Friday 5: Talladega’s unpredictability has playoff drivers on edge


As he teeters above the cutline, heading into what can be one of NASCAR’s most unpredictable races, Joey Logano admits his position is “not comfortable.”

“It is stressful because your whole season can be decided this weekend and that may be somewhat out of your control,” he said of Sunday’s Round of 12 Cup playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Logano enters the race six points above the cutline. He has never been eliminated before the Round of 8 in the Cup playoffs.

He’s made the championship race four times, winning the title in 2018. Logano was eliminated after the Round of 8 in 2015 and 2019. He did not make the playoffs in 2017.

Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval make this round unsettling for drivers because of the potential for chaos. One of the reasons Denny Hamlin celebrated his Las Vegas win last weekend so much was because it sent him to the next round.

“I’m more looking forward to it now than worrying about all the ‘what ifs’ of what can happen that can take you out,” Hamlin said. “During the course of my career, I’ve had just about all the ‘what ifs’ actually happen. It’s good to know we’ve got nothing to lose at this point.”

But Logano says someone could lose big in this round.

“This is the round that a true championship contender can be a surprise knockout,” he said.

Ryan Blaney, who enters Sunday’s race fifth in the standings with a 24-point cushion on William Byron – the first driver outside the cutline – says a driver can’t worry about what can happen at Talladega.

“You understand what Talladega is, and you understand you can get wiped out as an innocent bystander,” said Blaney, who has won two of the last four Cup races at Talladega. “It is what it is. If you let it eat at your head and get to you, then you’re kind of behind the eight-ball already. You’ve go to focus on how to win that race.”

Kyle Busch just wants to get a good finish.

Asked about his feelings going into a Talladega playoff race, he says: “Dread it.”

It’s understandable. Busch has never finished better than 11th in a Talladega playoff race. His average finish in Talladega Cup playoff races is 25.7.

He enters Sunday’s race third in the standings, 35 points above the cutline. That can provide some comfort.

Logano and Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, though, hold the final two transfer spots entering Talladega.

Neither has been spectacular, but both have been steady in these playoffs. Logano has finished between fifth and 11th in each playoff race. Keselowski has placed between sixth and 13th in those same races.

“I feel up to last week, we’ve done a tremendous job through the playoffs by getting every point,” Logano said. “That’s been our slogan: ‘Every point.’ Get every one. Every one. We left eight to 10 points on the racetrack last weekend. We’ve got to regroup and be better. That’s on all of us. We’ll regroup and try to make up those eight points.”

The superspeedway races have not been kind to Logano this year.

  • He led entering Turn 3 of the last lap for the Daytona 500 when contact with Keselowski wrecked both.
  • Logano was third when he was clipped by Denny Hamlin at Talladega in the spring. The contact turned Logano and sent his car into the air. His car landed on its roof. Logano was uninjured.
  • He suffered a flat tire with less than 10 laps left while running third in the Daytona regular season finale.

To me, it’s all about seeing the checkered flag,” Logano said. “Being toward the front but mainly seeing the checkered flag on the lead lap will be big for our points day.”

Many other playoff drivers would feel the same way.

2. Looking to rally again

Running at or below the cutline is not new to Alex Bowman.

In his first two playoff appearances (2018 and ’19), Bowman was at or below the cutline throughout the first round before advancing both times. He did the same thing in the first round of these playoffs.

Bowman enters Sunday’s race at Talladega 13 points behind Brad Keselowski for the final transfer spot to the Round of 8.

Bowman said having the experience of running while at or under the cutline previously helps.

“The biggest thing for me is just trying to maximize each and every race and every stage,” he said. “You can’t freak out and try any harder because I’m already trying as hard as I can every week. Approaching every race like normal and really just trying to maximize each and every thing.

“Last year we didn’t change what we were doing that worked. This year we didn’t change what we were doing that hasn’t worked. But just trying to maximize every stage and every race. You can’t really worry about the points. They kind of are what they are right now.

