In playoff round that’s subjectively wild, Las Vegas provides its own “crazy”


What matters in this playoff round and how will Las Vegas Motor Speedway stand out among a trio of “wild card” races? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping tonight’s South Point 400 (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and the two weekends that follow.

Likelihood of success in the Round of 12 different for each organization

Following a one-note first round that catered exclusively to those best suited for 750-horsepower tracks, the second round requires more competitive range.

Tonight’s race in Las Vegas, a 550-horsepower track, is the first across an eclectic trio of venues. Talladega (a drafting track) and Charlotte’s Roval (a road course) complement the 1.5-mile Las Vegas in what’s perceived as a wild card round, though that’s a subjective description. In fact, one organization is primed for a superb three-week stretch.

Per its average median lap rankings, Hendrick Motorsports produced the fastest cars this season on 550-horsepower tracks (on behalf of Kyle Larson and the second fastest for William Byron), on drafting tracks (Alex Bowman) and road courses (Chase Elliott, with Larson ranked second). And while speed doesn’t guarantee wins or points, it does provide a cushion over other organizations. The gap, depending on the competitor, is sizable.

Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing’s last man standing in championship contention, has turned in a winless season to date, albeit a productive one — he ranks third in Production in Equal Equipment Rating, a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in an attempt to isolate his contribution. But his team’s speed pales in comparison to the Hendrick cars, ranked 11th on 550-horsepower tracks, 14th on drafting tracks and 19th on road courses.

This round has the potential to reveal all of the team’s shortfalls, making an exit likely, barring an improvement that’d be difficult to manufacture in a year containing a freeze on parts development.

Team Penske, to a lesser degree, is smarting from the same inspection template change that affected the Fords of SHR. Because its three primary teams have taken varied approaches this season — and its drivers have three distinct styles — the spectrum of possible outcomes is wide for Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

Blaney (ranked fifth in average median lap time) and Keselowski (ranked seventh) fare better on 550-horsepower tracks than Logano (ranked 13th), but Logano’s speed, second fastest on drafting tracks and sixth fastest on road courses, provides a bigger safety net. It also relies on strong performances at relatively unpredictable Talladega and the Roval, around which Hendrick’s Elliott has built a seemingly impenetrable firewall.

Logano also ranks as the second-least efficient passer in the Cup Series this season on 550-horsepower tracks, producing a pass differential 73 positions worse than his statistical expectation.

Joe Gibbs Racing, while pulling the closest to Hendrick in terms of an organization well rounded across all track types, lacks the unified approach of its primary title challenger. All five of the combined wins for Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. took place on 750-horsepower tracks; both of Kyle Busch’s victories, at Kansas and Pocono, utilized the 550-horsepower rules package.

The split in focus certainly makes all four JGR entries, Christopher Bell included, viable in this round. But viability comes in different forms. Today’s race in Las Vegas might not be as outwardly winnable for Hamlin (ranked fourth in 550-horsepower median lap average) or Truex (ranked ninth) but Busch (ranked third) is better suited in what he views as a must-perform scenario in advance of a Talladega race he doesn’t completely trust as a point-padding opportunity.

“I think everybody goes into Vegas putting the amount of pressure on themselves to make sure they do run good at that event because they know what those next two races have in store for them,” he said.

“In a perfect world, if you told me I could go to Talladega right now and come out of there with a 12th-place finish, I would take it and not even go. I think we can go to Vegas and finish top five. I think we can go to the Roval and probably finish fourth to seventh there. If we can get a 12th out of Talladega, I think all of that right there will make it through this round.”

Hamlin’s performance this season on 550-horsepower tracks and road courses has been good enough for the purposes of acquiring points but Talladega — where he won last year’s playoff race — is a track he’ll eye for a potential win. Truex, meanwhile, was never passed on the track under green — securing an adjusted pass efficiency of 100% — in last season’s race on the Roval. Bell’s continued road racing education could also manifest in tangible results in the cutoff race.

