What matters at Darlington: Southern 500 win goes through Martin Truex Jr.

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What matters in today’s race from Darlington Raceway and can anyone topple Martin Truex Jr.? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping the Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Does anyone have anything for Truex?

The degree to which Martin Truex Jr. dominated the spring race in Darlington can be quantified far past him leading 85% of the race:

  • His median lap time (31.826 seconds) was the fastest across 400 miles.
  • He ventured to a 14.5-second lead before the end of the second stage.
  • He turned in the best singular restarts from three different positions: first (+0, three times), third (+2, taking the lead on lap 115) and fourth (+1, twice, in a spot that saw a 0.17-position average loss). For the day, he had 100% position retention on restarts.

It’s easy to forget about Truex’s early-season strength. Since his Darlington win (on May 9), he’s earned just three top-five finishes in 17 races. In fairness, none of the tracks that followed have playoff representation. This team, it seems, was built to win at 750-horsepower tracks in the playoffs. They were victorious in two other races — at Martinsville and Phoenix — that hold prominent positions as the cutoff event of the semifinal round and the winner-take-all finale.

But those other two wins weren’t the result of woodshed-whippings like the one Truex put on the field at Darlington. There, he ran wilder than any previous winner at the 1.366-mile track since Dale Earnhardt’s rout of the 1986 TranSouth 500, in which he led 335 of 367 laps.

Anticipate Truex remaining a favorite for the win today, but the notion that he regresses from his historic performance is likely a smart one, with a couple of drivers poised to benefit based on a variety of measures.

Denny Hamlin bested Joe Gibbs Racing stable mate Truex in both average median lap rank on playoff tracks during the regular season and points accumulated on those tracks (with Talladega omitted). While the focus of Hamlin’s team hasn’t resulted in wins, it’s certainly on par with what Truex’s team turned its energy towards, a make-good on last year’s season finale.

“It’s kind of a learning period for us, but we put our best effort forward,” Hamlin said after finishing fourth last fall in Phoenix with the fourth-fastest car. “We made no mistakes today. I did everything I possibly could. I had nothing there … Our car didn’t have enough speed to go up there and compete.”

Kyle Larson finished second to Truex in the spring, in spite of having the fourth-fastest car. The top-seeded driver entering the playoffs, Larson doesn’t necessarily need a win in order to advance to the next round, but a showing closer to equal footing to that of Truex — Larson failed to lead a single lap in the spring — would help us understand how well Hendrick Motorsports prepared for a slate of races where the majority of them favor Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske’s Joey Logano, driver of the second-fastest car this season on 750-horsepower tracks.

Might early strategy be dictated by the point standings?

At first blush, there isn’t much wiggle room in regards to strategy in the early goings of tonight’s race. Darlington sees a two-second lap time degradation on old tires, and the respect teams have for fresh rubber was universal in last year’s Southern 500.

No team pitted in advance of the competition caution in an effort to inherit better track position. It was a proposition deemed too risky with an ensuing restart making vulnerable anyone with even a lap or two on their set of tires. But tonight, for some, it may be a risk worth taking.

Kevin Harvick enters the playoff opener in an unfamiliar position, seeded last among the 16 championship-eligible teams. So, he’s in need of as many points as he can possibly score to stave off a first-round elimination. Additionally, he recorded the fastest single lap in Darlington’s spring race, a potential sign that the car was optimized for clean air that he didn’t regularly have.

Pitting before the competition caution not only falls into the strategic wheelhouse of crew chief Rodney Childers, but it may represent Harvick’s best shot at taking advantage of a car that was more competitive than meets the eye, ranked sixth in average median lap time on 750-horsepower tracks. A stage win tonight would be his first of the entire 2021 season.

Harvick isn’t the only driver walking this particular line. Fellow Stewart-Haas Racing driver Aric Almirola and JGR’s Christopher Bell both have quantifiably good 750-horsepower speed (ranked 12th and ninth, respectively) and a dearth of playoff points. The choice for strategic aggression is one that’s viable, though not without risk.

The 137-lap final stage could see a splitting of tactics, as 2v1 pit stop battle is on the table. Last year, JGR attempted a one-stop final stage while the Chevrolet contingent, famously Harvick, Chase Elliott and eventual runner-up Austin Dillon, attempted two, utilizing fast lap times on fresh rubber to make up for time lost on pit road.

There will be but one winner, who’ll automatically advance to the next round, but a multitude of paths toward “maximizing the day” in terms of points.

This is just one-third of a round, but some teams may already be in trouble

Aside from the winner — assuming it comes from the title-eligible 16 teams — 15 others will leave Darlington with unfinished business. Two other events, occurring at 750-horsepower tracks Richmond and Bristol, comprise this initial round. That the entire round consists of one track type is beneficial to some and a hindrance to others. For the latter, the problem compounds with a lack of points.

