Analysis: Joey Logano’s title bid runs though 750-hp tracks

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A cursory glance at Joey Logano’s first 22 races this year doesn’t inspire confidence, but the manner in which this season culminates falls directly into his wheelhouse. For that reason alone, he’s a legitimate title challenger.

It’d suit Logano to win this year’s championship in a year where his only win to date came, surprisingly, in a dirt race. After all, he was crowned champion in 2018, a year in which he was easily the least consequential participant among a Championship 4 of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., who combined for 20 wins on the season.

Logano has established a reputation as a driver difficult to put away, a pestering presence despite stats that sometimes suggest otherwise. He’s a problem for competitors, the linchpin of a team centrally focused on 750-horsepower tracks. That focus is exclusively represented in his year-to-date highlights:

  • Logano led a race-high 143 laps last spring in Phoenix, the site of the championship race
  • He won the Bristol dirt race, which utilized the 750-horsepower package
  • He’s averaged 40.75 points per race on 750-horsepower tracks, trailing only Denny Hamlin’s 41.83
  • He finished fifth at Dover, the top non-Hendrick Motorsports driver
  • Only Chase Elliott (171) has tallied more points in road course races this season

Logano’s Production in Equal Equipment Rating, a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in an attempt to isolate his contribution, ranks first among all drivers on 750-horsepower tracks while his car fares as the second fastest, based on its average median lap rank. While these designations don’t guarantee a title, they do give legitimacy to the driver’s stature as a championship contender.

A playoff slate that’s 60% comprised of tracks utilizing the rules package seems tailored to what Logano and his team do well, while also diminishing the need for what they lack:

Logano and his car rank 12th in average median lap time on 550-horsepower tracks. And whereas the driver, on 750-horsepower tracks, bests his closest competitors for PEER and crash avoidance while faring above average for surplus passing and position retention rate on non-preferred groove restarts, he’s largely invisible at 550-horsepower facilities against the drivers averaging running positions in the seventh-to-12th range, against whom he’ll likely race for playoff survival.

On the whole, Logano doesn’t pass for spots efficiently or in abundance. Aside from a 2020 season in which he passed well above his statistical expectation, he’s largely feasted on clean air and track position for his leads and wins, a style similar to that of Carl Edwards:

For the season, his expected adjusted pass differential, based on his typical running whereabouts, is +83. His actual differential is +5, leading to a surplus adjusted differential of -78. His -2.03% surplus passing value is the second-least efficient mark among all drivers; only Anthony Alfredo’s -2.34% effort is worse. This is a problem that good speed and clean air can collectively mask, with assistance from pit stops and strategy.

In a microcosm, this was on display last season in the Kansas playoff race when his pit crew fed him 16 positions under yellow, including the final stop on which he leapfrogged Kevin Harvick in the running order. Logano then aero-blocked for the entirety of the final 42 laps, a scenario divisive among fans but impressive nonetheless and wholly necessary to qualify for the Championship 4.

But strategy, certainly across green-flag pit cycles, has lacked for much of the 2021 season. Crew chief Paul Wolfe has won races on risks in the past, but at first blush, he’s missed on the basic tenets of pit strategy this season. His designs have led to a 52.27% position retention rate on green-flag pit cycles — the series average is 67% — amounting to a 44-position loss on non-drafting ovals, the second-biggest net loss among all crew chiefs.

The prevailing theory is that Wolfe’s weakness will matter less in a 10-race playoff with low-mileage short track events prominent on the schedule — a good thing given 27 of Wolfe’s 44 positions lost on non-drafting ovals occurred at 750-horsepower tracks. The speed of the car and skill of the driver is strong enough to wash over ill timed decisions across long runs; the pit crew is precise enough under yellow, ranked fourth, in median four-tire box time during this season’s first half, to tip the scales in advance of restarts.

There’s a lot of “if” associated with this path to a championship and it tosses aside a better season in statistical terms for one resulting in a trophy. Granted, Logano’s had standout individual seasons, leading the Cup Series in PEER in 2014 and 2015, traveling in a lane where few others choose to follow might be the most prudent trail back to the Championship 4:

  • Three of the four fastest drivers on 550-horsepower tracks last year — Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick — failed to make the Championship 4
  • Three of the four fastest drivers on 750-horsepower tracks — Logano, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski — did qualify for the Championship 4
  • Overall strength is rarely rewarded under the current playoff format; in seven seasons, just two title winners also had the year’s best finishing average

Team Penske, to its credit, was an early adapter to a championship crowned at Phoenix in a split-horsepower series. Logano and his No. 22 team appear to be the organization’s biggest beneficiaries in 2021, even after stronger performances, indicative in their daylong points totals, from Keselowski and Blaney two weeks ago in New Hampshire.

Logano has imperfections, as all drivers do, but in sync with an industry-best speed on his preferred track type, he’s the perfect focal point for this particular plan. If he indeed wins his second championship this fall, it’ll be via this exact blueprint, one which boldly prioritized one trophy above all others.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.

Talladega jumbles Cup playoff grid heading to elimination race

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In an unpredictable season and topsy-turvy playoffs, it only made sense that Talladega would deliver a wildcard result.

A playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time this season. How about that?

Chase Elliott’s victory moves him to the next round, the only driver guaranteed to advance heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the last transfer spot, but Briscoe owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. At least for now.

Hendrick Motorsports will have its appeal this week on the 25-point penalty to William Byron from the Texas race. Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega, but if the team wins the appeal and he gets all 25 points back, Byron would be back in a transfer spot and drop Briscoe below the cutline.

 

XFINITY SERIES

AJ Allmendinger became the second driver to advance to the next round, winning at Talladega.

Ryan Sieg finished fourth and holds the final transfer spot heading into the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). Reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is six points behind Sieg. Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones are each 10 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements is 47 points behind.

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Matt DiBenedetto’s first career Camping World Truck Series victory didn’t impact the playoff standings after Talladega since DiBenedetto is not a playoff driver.

Reigning series champion Ben Rhodes holds the final transfer spot. He leads Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen by three points each. John Hunter Nemechek is five points behind Rhodes, while Grant Enfinger is 29 points behind Rhodes. Ty Majeski is the only driver guaranteed a spot in next month’s championship race.

The Truck Series is off this weekend. The next Truck race is Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

Winners and losers at Talladega Superspeedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway:

WINNERS

Chase Elliott — After a rough race at Texas, Elliott returned to the role of championship favorite Sunday with a victory. He takes the point lead to Charlotte and, with Sunday’s win, is locked into the Round of 8.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

Ryan Blaney — Despite another tough race day and a second-place finish in a race he could have won, Blaney remains in good shape in the playoffs, even without a points win. He is second in points to Elliott, only two behind.

Denny Hamlin — Hamlin took some time off from leading the charge for changes in the Next Gen car to run an excellent race. He led 20 laps, finished fifth and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all five playoff races. He gained a spot in points to fourth.

LOSERS

Christopher Bell — Bell zipped onto pit road with too much speed during a round of pit stops and slid to a stop, earning a speeding penalty. He is 11th in points.

Kyle Larson — Larson led eight laps Sunday but was not a part of the drafting mix at the front at the finish. He was 18th and fell three spots in points to sixth.

Joey Logano — Logano held the point lead entering Sunday’s race. At day’s end, he had a 27th-place finish and had fallen four spots to fifth.