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.

NASCAR fines Daniel Suarez $50,000 for pit road incident

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NASCAR fined Daniel Suarez $50,000 for running into the cars of Alex Bowman and teammate Ross Chastain on pit road after last weekend’s race at Circuit of the Americas.

Suarez was upset after a potential top-five finish was lost in an incident in overtime.

MORE: Appeals Panel rescinds 100-point penalty to Hendrick drivers 

Suarez restarted fifth in the second overtime restart but left the inside lane open. Alex Bowman, with Ross Chastain and Chase Briscoe aligned behind, charged and got beside Suarez as they approached Turn 1.

As Bowman slowed to make the tight turn, he was hit from behind and that sent him into Suarez, who clipped the left rear of Martin Truex Jr.’s car. Truex spun in front of Suarez and blocked his path, allowing the rest of the field to drive by and costing Suarez a top-five finish. Suarez finished 27th.

Suarez spoke briefly with Bowman before having a discussion with Chastain.

“It’s uncharacteristic of Daniel,” Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “There’s no excuse for what happened.”

Appeals panel rescinds 100-point penalty to Hendrick drivers

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Alex Bowman is back leading the points after the National Motorsports Appeals Panel rescinded the 100-point penalty to each Hendrick Motorsports driver and team Wednesday. The Appeals Panel also rescinded the 10-point playoff to each Hendrick driver and team.

The Appeals Panel found that Hendrick violated the rule by modifying the hood louvers on the cars of Bowman, William Byron, Kyle Larson and Josh Berry at Phoenix. The louvers were taken after practice that weekend.

The Appeals Panel kept the $100,000 fine and four-race suspension to each Hendrick crew chief: Cliff Daniels, Alan Gustafson, Blake Harris and Rudy Fugle. All four sat out the past two races, meaning they’ll miss this weekend’s race at Richmond and next weekend’s race on the dirt at Bristol before returning the following weekend at Martinsville.

The Appeals Panel did not give a reason for its decision.

Bowman had been 16th in the standings with the 100-point penalty. He now has a 15-point lead on Ross Chastain after getting all those points back.

Byron goes from 22nd to third after getting his points back. He’s 29 points behind Bowman, 14 points behind Chastain and five points ahead of Kyle Busch. Byron also gets his 10 playoff points back for his wins at Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Larson goes from 27th to ninth with getting his points back.

“We are grateful to the National Motorsports Appeals Panel for their time and attention,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “Today’s outcome reflects the facts, and we’re pleased the panel did the right thing by overturning the points penalty. It validated our concerns regarding unclear communication and other issues we raised. We look forward to focusing on the rest of our season, beginning with this weekend’s race at Richmond (Raceway).”

NASCAR stated its displeasure with part of the penalty being rescinded.

“We are pleased that the National Motorsports Appeals Panel agreed that Hendrick Motorsports violated the rule book. However, we are disappointed that the entirety of the penalty was not upheld. A points penalty is a strong deterrent that is necessary to govern the garage following rule book violations, and we believe that it was an important part of the penalty in this case and moving forward. We will continue to inspect and officiate the NASCAR garage at the highest level of scrutiny to ensure a fair and level playing field for our fans and the entire garage.”

The panelists on the appeal were former driver Bill Lester, Kelly Housby and Dixon Johnston.

Here is the updated points

1. Alex Bowman       226 points

2. Ross Chastain      211

3. William Byron       197

4. Kyle Busch           192

5. Joey Logano        186

6. Kevin Harvick       186

7. Christopher Bell   184

8. Ryan Blaney         177

9. Kyle Larson          170

10. Austin Cindric     166

11. Martin Truex Jr.   165

12. Brad Keselowski 162

13. Tyler Reddick       161

14. Denny Hamlin      161

15. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 159

16. Chris Buescher     157

17. Daniel Suárez        144

18. Corey LaJoie         139

19. Michael McDowell 125

20. Ty Gibbs                 118

21. Bubba Wallace      103

22. AJ Allmendinger    103

23. Erik Jones                99

24. Chase Briscoe         96

25. Todd Gilliland          95

26. Austin Dillon            93

27. Noah Gragson        86

28. Aric Almirola            70

29. Ryan Preece           69

30. Harrison Burton      66

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond Raceway

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The NASCAR Cup Series’ first short track points race of the season is scheduled Sunday at Richmond Raceway, a presence on the NASCAR schedule since 1953.

Tyler Reddick is coming off his first win of the season last Sunday at Circuit of the Americas. He gave Toyota its first victory of the year.

MORE: William Byron is No. 1 in NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

The Richmond race is the first of three consecutive events on short tracks. The series will race on the dirt surface at Bristol Motor Speedway April 9 and the Martinsville Speedway half-mile April 16.