“We’re not in a great spot, and we’re going to a place that’s a huge wild card. But at the same time, we could be on the good side of the wild card and have other guys get torn up and have an opportunity to win the race. So, we’ve just got to wait and see how it shakes out. If it works out for us, it does. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

3. The race for rides

While the focus for some drivers is on the playoffs, this is a time where other drivers are trying to find a ride for next season.

Among those without Cup rides for next year are Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Newman and Ryan Preece.

Corey LaJoie knows the feeling well, although he doesn’t have to go through that this year.

“Every year, up until this one, it was always uncertainty,” said LaJoie, who will return to Spire Motorsports next season. “A lot of times, my deals didn’t get done until late December or early January. Just when the music stopped, you hoped you had a seat you were holding on to. It’s really kind of a weird spot to know where I’m going to be at least next year and possibly many years after that.”

LaJoie sees those struggles play out with DiBenedetto, his friend.

DiBenedetto will not return to the Wood Brothers after this season. Harrison Burton will take over that ride next season. DiBenedetto has yet to secure a ride for next season.

“I’ve been working on everything,” he told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “It’s just crazy.

The performance of our team is obvious, and the things we’ve done to make some great improvements and be fast and performing very consistently, but still, as it is pertains to next year, man, it’s odd. Any door that kind of seems to crack open, closes.

“I’m trying to figure out what God’s plan is and what that means because, at this moment, I’ve got zero. Absolutely nothing. So it’s a very weird landscape.”

DiBenedetto also acknowledged the lack of sponsorship that he brings hurts.

“Now that I’m in a free agency market, I don’t have the funding behind me,” he told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

LaJoie knows that all too well.

“Unfortunately, where we’re at as a sport in its entirety is the only thing makes you stand out is how much sponsorship you bring with you,” LaJoie said. “You can write all the letters you want to and have all the good runs, win all the poles and have all the wins under your belt. If you don’t have good partners that continue to back you and keep growing their investment in the sport as much as my brand each and every year, then you’re going to be on the bottom of anybody’s list in terms of drivers.”

4. Admiration for former champ

Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion, completed his first season running road courses and street courses in the NTT IndyCar Series last weekend.

It was not an easy transition.

Johnson placed 17th in the season-ending race at Long Beach. He finished on the lead lap in three of the last four races of the season after not recording a lead-lap finish in the first eight races.

Despite the challenges, he earned praised from some of his former NASCAR competitors for racing in another series.

“I know he’s gotten a lot of grief over this year, but it’s like ‘Give the guy a break,'” Ryan Blaney said. “He’s done plenty enough for NASCAR and he wants to try something else. … I feel like any motorsports racer wants to do that. You want to try new things and see how these cars compare to other cars, what’s different, what’s similar.

“He had a great opportunity to go do that. I think he’s done a good job this year, honestly. He’s gotten better and better. I got a chance to talk to him a good bit at Indy (when NASCAR and IndyCar raced on the same weekend in August) and watch him. He’s having a lot of fun with it, too.”

Kyle Larson said: “For him to step out of his comfort zone and try something new and dedicate a lot of time and effort to it, I think is amazing. … I hope to see him do some oval stuff.”

5. Another year together

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. confirmed Thursday what had been expected for some time. He’ll be back with JTG Daugherty Racing in the 2022 season.

The team had already stated it would be a single-car entry. It had only one charter this year, running Ryan Preece’s car without a charter. With the rising cost of the charter, JTG Daugherty Racing passed on securing one for its second car.

NASCAR Daytona Drafting Test
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 21st in the points heading into Sunday’s race at Talladega. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

“I’m just looking forward to a third season with the team,” Stenhouse said. “I felt like this year was kind of like the first year with the organization, with the way last year went and the way it was kind of thrown on us and not being able to hang out with the guys and be in the shop and really spend time with each other.

“And now, I’m enjoying … we went to the Daytona test with the new car, and I felt like we had a successful test. It’s been fun going to the race shop and helping kind of design the cockpit of the car, where we want things, and just kind of make it custom to what I need and working with everybody in the shop. So, I think next year could be our best year yet, and even my best year in Cup in general. So I’m really looking forward to the opportunity that next year presents.”

