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.

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.

NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

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CONCORD, N.C. —  NASCAR announced Tuesday that it will not permit drivers to run against the wall to gain speed as Ross Chastain did in last year’s Martinsville Cup playoff race.

NASCAR made the announcement in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

MORE: NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events 

MORE: NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023

Chastain drove into the Turn 3 wall and rode it around the track at higher speed than the rest of the field, passing five cars in the final two turns to gain enough spots to make the championship race. NASCAR allowed the move to stand even though some competitors had asked for a rule change leading into the season finale at Phoenix last year.

NASCAR is not adding a rule but stressed that Rule 10.5.2.6.A covers such situations.

That rule states: “Safety is a top priority for NASCAR and NEM. Therefore, any violations deemed to compromise the safety of an Event or otherwise pose a dangerous risk to the safety of Competitors, Officials, spectators, or others are treated with the highest degree of seriousness. Safety violations will be handled on a case-by-case basis.”

NASCAR stated that the penalty for such a maneuver would be a lap or time penalty.

Chastain said he’s fine with being known for that move, which will never be repeated in NASCAR history.

“I’m proud that I’ve been able to make a wave that will continue beyond just 2022 or just beyond me,” Chastain told NBC Sports earlier this month about the move’s legacy. “There will be probably a day that people will learn about me because of that, and I’m good with that. I’m proud of it.

“I don’t think it will ever happen again. I don’t think it will ever pay the reward that it paid off for us that it did that day. I hope I’m around in 35 years to answer someone’s question about it. And I probably still won’t have a good answer on why it worked.”

The video of Chastain’s wall-hugging maneuver had 12.5 million views on the NBC Sports TikTok account within a week of it happening. Excluding the Olympics, the only other video that had had more views on the NBC Sports TikTok account to that point in 2022 was Rich Strike’s historic Kentucky Derby win. 

Formula 1 drivers Fernando Alonso, Pierre Gasly and Daniel Ricciardo all praised Chastain’s move at the time, joining a chorus of competitors throughout social media.