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.

Where are they now? Scott Riggs races with son, Layne

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Scott Riggs, who raced for 15 years in NASCAR’s top three national series, now is guiding the racing career of his 20-year-old son, Layne.

And things are going well.

Layne won this year’s NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series Late Model championship, scoring 16 wins in 43 starts and edging former series champion Peyton Sellers by four points for the title.

Riggs thus became the youngest champion in Weekly Series history.

“It all started when Layne was 10 years old, mostly just something to entertain him and to have some fun,” Scott told NBC Sports. “But it’s turned into a full-fledged job. My life and plate have been full.”

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes

The Riggs family’s race shop is located in Bahama, North Carolina, Riggs’ home base during his NASCAR career. Scott describes himself as the “truck driver, spotter, crew chief and in-shop mechanic.”

“I am very tired,” he said.

The team, which depends on volunteers, didn’t plan to race in so many events this season, but when Layne started the year with a string of victories, it made sense to chase the national championship and give him a chance to be the youngest winner ever.

“To chase it that hard and be that close and then to win it, it was very exhausting,” Scott said. “It was a very big relief to finish the year.”

Success on short tracks resulted in Layne racing in three Camping World Truck Series events this year with Halmar Racing. He had a best finish of seventh at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park in his series debut.

MORE: Snowball Derby attracts top NASCAR drivers

Scott Riggs ended his NASCAR driving career in 2014 in the Truck Series. He won five Truck races and four Xfinity races and ran 208 Cup races without a win. He made his Truck debut in 1999, moved to Xfinity in 2002 (winning Rookie of the Year) and then to Cup in 2004.

Riggs, now 51, raced in the Cup Series from 2004-13 with stops at MB2 Motorsports and with teams owned by Gene Haas, Tommy Baldwin and Ray Evernham, among others. He had four top-five finishes.

“I think I was very fortunate and the timing was right for me to move up through the ranks and get so many good opportunities,” Riggs said. “I raced late models for a long time, and then all of a sudden I got the opportunity to get in a truck. Won some races and poles and won races and poles in Xfinity.”

MORE: Jody Ridley’s upset for the ages

He ran out of chances in Cup as team models shifted, including some downsizing and mergers.

“I felt like I couldn’t get an opportunity that I had worked for and earned,” Riggs said. “It was hard for me. I was bitter for a year or so. But I look back, and a realization came over me that I was fortunate to have that time with my kids when they were at the right ages. I got to watch them do their things and just be the dad I wanted to be — not being gone four out of every seven days racing.

“I don’t think I’d have the relationship I have today with my kids if I had had a longer time in the sport.”

 

 

NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes through the years

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The best quotes from drivers and others involved in NASCAR competition often come in the heat of the moment — after a crash or a close finish or a controversial decision by officials.

NASCAR’s history is filled with memorable quotes from drivers who won races to drivers who watched wins slip away to officials caught in a moment of history.

Here’s a look at 10 that stand out:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. “I didn’t mean to turn him around. I meant to rattle his cage, though.” — Dale Earnhardt, describing how he didn’t mean to wreck Terry Labonte after he wrecked Labonte on the last lap at Bristol Motor Speedway to win the Aug. 28, 1999 race.

2. “They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their ass. There’s no way to get around that.” — Kevin Harvick, Feb. 21, 2010, offering his opinion on why Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team won so many races after Johnson outran him to win at Auto Club Speedway.

MORE: An upset for the ages: Jody Ridley wins at Dover

3. “It’s a stump-puller.” — Sterling Marlin, emphasizing the strength of his engine after he won the Daytona 500 Feb. 19, 1995.

4. “It’s probably not his fault. His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do.” — Joey Logano, talking about Kevin Harvick after they were involved in a late-race crash at Pocono Raceway June 6, 2010. Harvick’s wife, DeLana, often wore a firesuit similar to those worn by team members during races.

5. “Do you have a brother?” — Ward Burton, responding to a reporter who asked if it was tougher to finish second because the race winner was his brother, Jeff, March 7, 1999 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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6. “I couldn’t hear him. He’s got that little yap-yap mouth. I couldn’t tell what he was saying.” — Ricky Rudd, commenting on what Kevin Harvick said to him after they wrecked at Richmond Raceway, Sept. 6, 2003.

7. “We can’t race with tears in our eyes.” — team owner Robert Yates, explaining why his team would not participate in the next week’s race after its driver, Davey Allison, was killed in a helicopter crash, July 1993.

8. “He’d have to toast everyone with milk.” — Dale Earnhardt, commenting on the celebratory drink choice Jeff Gordon might make if he ever won the Cup championship. After he won the 1995 Cup title, Gordon followed through, toasting his championship with a glass of milk at the awards banquet.

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9. “You know they say there’s talkers and doers. I’ve done this twice.” — Tony Stewart, winning the pre-race trash-talk contest with Carl Edwards prior to the 2011 race for the championship. Stewart had won the title in 2002 and 2005 and notched another over Edwards in 2011.

10. “This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever personally had to make, but after the accident in Turn 4 of the Daytona 500 we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” — NASCAR President Mike Helton, confirming Earnhardt’s death at Daytona International Speedway, Feb. 18, 2001.

Honorable mentions: David Pearson, after being told that Richard Petty had said Pearson was the best driver he ever raced against: “I agree with him.” … CBS broadcaster Ken Squier, calling the famous finish of the 1979 Daytona 500: “And there’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison! The tempers, overflowing. They are angry. They know they have lost. And what a bitter defeat.” … NASCAR founder Bill France, providing a unique ending to a pre-race prayer after temporarily forgetting to use Amen: “Sincerely, Bill France.”