Michael McDowell, ranked 28th in 750-horsepower speed, enters the playoffs with 2,005 points, the third-least of any driver. Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer confirmed to NBC Sports that the Front Row Motorsports team would require “luck,” in addition to doing “everything at the highest level Front Row could ever do” in order to advance to a second round that suits them far more favorably, with Talladega and the Charlotte Roval as two of the featured races.

Kurt Busch, ranked 17th by the same speed metric, holds just three more points than McDowell. In the spring Darlington race, Busch had the 27th-fastest car, earning two points from his 35th-place finish. And while that may have been an aberration, his 13th-place finish (and 24 points earned) at Richmond didn’t necessarily inspire. The Atlanta race winner was well suited for 550-horsepower tracks — ranked sixth in average median lap this season — but faces a steep challenge across these next three weekends.

If it wasn’t for his New Hampshire performance — his median lap ranked second while his best lap ranked first — all signs suggest Brad Keselowski is in for a world of hurt through the next three races. It’s a remarkable dip in speed, going from the fastest team of the 2020 season finale in Phoenix to ranking as the 15th fastest on 750-horsepower tracks. And considering his points tally is on par with that of Busch, he’ll need results (and points) beyond what he’s shown. Races heavy on cautions could provide an escape route: He ranks in the 99th percentiles for restart offense and defense compared to other playoff drivers this season on playoff tracks.

Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

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The 2023 NASCAR season will begin with Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the second race on a purpose-built track inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Although a non-points race, last year’s Clash generated intense interest as NASCAR moved the event from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to Los Angeles. The race was rated a success and opened doors for the possibility of future races in stadium environments.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

MORE: Toyota looking to expand NASCAR presence

Year Two will find drivers competing on a familiar landscape but still with a track freshly paved. Last year’s racing surface was removed after the Clash.

Drivers to watch Sunday at Los Angeles:

FRONTRUNNERS

Joey Logano

  • Points position: Finished 2022 as Cup champion
  • Last three races: Won at Phoenix, 6th at Martinsville, 18th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Won in 2022

Logano put bookends on 2022 by winning the first Clash at the Coliseum and the season’s final race at Phoenix to win the Cup championship. He’ll be among the favorites Sunday.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 2nd in 2022
  • Last three races: 3rd at Phoenix, 4th at Martinsville, 2nd at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Did not qualify last year

Chastain was the breakout star of 2022, winning a pair of races and generally putting himself front and center across much of the year. Can he start 2023 on a big note? If so, he will have to do so without replicating his Hail Melon move at Martinsville after NASCAR outlawed the move Tuesday.

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 15th in 2022
  • Last three races: 5th at Phoenix, 16th at Martinsville, 8th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 10th in 2022

Sunday will begin the final roundup for Harvick, who has said this season will be his last as a full-time Cup driver. He is likely to come out of the gate with fire in his eyes.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 13th in 2022
  • Last three races: 7th at Phoenix, 29th at Martinsville, 9th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 2nd in 2022

Welcome to Kyle Busch’s Brave New World. After 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he begins a new segment of his career with Richard Childress Racing. He led 64 laps at last year’s Clash but couldn’t catch Joey Logano at the end.

Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 14th in 2022
  • Last three races: 23rd at Phoenix, 35th at Martinsville, 35th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 21st in 2022

Reddick ran surprisingly strong in last year’s Clash, leading 51 laps before parking with drivetrain issues. He starts the new year with a new ride — at 23XI Racing.

Ty Gibbs

  • Points position: Won Xfinity Series championship in 2022
  • Last three (Cup) races: 19th at Martinsville, 22nd at Homestead, 22nd at Las Vegas
  • Past at Clash: Did not compete in 2022

After a successful — and controversial — Xfinity season, Gibbs moves up to Cup full-time with his grandfather’s team. Will he be the brash young kid of 2022 or a steadier driver in Season One in Cup?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interstate Batteries extends sponsorship with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Interstate Batteries, which has been a Joe Gibbs Racing sponsor since the team’s first race, has expanded its involvement with the team for 2023.

Interstate, based in Dallas, will be a primary JGR sponsor for 13 races, up from six races, the number it typically sponsored each year since 2008.

Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs will run the majority of Interstate’s sponsorship races, but Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. also will carry the sponsor colors.

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

“We’re extremely proud of our partnership with our founding sponsor, Interstate Batteries,” said team owner Joe Gibbs in a statement released by the team. “They have been such an important part of our team for over three decades now, and it’s exciting to have them on board all four of our cars this season. The best part of our partnership is the relationships we’ve built with everyone there over the years.”

Bell will carry Interstate sponsorship in Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the All-Star Race May 21, the Coca-Cola 600 May 28, at Texas Motor Speedway Sept. 24 and at Martinsville Oct. 29.

Gibbs, in his first full season in Cup racing, will be sponsored by Interstate at Daytona Feb. 19, Bristol April 9, Nashville June 25, Chicago July 2, Texas Sept. 24 and Charlotte Oct. 8.

