What matters at Talladega: Stages invite early risk for points safety net

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What matters in today’s race and how can teams maximize the day at Talladega Superspeedway without actually securing a good finish? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping today’s YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET on NBC):

A Talladega strategy for points instead of glory?

In his last five Talladega starts, Brad Keselowski earned just one top-10 finish. That finish, a win, came this past spring, the product of a last-lap pass.

But Keselowski’s record isn’t as fruitless as it seems. His 163 points scored ranks as the second most of any driver in the tapered spacer era, trailing only Ryan Blaney’s 187. The key to Keselowski’s points production has been stage finishes. Of his 163 points, 50 came as a result of stage finishes — none for the stage win, but as high as second (twice, for nine points apiece). The remaining 113 points, 22.6 per race, is on par with a driver averaging a 15th-place result without any single top-10 stage finish.

Devising his races in this manner isn’t memorable — we remember race wins, not stage finishes — but one cannot argue with the effectiveness in which his plans were deployed. Keselowski, contrary to his traditional stat line, has been one of Talladega’s most reliable point-getters, fulfilling precisely what he set out to accomplish while utilizing NASCAR’s current method for rewarding points.

It’s a feature, not a bug, of the stage-racing era. The rules fix, divisive among fans, has made Talladega a more inviting host to all teams, allowing for different pathways to points. Both of today’s stage finishes are hedges against inclusion in a late-race crash, but those hedges contain significant risk.

Talladega, at least relative to Daytona, protects its frontrunners from inclusion in “Big Ones,” crashes containing four or more cars. Dating back to 2013, cars running in positions first through sixth were included in these crashes as often as 28.6% of the time. The lead car was included in just 8.7% of Talladega’s big accidents, the lowest rate inside the top 30.

But getting to the front and staying there is a feat in itself. Most drivers must traverse through a high-risk gaggle in the middle of the running order, with crash inclusion rates as high as 45.7% between positions seventh through 23rd.

Staying in the front is also a chore. Leads were retained for 20 laps or longer just twice in the last five races (Blaney in the spring of 2020 and Denny Hamlin this past spring). It’s easier for most drivers to ride in the rear and punt on stage finishes, but for those looking to pad their cushion in the standings, the ends of stages provide a challenge that didn’t previously exist before 2017, the year of stage racing’s inception.

Across Talladega’s nine most recent races, nine accidents containing four or more cars came within the first two stages. There were only six early accidents in the 11 races from 2011-16, before the modern points incentive existed. For a track already containing more risk than usual, stages create additional risk distributed earlier in the event.

Those aiming for stage finishes will have clearly considered the risk, deeming it worth it for valuable point opportunities that might not realistically exist for them elsewhere.

When riding in the rear goes right

Trailing the lead pack for the majority of a race at Talladega has its rewards. And while stage points are not among them, a good chance of survival is.

Positions 29th or worse see crash inclusion rates of 11.4% or better. As attrition grows, this low rate climbs the running order, helping protect teams predominately driving as lead-lap trail cars. Two drivers have utilized this tactic to great effect.

Ryan Newman’s 138 points ranks as the fifth-biggest tally of the last five races and contained just one points-worthy stage finish (sixth in the 2019 spring race). Ryan Preece earned 134 points, the sixth-biggest tally, while earning just two top-10 stage finishes. Collectively, they earned five top-10 race finishes while averaging running positions of 22.0 and 18.0, respectively. Newman is one of five drivers who secured three top-10 results across the last five Talladega races. His 10.4-place finishing average trails only Blaney’s 10.2-place mark.

In April’s race at Talladega, just two top-10 finishers, Blaney and Michael McDowell, also earned points in both stages. Four top-10 race finishers — Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Kaz Grala — didn’t score a stage point.

The need for a fast car is less than usual, but slow cars do not win

In the wise words of 23-year-old William Byron, when it comes to drafting tacks, “You can’t win with a turd.”

Having a fast car is popularly downplayed as something irrelevant on the superspeedways of Talladega and Daytona, but cars that are fast enough within the pack and out front tend to be the cars most likely to win. In Talladega races utilizing a horsepower and aero package similar to what we’ll see today, the winners typically emerged from those with good standings in the speed rankings:

  • Chase Elliott won the 2019 spring race, the first with the tapered spacer, after ranking second in speed per Motorsports Analytics.
  • Blaney ranked 10th in speed en route to his 2019 win, a race in which fellow Team Penske drivers ranked first (Joey Logano) and fourth (Keselowski).
  • Blaney ranked 12th in speed, and 10th in the final quarter of the race specifically, in his 2020 spring race victory.
  • Keselowski turned the fourth-fastest lap at Talladega this past spring and his median lap ranked seventh en route to a win.