As for being a single-car team instead of having two drivers, Stenhouse said there would be adjustments.

“I definitely think it could be a negative on one hand, and then a positive on the other,” he sad. “Obviously, when you’re practicing and testing, you can have more ideas and run different things through both cars. It definitely helps kind of speed the process up. But we would also have to share the seat when it comes to testing. So, I feel like what I look for in a race car and what somebody looks for in a race car and the way they drive, is sometimes totally different.

“So, I feel like we’re going to be able to kind of build around me and at least the set-ups and things like that will be more around what I’m looking for in the race car, and all our focus will be on one car. I feel like that will be a positive thing. I know everybody at JTG Daugherty Racing so far has been all in on the new car and trying to speed the process along.”

Rick Hendrick hopes rough racing settles down after Chase Elliott suspension


LE MANS, France (AP) — Rick Hendrick fully supports Chase Elliott as he returns from a one-race suspension for deliberately wrecking Denny Hamlin, but the team owner believes on-track aggression has gotten out of control this season and NASCAR sent a message by parking the superstar.

“Until something was done, I think that kind of rough racing was going to continue,” Hendrick told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Elliott missed last week’s race outside St. Louis as the five-time fan-voted most popular driver served a one-race suspension for retaliating against Hamlin in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The two had made contact several times, with Elliott hitting the wall before he deliberately turned left into Hamlin to wreck him.

Hamlin immediately called on NASCAR to suspend Elliott, which the sanctioning body did despite his star power and the effect his absence from races has on TV ratings. Elliott missed six races earlier this season with a broken leg suffered in a snowboarding crash and NASCAR lost roughly 500,000 viewers during his absence.

Hendrick, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with NASCAR’s special Garage 56 project, told the AP he understood the suspension. NASCAR last year suspended Bubba Wallace one race for intentionally wrecking Kyle Larson, another Hendrick driver.

“Pushing and shoving, it’s a fine line, and when someone puts you out of the race, you get roughed up, emotions take over and you react,” Hendrick said. “I think maybe guys will run each other a little bit cleaner moving forward. “We understand the suspension, and nobody really likes to have to go through that, but you just do it and move on.”

Hendrick said he believes drivers have gotten far too aggressive with the second-year Next Gen car, which has not only tightened the field but is a durable vehicle that can withstand bumping and banging. Contact that used to end a driver’s day now barely leaves a dent.

It’s led to drivers being more forceful and, in Hendrick’s opinion, too many incidents of drivers losing their cool.

“There’s rubbing. But if you just harass people by running them up into the wall, every time you get to them, you get tired of it,” Hendrick said. “And that’s what so many of them do to cause accidents, but then they don’t get in the accident themselves.

“I think everybody understands the rules. But you’ve got an awful lot of tension and when you’re out their racing like that, and you are almost to the finish, and somebody just runs over you for no reason, I think the cars are so close and it’s so hard to pass, they get frustrated.”

Elliott, with seven missed races this season, is ranked 27th in the standings heading into Sunday’s road course race in Sonoma, California. He’s been granted two waivers by NASCAR to remain eligible for the playoffs, but the 2020 champion needs to either win a race or crack the top 16 in standings to make the field.

An outstanding road course racer with seven wins across several tracks, Elliott will be motivated to get his first win of the season Sunday at Sonoma, one of the few road courses on the schedule where he’s winless.

Hendrick said when he spoke to Elliott he urged him to use caution moving forward.

“I just said ‘Hey, we’ve got to be careful with that,’” Hendrick said. “But I support him, I really do support him. You get roughed up and it ruins your day, you know, you let your emotions take over.”

Concussion-like symptoms sideline Noah Gragson

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Noah Gragson will not compete in Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway because of concussion-like symptoms he experienced this week after his crash at WWT Raceway, Legacy MC announced Thursday.

Grant Enfinger will drive the No. 42 in place of Gragson.

