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


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.

Dr. Diandra: How level is the playing field after 50 Next Gen races?


Last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 marks 50 Next Gen races. The 2022 season produced 19 different winners, including a few first-career wins. Let’s see what the data say about how level the playing field is now.

I’m comparing the first 50 Next Gen races (the 2022 season plus the first 14 races of 2023) to the 2020 season and the first 14 races of 2021. I selected those two sets of races to produce roughly the same types of tracks. I focus on top-10 finishes as a metric for performance. Below, I show the top-10 finishes for the 13 drivers who ran for the same team over the periods in question.

A table comparing top-10 rates for drivers in the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars, limited to drivers who ran for the same team the entire time.

Because some drivers missed races, I compare top-10 rates: the number of top-10 finishes divided by the number of races run. The graph below shows changes in top-10 rates for the drivers who fared the worst with the Next Gen car.

A graph showing drivers who have done better in the next-gen car than the Gen-6 car.

Six drivers had double-digit losses in their top-10 rates. Kevin Harvick had the largest drop, with 74% top-10 finishes in the Gen-6 sample but only 46% top-10 finishes in the first 50 Next Gen races.

Kyle Larson didn’t qualify for the graph because he ran only four races in 2020. I thought it notable, however, that despite moving from the now-defunct Chip Ganassi NASCAR team to Hendrick Motorsports, Larson’s top-10 rate fell from 66.7% to 48.0%.

The next graph shows the corresponding data for drivers who improved their finishes in the Next Gen car. This graph again includes only drivers who stayed with the same team.

A graph showing the drivers who have fewer top-10 finishes in the Next Gen car than the Gen-6 car

Alex Bowman had a marginal gain, but he missed six races this year. Therefore, his percent change value is less robust than other drivers’ numbers.

Expanding the field

I added drivers who changed teams to the dataset and highlighted them in gray.

A table comparing top-10 rates for drivers in the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars

A couple notes on the new additions:

  • Brad Keselowski had the largest loss in top-10 rate of any driver, but that may be more attributable to his move from Team Penske to RFK Motorsports rather than to the Next Gen car.
  • Christopher Bell moved from Leavine Family Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2021. His improvement is likely overestimated due to equipment quality differences.
  • Erik Jones stayed even, but that’s after moving from JGR (13 top-10 finishes in 2020) to Richard Petty Motorsports (six top 10s in 2021.) I view that change as a net positive.

At the end of last season, I presented the tentative hypothesis that older drivers had a harder time adapting to the Next Gen car. Less practice time mitigated their experience dialing in a car so that it was to their liking given specific track conditions.

But something else leaps out from this analysis.

Is the playing field tilting again?

Michael McDowell is not Harvick-level old, but he will turn 39 this year. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 35. Both have improved with the Next Gen Car. Chase Elliott (27 years old) and William Byron (25) aren’t old, either, but their top-10 rates have gone down.

Drivers running for the best-funded teams earned fewer top-10 finishes while drivers from less-funded teams (mostly) gained those finishes.

Trackhouse Racing and 23XI — two of the newest teams — account for much of the gains in top-10 finishes. Ross Chastain isn’t listed in the table because he didn’t have full-time Cup Series rides in 2020 or 2021. His 9.1% top-10 rate in that period is with lower-level equipment. He earned 27 top-10 finishes in the first 50 races (54%) with the Next Gen car.

This analysis suggests that age isn’t the only relevant variable. One interpretation of the data thus far is that the Next Gen (and its associated rules changes) eliminated the advantage well-funded teams built up over years of racing the Gen-5 and Gen-6 cars.

The question now is whether that leveling effect is wearing off. Even though parts are the same, more money means being able to hire the best people and buying more expensive computers for engineering simulations.

Compare the first 14 races of 2022 to the first 14 of 2023.

  • Last year at this time, 23XI and Trackhouse Racing had each won two races. This year, they combine for one win.
  • It took Byron eight races to win his second race of the year in 2022. This year, he won the third and fourth races of the year. Plus, he’s already won his third race this year.
  • Aside from Stenhouse’s Daytona 500 win, this year’s surprise winners — Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney — are both from major teams.