Snowball Derby entry list includes NASCAR Cup, Xfinity, Truck drivers

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Four Cup drivers are among those entered for Sunday’s 55th annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.

The Cup drivers entered are former series champion Brad Keselowski, playoff competitor William Byron, two-time Southern 500 winner Erik Jones and incoming Cup rookie Noah Gragson, who advanced to the Xfinity title race this year.

Also entered: Josh Berry, who competed in the Xfinity championship race this year, and Ty Majeski, who competed in the Truck championship race this year.

Majeski won the 2020 Snowball Derby. Gragson won the race in 2018. Jones won the event in 2012 and ’13.

Others entered include:

Chandler Smith, who won the 2021 Snowball Derby and will drive for Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series in 2023, is listed on the entry list but stated on social media he will not be competing.

The Snowball Derby is among the more prestigious Super Late Model races on the calendar and coming after the NASCAR season makes it easier for more Cup, Xfinity and Truck competitors to take part in the event.

Qualifying takes place Saturday. The Snowball Derby is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET Sunday. Racing America will stream Sunday’s race for $49.99. A three-day viewing pass can be purchased for $74.99.

 

 

An upset for the ages: Jody Ridley’s 1981 victory at Dover

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NASCAR’s history is sprinkled with upsets, from unlikely winners riding the Talladega draft to short tracks that yielded unexpected wins when favored leaders crashed on the final lap.

Survey the list of surprise winners over the decades, and Jody Ridley’s name likely will stand out.

On May 17, 1981, two days shy of his 39th birthday, Ridley won a 500-mile race at Dover Motor Speedway in Delaware. It was the only victory of Ridley’s Cup career and the only win scored by Virginia team owner Junie Donlavey, who participated in the Cup Series for 45 years, with 863 starts.

Donlavey’s team was perpetually underfunded, and his drivers often raced with tired, overused engines and tires that had too many laps. He survived with a mostly volunteer crew and enough sponsorship to carry him from race to race. Rival drivers and team owners considered Donlavey one of the most popular residents of NASCAR garage areas across those many years, but he rarely had the chance to reach for victory lane.

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On that spring day at Dover, one of NASCAR’s toughest tracks, everything fell the right way. Many of the tour’s leading drivers parked with engine or overheating problems, and the day’s best car – the Wood Brothers entry driven by Neil Bonnett — was sidelined with an engine issue late in the race after leading 404 laps.

Ridley, running a steady race, benefited from an unusual day at Dover. The race had only two cautions, and the final 471 laps of 500 were run under green-flag conditions. A general lack of cautions prevented top teams from changing tires frequently, putting Ridley, who was used to running tires longer than normal, on better footing.

When Cale Yarborough left the race with engine trouble 20 laps from the finish, Ridley inherited the lead — he had been two laps down to Yarborough — and led the rest of the way. He won by 22 seconds over Bobby Allison, who was the only other driver on the lead lap. Dale Earnhardt finished third, a lap down. Illustrating the problems experienced by many in the field — not an unusual result in those days — was the fact that the fourth-place driver, D.K. Ulrich, was nine laps off the lead pace.

Ridley drove into Victory Lane for the first time, much to the delight of Donlavey’s crew.

“Junie took it all in stride,” Ridley, now 80, told NBC Sports. “He wasn’t as excited as the team guys were. Junie was the type of guy who didn’t want to cash in on other people’s bad luck. He kind of felt sorry for the guys who blew up. That’s just the way he was.

“For me, it was the highlight of my career. Once I got into Cup racing, I knew we probably wouldn’t do much winning because we didn’t have the equipment. It was icing on the cake to win that one.”

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Jody’s son Anthony, then 22 years old, was listening to the race via radio in Chatsworth, Georgia, where the family lived.

“I was upstairs at my girlfriend’s house, and I think I bounced all over the upstairs and then floated down to the first floor,” Anthony said. “It was all pretty cool. Dad called home. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t get real excited about anything, but he was happy.”

The win paid $22,560. Ridley’s cut from the check (40 percent, generally standard in those days) was $9,024, a nice payday but not Ridley’s biggest in Cup. He would win more for finishing in the top 10 in the Daytona 500.

“We were having a good day,” Ridley said, “but I never thought about winning it. We just didn’t have the cars. But we stayed in the hunt, and the other teams couldn’t get too many new tires, and Junie had put a different gear in the car. Normally he would put in a taller gear and drop the RPMs down (to protect the engine), and you couldn’t keep up. For some reason that day, he didn’t. And it paid off.”

Before joining the Cup tour full time in 1980 at age 37, Ridley had established himself as one of the top short-track drivers in the country. Across the South, at top Eastern Seaboard tracks and into the Midwest, a visit by Ridley usually meant a tough night for the locals.

MORE: Five laps that impacted Cup season

Ridley’s older brother, Biddle, and Anthony kept the Ridley short-track cars running.

“We did all that together for 36 years,” said Anthony, who started changing tires during pit stops at the age of 14. “It was how we made a living, but trying to feed three families out of a race car is tough.”

Ridley still lives in Chatsworth, where his 1981 victory was a sports highlight for years.

“He can’t hear well, but he’s still tough as a pine knot,” Anthony said.