Restart dynamic makes Las Vegas a wild card on par with Talladega and the Roval

For a track that’s commonly lumped in with other 1.5-mile facilities, Las Vegas’ races offer a little of everything. This includes a restart dynamic so volatile that drivers believe this is a wild card race within the round, potentially more so than Charlotte’s Roval.

“There’s going to be four-wide restarts,” Logano said. “You see plenty of times in those four-wide moments, all it takes is a car to touch (another), knock a fender in, cut a tire. It can happen. It has happened there. Will happen again.

“This 550 package at racetracks like a Vegas and a Kansas is not much more tame than it is at a superspeedway. We all know what Talladega is. The Roval is a road course and we know what to expect there … I don’t feel like, at this point, it’s as wild and crazy as it used to be.”

Busch agrees with Logano’s assessment.

“You can look at late-race restarts and being three-wide, four-wide, whatever, at Vegas being kind of crazy, guys running into each other and causing flat left rear tires,” Busch said. “We’ve seen that over the last couple of years.”

The dynamic is an interesting one, to be sure. At first glance, it has an imbalance across its restarting grooves, much like most other racetracks. The outside groove is generally its preferred, its occupants retaining 67.6% of its positions within the top 14 over the last five races. The inside groove, meanwhile, retained position just 38.6% of the time.

But the individual gains and losses are massive, a direct result of the aggressive pursuits detailed by Logano and Busch. Leads have been secured by each of the first five restarting slots across the five races utilizing the 550-horsepower package. Positional drops of 10 positions or greater — typically an aberration when evaluating restart performance — is something of a norm. There were 11 such drops within the aforementioned window. Double-digit positional losses from front-running spots are expectations, not outliers.

This degree of volatility can alter a race, dooming those who restart poorly or magnifying the ability of good restarters. In the spring race, Keselowski gained 17 positions from restarts within the top 14, one of the three biggest single-race restarting nets of the last five years. That output helped lead to a second-place finish, his best result this season on a non-drafting oval.

NASCAR penalizes Erik Jones, Legacy MC for L1 violation


NASCAR has docked Erik Jones and Legacy Motor Club 60 points and five playoff points each, suspended crew chief Dave Elenz two races and fined him $75,000 for the L1 violation discovered this week at the R&D Center. The team was found to have modified the greenhouse.

The penalty drops Jones from 26th to 30th in the standings heading into Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway.

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“We have been diligently working with NASCAR regarding the penalty and are working internally to determine the course of action in response,” said Joey Cohen, vice president, race operations for Legacy MC, in a statement. “We will announce that decision within the timeframe determined by the NASCAR Rule Book.”

Cohen will serve as interim crew chief during Elenz’s suspension.

Jones’ car was among those brought to NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, after last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway.

NASCAR cited the team for violating:

Section 14.1.C: Vehicles must comply with Section 14 Vehicle and Driver Safety Specifications of the NASCAR Rule Book at all times during an Event. Failure to comply will be subject to Penalty pursuant to Section 10 Violations and Disciplinary Action.

Section 14.1.D: Except in cases explicitly permitted in the NASCAR Rules, installation of additional components, repairs, deletions, and/or modifications to Next Gen Single Source Vendor-supplied parts and/or assemblies will not be permitted.

Section 14.1.2.B: All parts and assemblies must comply with the NASCAR Engineering Change Log.

NASCAR also announced penalties Wednesday in the Craftsman Truck Series.

Crew chief Andrew Abbott has been fined $5,000, Young’s Motorsports has been penalized 25 points and Chris Hacker has been docked 25 points for a violation with the team’s window net.

Crew chief Charles Denike has been fined $2,500 for a lug nut not properly installed on Christian Eckes‘ truck for TRICON Garage.

Kamui Kobayashi to make NASCAR debut with 23XI Racing at Indy


LE MANS, France (AP) — Left out of the NASCAR celebration at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Toyota used Wednesday at the track to showcase its own stock car program and the upcoming Cup Series debut for one of the top racers in the world.

Kamui Kobayashi will make his NASCAR debut on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with Toyota in August driving for 23XI Racing, the team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan.

