Defeating Chase Elliott at Watkins Glen is improbable but not impossible

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What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race and can anyone realistically topple Chase Elliott? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping the Go Bowling at the Glen (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

How do you solve a problem like Chase Elliott?

It should be stated that Elliott isn’t impervious to losing at Watkins Glen. But in the least technical explanation possible, he’s very, very good.

In his two wins from 2018-19 — races utilizing completely different rules packages — Elliott turned in high single-race surplus passing values with what timing and scoring recorded as the fastest car. Considering what the 2.45-mile track is, compared to other road courses, his special sauce is no secret.

“It’s not a very technical track,” Chase Briscoe said this week. “It is very high-speed, so the car is more important. At other road courses, you can kind of beat the car up a little and it’ll still be OK, but you need that aero at the Glen.”

Car? Aero? Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports machine has that down pat, ranking first in both average median lap time and average best lap time on road courses this season, per Motorsports Analytics.

“There really isn’t a slow corner like we have at some other (road courses), so you have to have a car that is fast and that you can be aggressive with,” Briscoe said. “It’ll be hard to make up ground on some guys if you get behind.”

Elliott’s calculated aggression and tender brake use has been praised by his peers. If Watkins Glen is truly a driver’s track heavily influenced by car speed, the rest of the series is in deep trouble again this weekend, attempting to solve a difficult problem.

And while the problem isn’t unsolvable, the most straightforward solutions might not work. There isn’t much of a point for the majority of the remaining 36 cars to attempt beating Elliott by producing a better pace and utilizing a similar pit strategy, because it’s a plan unlikely in execution. Instead, an off-sequence strategy — and this would likely require some full-field cautions at advantageous points in the final stage — seems the better bet, albeit a long shot.

That long shot, though, is better than nothing.

Similar to how the majority of the field — Kyle Busch and crew chief Ben Beshore included — treated Kyle Larson’s speed with reverence at Pocono, pitting off sequence of him in an effort to come out ahead in the odd chance of a late caution and restart, the designs of Elliott and Alan Gustafson should be actively avoided today.

“At Watkins Glen, the biggest thing is pit strategy,” said Busch, who eked out a victory in the second leg of the Pocono doubleheader, a race heavily dictated by fuel mileage strategy. “Obviously, you’ve got to pick and choose when you’re going to pit and stick to your plan.”

Funnily enough, Busch’s car ranks second in average median lap in road course races this season, representing the closest match for pace to Elliott. His modus operandi for the day, though, is a workable pit strategy.

“There are a lot of factors in strategy that affect a road course race and (hopefully) we can execute like we have been and get another win,” Busch said.

In the crosshairs of his closest competitors, Elliott’s bid for a third consecutive Watkins Glen win will still require what we’ve come to expect of him: a fast car and efficient passing. However, a misplaced pit call, like the one Gustafson took the blame for this week from February’s road course race in Daytona, could spoil an otherwise banner day.

“It’s what makes it so tough,” Gustafson said. “That’s what makes it so much fun and that’s why it’s so great to win these races, because it’s tough to make all the calls right and (have) all the circumstances go your way, and at Daytona, we didn’t get it done. It wasn’t the right call for the circumstances … You just have to navigate.”

Watkins Glen offers few passing zones, setting up a field day for elite passers

Effectively, all passing on road courses is difficult, relegated to one or two key areas at each track and well executed by just a few. Watkins Glen is no exception. Even Elliott sees the difficulty in overtaking for position on the track where he earned his first career Cup Series victory.

“I think the most challenging part about Watkins Glen is passing,” Elliott said. “It’s a racetrack that has a lot of grip and you kind of get in a rhythm and there are not a lot of passing zones.

“A lot of the heavy braking zones are after some fast straightaways or the esses, which are really aero-dependent. If you have clean air, you can certainly get through that section faster than you would if you were directly behind somebody, and that leads to an opportunity in the bus stop, but it’s just hard to get close.”

Note that it’s “hard” and not “impossible.” Elliott’s adjusted pass efficiency in the 2019 race was 7.56 percentage points better than the statistical expectation based on his average running position and a field-wide slope, a monstrous single-race percentage compared to the norm that only yielded two additional spots. Clearly, those two spots were hard earned.

For the whole of 2021, Elliott ranks as the eighth-most efficient road course passer among drivers averaging top-30 running positions. Above him is a collection of reliable movers with varying road course reputations:

Martin Truex Jr.’s position atop the rankings should surprise no one — he ranked first in the same category on road courses in 2019 and 2020. But Ryan Preece? Ross Chastain? Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? Their inclusion on this kind of list is revelatory for most, but their viability in producing a race result by way of efficient passing is quite real:

  • Preece secured a 15th-place finishing average — in a car averaging the 21st-best median lap time — on the Daytona road course, at COTA and at Sonoma, races in which he also managed positive surplus pass differentials in each, 19 positions better in total than his statistical expectation.
  • Three of Chastain’s high marks this season came at COTA (he finished fourth), Sonoma (seventh) and Road America (seventh), outings in which he secured positive surplus pass differentials a combined 55 spots better than his statistical expectation.
  • Stenhouse’s 12th-place finish at Road America didn’t bowl anyone over, but it was his best road course race of the season, thanks primarily to an adjusted pass differential of +28 on a day when his expectation was -4. Fortunately for him, Road America translates well to Watkins Glen in that it’s hardly a technical track, a facility catering to aggressors, a reputation the 33-year-old driver carries.

