NASCAR Cup playoffs: Round of 12 outlook

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This year’s NASCAR Cup Series playoffs have reached the Round of 12.

Three different track types make up the schedule: Sunday’s opener at 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the middle race at 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway, and the eliminator at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, where the playoff field will be cut from 12 drivers to eight.

Kyle Larson, bolstered by 59 playoff points, will start the Round of 12 atop the leaderboard and with a healthy cushion above the cutline.

Meanwhile, three of the four drivers below the cutline to start the Round of 12 are past Cup champions: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick.

Let’s size up the remaining contenders to see where they could possibly win in this round and where they’ll have to step it up.

Kyle Larson (3,059 points – 46 points above cutline)

With a 1.5-mile track and a road course coming up, Larson appears to have two good shots to enter the Round of 8 with a win.

This season, Larson has earned two wins apiece on 1.5-mile tracks and road courses. One of his 1.5-mile track wins came in March at Las Vegas, where he led 103 laps on the way to his first victory with Hendrick Motorsports.

Larson seeks his first Cup superspeedway win, however. At Talladega specifically, he’s failed to finish in four of the last five races.

This past April, Larson and the No. 5 team were eliminated after just three laps due to an engine failure due to poor oversight. A piece of sheet metal surrounding the radiator was not removed prior to the race, leading the motor to overheat and blow up.

Martin Truex Jr. (3,029 points – 16 points above cutline)

Truex has been respectable on 1.5-mile tracks this season, posting five top-10 finishes in six races. He finished sixth in March at Las Vegas.

He’s also had his moments on road courses this season. Third-place showings at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen are his high-water marks.

But like Larson, Truex is still looking for his first superspeedway victory. He’s 0-for-33 in his Cup career at Talladega. Since the 2016 season, he’s finished no better than 20th there.

Denny Hamlin (3,024 points – 11 points above cutline)

The Round of 12 appears to set up nicely for Hamlin, who’s shown respectability at all three track types this season.

As a decorated superspeedway racer, Talladega may be his best shot to advance via winning. He won there last fall in the playoffs on his way to making the Championship 4.

But he’s also had consistent results on 1.5-milers and road courses. In March at Las Vegas, he led 47 laps and finished fourth, tied for his best result on 1.5-mile tracks this season.

On road courses, Hamlin’s turned in finishes of third (Daytona), eighth (Sonoma), and fifth (Road America and Watkins Glen). In the most recent road race at Indianapolis, he was leading on the final restart before an already penalized Chase Briscoe turned him around.

Ryan Blaney (3,024 points – 11 points above cutline)

Blaney has won on two Round of 12 tracks: Twice at Talladega (Fall 2019, Spring 2020), and in the inaugural Charlotte Roval race in 2018.

That puts emphasis on having a solid opener in Las Vegas. He’s winless there in his Cup career, but has an average finish of 9.2 over 10 Cup starts there.

In the March race at Las Vegas, he finished fifth and scored 46 points, 14 in the stages. A repeat of that effort on Sunday will serve him well.

Blaney’s won on a 1.5-mile track this season, but his March win at Atlanta was on a rough, worn-out surface that’s Vegas’ polar opposite. Or, at least it was.

Kyle Busch (3,022 points – 9 points above cutline)

The two-time Cup champion survived an obstacle-filled opening round. Will the Round of 12 be smoother?

The 1.5-mile tracks have been a sweet spot for Kyle Busch this season. He’s finished inside the top 10 in all six races on that track type and inside the top five in the last five. The latter streak includes a third in March at Las Vegas and a win in May at Kansas.

Kyle Busch has also posted top-10 runs in four of the six road course races this season, putting him in good shape for the Charlotte Roval.

Superspeedways have been troublesome, though. He’s failed to finish in five of the last seven superspeedway races. At Talladega, he’s earned one top-10 result in his last eight races.

Chase Elliott (3,021 points – 8 points above cutline)

Elliott’s best shot at a win in the Round of 12 is clear. The reigning Cup Series champion has won the last two races on the Charlotte Roval. Additionally, both of his victories this season have come on the road courses at Circuit of the Americas and Road America.