The announcement made Wednesday had several top NASCAR executives in attendance – including chairman Jim France – as Toyota found Le Mans to be the perfect backdrop to spotlight the one-race deal.

Toyota Gazoo, after all, has won Le Mans the last five consecutive years and Kobayashi, part of the 2021 winning effort, is team principal of the two-car organization that will try to make it six straight wins in the most prestigious endurance event in the world.

Toyota had initially felt jilted when NASCAR blindsided the industry last year by announcing it would bring its new Next Gen car to centenary Le Mans in a specialized category that showcases innovation, but the project was with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports. Toyota was the first rival NASCAR manufacturer to complain, and NASCAR has since tried to include all its partners in this weekend’s celebration and France signed off on holding the Kobayashi announcement at Le Mans.

It allowed Toyota to display the Camry it races in NASCAR; Kobayashi will drive the No. 67 in the Aug. 13 race. This will be the second race for the No. 67 car for 23XI Racing. Travis Pastrana finished 11th in the car at this year’s Daytona 500.

“We’ve been working on this assignment actually for a couple of years and Kamui has become a friend and we understood it was his dream one day to race in NASCAR,” said David Wilson, president of TRD, U.S.A. “With this great new Next Gen Toyota Camry TRD, the stars and planets started to align themselves and the next question became: Where should we announce this?

“It dawned on me with Kamui’s record of success, and being the team principal, to do it on this global stage at the biggest sports car race in the world.”

Kobayashi will be only the second Japanese driver to race in NASCAR’s top Cup Series and only the fifth to race in one of NASCAR’s top three national series. Kobayashi will be the first driver from Japan to race in the Cup Series in a Toyota, which entered NASCAR’s top series in 2007.

“It’s my dream, actually,” Kobayashi told The Associated Press. “It’s such a big sport in the United States and racing in Europe, I never had the chance or opportunity to race NASCAR. I think the opportunity will be challenging for myself because it is such a different category.

“But if I have success, I think it will make more opportunities for Japanese drivers. Toyota has been in NASCAR a long time, but there has never been any Japanese drivers for Toyota. That’s also why I say I appreciate this opportunity for myself.”

Kobayashi won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Toyota in 2021 and hasn’t finished lower than third since 2018. He has six podium finishes in eight appearances in the iconic endurance race.

Toyota trails only Bentley, Jaguar, Ferrari, Audi and Porsche for most wins at Le Mans. Porsche holds the record with 19 victories.

Kobayashi in 2021, after winning Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship title driving for Toyota Gazoo, was named team principal.

Kobayashi started his racing career karting in Japan but was discovered by Toyota while racing in Europe. He was named one of Toyota’s reserve Formula One drivers and made his debut during the 2009 season at the Brazilian Grand Prix. He raced in F1 through 2014 with one podium finish in 75 career starts.

Following his F1 career, Kobayashi returned to Japan and switched to the Super Formula Series, a class he still actively competes in. He’s since won the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice and was the anchor on an IMSA endurance sports car team in the United States for two seasons that was formed by seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Kobayashi loves racing in the United States, but IMSA’s adoption of new regulations to make its top class eligible to compete at Le Mans created a conflict of interest between Kobayashi’s Toyota responsibilities and continuing to race in IMSA, where Toyota is not represented in the top class. Toyota does field a Lexus in a lower IMSA division and Kobayashi raced for Vasser Sullivan Racing last June in Canada to get a feel for the GT car.

Many consider NASCAR’s Next Gen car to be very similar to the GT Lexus sports car that Kobayashi drove in IMSA last year, and that’s his closest experience to driving a stock car. He’ll be permitted to test with 23XI at a small track in Virginia ahead of the race at Indianapolis, and expects some time on the simulator.

Either way, he isn’t worried about seat time.

“I think I’m a guy who doesn’t need much practice, to be honest,” the 36-year-old Kobayashi told the AP. “I think once we jump in the car, we will be OK in a couple of laps. So I’m not really concerned about form.”

