Analysis: With speed surge, Chip Ganassi Racing has last chance at best impression

0 Comments

Eight weekends remain in the lifespan of Chip Ganassi Racing’s NASCAR program. Sold to Trackhouse Racing, at least 55 employees have been earmarked for layoffs, making the organization’s run through the playoffs a bitter pill to swallow.

But some unexpected sweetener — a surge in raw speed for both the cars of Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain — has made the bitterness more palatable.

Busch, through two playoff races with varying results, has displayed top-four speed, while Chastain has tallied a pair of top-seven finishes. In a 2021 season that contains unique restrictions on parts development, wind tunnel testing and simulation, CGR’s improvement is a rarity, standing out against those standing pat:

The program’s collective low point, in regards to its rolling median lap rank, was after the first Darlington race on May 9, also a time when neither Busch (ranked 20th) nor Chastain (ranked 22nd) were in serious playoff contention based on points. This was a rough patch that hit rock bottom at the end of the month when both Ganassi cars suffered oil pump failures in the Coca-Cola 600.

Given CGR’s apparent lack of speed on tracks with playoff representation, it seemed if one of them did manage to qualify for the playoffs, it’d lead to an early exit. There was a bit of speed, predominately on the 550-horsepower tracks. Busch turned the fastest median lap at Homestead and the second fastest in the spring race at Atlanta. His win — which locked him into a playoff spot — took place in the second Atlanta visit, in which his car registered as the fastest of the race.

But both Ganassi teams were comparatively poor on the shorter 750-horsepower ovals. Before the start of the playoffs, Busch ranked 17th in average median lap time, while Chastain ranked 18th. A first round consisting of Darlington, Richmond and Bristol shouldn’t have favored either of them, but yearlong strides included at least two of those venues, where both drivers showcased competitive and perhaps winning speed but failed to secure results in line with their cars’ capabilities.

“I can go fast, I just can’t quite race with them,” Chastain told NBC Sports in his post-race interview after a third-place Darlington finish. “It starts with my restarts. I’ve got some work to do there, so I gave up the outside to be safe and then Kyle (Larson) rolls by me.”

Chastain correctly pointed out his most overwhelming foible — his overall position retention rate on restarts is 44%, a frequency ranked 23rd among full-time Cup drivers — and even alluded to the idea of his team needing “a better driver,” but it was a self-evaluation that may have been too harsh, even in the moment.

Track position has provided so much of a challenge the last few weeks that Larson, one of the sport’s most precise passers, threw out a desperation single-corner bomb on the final lap at Darlington, a knowingly flimsy attempt that he smirked about afterwards. Richmond, too, forced good teams into areas of strategic discomfort, with some long-pitting on a track with high tire wear in hopes they’d have rubber left to burn in the closing laps. There, Chastain finished 10th in a car that turned the seventh-fastest median lap.

Chastain isn’t in the playoffs, but has become a deserving storyline. He’s a threat to play spoiler, stealing wins that’d keep title-eligible teams from automatic advancement.

Busch, meanwhile, is not only in the playoffs, but also enters this weekend’s elimination race at Bristol with a spring in his step. He doesn’t lack for firepower — his average median lap rank through the playoffs’ two races is first, while his average best lap rank is tied for fourth. He’s hovering near the cutline after a blown tire ended his race prematurely last Saturday, a cruel conclusion to a contest in which he never dipped below third in the running order.

And whereas the six-time Bristol winner might not have had winning speed on 750-horsepower tracks earlier this year, he appears well suited right now to right the wrongs of Richmond. Last season, Bristol’s two races saw 22 clean restarts, falling into the wheelhouse of one of the greatest short-run drivers in the double-file restarting era.

A win is more realistic than one might imagine, but at the very least, a good outing neatly fits within what Busch has done historically well and what CGR is getting right at the current moment. It’s a tide of positivity Busch himself helped inspire.

The thing of the team being sold and different members being caught off guard, all of that kind of calmed down when we won Atlanta,” Busch told NBC Sports. “That was the perfect antidote. When I went into the race shop the next Tuesday, Chip Ganassi flew in from Pittsburgh and we gave the best motivational speech that we could from the ownership side and then from the driver side.

“My focus was to tell everybody we’ve got these 10 weeks in the playoffs that I need everybody to focus on the hood ornament of their car — just stay focused on what’s right in front of you and then things will unfold for the future.”

Since Chip Ganassi became the company’s majority owner in 2001, it has won 20 times in over 20 years of Cup competition. The distribution of those wins is top-heavy — 11 of them took place in 2002, 2010 and 2017. In each ensuing season — 2003, 2011 and 2018 — the company went winless. Dating back to the inception of the playoff format in 2014, six different organizations have qualified for the Championship 4; CGR isn’t one of them. Its most indelible memory might be Juan Pablo Montoya’s crash into a jet dryer during the 2012 Daytona 500.

But there’s one more chance for leaving a best impression, and it appears both of Ganassi’s teams are crescendoing towards some grand culmination, a final flurry of successes. Perhaps that’s the silver lining in not having to fret about a Next Gen car or program-building beyond what’s important in this very moment.

There is no tomorrow for those employed by Ganassi, only the challenge of here and now. For that, for the first time all season, both teams appear up to the task.

Saturday NASCAR schedule at Talladega Superspeedway

0 Comments

Both the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series will race Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Cup cars will start the day’s action by qualifying for Sunday’s playoff race, followed by the Truck playoff race and then the Xfinity playoff race.

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Saturday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday, Oct. 1

(All times Eastern)

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)

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

0 Comments

TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

0 Comments

TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

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

0 Comments

The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.