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


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.

Alpha Prime Racing’s road woes don’t keep team from competing


SONOMA, Calif. — Alpha Prime Racing owner Tommy Joe Martins laughs. He can. His Xfinity Series cars all are here at Sonoma Raceway.

At one point last week, it was not certain if his team’s cars would make it to Portland International Raceway.

“It was probably the toughest professional week I’ve had of my NASCAR career,” Martins told NBC Sports on Friday at Sonoma.

MORE: Kyle Larson leads Xfinity practice at Sonoma

The Alpha Prime Racing team had both its trucks break down and one of its haulers have mechanical issues last week on the way to the Pacific Northwest.

“We basically sent four pieces of equipment on the road and three of them broke,” Martins said.

For a time, the car Sage Karam is driving this weekend at Sonoma was left in a hauler in Kansas City because there wasn’t room in the dually Martins sent. It had room only for the car that was needed at Portland and other equipment. Karam’s car, which was to be a backup at Portland, was left behind.

“It’s a very helpless feeling when you feel like your stuff is stuck on the side of the road,” Martins said.

He still has one truck still in St. Louis and another in Oregon. Martins estimates the mechanical issues will cost his team about $50,000 when everything is totaled.

Trouble started well before the team left its Mooresville, North Carolina, race shop for Portland.

The Xfinity Series race at Charlotte was scheduled to run May 27. Rain forced that event to be rescheduled to May 29. Martins said the team had planned to send its trucks to Portland on May 28. With the race pushed back to the 29th, the travel schedule tightened.

It got worse.

After the Xfinity race started, rain came. With the Coca-Cola 600 scheduled for 3 p.m. ET that day – after being delayed by rain from Sunday – the rest of the Xfinity race was pushed back until after the 600. That further tightened the window on Xfinity teams to make it to Portland.

The Xfinity race ended around 11:30 p.m. ET on May 29. Alpha Prime Racing’s haulers left the shop around 6 a.m. ET on May 30.

The two trucks traveled together until issues in St. Louis.

The truck hauling the Nos. 44 and 45 cars had engine issues in St. Louis. The other truck kept going until it had mechanical issues with its hauler in Kansas City. The air bags on the hauler failed.

So, Alpha Prime Racing had a truck that worked in Kansas City with a hauler that didn’t and a truck that didn’t work in St. Louis with a hauler that did.

The truck in Kansas City went back to St. Louis to attach to the hauler and take those cars and equipment to Portland. Martins then had to find something to haul the stranded equipment in Kansas City and a driver. He eventually did. A dually left North Carolina for Kansas City. Once there, what fit in the dually was taken to Portland and what didn’t, including Karam’s Sonoma car stayed behind.

Yet, more trouble was headed for Martins and his team.

The truck that had gone back from Kansas City to St. Louis to take hauler that worked then broke down about 200 miles from Portland.

“I laugh knowing that we’re on the other side of it,” Martins said Friday of all the issues his team had transporting cars and equipment across the country.

“We’ve started to make plans and corrections for it not happening again,” he said.

That hauler that was left in Kansas City? It was repaired and transported to Sonoma, arriving earlier this week.

“Our guys are troopers,” Martins said. “Both of our (truck) drivers were just awesome about the whole thing. … They went through hell week as far as driving somewhere, fly back and pick something up, drive again and now are going to have to do the same thing getting back.”

When the garage opened Friday at Sonoma, Alpha Prime Racing had all its cars.

“I don’t think we had any major issues here, so that was good,” Martins said.

The focus is back on the track. Karam was 24th on the speed chart in Friday’s practice, leading Alpha Prime Racing’s effort. Dylan Lupton was 32nd. Jeffrey Earnhardt was last among 41 cars.

After Saturday night’s race, the team heads back to North Carolina for a well-earned weekend off.

Kyle Larson leads Xfinity practice at Sonoma


SONOMA, Calif. — Kyle Larson posted the fastest lap in Friday’s Xfinity Series practice at Sonoma Raceway.

This is the first time the series has raced at the 1.99-mile road course in Northern California. Teams got 50 minutes of practice Friday.

Larson led the way with a lap of 90.392 mph. He was more than a second faster than the rest of the field.

MORE: Xfinity practice results Sonoma

Sheldon Creed was second on the speed chart with a lap of 89.066 mph. He was followed by AJ Allmendinger (89.052 mph), Cole Custer (89.020) and Ty Gibbs (88.989).

Larson, Allmendinger and Gibbs are among seven Cup drivers are entered in the Xfinity race. Aric Almirola was seventh on the speed chart with a lap of 88.750 mph. Ross Chastain was ninth with a lap of 88.625 mph. Daniel Suarez was 16th with a lap of 88.300 mph. Ty Dillon was 33rd with a lap of 86.828 mph.

Anthony Alfredo will go to a backup car after a crash in practice. He was uninjured in the incident that damaged the right side of his car.

Qualifying is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET Saturday. The race is scheduled to begin at 8:20 p.m. ET Saturday.

Anthony Alfredo’s car after a crash in Xfinity practice Friday at Sonoma Raceway. He was uninjured. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Saturday Sonoma Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather


The Xfinity Series will compete for the first time at Sonoma Raceway this weekend. This is one of eight road course events on the Xfinity schedule this season.

Seven Cup drivers are scheduled to compete in Saturday’s race, including AJ Allmendinger, Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez, who won last year’s Cup race at this track Allmendinger has won 11 of 25 career road course starts in the Xfinity Series.

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Sonoma Raceway

(All times Eastern)

START: Golden State Warrior Patrick Baldwin Jr. will give the command to start engines at 8:08 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to wave at 8:20 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Qualifying begins at 3 p.m. … Driver introductions begin at 7:35 p.m. … The invocation will be given by Earl Smith, team pastor for the Golden State Warriors and San Francisco 49ers, at 8 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed by 9-year-old Isis Mikayle Castillo at 8:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 79 laps (156.95 miles) on the 1.99-mile road course.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 20. Stage 2 ends at Lap 45.

STARTING LINEUP: Qualifying begins at 3 p.m. Saturday

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 8 p.m. ... Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. … Performance Racing Network coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. and can be heard on goprn.com. … SiriusXN NASCAR Radio will carry the PRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Mostly cloudy with a high of 72 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: This is the first time the Xfinity Series has raced at Sonoma.


NASCAR Friday schedule at Sonoma Raceway


The Xfinity Series makes its first appearance Friday at Sonoma Raceway.

Xfinity teams, coming off last weekend’s race at Portland International Raceway, get 50 minutes of practice Friday because Sonoma is a new venue for the series.

Seven Cup drivers, including Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez, are among those entered in the Xfinity race. Suarez won the Cup race at Sonoma last year.

Xfinity teams will qualify and race Saturday at the 1.99-mile road course.

Sonoma Raceway


Friday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 69 degrees.

Friday, June 9

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — ARCA Menards Series West
  • 1 – 10 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 2 – 3 p.m. — ARCA West practice
  • 3:10 – 3:30 p.m. — ARCA West qualifying
  • 4:05 – 4:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 p.m. — ARCA West race (64 laps, 127.36 miles; live on FloRacing, will air on CNBC at 11:30 a.m. ET on June 18)