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

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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.

Rodney Childers fined $100,000, suspended for four races

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NASCAR has suspended Rodney Childers, Kevin Harvick‘s crew chief, for four races and fined him $100,000 for what the sanctioning body called modification of a part supplied by a vendor.

Harvick, who is out of the Cup Series playoffs, and the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 team were docked 100 points.

Harvick’s car and that of Martin Truex Jr. were taken to NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C. after last Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway. There were no penalties assessed to the Truex team.

Harvick has been particularly critical of the Next Gen car in recent months, once referring to the “crappy-ass parts” provided by suppliers.

Harvick’s car erupted in flames during the Southern 500 Sept. 4 at Darlington Raceway. After he climbed from the smoking car, Harvick blamed the fire on “just crappy parts on the race car like we’ve seen so many times. They haven’t fixed anything. It’s kind of like the safety stuff. We just let it keep going and keep going.

“The car started burning and as it burned the flames started coming through the dash. I ran a couple laps and then as the flame got bigger it started burning stuff up and I think right there you see all the brake fluid that was probably coming out the brakes and part of the brake line, but the fire was coming through the dash.

“What a disaster for no reason. We didn’t touch the wall. We didn’t touch a car, and here we are in the pits with a burned-up car, and we can’t finish the race during the playoffs because of crappy-ass parts.”

MORE: AJ Allmendinger to return to Cup Series in 2023

Unless the team appeals, Childers would miss races at Charlotte, Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville and would return for the season finale at Phoenix.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps told the Associated Press that officials have not targeted Harvick. “I would say that’s ridiculous,” he said. “No one has a vendetta against Kevin Harvick or Rodney or anyone at Stewart-Haas Racing.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Harvick tweeted, “Seems strange…” A Childers tweet called the penalty “Shocker…..”.

NASCAR also announced Wednesday it has suspended Young’s Motorsports crew chief Andrew Abbott indefinitely for a behavioral violation during pre-race inspection. He must undergo anger-management training to be reinstated. The team races in the Camping World Truck Series.

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup Series race at Charlotte Roval

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The lineup for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs Round of 8 will be decided in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

Entering the race, the final event in the Round of 12, Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman are below the cutline. Bowman will miss the race — and thus the cutoff — as he continues to battle concussion-like symptoms. Noah Gragson is scheduled to drive the No. 48 Chevrolet Sunday.

Cindric is tied with Chase Briscoe for the eighth playoff spot, but Briscoe would claim it on the tiebreaker. Byron is 11 points back, and Bell is 33. Hendrick Motorsports has appealed the penalty to Byron that dropped him below the cutline. That appeal is scheduled to be heard Thursday.

MORE: Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

Any playoff driver who wins Sunday’s race and isn’t already qualified — Chase Elliott qualified for the Round of 8 by winning last week at Talladega Superspeedway — automatically advances to the Round of 8.

Drivers to watch Sunday at the Roval (2 p.m., ET, NBC), the final road-course race of the season:

FRONTRUNNERS

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 1st
  • Last three races: Won at Talladega, 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2019 and 2020

Elliott is the clear favorite to win a second championship. He won Sunday at Talladega to advance to the Round of 8 and can relax Sunday at Charlotte having punched his ticket. Relaxing isn’t likely, however, as Elliott will be among the favorites to win.

Ryan Blaney

  • Points position: 2nd
  • Last three races: 2nd at Talladega, 4th at Texas, 30th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2018.

Blaney continues along a path that could result in him winning the Cup championship without winning a race. He came within an eyelash of winning Sunday at Talladega but fell victim to Chase Elliott’s last-lap charge. He should be a threat Sunday at the Roval, where he has four straight top 10s.

Kyle Larson

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 18th at Talladega, 9th at Texas, 5th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2021

Larson’s last win — and his last top-four finish — came at Watkins Glen seven races ago. He is 18 points over the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Austin Cindric

  • Points position: 9th
  • Last three races: 9th at Talladega, 15th at Texas, 20th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Sunday will mark his first Cup race. Has three top threes in four Xfinity starts.

Cindric hasn’t won since the season-opening Daytona 500 and is one of five drivers still in the playoffs who own only one victory this year. His ninth-place run at Talladega ended a streak of four straight finishes of 12th or worse.

MORE: NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

Daniel Suarez

  • Points position: 7th
  • Last three races: 8th at Talladega, 12th at Texas, 19th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Best finish in four starts is 13th

Suarez is 12 points above the cutline entering Sunday’s race. He has never led a lap at the Roval and has never finished in the top 10.

Chase Briscoe

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 10th at Talladega, 5th at Texas, 14th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Finished 22nd last year in his only Cup start

Briscoe is teetering on top of the cutline in search of a spot in the Round of 8. He hasn’t won since the fourth race of the year at Phoenix and had a poor performance at the Roval last year.