In terms of passing, car speed still matters more than driving skill, but these three in particular, in addition to the other drivers highlighted on the above chart, seem to have a knack for influencing their passing totals better than most. It’s enough influence to affect a result.

Given the lack of passing zones, today’s race could reward the good passers in a way no other track can.

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”

Brennan Poole joins Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for 2023

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Brennan Poole will join Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity season, the team announced Friday.

Poole will drive the No. 6 car for the full season. Currey returns to the team’s No. 4 car for the season. Currey scored five top-15 finishes last season for the organization.

JD Motorsports is planning to run the No. 0 car next season. No driver or sponsor has been announced for that ride.

“We’re full throttle here and getting ready to go,” Davis said in a statement from the team. “Bayley and Brennan are signed on and looking forward to chasing races and points next year. We’re actively moving along looking for sponsor commitments and for drivers and sponsors for the No. 0 car.”

“We’ve always taken the approach here that we want to go after the series with multiple cars, and that’s how we’re looking toward 2023. The new schedule is very interesting and provides new challenges to our drivers and team members.”

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.

Friday 5: Will Kyle Busch become NASCAR’s Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The weight of an unfulfilled season, deciding where he’d race in 2023 and the impact on his Truck Series team are off Kyle Busch.

It’s back to racing for the two-time Cup champion, who seeks to reignite his career at Richard Childress Racing this season.

Busch performed his final duty representing Joe Gibbs Racing at Thursday’s NASCAR Awards (show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock) and it’s now all about helping RCR win its first Cup championship since 1994.

MORE: NASCAR Awards red carpet scene

Busch will be with Richard Childress Racing this weekend at Circuit of the Americas for World Racing League endurance events. Busch said the team has turned an old Cup car into an endurance car for the event. Last year, RCR won an eight-hour endurance race there with Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Kaz Grala.

Busch seeks better fortunes at RCR than what he’s had recently at Joe Gibbs Racing.

He has one Cup win in his last 53 starts — 14 drivers have won more races than Busch in that span, dating back to the July 2021 race at Road America.

His 17 top-10 finishes this past season were his fewest since scoring 16 top 10s in 2015. 

He was running at the finish in 29 of 36 points races — the first time he’s been running at the finish in fewer than 30 races since 2015. Two blown engines in the opening round of the playoffs led to failing to advance to the second round for the first time in his career. 

“It’s obviously been a challenging, not just this year, but the last little while,” Busch said Thursday at the Music City Center. “So, it’s kind of maybe a blessing in disguise, honestly, where it might just be time for a fresh start, time for something new, time for something different.”

He looks to future NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for inspiration.

Brady won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots before  joining Tampa Bay and winning a Super Bowl in his first season with the Buccaneers.

Manning won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts before joining the Denver Broncos and winning a Super Bowl there in his final season in the NFL.

“I’m kind of looking at it as a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning aspect where they left great teams, great originations where they won championships and they were able to win a championship somewhere else,” Busch said. “I’d like to think I still have that opportunity to be able to do that at RCR.

“I look at the opportunity with the new Next Gen race car as an easier move to make now with that vs. years past with previous generation cars.”

He says that because with the previous generation of cars, there was a greater separation between teams because NASCAR did not regulate as much of the car. With the the Next Gen car, teams have the same parts. Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano that his team still has much to learn about the car and maximizing setups. 

Even with his struggles at the end of his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch says he doesn’t go to RCR with a chip on his shoulder. 

“I don’t think I have anything to prove or I need to have a chip on my shoulder,” Busch said. “I just want to go out there and run well again. … I felt like we had a lot of strong runs this year. There were like six races I can count that we could’ve, would’ve, should’ve won and we didn’t whip is very frustrating. 

“We were so good at giving them away that I need to get back to I’m so good at stealing them and earning them.”

2. Special delivery 

Among the perks with winning a Cup title is getting the Champion’s Journal. Jimmie Johnson started the tradition after his 2010 championship. The existence of the journal remained a secret until 2017 when Johnson posted a picture on social media of him handing the journal to Martin Truex Jr.

The journal passes from champion to champion with the current champion holding on to it for a year and adding an entry for the next champion before handing it to them. Logano will receive the journal from Kyle Larson. 

“I can’t wait to read it again,” Logano said before Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “I’m telling you, it’s probably one of the coolest things. Jimmie deserves all of the credit for coming up with the idea. 

