Ten-win Hendrick Motorsports still needs to maximize its next four weeks

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On May 18, two days after a sweep of the first four finishing positions at Dover, Hendrick Motorsports assembled over 350 of its employees for a team picture to commemorate a unique moment for an organization rich with history-making endeavors.

But if Hendrick’s four teams aren’t careful, the Dover sweep and subsequent family portrait might serve as their biggest collective highlight of the 2021 season.

Four races remain in what’s been an indomitable regular season for Hendrick and its season-long bellwether, Kyle Larson, specifically. The slate stands to be a fruitful one:

  • Aug. 8 at Watkins Glen, a road course on which Chase Elliott is the two-time defending winner across events utilizing two different rules packages.
  • Aug. 15 on the Indianapolis road course, a new track but one that should cater to Hendrick’s recent road racing strength, with also includes a Larson victory at Sonoma earlier this summer.
  • Aug. 22 at Michigan, a 2-mile track, on which Larson is a three-time winner, that utilizes the 550-horsepower package in which few other Cup drivers are as quantifiably productive.
  • Aug. 28 at Daytona, a drafting track on which the racing and results are often volatile but where Hendrick, having produced the fastest car in four of the last six points-paying races there, tends to have a speed advantage, however useful it might become.

A response from Hendrick across the next four races is necessary after what transpired over two weeks ago in New Hampshire, a paradigm-shifting event that embellished the difference between organizations on relevant 750-horsepower tracks. Stewart-Haas Racing secured its first victory of the season and the corresponding playoff spot for Aric Almirola, while Team Penske won both stages and led nearly 40% of the race with both Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney.

Even with Elliott leading 53 laps and Larson earning a seventh-place finish, the effort was poor relative to other teams, which came after a rainy start altered the day’s plans for three Joe Gibbs Racing cars. For Hendrick’s most decorated talents, there’s plenty on which to chew.

Surely, Elliott was better than the 18th-place finish he earned. But Larson might not have been as good as his result indicated, a not-so-subtle reminder that while he’s bulletproof on 550-horsepower tracks, there’s valid reason to be skeptical of his imperviousness on most 750-horsepower tracks. That includes places like Phoenix, Martinsville and Richmond, which hold positions of prominence on the playoff schedule.

Relative to those he most closely races against, competition draws closer to him on the 750-horsepower tracks, visible in his stat profile:

A well-rounded driver, Larson’s statistical output, which includes his Production in Equal Equipment Rating, is more pronounced at the bigger facilities. Just one of his four points-paying wins, at Las Vegas, came on playoff tracks, while just two Hendrick victories out of 10 this season — Alex Bowman’s at Richmond — holds relevant bearing on playoff performance.

Hitting a double-digit mark in the win column is a triumph for certain. However, with the playoff slate skewing toward 750-horsepower tracks (five of the 10 are on 750-horsepower ovals, while a sixth takes place on a road course) that apparently warrants a more specialized research and development effort across the board. Hendrick’s is a dominance that, to this point, matters less to the championship landscape than meets the eye.

Hendrick’s teams led a grand total of one lap this spring at Phoenix, the site of the season finale. The fastest of the four cars was Larson’s, which ranked fifth in average median lap time, a ranking that simply won’t hack it in a winner-take-all scenario. To wit, Denny Hamlin, who had the fourth-fastest car at Phoenix last fall, insisted, “Our car didn’t have enough speed to go up there and compete” for the win and the championship.

William Byron led nine laps on Hendrick’s behalf at Martinsville, but that’s all; second-place finisher Elliott failed to lead in a race in which Hamlin and Blaney were the most memorable performers, combining to lead nearly 87% of the event, while Martin Truex Jr. swiped the win in the waning laps. Larson finished fifth on what he admits is one of his problem tracks, a facility “totally backwards” from what he saw in his formative years of dirt racing.

Shut out completely from leading at Darlington, the site of the playoff opener, Hendrick couldn’t unseat Truex from the top spot, even with second-place finisher Larson. Byron finished fourth, while Elliott finished sixth.

It’s Elliott — not Larson — who arguably represents Hendrick’s most championship-ready threat, if his statistical splits are considered. He fares better than Larson in production, surplus passing and crash avoidance on 750-horsepower tracks:

Elliott’s dip in 750-horsepower speed output — he ranks seventh now, and third among Hendrick’s four drivers, after ranking first in the series last year — is a bit concerning on the surface, though, there is some daylight. His average best lap ranking — capturing the average ranking of a team’s best lap in each race — places him fourth in the series and tops among Hendrick drivers, suggesting there’s unrealized potential for better output during these crucial stops along the final 10-race stretch.

That swoon in speed during the regular season impacted his race finishes and points accumulation. Whereas Larson secured 32 usable playoff points — possibly enough to carry him through the penultimate playoff round if he doesn’t win at either Kansas or Texas — Elliott holds just 11 at this juncture (Byron has just eight while Bowman has 15). The upcoming four-race slate is an opportunity for Elliott to pad this safety net. It’s a proposition he should take seriously; if his speed output doesn’t return to 2020 heights, grasping clean air could prove difficult despite his reliable statistical outlay and best efforts.

