Friday 5: Could NASCAR’s next great rivalry be Larson vs. Bell?

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It’s easy to want something so badly that it clouds one’s judgment.

Just the thought that Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell could develop a rich rivalry in NASCAR is intoxicating. They’re young. They’re talented. They’re with two of the best teams in the sport.

This is something that could define NASCAR’s next decade, along with Chase Elliott’s success, Kyle Busch’s quest for more titles and what the infusion of young talent brings.

Rivalries are rare in the sport these days. Consider it the curse of so many different winners each season. If you’re not racing around each other as often, the chance for conflict is not as high.

The last memorable rivalries are Brad Keselowski-Kyle Busch and Keselowski-Carl Edwards because of their acrimonious relationships on and off the track. Feud might be a better way to describe those situations.

These days, any type of rivalry is more like a spat and quickly forgotten by most.

But the last couple of races make the idea of a rivalry between Bell and Larson a juicy one, especially if they keep racing each other near the front.

Bell left Watkins Glen frustrated last weekend after contact from Larson spun him and cost him a chance to win the race.

Adding to Bell’s frustration was what happened between the two at New Hampshire in the previous race.

“It’s extremely frustrating because he cost me the race at Loudon by holding me up for 30 laps — maybe even more than that — whenever I was clearly faster than (winner Aric) Almirola at the end of the race but wasted a good majority of it trying to stay off (Larson’s) car at Loudon,” Bell told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week.

“I passed (Larson) cleanly after multiple, multiple laps of trying but being very respectful and racing for position without contact. Then fast forward one race later and we have an incident at Watkins Glen which ruins my race. I definitely did him right at Loudon, and he did not do me right at Watkins Glen. That’s that.”

Larson ran fifth and Bell was sixth from Laps 193-242 in the 293-lap race at New Hampshire. Bell went on to finish second to Almirola. Larson fell to seventh by the end.

At Watkins Glen, Larson and Bell made contact while racing for second on Lap 54 of the 90-lap event. Bell went on to finish seventh for his season-high fourth consecutive top-10 result. 

Larson, who won at Watkins Glen, apologized repeatedly after the race for the contact with Bell. Tuesday, Larson told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that “initially I thought I was completely at the wrong, but honestly, more after watching the replay, I think we both had a factor in what happened.

“I got in there. I didn’t dive-bomb him like he said I did. I was a half a car length back on him down the front stretch and was to his inside the whole braking zone — and actually was further forward than I thought I really was. I locked the brakes up late in the braking zone when I realized he was going to turn into the corner and really turned in like I wasn’t there.

“I’m not sure if his spotter didn’t tell him or what happened there. Either way, I still feel bad about it. I don’t ever want to spin anybody out, especially Christopher Bell. I’ve got a lot of respect for him on the racetrack, and we’ve had amazing races together.

“Obviously, he’s upset and I get it. After watching one of the replays, I don’t think I was fully at the wrong.”

Larson said he reached out to Bell, who did not respond immediately to the overture.

Maybe this gets resolved and both drivers move forward. Maybe it simmers. Maybe a NASCAR rivalry develops.

2. Crown jewel or not?

With Sunday’s Indianapolis Cup race (1 p.m. ET on NBC) moving to the road course for the first time, the debate is if Indy remains among the top events on the NASCAR schedule?

Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin are among those who say no.

“We lost a crown jewel,” Hamlin said. “People hated the racing. I don’t know. Are they really going to get more people out to the road course than they did for the Brickyard 400? I’m not sure. I don’t love it. I don’t love the move. It took away a crown jewel, and I don’t think anyone will consider the Indy road course any sort of crown jewel race.

“Indy is because of the oval track. That’s what makes Indy so special. I don’t think it’s the last time we’ll be back on the Brickyard on the oval.”

Kurt Busch, who has raced in the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400, sees it differently from Hamlin.

“To me, Indy will always be Indy,” Busch said. “Anytime there is an inaugural race of any sorts at a track, it is extra special. Yeah, we’ve raced there for a couple of decades on the oval, but the trophy … will be after a road course race. You have to embrace it. You have to honor it and go after it.”

Busch’s younger brother, Kyle, doesn’t have the same opinion.

“I don’t view it as Indy,” said Kyle Busch, who won the Brickyard race in 2015 and ‘16. “Indy is the oval. That’s what makes the allure of Indy, and that’s the prestige of the place and being around since (1909).”

Brad Keselowski, who won the 2018 Cup race at Indy, admits his opinion varies.