Las Vegas has seen Elliott turn in up-and-down results. His 13th-place finish there in March was his best since a fourth-place run in the 2019 playoffs.

Elliott is a past winner at Talladega, and may be close to earning another superspeedway win. He’s had four finishes of eighth or better in his last five Cup superspeedway races, including two second-place finishes. However, the blemish came this past April at Talladega, where he finished 24th.

Alex Bowman (3,015 points – 2 points above cutline)

Keep an eye on Bowman at the Charlotte Roval.

He’s finished no worse than eighth in the three Cup races there. That’s good for an average finish of 4.7, which is tied with Ryan Blaney for second-best among all drivers at the Roval. Only Chase Elliott has a better mark (2.7).

Bowman has earned three top-five finishes on 1.5-mile tracks this season. But Las Vegas isn’t one of his better intermediates. In seven races there with Hendrick Motorsports, he’s only earned an average finish of 13.9 and led just five laps.

Talladega is also a potential weak spot. He’s earned one top-five finish there in 12 Cup starts, finishing second behind Elliott in April 2019.

William Byron (3,014 points – 1 point above cutline)

Byron, who finished eighth in March at Las Vegas, has been steady on 1.5-milers this season. He won in February at Homestead-Miami, and if you throw out his 20th-place finish in July at Atlanta, he’s posted an average finish of sixth on this track type.

Talladega could also be a solid opportunity. He’s finished fourth and second there in his last two tries.

But if his hopes of advancing come down to the Charlotte Roval, things could be dicey. Byron has suffered four finishes of 33rd or worse in this season’s six road course races. However, he’s finished sixth the last two times out on the Charlotte Roval.

Joey Logano (3,013 points – 1 point below cutline)

Logano and Team Penske’s focus on 750-horsepower tracks may have played a role in his mid-pack performance this season on 1.5-mile tracks with the 550-horsepower package. As such, while Logano’s won before at Las Vegas, he wouldn’t seem to be a threat Sunday.

Talladega gives him a better chance, even though he’s crashed out in his last two ‘Dega starts. A three-time winner at NASCAR’s biggest track, Logano can certainly strike here.

But the Charlotte Roval may be his best bet. Logano’s earned three top-five finishes on road courses this season. He also finished runner-up at the Charlotte Roval in last year’s playoffs.

Brad Keselowski (3,008 points – 6 points below cutline)

Keselowski earned his sixth career Talladega victory back in April, and as such, the superspeedway would appear to be his best chance to win in the Round of 12.

Being another Team Penske driver, Keselowski’s also grappled with the 550-horsepower package this season. But he’s had some solid days on 1.5-mile tracks as well. He finished second in March at Las Vegas, where he’s won three times in his career. He also chipped in a third in May at Kansas.

His chances on the Charlotte Roval don’t figure to be as good. Since finishing fifth on the Daytona road course, Keselowski’s finished no better than 13th in his last five road course races.

Christopher Bell (3,005 points – 9 points below cutline)

Bell’s best chance appears to be on the Charlotte Roval.

His first career Cup win in February came on the Daytona road course, another oval-road course hybrid. While Bell’s road course results have been mixed since then, the sprint car ace has earned recognition for quickly adapting to road racing.

Bell’s performance this season on 1.5-mile tracks has been a bit more muted, although he showed speed in finishing seventh in March at Las Vegas.

Talladega is clearly his worst track of the three. His 17th-place finish in April is his best there so far in Cup.

Kevin Harvick (3,002 points – 12 points below cutline)

Sunday’s race at Las Vegas sets up as a big one for Harvick and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team. That’s not just because he’s at the bottom of the reset Round of 12.

In the March race there, Harvick finished 20th as SHR struggled across the board. It was an early sign that 2021 would be a much tougher go than the nine-win campaign he enjoyed in 2020.

But while he’s missed his usual pace on 1.5-mile tracks this season, he’s still managed four top-10 finishes in the six races on this track type.

Harvick has flashed on superspeedways as well, posting fourth-place finishes in the Daytona 500 and the April race at Talladega.

Road courses have been hit-and-miss. His season-best finish on this track type came in February at Daytona, where he placed sixth. He’s also had three finishes of 22nd or worse.

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

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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.