Drivers to watch at Sonoma Raceway


This weekend begins a key period for Cup drivers. Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway begins a stretch of four road course events in the next 10 races. The race to make the playoffs and to score playoff points is intensifying.


Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 10th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Circuit of the Americas)
  • Past at Sonoma: Does not have a top 15 in two previous starts

Reddick has won three of the last five Cup races on road courses, but Sonoma has been his kryptonite. He has yet to lead a lap there. Reddick’s three road course wins have been at Road America, Indianapolis and COTA.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best finish this season: 2nd (Fontana)
  • Past at Sonoma: Four top 10s, including a runner-up, in six starts

Elliott returns to the series after sitting out last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway due to suspension. He’s in a must-win situation to make the playoffs. Known for his prowess on road courses, Elliott’s last win at such a track came in 2021 at Road America. In the nine races at road courses since that win, Elliott has two runner-up finishes and six top 10s.

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 7th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Fontana, Talladega I, WWT Raceway)
  • Past at Sonoma: Had six straight finishes of seventh or better before placing 30th last year

Busch is tied with William Byron for the most wins this season with three. Busch has placed in the top three in the last two road course races. He has led in five of the last seven Sonoma Cup races. He is a two-time Sonoma winner, taking the checkered flag in 2008 and ’15.


Denny Hamlin 

  • Points position: 8th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Kansas I)
  • Past at Sonoma: Five consecutive top 10s until finishing 31st last year

Hamlin has not had a top-10 finish at a road course in the Next Gen car. He has an 18.4 average finish at road courses since last season. His best finish at a road course in that time is 13th at the Charlotte Roval.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best finish this season: 2nd (Dover)
  • Past at Sonoma: Two straight top-10 finishes

Chastain lost the points lead last weekend after his third consecutive finish outside the top 20. His fourth-place finish at Circuit of the Americas this season broke a streak of three consecutive finishes outside the top 20 at road courses.

Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best finish this season: 3rd (Talladega I)
  • Past at Sonoma: His runner-up finish last year was his first top 10 there in six starts

Until last year, Sonoma had not been kind to Buescher. He enters this weekend have scored six consecutive top 10s at road courses.

NASCAR Power Rankings: William Byron, Kyle Busch rank 1-2


Kyle Busch moved closer to the top spot after his win Sunday at WWT Raceway, but William Byron keeps hold of No. 1 after another top-10 run.

The series heads to Sonoma Raceway this weekend, the second race of the season on a road course.


(Previous ranking in parenthesis)

1. William Byron (1) — He goes into Sonoma with six consecutive top-10 finishes after his eighth-place result at WWT Raceway. Byron has led a series-high 717 laps this season.

2. Kyle Busch (4) — Recorded his third win of the season Sunday. He is tied with Byron for most wins this year. Busch scored 59 of a maximum 60 points and won his first stage of the year Sunday. He has 16 playoff points. Only Byron has more with 17 this season.

3. Kyle Larson (3) — His fourth-place finish continued his up-and-down season. In the last nine races, Larson has two wins, four top fives, a 20th-place result and four finishes of 30th or worse. He has led 588 laps this season, which ranks second this year to Byron.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (2) — His fifth-place finish is his sixth top 10 in the last eight races. He ranks third in laps led this year with 383.

5. Denny Hamlin (7) — Runner-up result at WWT Raceway is his fourth top 10 in the last seven races.

6. Ryan Blaney (10) — Followed Coca-Cola 600 win with a sixth-place run at WWT Raceway. He had an average running position of 2.6 on Sunday, second only to winner Kyle Busch’s average running position of 1.9.

7. Joey Logano (9) — Third-place finish is his second top 10 in the last four races.

8. Kevin Harvick (NR) — His 10th-place finish is his fourth consecutive finish of 11th or better.

9. Ross Chastain (6) — Lost the points lead after placing 22nd, his third consecutive finish outside the top 20.

10. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (NR) — Headed for his eighth top 15 in a row until he was collected in a crash after the contact between Austin Cindric and Austin Dillon late in Sunday’s race.

Dropped out: Chase Elliott (5th), Tyler Reddick (8th)