Dating back to 2005, the fastest car in a single race at Talladega won 12.5% of the time, a small conversion rate compared to the typical 40% mark. But this doesn’t mean teams are scared off by having fast cars; to be sure, fast drafting cars are useful tools when paired with diligent driving and attempts at reducing risk.

The source of the fastest vehicles should surprise no one. Cars from Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske appear well suited, in terms of speed, for today’s race in Talladega. Originating from those three organizations, Alex Bowman (ranked first in average median lap time at drafting tracks), Logano (second), Kyle Busch (third), Christopher Bell (fourth), Kyle Larson (fifth), Byron (ninth), Blaney (10th) and Elliott (11th) each seemingly have good enough drafting speed that’s required for a standout performance.

Texas Xfinity results: Noah Gragson wins playoff opener

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Noah Gragson is rolling through the NASCAR Xfinity Series like a bowling ball headed toward a strike.

Gragson won for the fourth consecutive race Saturday, taking the lead with 11 laps left and winning the 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway. The victory put Gragson in the second round of the playoffs.

Finishing behind him in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

Texas Xfinity results

The race was pockmarked by wrecks, scrambling the 12-driver playoff field.

POINTS REPORT

Noah Gragson remains the points leader after his win. He has 2,107 points. AJ Allmendinger is next, 26 points behind.

Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg hold the final two transfer spots. They are one point ahead of Riley Herbst, eight points ahead of Daniel Hemric, 13 points ahead of Brandon Jones and 29 points ahead of Jeremy Clements.

Texas Xfinity driver points

The Xfinity playoffs will continue Oct. 1 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, USA Network).

Noah Gragson wins Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway

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Noah Gragson opened the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs the same way he has run much of the season.

Gragson sidestepped a web of issues plaguing playoff drivers and won Saturday’s 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway, tying a decades-old Xfinity record by winning for the fourth consecutive race. Sam Ard, formerly a series mainstay, won four in a row in 1983.

Gragson, continuing to establish himself as the championship favorite, took the lead with 11 laps to go from Jeb Burton as most of the day’s leaders were running different tire and fuel strategies over the closing laps.

Gragson, 24 and set to jump to the Cup Series next season, led 85 laps. He won by 1.23 seconds.

“This number 9 team, man, they’re on fire,” Gragson told NBC Sports. “Luke Lambert (crew chief) and the boys executed a great race.”

MORE: Texas Xfinity results

The win was Gragson’s seventh of the year. Following in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

The victory pushed Gragson into the second round of the playoffs.

A big crash at the front of the field on lap 117 changed the face of the race. John Hunter Nemechek lost control of his car on the outside and was clipped by Justin Allgaier, starting a wreck that scrambled most of the field. Damages forced playoff drivers Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones and Allgaier from the race.

“The 7 (Allgaier) chose the top behind me, and I haven’t seen the replay of it, but the 7 chose the top behind me and started pushing,” Nemechek said. “The 21 (Hill) made it three-wide on the 9 (Gragson), and I was three-wide at the top, and I think we ended up four-wide at one point, which doesn’t really work aero-wide in the pack.”

Pole winner Jones, a playoff driver taken out in the crash, said Nemechek “was pushing a little too hard. Nothing to fault him there for, but probably a little early to be going that far. It is what it is.”

Six laps earlier, another multi-car crash scattered the field and damaged the car of playoff contender and regular season champion Allmendinger.

The wreck started when Brandon Brown slipped in front of Allmendinger and went into a slide, forcing Allmendinger to the inside apron. Several cars scattered behind them trying to avoid the accident.

Allmendinger’s crew repaired his car and he later had the race lead.

Playoff driver Jeremy Clements had a tough day. He parked with what he called mysterious mechanical issues about halfway through the race.

Below the cutline after the first race are Herbst, Hemric, Jones and Clements.

Stage 1 winner: Daniel Hemric

Stage 2 winner: AJ Allmendinger

Who had a good race: Noah Gragson is threatening to turn the final weeks of the Xfinity season into a cakewalk. He clearly had the day’s dominant car Saturday in winning for the fourth race in a row. … AJ Allmendinger’s car was damaged in a wreck in heavy traffic, but his crew taped parts of the car and gave him an opening to finish fourth.

Who had a bad race: Jeremy Clements, in the playoff field, finished 36th after parking with mechanical trouble near the race’s halfway point. … Jeffrey Earnhardt crashed only 17 laps into the race and finished last.

