheduled to return to racing Sunday after missing three weeks with a back injury, and Jimmie Johnson, who will be starting only his third race this year. Johnson will start 37th — last in the field.

Charlotte Cup starting lineup