While Hendrick’s dominance this season is almost exclusively on tracks that don’t totally translate to the playoff schedule, points its four teams procured through the first 22 races and points that could be earned in the next four weeks will mean everything in boosting the prospects of playoff survival, which consists of three different knockout rounds, including a semi-final trio of tracks that shockingly weeded out last season’s most prolific winner.

Going through the motions these next four races, playoff tickets already punched, isn’t an option. The remainder of the regular season should mean just as much to Hendrick Motorsports as it does to winless teams on the cut line, its yearlong dominance not at all a guarantee to be replicated during the season’s home stretch.

Jesse Iwuji Motorsports seeks $4.125 million in lawsuit against sponsor

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Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team, has filed a $4.125-million lawsuit against Equity Prime Mortgage, one of the team’s sponsors.

In the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the team alleges that EPM committed a breach of contract. JIM alleges that EPM agreed to pay the team $2.25 million for sponsorship in the 2022 season and $3.75 million for 2023.

The lawsuit attempts to recoup what Jesse Iwuji Motorsports calls two missed payments totaling $375,000 from 2022 and the $3.75 million for 2023. The filing of the lawsuit was first reported by TobyChristie.com.

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The team scored one top-10 finish in 30 Xfinity starts in 2022. The team’s cars were driven by Kyle Weatherman and Iwuji. Weatherman had a best finish of eighth; Iwuji’s best run was an 11th.

The team was founded by Iwuji, former National Football League player Emmitt Smith and a group of investors.

The lawsuit claims that an EPM executive informed the team in September 2022 that EPM had been “margin called” and was dealing with problems because of rising mortgage rates and that EPM could not make any more payments to Jesse Iwuji Motorsports .

According to the lawsuit, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports sent EPM a Notice of Intent to terminate the sponsorship agreement after the payment due Oct. 1 was missed. The suit claims EPM “took no action” after EPM offered 30 days to remedy the situation.

The suit also claims EPM “allegedly continued to take advantage of their status as a sponsor of the NASCAR Xfinity Series team, as EPM continued to make promotional posts on social media, which featured the company’s logo on the JIM race car.”

EPM is based in Atlanta.

Dr Diandra: The best driver of 2022

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NASCAR’s elimination playoff format means that the driver with the best statistics — arguably the “best driver of 2022” — doesn’t always win the championship.

Races unfinished

Drivers involved in a lot of crashes also failed to finish a lot of races. But not all accidents end drivers’ races. Comparing accidents and spins to DNF (did not finish) totals helps gauge how serious those incidents were.

Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were involved in the most accidents for a single driver with 15 caution-causing crashes each. The difference is that Chastain had only five DNFs (33.3%), while Stenhouse had nine (60.0%).

Ty Dillion tied Stenhouse for the most DNFs in the series with nine DNFs and 10 accidents.

Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Corey LaJoie tied for third place with eight DNFs each. Reddick had 10 accidents, while Dillon and LaJoie were each involved in 11 crashes.

No driver avoided DNFs entirely. Among full-timers, Michael McDowell had the fewest DNFs in 2022 with two. Justin Haley and Ryan Blaney tied for second with three DNFs each.

In 2021, only Denny Hamlin finished every race running. This year he had five DNFs, with four in the first nine races.

This year’s 225 DNFs are up significantly from 179 in 2021. and the most DNFs since 2017. I’ll be watching in 2023 to see if the rise in DNFs continues, or if this was a one-time phenomenon due to the first year with a new car.

Wins

“Best driver” doesn’t necessarily mean most wins.

This year’s champion, Joey Logano, didn’t have the most wins. That’s not at all uncommon in NASCAR. With 19 different winners in 2022, no driver dominated the season the way Kyle Larson did in 2021 with 10 wins.

The winningest drivers in 2022 were: Chase Elliott (five wins) and Logano (four wins). Christopher Bell, Larson and Reddick tied for third with three wins each.

Top-five and top-10 finishes

While wins matter more than good finishes, the number of top-five and top-10 finishes show how close a driver got to taking home the checkered flag. Running up front means being there to take advantage of other drivers’ mistakes and misfortune.

In 2021, Larson had the most top-five finishes (20) and the most top-10 finishes (26). This year, good finishes were much more spread out.2022's best drivers in terms of top-five and top-ten finishes

Chastain deserves a special shoutout for having 13 more top-10 finishes than he earned in 2021.

Also deserving of a shoutout, but for different reasons: Hamlin had the same number of wins this year as last, but nine fewer top-five finishes. William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. also had nine fewer finishes in the top five.

Logging laps

While Truex didn’t make the championship race, he did tie Elliott for the most lead-lap finishes in the season with 29, or 80.6% of starts. Blaney, Byron and Kevin Harvick each had 28 lead-lap finishes.