We’re only 14 races into the 2023 season. There’s not enough data to determine the relative importance of age versus building a notebook for predicting success in the Next Gen car.

But this is perhaps the most important question. The Next Gen car leveled the playing field last year.

Will it stay level?

NASCAR weekend schedule at World Wide Technology Raceway, Portland


NASCAR’s top three series are racing this weekend in two different locations. Cup and Craftsman Truck teams will compete at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, and the Xfinity Series will compete at Portland International Raceway.

World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (Cup and Trucks)

Weekend weather

Friday: Partly cloudy with a high of 87 degrees during Truck qualifying.

Saturday: Sunny. Temperatures will be around 80 degrees for the start of Cup practice and climb to 88 degrees by the end of Cup qualifying. Forecast calls for sunny skies and a high of 93 degrees around the start of the Truck race.

Sunday: Mostly sunny with a high of 92 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the Cup race.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 1 – 8 p.m. Craftsman Truck Series
  • 4 – 9 p.m. Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 6:30 p.m. — Truck practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. — Truck qualifying (FS1)

Saturday, June 3

Garage open

  • 8 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.  — Cup Series
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series

Track activity

  • 10 – 10:45 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 10:45 a.m. – 12 p.m. — Cup qualifying  (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 1:30 p.m. — Truck race (160 laps, 200 miles; FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, June 4

Garage open

  • 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (240 laps, 300 miles; FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)


Portland International Raceway (Xfinity Series)

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly sunny with a high of 77 degrees.

Saturday: Mostly sunny with a high of 73 degrees and no chance of rain around the start of the Xfinity race.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 6-11 p.m. Xfinity Series

Saturday, June 3

Garage open

  • 10 a.m.  — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 11:30 a.m. – 12 p.m. — Xfinity practice (No TV)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 4:30 p.m. — Xfinity race (75 laps, 147.75 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR Cup playoff standings after Coca-Cola 600


The severe penalty to Chase Briscoe and his Stewart-Haas Racing team Wednesday for a counterfeit part dropped Briscoe from 17th to 31st in the season standings. Briscoe now must win a race to have a chance at the playoffs.

The penalty came a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for his retaliation in wrecking Denny Hamlin in Monday’s Coca-Cola 600. Elliott is 28th in the points. The 2020 Cup champion also needs to win to have a chance to make the playoffs.

Ten drivers have won races, including Coca-Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney. That leaves six playoff spots to be determined by points at this time. With 12 races left in the regular season, including unpredictable superspeedway races at Atlanta (July 9) and Daytona (Aug. 26), the playoff standings will change during the summer.

Among those without a win this season are points leader Ross Chastain and former champions Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Elliott.

Here’s a look at the Cup playoff standings heading into Sunday’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois. Drivers in yellow have won a race and are in a playoff position. Those below the red line after 16th place are outside a playoff spot in the graphic below.

NASCAR issues major penalties to Chase Briscoe team for Charlotte infraction


NASCAR fined crew chief John Klausmeier $250,000 and suspended him six races, along with penalizing Chase Briscoe and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team 120 points and 25 playoff points each for a counterfeit part on the car.

The issue was a counterfeit engine NACA duct, said Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition. That is a single-source part.

MORE: Updated Cup playoff standings

The team stated that it accepts the L3 penalty.

“We had a quality control lapse and a part that never should’ve been on a car going to the racetrack ended up on the No. 14 car at Charlotte,” said Greg Zipadelli in a statement from the team. “We accept NASCAR’s decision and will not appeal.”

Asked how then piece could have aided performance, Sawyer said Wednesday: “Knowing the race team mentality, they don’t do things that would not be a benefit to them in some way, shape or form from a performance advantage.”

The penalty drops Briscoe from 17th in the season standings to 31st in the standings. Briscoe goes from having 292 points to having 172 points. He’ll have to win to make the playoffs. Briscoe has no playoff points at this time, so the penalty puts him at -25 playoff points should he make it.

Briscoe’s car was one of two taken to the R&D Center after Monday’s Coca-Cola 600 for additional tear down by series officials.

The penalty comes a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in last weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.