 

 

AJ Allmendinger to return to NASCAR Cup Series in 2023

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AJ Allmendinger is getting another shot at success in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Kaulig Racing announced Wednesday that Allmendinger, currently chasing the Xfinity Series championship, will drive full-time in Kaulig entries in the Cup Series next season.

Allmendinger raced in Cup from 2007 to 2018 but won only one time — at Watkins Glen International — across those years. He moved to the Xfinity Series part-time with Kaulig in 2019, winning on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. He won twice in 2020 and five times in 2021 and is a favorite to win the Xfinity championship this year. He has won four Xfinity races this season, including last Sunday at Talladega.

MORE: Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

Allmendinger, 40, will drive Kaulig’s No. 16 car in Cup next year. Justin Haley will drive the team’s No. 31.

Chandler Smith will replace Allmendinger in the Xfinity Series next year.

“It’s crazy how the last five years of my life have gone,” Allmendinger said. “More than anything, I love this organization. I know the fans get tired of me talking about all the men and women of Kaulig Racing. This is not a race team. This is a huge family.

“There will be tough times and growing pains, for sure. But I love what they’re about, and they believe in me. I’ll be OK whether it’s good or bad.”

MORE: Chase Elliott atop NASCAR Power Rankings

Team owner Matt Kaulig said Allmendinger is “one of the best in the world at every type of track. He’s done so much for Kaulig Racing and our program. He’s a gigantic part of what we’re building.”

Team officials said Allmendinger has a multi-year contract.

 

 

 

 

 

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Charlotte Roval

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Sunday provides a final chance for drivers to advance to the Round of 8 and keep their Cup championship hopes alive.

Talladega winner Chase Elliott is the only driver who has advanced to the next round. That leaves seven spots available going into Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe holds the final transfer spot by a tiebreaker over Austin Cindric. At least for now.

William Byron is 11 points behind both drivers, but Hendrick Motorsports will appeal Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas on Thursday. Should Hendrick win and Byron get those points back, he would move into a transfer spot.

There’s just part of what to watch for in Sunday’s race.

Favorites to be No. 20

This season remains tied for the most different winners in series history at 19, but there are a few candidates who could become the 20th different winner this year on Sunday.

Among the favorites to do so:

Ryan Blaney, who came close to winning last week at Talladega, won the inaugural Cup race at the Roval in 2018.

Martin Truex Jr., who has four career Cup wins on road courses, still seeks his first victory of the season.

Michael McDowell, who is coming off a third-place finish at Talladega, has had a career-high 12 top-10 finishes this season, including top 10s in each of the last four road course events this year.

Will history repeat?

Last year, the four drivers eliminated after the Roval were Kevin Harvick, Alex Bowman, Christopher Bell and William Byron.

Harvick was eliminated in the first round this year, but Byron (-11 to the cutline) and Bell (-33) are in jeopardy of being eliminated in this round again. Bowman stated Tuesday that he will miss his second consecutive race because of continued concussion symptoms. He will be among the four eliminated from title contention.

Bowman missed last weekend’s race because of concussion-like symptoms suffered at Texas. A decision on if he’ll be able to race at the Roval will come later this week.

Will chaos continue?

Consider what some of the former Roval winners have endured on their way to the checkered flag:

In 2019, Chase Elliott drove into the Turn 1 wall on a restart while the leader. He recovered to win.

In 2020, Elliott overcame a loose wheel to win for the second year in a row.

In 2021, Kyle Larson won after his team changed batteries and put the alternator belt back on.

Could a similar fate be in store for this year’s winner? Or will they have a cleaner day?

Entry lists

Thirty-nine drivers are entered including IndyCar driver Conor Daly, former Formula 1 driver Daniil Kvyat, former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and former 24 Hours of Daytona winner Joey Hand. JJ Yeley will drive the No. 51 for Cody Ware, who stated that he would skip this event because of his ankle injury at Texas the footwork needed on a road course.

Charlotte Roval Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are IndyCar driver Marco Andretti and former F1 driver Daniil Kvyat.

Charlotte Roval Xfinity entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Saturday, Oct. 8

Forecast: Partly cloudy with a high of 66 degrees. No chance of rain during the Xfinity race.

  • 10 – 10:30 a.m. — Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)
  • 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying (NBC Sports App)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Cup practice (NBC Sports App, USA Network coverage begins at 12:30 p.m.)
  • 1 – 2 p.m. — Cup qualifying (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 3 p.m. — Xfinity race (67 laps, 155.44 miles; NBC, Peacock, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 9

Forecast: Sunny with a high of 64 degrees. No chance of rain during the race.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup race (109 laps, 252.88 miles; NBC, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)