Elliott led the most laps in 2022 with 857. He’s followed by Logano (784), Byron (746), Chastain (692) and Blaney (636).

I remain slightly wary of metrics that purport to measure quickness because so much of a car’s speed depends on where in the field it’s running. Lap traffic, or even being far back in the field, can slow fast cars. That’s especially true at short tracks.

For completeness, however, the next two tables show the drivers’ numbers of fastest laps and those with the best rank in green-flag speed according to NASCAR’s loop data.

Two tables showing the drivers with the most fastest laps and the highest rank in green-flag speedChampion Logano ranked 11th in fastest laps with 319, and eighth in overall green-flag speed with an average ranking of 9.281.

Best Finishes

The tables below show drivers’ rankings throughout the season for average finishes and average running position.

Two tables comparing 2022's best drivers in terms of average finish and average running position

Elliott ranks first in both average finish and running position. Chastain takes second for best average finish and fourth for best average running position, while Blaney is second for running position and fourth for finishing position.

Logano finished 2022 third in both metrics.

Passing

NASCAR defines a quality pass as a pass for position inside the top 15. Interpreting the meaning of the number of passes is a little tricky. A driver who runs up front a lot doesn’t make many quality passes because he doesn’t need to.

I focus instead on the percentage of quality passes: the fraction of all green-flag passes that qualify as quality passes. A higher percentage means that the driver is efficient: The passes mean something.

Elliott scores first in percentage of quality passes with 63.4%, just edging out Bell, who has 63.3% quality passes. Larson is third with 61.2%.

Who was the best driver in 2022?

I combined the metrics I think matter most for determining the best driver in the table below. I color-coded drivers who appear in the top five in more than one metric to make it easier to see patterns.

A table showing the top five in each of the metrics discussed in the hopes of identifying 2022's best driver.

This table confirms that the NASCAR playoffs format did a good job identifying the top four drivers in the series. Elliott, Logano, Chastain and Bell are well-represented in the top five in each metric.

The table also shows that Larson and Blaney contended strongly in 2022. With a slightly different distribution of luck, one (or both) might have found their way to the Championship Four.

Logano’s consistency is also evident, even though he doesn’t rank first in any of these metrics and fails to make the table in top-five finishes or quality passes. It’s not uncommon for the driver with the most wins not to win the championship. And this year has been anything but common.

But overall, it’s hard not to argue that Elliott had the statistically best year. He led the series in wins, laps led, average finish, average running position and percent quality passes. If his playoffs had been comparable to his regular season, he would have taken the trophy.

But they weren’t and he didn’t. That may have ended the 2022 season on a down note for the No. 9 team, but they can look forward to 2023 knowing they have a strong base on which to build.

While skill is reproducible, luck isn’t.

Kaz Grala, Connor Mosack join Sam Hunt Racing for 2023

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Kaz Grala is scheduled to run the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule for Sam Hunt Racing in 2023.

Connor Mosack will drive a second Hunt car — No. 24 — in 20 races for the team. Grala will drive the No. 26 Toyota.

The new season will mark Grala’s first as a full-time Xfinity driver.

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“I’ve scratched and clawed for each opportunity over the past several seasons, and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s made me appreciate this sport and its difficulty more than I ever could if things had been easy,” Grala said in a statement released by the team. “I feel like everything has finally come together at the perfect time in my life with the right team around me to start that next chapter in my career.”

Grala, 23, has scored five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 44 Xfinity starts. He has raced in all three NASCAR national series and won a Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2017.

Allen Hart will be Grala’s crew chief.

Mosack, who will begin his schedule at Phoenix Raceway March 11, was the CARS Tour rookie of the year in 2020. He drove in two Xfinity and two Truck races in 2022.

Kris Bowen will be Mosack’s crew chief. The team said it will announce other drivers for the 24 car later.

 

Ryan Truex to drive six races for JGR Xfinity team in 2023

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Ryan Truex is scheduled to run six Xfinity Series races in the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023.

Truex ran five races for JGR in 2022, finishing in the top five three times. He ran third at Atlanta.

Truex also drove limited Xfinity schedules for JGR in 2011 and 2012.

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“We are looking forward to having Ryan back in our lineup in 2023 to run the No. 19,” said JGR vice president Steve DeSouza in a statement released by the team. “He has done well in the races he has run at JGR. His previous experience and driving ability will be assets as the No. 19 competes for an owner’s championship next year.”

JGR has not announced which races Truex will run or which drivers will be his teammates in the 19.

“I am thrilled to be behind the wheel of the No. 19 for a few races next season,” Truex said in a team statement. “It was fun to run well with this team this past year. I appreciate the opportunity to race for JGR again next year.”

Jason Ratcliff will be the team’s crew chief.

Truex, 30, has run 26 Cup, 84 Xfinity and 73 Camping World Truck Series races without a win.