“Noah’s health is the highest of priorities and we commend him for making the decision to sit out this weekend,” said team co-owners Maury Gallagher and Jimmie Johnson in a statement from the team. “We are appreciative that Grant was available and willing to step in since the Truck Series is off this weekend.”

The team states that Gragson was evaluated and released from the infield care center after his crash last weekend at WWT Raceway. He began to experience concussion-like symptoms mid-week and is seeking treatment.

Gragson is 32nd in the points in his rookie Cup season.

Enfinger is available with the Craftsman Truck Series off this weekend. Enfinger is coming off a victory in last weekend’s Truck race at WWT Raceway for GMS Racing, which is owned by Gallagher. That was Enfinger’s second Truck win of the season.

NASCAR implements safety changes after Talladega crash

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NASCAR is implementing changes to Cup cars that strengthen the right side door area and soften the frontal area after reviewing the crash between Kyle Larson and Ryan Preece at Talladega Superspeedway in April.

The changes are to be in place for the July 9 race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Larson and Preece were uninjured in the vicious crash late in the race at Talladega. Larson’s car was turned and slid down the track to the apron before coming back up in traffic. Preece’s car slammed into the right side door area of Larson’s car.

Dr. John Patalak, NASCAR vice president of safety engineering, said the difference in velocity of the two cars at the time of impact was 59 mph.

“It’s pretty hard to find that on the racetrack normally,” Patalak told reporters Thursday during a briefing.

The severe impact moved a right side door bar on Larson’s car. NASCAR announced last month that it was allowing teams to add six right side door bar gussets to prevent the door bars from buckling in such an impact.

Thursday, NASCAR announced additional changes to the cars. The changes come after computer simulations and crash testing.

NASCAR is mandating:

  • Steel plate welded to the right side door bars
  • Front clips will be softened
  • Front bumper strut softening
  • Front ballast softening
  • Modified cross brace

Patalak said that NASCAR had been working on changes to the car since last year and did crash testing in January at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio. NASCAR did more work after that crash test.

As for the changes to the front of the car, Patalak said: “From an engineering standpoint we’re reducing the buckling strength of those individual parts and pieces. The simplified version is we are increasing the amount of crush that the front clip will be capable of. That’s all an effort to reduce the accelerations that the center section and driver will be exposed to during these frontal crashes.”

Adding the steel plate to the door bars is meant to strengthen that area to prevent any type of intrusion or buckling of the door bars in a similar type of crash.

Patalak also said that NASCAR inspected the car of Blaine Perkins that barrel rolled during the Xfinity race at Talladega in April. Patalak said that NASCAR consulted with Dr. James Raddin, Jr., who was one of the four authors of the Earnhardt investigation report in 2001 for the sanctioning body, in that incident.

Dr. Diandra: Brad Keselowski driving RFK Racing revival


Brad Keselowski surprised many when he didn’t re-sign with Team Penske in 2021. Penske was his home since 2010, and the team who helped him to a Cup Series championship in 2012. But Jack Roush offered Keselowski something Roger Penske couldn’t — ownership stake in the team.

Keselowski knew an RFK Racing revival would be an challenge, but also that he was prepared for it.

“I’ve been studying my whole life for this moment, and I’m ready for the test,” Keselowski said during the announcement of the new partnership.

A historic team with historic ups and downs

Roush Racing entered Cup competition in 1988. It didn’t win that first year, but the company collected at least one checkered flag every year from 1989-2014 — except for 1996.

Roush was one of the first owners (along with Rick Hendrick) to appreciate the advantages of multi-car teams. By 2003, Roush Racing fielded five full-time teams. In 2005, all five Roush cars made the playoffs, accumulating 15 wins between them. Their dominance prompted NASCAR to limit teams to four cars. That limit remains today.

Roush sold half the team to Fenway Sports Group in 2007. The renamed Roush Fenway Racing team, however, never reached the highs of 2005 as the graph below shows.