A look at drivers to watch Sunday at Richmond:

FRONTRUNNERS

Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (COTA)
  • Past at Richmond: No finish better than 11th in five career starts

Reddick showed the promise of what could be a strong season by dominating Sunday’s race at COTA. His victory boosted him five spots in points to 10th. Richmond, a track where he has never led a lap, will be a test.

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (Las Vegas 1, Phoenix 1)
  • Past at Richmond: Led 122 laps in April race last year

Byron had a top car in this race last season but was passed by Denny Hamlin for the win with five laps remaining. Byron finished third, his career-best run at Richmond.

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 14th
  • Best seasonal finish: 6th (Auto Club, Atlanta 1)
  • Past at Richmond: Four consecutive top-four runs, including a win

Hamlin can be counted on to challenge for the win every time the tour rolls into Richmond. He has won there in 2009, ’10, ’16 and ’22.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Daniel Suarez

  • Points position: 17th
  • Best seasonal finish: 4th (Auto Club)
  • Past at Richmond: Best career finish is 7th

After opening the season with top-10 runs at Daytona, Fontana and Las Vegas, Saurez has plummeted into the 20s in three consecutive races. Richmond will present another big challenge. Suarez has five consecutive finishes of 16th or worse there.

Ryan Preece

  • Points position: 29th
  • Best seasonal finish: 12th (Phoenix 1)
  • Past at Richmond: Top finish of 20th in five career starts

Preece’s first full-time season in the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 has started poorly. He has been sidelined by accidents in three races and was more upset than most after being parked by a multi-car crash Sunday at COTA.

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: 1st
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Las Vegas 1, COTA)
  • Past at Richmond: Three top 10s, including a win, in past five races

Bowman seems poised to score his first victory of the season. He has been among the tour’s most consistent drivers to date, with five top-10 finishes in six races.

 

 

 

What takes place in a NASCAR appeal hearing? Here’s a look

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Hendrick Motorsports is scheduled to have its appeal hearing at 10 a.m. ET Wednesday.

So what will happen in the appeal hearing? Here is a look at the process, based on the NASCAR Cup Rule Book.

NASCAR penalized Hendrick Motorsports for modifications to hood louvers. Those penalties were:

  • Docked Alex BowmanKyle Larson and William Byron 100 points and 10 playoff points each.
  • Suspended crew chiefs Cliff Daniels, Alan Gustafson, Rudy Fugle and Blake Harris four races each and fined each $100,000.
  • Penalized each of the four Hendrick teams 100 owner points and 10 playoff points.

Before the appeal hearing starts, both sides — in this case, Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR — must file a written summary presenting their case before the hearing.

The summary must not be longer than two single-spaced pages. Any attachments or appendices either side intends to present during the hearing must be included. Such attachments or appendices may include, but are not limited to, video, written statements, diagrams, photographs and charts.

The summary is to be filed by 5 p.m. ET two days before the beginning of the hearing. The summary shall be confidential and not released to the public. The Cup Rule Book says that releasing the summary to the public “may result in a penalty.”

The appeal will be heard by three members. They will come from a pool of panelists. The Cup Rule Book lists 19 panelists. That group includes former drivers Mike Skinner, Lake Speed, Bill Lester, Shawna Robinson and Lyn St. James, along with others in various roles in motorsports.

The Cup Rule Book states that “in seating an Appeals Panel, the Administrator shall take into consideration the panelists’ availability, background, professional experience and knowledge.”

The Cup Rule Book states “the burden rests on NASCAR to show that it is more likely than not that a violation … has occurred, and that the Penalty Notice issued is within the guidelines of the NASCAR Rules.”

Both parties are allowed in the hearing room while each side presents evidence. NASCAR goes first.

After both sides finish, there is a break before an optional rebuttal period. NASCAR has the chance to go first, followed by those appealing.

Once that is complete, NASCAR is permitted one last opportunity to “argue, explain, or present rebuttal on the facts and violation” to the appeal panel since NASCAR carries the burden of proof.

The appeal panelists may ask questions to either group or any witnesses at any time during the hearing.

Decisions by the three-member National Motorsports Appeals Panel do not need to be unanimous.

The National Motorsports Appeals Panel can affirm the penalty or adjust it. The panel can rescind some or all of the penalties or increase any or all penalties.

When NASCAR penalized William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Hamlin during a caution in last year’s playoff race at Texas, Hendrick Motorsports appealed. The National Motorsports Appeals Panel rescinded the 25-point penalty but increased his fine to $100,000. NASCAR amended its rule book after the panel’s decision.

NASCAR does not have the option to appeal the panel’s decision. Those who filed the appeal can further appeal the panel’s decision to the Final Appeal Officer. That decision can’t be appealed.

Kaulig Racing and Denny Hamlin each will go through this process when their appeals are heard. Kaulig Racing’s appeal is April 5 for modifications to a hood louver. Hamlin’s appeal is April 6 for intentionally wrecking Ross Chastain on the last lap of the Phoenix race.