“Some days yes, some days no,” he said of if Indy is a crown jewel event with the race on the road course. “I still want to win it. Still want the trophy. There’s something special about being on the oval track.”

He also admits that “if I hadn’t won on the oval, I’d be stomping, but I’ve won on the oval.”

AJ Allmendinger, who also has run in the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400, said he doesn’t believe Sunday’s race has lost prestige.

“There are certain places that if you just say the name of the racetrack, the generic fan or maybe not even a fan of motorsports, they know what that place is,” said Allmendinger, who is entered in Sunday’s Cup race with Kaulig Racing.

“That’s what Indianapolis means to me. You can say I won at Indy … They know how big a deal that is. They may not even know what series you are talking about, but the fact that you say you’ve won there, it means something.”

3. Facing the challenges

Among the challenges for crew chief Mike Wheeler has been overseeing the first year of 23XI Racing. Each week, it can be different things beyond getting cars ready to race. This week, it has been the installation of a fire alarm in the shop.

But among the bigger issues is better performances for the No. 23 car and Bubba Wallace. As with any driver, confidence is key. Wallace acknowledges that he shows how he’s feeling. At times, that can display confidence. Other times, not so much.

As Wheeler works with Wallace for the first time, he’s learning how to help maximize Wallace’s potential and that of the team in a season where they are 21st in driver points. Wallace has five top-15 finishes in the last nine races. He has a fifth-place result (the second Pocono race with team co-owner Michael Jordan in attendance) and four 14th-place finishes in that span.

Bubba Wallace Daytona 500
Bubba Wallace heads into Sunday’s Cup race on the Indianapolis road course 21st in the points. His best finish for 23XI Racing this year is fifth at Pocono in late June. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“When it’s a little bit of a struggle, it mentally downgrades you from being confident with what you’re doing,” Wheeler said. “That’s where we’ve been. Obviously, we’ve had a lot of good showings.

“I would tell you that for all the work Bubba puts in, he hasn’t had the minor victories of top fives and top 10s and leading laps that would give him confidence to kind of keep going, work harder. It makes you frustrated that you’re (21st) in points and you’re starting mid-pack again and everything that happens to you running mid-pack can affect your finish.

“You end up getting banged up on the restarts, pit stall selection, you lack stage points because you’re starting in the back. … Definitely the mental toll is one of the challenges we’re facing for everyone on the team.

“I can tell you we’re big boys and we’re fighting through that. It’s never a thing that we don’t address. As high as expectations were, we need to make sure we have a reality check of ‘go run in the top 15, go run top 10, go run top five.’ Not just ‘go win this weekend.’

“Part of my motivational speech for a while has been that the moment it starts clicking we’ll be really fast.”

It’s just a matter of getting to that point.

4. Learning the way

The success is stunning and it is easy to forget that Ty Gibbs is 18 years old.

He’s already won three of 10 Xfinity starts this season in his first foray into NASCAR’s No. 2 series. He’ll be among the favorites for Saturday’s race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

No doubt it helps that he drives for grandfather Joe Gibbs’ team and that Ty Gibbs drives the No. 54 car — which has won eight of the last 10 Xfinity races with Gibbs, Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell having won during this recent stretch.

NASCAR Xfinity Series Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey
Ty Gibbs’ three Xfinity wins this year have come at Daytona (road course), Charlotte and Watkins Glen, all tracks rich in motorsports history. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Still, Ty Gibbs is just a teenager learning as he goes in front of an audience. The successes are easy. The disappointments are challenging. Social media is there to tell him what he did wrong and judge him.

Tony Stewart used to say how there was no playbook for drivers coming into NASCAR’s top ranks. Media training helps now but even that can fall short when drivers react in front of a camera.

Gibbs was criticized by some for comments he made after finishing fourth in the season-opening ARCA race at Daytona. He noted how that type of racing made him look forward to “racing at a real race track in Phoenix.”

Gibbs admits it has been challenging for him to navigate the landscape and make mistakes in public.

“I’ve got a bunch of buddies,” he said. “I watch them do stupid stuff, stuff that I’ve done, said negative stuff, but they don’t get anything from it, and I get blasted by the whole Internet on it. It’s hard.

“You’ve got to learn how to protect yourself, but more importantly learn how to not care about what people think. Everybody says ‘I don’t care what people think,’ but you do.”

He said he’s relied on his faith to help him in such situations and “trust God that I can’t handle this, and I’m not going to control what this guy says or what this guys says. Once you kind of handle that and learn that you’re going to have bad days and learn how to compose yourself at the end of the races, that’s the biggest thing I’ve worked on.”

