Analysis: Five surprising stat darlings on road courses in 2021

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A 2021 schedule heavy on road courses was sure to cater to the likes of Hendrick Motorsports — Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott have combined for four victories in five races to date — but it also unearthed stout performances from unlikely sources or from methods not totally visible.

Let’s analyze five drivers whose statistical output in Cup Series road course races have likely surpassed their preseason expectation:

Kurt Busch

Only four drivers — Larson, Elliott, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin — have amassed more points this year in road course races than Busch, whose road racing reputation feels more anecdotal than quantifiable based on his actual record (one win in 47 career tries at the Cup level).

Across the five road races this year, his car ranks 10th in average median lap time. He’s out-finished his speed ranking three times (fourth on the Daytona road course, sixth at Sonoma and fourth at Road America). Consider these results a team effort. Crew chief Matt McCall helped secure six spots via green-flag pit cycles at Daytona, 21 at Sonoma and 12 at Road America — mostly a product of staying out under green and pitting under yellow-flag conditions, a focused approach on stage point-padding.

McCall’s 72.73% position retention rate on green-flag pit cycles isn’t the best among front-running crew chiefs, but given Busch’s points tally, it’s been one of the most effective:

Key cycles towards the ends of races placed Busch fourth at Sonoma and fifth at Road America, and despite Busch’s -0.41% surplus passing value (ranked 17th in the series), the driver fended off challengers in the waning laps well enough to secure better-than-expected results.

Ross Chastain

From 2019-20, the driver who ranked first in surplus passing value on road courses was none other than Chastain, whose effort across a three-race small sample size yielded a pass differential 68 positions beyond his car’s statistical expectation. However, whether the strength of that particular statistical mark symbolized a premier, efficient road course mover was questionable. After all, it took place in a Premium Motorsports car against similar back-marker competition.

As it turns out, there was validity to his eye-popping number. Against better cars and drivers this season, he ranks third in surplus passing value, with a +3.31% mark. It’s good for a pass differential 31 positions beyond his car’s statistical expectation and proved vital in finishes of fourth at COTA, seventh at Sonoma and seventh at Road America.

Chastain’s 141 points earned across the five road course races ranks eighth in the series.

Tyler Reddick

Reddick’s road course finishes in 2020 (18th on the Daytona road course and 12th on Charlotte’s Roval) were nondescript and considering a -5.93% surplus passing value that ranked among the bottom two drivers from 2019-20, an expanded road course schedule for 2021 didn’t appear to suit the former dirt racer.

But working with performance advisors Josh Wise and Scott Speed has done wonders for Reddick, who’s not only turned in three top-10 finishes, but also secured the most points of any driver and a stage victory last month at Road America.

His long-run passing numbers have yet to break into the black — his -0.17% SPV ranks 16th in the series — but he’s found a short-run niche on road courses, faring considerably well in the category of position retention on restarts:

His 70% retention rate ranks 10th among full-time drivers and from the preferred groove specifically, he successfully defended position on all five attempts from inside the top 14. Oddly, this is a path to track position that’s eluded him elsewhere. Across all tracks, he struggles on restarts — his 53.33% rate ranks 17th among full-time drivers, while his 69.44% rate from the preferred groove ranks 22nd — making his affinity for short runs in road races all the more intriguing.

Chase Briscoe

It’s not surprising that Briscoe, a winner of two road course races at the Xfinity Series level, has turned in three top-10 finishes in his rookie Cup Series season. But the method in how he’s going about it isn’t entirely obvious.

His Stewart-Haas Racing car ranks 17th in average median lap time, tops among SHR’s four teams. But despite his raw speed, that’s still a tough ranking to overcome, especially when seeking playoff-clinching race wins. And yet, he’s registered the 12th-most points among all drivers and finished equal to or better than his speed ranking in four of five starts.

How’s he doing it? The collective effort is piecemeal, as he’s not especially good in any one stat category. Cumulatively, he ranks as the 21st-most efficient road course passer — in fact, road courses are the only track type on which he’s a negative-surplus passer — but two of his team’s three best passing efforts this year came at Road America (an adjusted pass efficiency of 57.97%) and COTA (51.94%). He finished sixth in both races.

Crew chief Johnny Klausmeier has defended Briscoe’s position on 45.45% of green-flag pit cycles, indicating they often eschew pitting under yellow to inherit improved spots in advance of restarts. And while Briscoe isn’t turning that positioning into more track position — his retention rate on restarts currently sits at 42.86%, meaning he more often loses spots on short runs — he’s mitigated the magnitude of the positional loss, averaging a 0.33-position drop from the non-preferred groove, the 12th-best mark in that regard.

On the final restarts at Road America and Watkins Glen, he launched from inside the first five rows, averaging a zero-position net gain after two laps. He finished ninth at Watkins Glen, a testament to his ability to defend his running position.

Ryan Preece

With a Modified racing background, Preece doesn’t profile as someone who’d be an expert passer on road courses, but here we are. The 30-year-old is one of five drivers with positive surplus passing values on all three primary track types — 550-horsepower tracks, 750-horsepower tracks and road courses.

After last weekend’s race at Watkins Glen, he now ranks second in road course SPV — trailing only Martin Truex Jr. — but that’s a ranking that comes with a caveat. He’s earned 18 positions beyond his car’s statistical expectation. His JTG Daugherty Racing machine, though, isn’t expected to produce much.

In fact, his No. 37 car — ranked 25th in average median lap time this season and 21st among full-timers on road courses specifically — has an expected adjusted pass efficiency of 47.54%. This projects a race-long loss on average, but Preece is so efficient and prolific, that his actual pass efficiency (51.37%) brings a positive season-long net. His ability to pass is a boon for JTG Daugherty’s non-chartered ride.

But all this has yet to manifest in tangible race results. After finishing ninth on the Daytona road course and 15th at COTA, he finished outside the top 20 in his last three road race starts, which included an early engine failure at Road America and a loose wheel on his final pit stop at Watkins Glen.

He’s scored the 24th-most points among all drivers. Statistical indications suggests he’s capable of more.