A vertical bar chart showing the challenges Brad Keselowski has in driving RFK's revival

The 2015 season was Jack Roush’s first winless season since 1996. By the time Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won two races in 2017, RFR was down to two cars. The company had four consecutive winless seasons before Keselowski came on board.

Keselowski is a perfect choice to drive the RFK revival. After all, how many other NASCAR drivers run a 3D-printing business? Or worry about having enough properly educated workers for 21st century manufacturing jobs?

“I feel like I’m buying into a stock that is about to go up,” Keselowski said.

Keselowski’s record

The new RFK Racing team started off strong at Daytona, with Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher each winning their Duels. During that week, NASCAR confiscated wheels from both drivers’ cars. Despite concerns about the team’s modifications, NASCAR ultimately levied no penalty. But after the fifth race of the year at Atlanta, NASCAR docked Keselowski 100 points for modifying single-source parts. Keselowski needed to win to make the playoffs.

It wasn’t Keselowski, but Buescher who won the first race under the new name. Unfortunately, Buescher’s Bristol win came too late to make the playoffs.

Keselowski finished 2022 ranked 24th, the worst finish since his first full-time season in 2010 when he finished 25th.

In the table below, I compare Keselowski’s finishes for his last two years at Team Penske to his finishes with RFK Racing in 2022 and the first 15 races of 2023.

Comparing Brad Keselowski's finishes for his last two years with Penske and his first two years (so far) with RFK RacingKeselowski’s lack of wins since switching teams is the most obvious difference; however, the falloff in top-five and top-10 finishes is even more significant. Keselowski was not only not winning races, he often wasn’t even in contention. In 2020, Keselowski finished 91.7% of all races on the lead lap. In his first year with RFK, that metric dropped to 61.1%.

On the positive side, his numbers this year look far better than his 2022 statistics. Keselowski finishes on the lead lap 86.7% of the time and already has as many top-10 finishes in 15 races as he had in all 36 races last year.

Keselowski’s top-five finish rate improved from 2.8% in 2022 to 20.0% this year. That’s still off his 2021 top-five-finish rate of 36.1%, but it’s a step forward.

I summarize the last four years of some of Keselowski’s loop data metrics in the table below.

A table comparing Brad Keselowski's attempt to drive RKF's revival with his last two years of loop data at Penske

In 2022, Keselowski was down between six to seven-and-a-half points in starting, finishing and average running positions relative to 2021. This year, he’s improved so that the difference is only in the 2.6 to 3.6-position range.

Two keys for continued improvement

Ford is playing catch-up this year, having won only two of 15 points-paying races. Ryan Blaney, who won one of those two races, has the highest average finishing position (11.3) among drivers with at least eight starts. Keselowski is 14th overall with a 15.7 average finishing position, and fourth best among Ford drivers. Buescher is finishing an average of 1.2 positions better than his teammate.

Kevin Harvick is the top-ranked Ford driver in average running position, coming in sixth overall. Keselowski is 13th overall in average running position and the fourth-best among the Ford drivers.

Average green-flag speed rank is the average of a driver’s rank in green-flag speed over all the races for which he was ranked. Harvick is the fastest Ford as measured by this metric, ranking eighth among all drivers who have completed at least eight races. Keselowski is the fifth-fastest Ford, but the 20th-ranked driver in average green-flag speed rank.

The other issue, however, is particular to Keselowski: He is involved in a lot of accidents. That’s not new with Keselowski’s move to RFK Racing. Since 2016, Keselowski has been involved in at least eight caution-causing incidents every year.

What may be new is that he has a harder time recovering from non-race-ending incidents now than he did at Penske.

In 2021, Keselowski was involved in 12 caution-causing accidents. Last year, it was 10 (nine accidents and a spin). He’s already been involved in 12 incidents this year, the most of any full-time driver.

Keselowski isn’t too concerned about accidents. He views them as a consequence of pushing a car to its limits. His competitors, however, have called him out for for his aggressive driving style.

Neither accidents nor Keselowski’s attitude toward them changed with his transition from Team Penske to RFK Racing.

Except now he’s the one paying for those wrecked cars.