It’s not easy, he admits, particularly when he doesn’t win.

“It drives me insane,” he said. “It builds a fire in me and burns week after week when I don’t win, but that’s what keeps me working hard during the week. I feel like days (after) I lose, I work harder than I’ve ever done … and it keeps going on for life.

“Trying to compose yourself in front of the whole world at 17 and 18, I feel like it’s hard for other kids my age to do it like we’ve seen. I’ve probably been the worst out of all of them. Hopefully, I’m an example and a role model in kids younger that are going to come up in the ranks.”

5. Best gift

Three years later, the gift Justin Allgaier’s JR Motorsports team gave him remains special.

They presented him with a framed picture of the entire team kissing the bricks after their Indy win in 2018. Each of the crew members signed the picture.

“You walk by the photo and look at it, I can picture every detail of postrace,” he said.

NASCAR Xfinity Series Lilly Diabetes 250
With a little prodding from Justin and Ashley Allgaier, daughter Harper Grace did kiss the bricks after Justin’s win at Indianapolis in 2018. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Among the things that stand out the most to him after winning at Indy?

“I can remember trying to figure out how to convince Harper to kiss the bricks,” he said of his daughter, who was nearly 5 at the time. “I can remember tying to get down and … how do you kiss the bricks with a hat on? There’s all these things that go through your mind.”

Also memorable from that day was the burnout he did after winning. He did it over the yard of bricks at the start/finish line, something frowned upon by the track.

“I didn’t even know I went over the bricks,” he said. “… To be honest with you I would have never have gone over the bricks. It just happened in the moment and I didn’t realize it.”

Allgaier said he got plenty of criticism (and more) from fans for doing that.

“If I think I have a lot of respect and passion for Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there are people that have more passion for the racetrack than I do, I can promise you. But if I’m lucky enough to win again this year at the road course, there will not be  a burnout over the bricks. I can assure you of that.”

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Alex Bowman to miss Talladega due to concussion-like symptoms

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Alex Bowman will miss Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway after experiencing concussion-like symptoms following his accident last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports stated Thursday afternoon.

Bowman is the second Cup driver to miss a race because of concussion-like symptoms after a crash. Kurt Busch has not returned to racing since he crashed July 23 at Pocono. Busch said this week that he remains “hopeful” he can return this season. Six races remain in the season, including Sunday’s race at Talladega.

Noah Gragson will fill in for Bowman.

Hendrick Motorsports stated that Bowman, who is last in the playoff standings, was evaluated by physicians Thursday in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Provided Bowman returns, he likely will need to win the Oct. 9 race at the Charlotte Roval to avoid playoff elimination.

Bowman brought out the caution on Lap 98 of the 334-lap race at Texas when a tire blew and backed into the wall in Turn 4. The car then hit the SAFER barrier with the right side. Bowman continued, finishing the race 29th, five laps behind winner Tyler Reddick.

Drivers have stated that rear impacts have felt worse than they looked with the new car.

From the get-go, everybody could see that this car was way too stiff,” Kevin Harvick said earlier this summer. “When I crashed it (at Auto Club Speedway in practice), I thought the car was destroyed and it barely backed the bumper off. It just felt like somebody hit you with a hammer.”

Christopher Bell said in June that he had a headache after he backed into the wall in the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway in May.

Denny Hamlin said earlier this month he feels better about what NASCAR is looking to do with the car after conversations with series officials.

“I certainly feel that they’re working to help us with the hits on the chassis,” Hamlin aid. “All that stuff does take time. They can’t just knee-jerk reaction and start cutting bars out of the chassis, that’s very irresponsible.

“I think they’re doing things methodically to make sure that the next revision of car that comes out is one that is improved in the areas that we need improving on, but that does take time through design and testing.”

Gragson was to have driven the No. 62 car for Beard Motorsports in Sunday’s Cup race. Justin Allgaier will drive the car with Gragson moving to the No. 48 car.

 

Dr. Diandra: How much does Talladega shake up the playoffs?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for shaking up the playoffs. But how well deserved is that reputation?

Playoff drivers usually view the first race in the second round of the playoffs as the best chance to earn points, earn stage points and maybe even a win given that Talladega is the second race. Now that Texas is in the rear-view mirror, let’s turn our data analysis tools to Talladega.

The shake-up index

Determining how much one race shuffles the playoffs standings requires a simple metric that is applicable to all the years NASCAR has had stages and playoffs. In a rare point of consistency, Talladega has remained the 31st race of the season since 2017, when stage racing started.