Next: The second race in the first round of the Xfinity playoffs is scheduled Oct. 1 at 4 p.m. ET (USA Network) at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

Cup drivers are for changing Texas but leery about making it another Atlanta

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Some Cup drivers are concerned that a reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway could create racing similar to Atlanta, adding another type of superspeedway race to the NASCAR calendar.

While Texas officials have not stated publicly any plans to make changes, some competitors feel Sunday’s playoff race (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) could be the final event on this track’s current layout. 

With the All-Star Race moving from Texas to North Wilkesboro next year, Texas Motor Speedway’s lone Cup race will take place Sept. 24, 2023. That could provide time for any alterations. Work on changing Atlanta began in July 2021 and was completed by December 2021. 

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said work needs to be done to Texas Motor Speedway.

“I would like them to demolish this place first and then start over from scratch,” Larson said Saturday. “For one, they did a very poor job with the reconfiguration, initial reconfiguration. 

“I would like to see them change it from a mile-and-a-half to something shorter. I don’t know if that means bringing the backstretch in or whatever. 

“If I could build a track, it’d be probably a three-quarter mile Bristol basically, pavement and progressive banking. But I don’t know if that’s even possible here. I’m not sure what they have in mind, but anything would be better than what they did.”

Former Cup champion Joey Logano worries about another superspeedway race with such events at Daytona, Talladega and now Atlanta. 

“Do we need more superspeedways?” Logano asked Saturday. “Is that the type of racing fans want to see? Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano said he wants to have more control in how he finishes, particularly in a playoff race. 

“I want to be at tracks where I can make a difference, where my team can make a difference, and we’re not at the mercy of a wreck that happened in front of us that we couldn’t do anything about,” he said.

Discussions of changing the track follow complaints about how tough it is to pass at this 1.5-mile speedway.

“Once you get to the top, it’s almost like the bottom (lane) is very, very weak,” Daniel Suarez said.

Suarez has mixed feelings about the idea of turning Texas into another Atlanta-style race.

“Atlanta was a very good racetrack, and then they turned it into a superspeedway and it’s a lot of fun,” Suarez said. “I see it as a hybrid. I don’t think we need another racetrack like that, but it’s not my decision to make. Whatever they throw out at us, I’m going to try to be the best I can be.”

Suarez hopes that Texas can be like what it once was.

“Maybe with some work, we can get this race track to what it used to be, a very wide race track, running the bottom, running the middle, running the top,” he said.  

“As a race car driver, that’s what you want. You want that ability to run around and to show your skills. In superspeedways … everyone is bumping, everyone is pushing, and you can not show your skills as much.”

Chase Briscoe would be OK with a change to Texas, but he wants it to be more like a track other than Atlanta.

“If we’re really going to change and completely start from scratch, I would love another Homestead-type racetrack,” Briscoe said. “The problem is any time you build a new race track, it’s not going to be slick and worn out for a while. It’s trying to figure out what’s best to maximize those first couple of years to get it good by the end. 

“I think Homestead is a great model, if we’re going to build another mile and a half. I think we’re going to have to look at what they have, the progressive banking, the shape of the race track is different. I just think it’s a really good race track, and I think it always puts on really good racing. Anything we could do to try to match that, that would be my vote.”

Denny Hamlin just hopes some sort of change is made to Texas.

“I’d rather have another Atlanta than this, honestly,” Hamlin said. “Anything will be better than kind of what we have here.”

NASCAR shares prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer

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FORT WORTH, Texas — The NASCAR garage is sharing its prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer DJ VanderLey, who was injured Thursday night in a crash during a micro sprint Outlaw race at the Texas Motor Speedway dirt track.

He suffered several fractured vertebrae and has a spinal cord injury, according to a post from his wife Jordan on her Facebook page. 

Two GoFundMe accounts have been set up to help the family with medical costs. 

VanderLey was Chase Briscoe’s engineer for four years, and they are good friends.

“I hate that it happened to anybody,” Briscoe said Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, “but for it to hit close to home has definitely been tough for me.”

Briscoe said he planned to visit VanderLey in the hospital on Saturday and that “I just hope that everybody continues to pray. That’s really all we can do at this point, trying to hope he gets better.”

Christopher Bell calls VanderLey among his best friends. VanderLey was Bell’s engineer at Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. 

Bell spent the night at the hospital and also picked up Jordan VanderLey at the airport when she arrived. 

Stewart-Haas Racing had a decal for VanderLey on Riley Herbst‘s No. 98 Xfinity car for Saturday’s race.