“I wish it started sooner. It’s so interesting. Some drivers are very detailed what they write to the next champion and some are kind of quick and simple. It’s very interesting to read it. It’s cool. It’s a real secret. It’s kind of like an unwritten rule, you can’t take pictures of it and post it. It’s a thing that only the championship drivers know and have read and seen.

“Every time I get it, I’m so nervous. I’m like don’t spill anything on this thing, don’t lose it. It would suck to be the guy that loses that. That would be bad. I’m putting it right in the safe.”

Logano won his first Cup title in 2018. He then gave the journal to Kyle Busch, the 2019 series champion.

“It’s something you put a lot of thought into, at least I did,” Logano said of what he penned. “I wrote a letter to Kyle. You put a lot of thought into it. It’s something that will be there as long as our sport is around. I hope so at least. It’s a really great tradition.”

3. Fun factor 

The day of last year’s NASCAR Awards, William Byron said he wanted compete in more races outside NASCAR in 2022. 

Byron, who seeks to make Sunday’s prestigious Snowball Derby Super Late Model race, has fulfilled his goal, winning, gaining confidence but also having fun.

“What I got out of it was immediate fun, sort of relief,” Byron said of racing various Super Late Model races this year. “It was not racing the Cup car. It was different. It was not as stressful working with the team and things like that because there’s not as much on the line. There’s still prize money and things, and honestly you’re there to have fun. I enjoyed that.

“As I got going in it, I realized how productive it really was for me to do it, how much I was learning. As I did it more often throughout the season, I learned little nuances that were helping me get back in the Cup car with a better skill set.”

That element of fun stood out to Byron. Cup racing is full of pressure with the multi-million dollar sponsors, expectations to win and all the people at the shop relying on the car’s performance. That’s significant pressure, on top of what any driver puts on themself.

“There’s a lot of guys that you are trying to provide for and do a good job for,” Byron said of Cup racing. “There is a weight to that. You want to perform for those guys that work non-stop at the shop. There’s just a much broader net that you are casting as a driver. Whenever you go to the short track level, it’s you and six to 10 guys working on the car. … There’s natural pressure with what we’re trying to do at the Cup level because it is the No. 1 motorsports in the U.S.”

4. Looking for a ride

Ross Chastain says he’s been “trying for years” to get a ride in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway without success but that hasn’t deterred him.

“I’ve met with the president of IMSA,” said Chastain, who finished second to Joey Logano for the Cup title this season. “I’ve met with team owners. I’ve talked to drivers. I just can’t find my way in yet. I haven’t found the right person yet to either tell me how to do it or give me the opportunity. I could show up with sponsorship and get a ride, but how do I get in as a race car driver? I haven’t found that spot yet.”

Chastain said he’s reached out to some this offseason with no luck. 

He said the prestige of the season-opening IMSA event (Jan. 28-29, 2023) draws him but he also wants to gain more experience racing on a road course — even with his win at Circuit of the Americas this past season. And Chastain is not picky on the type of ride he’d like to have for that race.

“I’m not even looking to be in the top class. I want to find a mid-pack Xfinity team of the Rolex and go run there and experience it and then just to be around those road racers that do it year around. I know I could learn something. … I just want to race.”

5. Indy 500-Coke 600 double

It has been eight years since Kurt Busch competed in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, the last time the feat has been accomplished. 

Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson are among those who have expressed interest in running both races in the same day but don’t appear to be in a position to do so in 2023 because of the limited IndyCar rides available. 

Roger Penske, owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said he could see Jimmie Johnson attempting it this year, and others as soon as next year. 

“It’s about having the car and the manufactures, whether it’s Chevy and or Honda,” Penske said, referring to the IndyCar manufacturers. “All would be interested to see somebody run the double. Maybe Jimmie is going to do it, which would be great. 

“He has the experience. He did very well on the ovals. … It’s my understanding that he’s going to run potentially the 600 as one of his races (with Petty GMS). We’ll see.”

NASCAR Awards: Scene on the red carpet

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community gathered at the Music City Center to commemorate the 2022 season and celebrate Joey Logano‘s second Cup title.

The event can be seen at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock.

Here is a look at the scene on the red carpet before Thursday night’s NASCAR Awards:

Joey Logano and Brittany Logano (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Ryan Blaney and Gianna Tulio (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kyle and Samantha Busch (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Chase Elliott (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Alex Bowman and Crystal Marsh (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Tyler Reddick and Alexa De Leon (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Denny Hamlin and Jordan Fish (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Daniel Suarez and Julia Piquet (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Chase Briscoe and Marissa Briscoe (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Christopher Bell and Morgan Bell (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Austin Dillon and Whitney Dillon (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kyle Larson (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

William Byron and Erin Blaney (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kevin Harvick (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Ross Chastain and Erika Turner (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Austin Cindric (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kurt Busch (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Harrison Burton and Jenna Petty(Photo: Dustin Long)
Mario Andretti (Photo: Dustin Long)