After trying a couple different approaches, I finally settled on playoff rankings. These rankings are a zero-sum game. For each driver who moves up a position, another driver must move down.

The first graph is playoff ranking as a function of race for the second playoff segment of 2021. It’s a bit of a mess, but stay with me.

A scatter graph of rank changes to help determine how much shaking-up Talladega actually does

Playoff rank runs along the left side of the graph. The highest ranked driver is at the top and the 12th ranked at the bottom.

The leftmost set of dots shows the rankings coming out of Bristol, after eliminating the lowest four drivers and re-seeding the rest. The second column of dots show the rankings after Las Vegas, which was the first race in the second round in 2021.

Each driver is represented in a different color, with lines connecting his rankings. For example, the dark purple lines show Denny Hamlin rising from third to first over these three races. The light blue lines at the bottom show Alex Bowman plummeting from seventh to 12th.

The messier the lines between two races, the more the playoffs were shaken up. Because it’s hard to quantify “messiness,” I counted each time one driver’s line crossed another driver’s line.

Each crossing indicates two drivers changed places in the rankings. The number of intersections between Bristol and Las Vegas, for example, tells you how much Las Vegas shook up the standings.

Three intersecting lines count as three shake-ups because there are three pairs of drivers crossing.

In 2021, Las Vegas had nine intersections, Talladega 13 and the Roval only five. This seems consistent with our hypothesis that Talladega is the biggest shaker-upper in the second round.

Talladega Timeline

In addition to being only one point, the 2021 Talladega contest poses another problem. Bubba Wallace won the rain-shortened race, which went 311 miles instead of the scheduled 500 miles.

That raises the possibility that 2021 might not be the most representative year for Talladega races. I therefore repeated the analysis going back to 2017. Since we didn’t have stage racing — and thus stage points — before 2017, it doesn’t make sense to compare previous years.

The table below shows the shake-up index from 2017-2021. Note that the first and third races changed from year to year.

A table summarizing the shake-up index for Talladega and other races in the second playoff round from 2017-2021

This five years of data show that Talladega wasn’t always the race that most shook-up this round of playoffs. From 2017-19, Dover and Charlotte held that honor. That’s surprising, especially in 2017. That’s the year 26 of 40 cars failed to finish the Talladega race and NASCAR parked Jimmie Johnson and Matt DiBenedetto.

In 2020, the three races had just about equal shake-up indices.

The Roval has been the third playoff race for only two years. It was equally chaotic with Talladega in terms of affecting the standings in 2020, but less so in 2021. Kansas beat the Roval for switching up the playoff standings twice.

 A caveat for the first race

If you’re surprised to see a larger shake-up for the first race in the second round of the playoffs, you’re not alone.

The 2021 fall Las Vegas race was remarkably uneventful. There were only two DNFs, both non-playoff cars. And one single-car accident that, again, didn’t involve a playoff car. Yet it had a shake-up index of nine.

It turns out that this is a side-effect of the re-seeding protocol.

The graph below shows the same time period as the rankings graph, but reports total points for the top-12 drivers.

A scatter plot showing how points changed for the top-12 playoff drivers in 2021 in the second round of the playoffs

Immediately after re-seeding, the drivers are separated by 57 points from first to 12th. If you omit Kyle Larson’s 30-point lead, the bottom 11 drivers are separated by only 27 points.

Since a driver can earn a maximum of 60 points in a single race, the first race in a round has a lot more impact in changing the standings. In effect, the first race decompresses the re-seeding compression.

After Las Vegas, the 12 playoff drivers were separated by 78 points. After Talladega, the margin grew to 98 points.

The larger numbers for the first races in any round are more due to the re-seeding-induced points compression than to the nature of the track.

Applied to 2022

Drivers don’t have to win at Talladega. They just have to finish ahead of the other playoff drivers. In fact, if a given driver can’t win, the next best case for him is if none of the other playoff drivers win, either.

The largest drop in positions a driver has seen from Talladega is five — and that’s from the rain-shortened 2021 race. On the other hand, drivers have also seen as much as an eight-position gain in the standings following Talladega. That gain was after the 2017 race where more than half the field failed to finish, but at least one driver has come out of the fall Talladega race each of the last four years up at least three positions.

As far as the stats for this year’s second round playoffs so far: Last week’s Texas race had a shake-up index of 14. That’s higher than all but the first year of the stage-racing playoff era.

And the William Byron penalty (which Hendrick Motorsports is contesting) has a shake-up index of seven.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.