Hamlin will ride with Interstate sponsorship March 26 at Circuit of the Americas, and Truex will be sponsored by Interstate July 23 at Pocono.

Interstate was a key JGR sponsor in the team’s first season in 1992.

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023 season

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR announced a series of rule changes for the 2023 season that includes outlawing the move Ross Chastain made at Martinsville and eliminating stage breaks at all six Cup road course events.

NASCAR announced the changes in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

Among new things for this season:

  • Updated penalty for a wheel coming off a car.
  • Change to the amount of time teams have to repair cars on pit road via the Damaged Vehicle Policy.
  • Change to playoff eligibility for drivers.
  • Cars could run in wet weather conditions on short ovals.
  • Expansion of the restart zone on a trial basis.
  • Choose rule will be in place for more races.

MORE: Ranking top 10 moments at the Clash

NASCAR updated its policy on a loose wheel. Previously, if a wheel came off a car during an event, it would be a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two pit crew members. That has changed this year.

If a wheel comes off a car while the vehicle is still on pit road, the vehicle restarts at the tail end of the field. If a wheel comes off a vehicle while it is on pit road under green-flag conditions, it is a pass-thru penalty.

The rule changes once a vehicle has left pit road and loses a wheel.

Any vehicle that loses a wheel on the track will be penalized two laps and have two pit crew members suspended for two races. The suspensions will go to those most responsible for the wheel coming off. This change takes away a suspension to the crew chief. The policy is the same for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

With some pit crew members working multiple series, the suspension is only for that series. So, if a pit crew member is suspended two races in the Xfinity Series for a wheel coming off, they can still work the Cup race the following day.

The Damaged Vehicle Policy clock will be 7 minutes this season. It had been six minutes last year and was increased to 10 minutes during the playoffs. After talking with teams, NASCAR has settled on seven minutes for teams to make repairs on pit road or be eliminated. Teams can replace toe links on pit road but not control arms. Teams also are not permitted to have specialized repair tools in the pits.

NASCAR will have a wet weather package for select oval tracks: the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Lucas Oil Raceway Park, Martinsville, Milwaukee, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix and Richmond.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said that teams have been told to show up at these events prepared for wet weather conditions as they would at a road course. That includes having a windshield wiper. Wet weather tires will be available. 

“Our goal here is to get back to racing as soon as possible,” Swayer said. “… If there’s an opportunity for us to get some cars or trucks on the racetrack and speed up that (track-drying) process and we can get back to racing, that’s what our goal is. We don’t want to be racing in full-blown rain (at those tracks) and we’ve got spray like we would on a road course.”

NASCAR stated that it is removing the requirement that a winning driver be in the top 30 in points in Cup or top 20 in Xfinity or Trucks to become eligible for the playoffs. As long as a driver is competing full-time — or has a waiver for the races they missed, a win will make them playoff eligible.

With the consultation of drivers, NASCAR is expanding the restart zone to give the leader more room to take off. NASCAR said it will evaluate if to keep this in place after the Atlanta race in March.

NASCAR stated the choose rule will be in effect for superspeedways and dirt races.

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR will do away with stage breaks in all six Cup road course races and select Xfinity and Truck races this season, but teams will continue to score stage points. 

NASCAR announced the change Tuesday in a session with reporters at the NASCAR R&D Center. 

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR stated there will be no stage breaks in the Cup road course events at Circuit of the Americas (March 26), Sonoma (June 11), Chicago street course (July 2), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13), Watkins Glen (Aug. 20) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8).

There will be no stage breaks for Xfinity races at Circuit of the Americas (March 25), Sonoma (June 10), Chicago street course (July 1), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 12), Watkins Glen (Aug. 19) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7).

There will be no stage breaks for the Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas (March 25).

In those races, stage points will be awarded on a designated lap, but there will be no green-and-checkered flag and the racing will continue.

The only road course events that will have stage breaks will be Xfinity standalone races at Portland (June 3) and Road America (July 29) and the Truck standalone race at Mid-Ohio (July 8). Those events will keep stage breaks because they have non-live pit stops — where the field comes down pit road together and positions cannot be gained or lost provided the stop is completed in the prescribed time by NASCAR.

NASCAR has faced questions from fans and competitors about stage breaks during road course races because those breaks alter strategy in a more defined manner than on most ovals.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said the move away from stage breaks at road courses was made in collaboration with teams and response from fans.

“When we introduced stage racing … we took an element of strategy away from the event,” Sawyer. “Felt this (change) would bring some new storylines (in an event).”

NASCAR instituted stage breaks and stage points for the 2017 season and has kept the system in place since. NASCAR awards a playoff point to the stage winner along with 10 points. The top 10 at the end of a stage score points.

It wasn’t uncommon for many teams to elect to pit before the first stage in a road course race and eschew points to put themselves in better track position for the final two stages. By pitting early, they would be behind those who stayed out to collect the stage points. At the stage break, those who had yet to pit would do so, allowing those who stopped before the break to leapfrog back to the front.