Analysis: Dirt racing pedigrees translate to road course success

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There’s a through line from dirt open-wheel racing to success in NASCAR road course races, a connection that dates back four decades.

Five of Tim Richmond’s 13 career race wins took place on road courses, including four at the 2.62-mile Riverside Speedway in California. Jeff Gordon secured 10 road course victories, with six in a row emanating from 1997-2000. Tony Stewart earned a combined eight wins at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, including his final Cup Series triumph in 2016 at the former.

That apparent translation from dirt open-wheel racing to Cup Series road races persists with the recent successes of Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, both road course race winners in 2021.

Larson sees the connection between dirt racing and road racing, pinpointing the “feel” of his vehicle as the denominator linking the two forms of driving.

“I’ve always felt like I can feel the car better — a lot better — on a road course because you get more movement of the car,” Larson said. “On an oval, we’re just kind of static the whole time. It’s hard for me to feel because there is no roll or anything like that. On a road course, you can feel the car flex up.”

Larson’s preference for feeling the weight transfer of his car while turning (the “roll”) stems from his formative years on dirt, a genre of auto racing he continues to frequent with success. It’s the feeling with which he’s most familiar, one that assists him in traversing through corners.

“It just kind of fits my brain a little bit better,” he said.

Through 20 career Cup Series starts on road courses, Larson holds a track type-specific Production in Equal Equipment Rating of 2.075, a formidable mark boosted by his two victories this season at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Prior to this season, his first behind the wheel for road course stalwart Hendrick Motorsports, he displayed flashes of road course brilliance including three pole wins at Sonoma and a 2018 Roval showing in which he led a race-high 43% of the contest in what timing and scoring data measured as the fastest car of the event.

This season, piloting a Hendrick car that ranks second in average median lap time on road courses (trailing only teammate Chase Elliott), Larson has been diligent on offense and stingy on defense when it comes to procuring and protecting track position. He ranks third in position retention rate on restarts (88%) and secured surplus adjusted pass differentials 15 and 11 positions beyond his statistical expectation in his wins at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, respectively.

Road course races tend to focus exclusively on track position — the Roval included — and Larson is one of a few drivers who can be counted on to create more than his anticipated share of positions. As such, he’s among the early betting favorites for the win in Sunday’s playoff race.

Not quite a favorite but certainly capable of fetching a win this weekend is Bell, a fellow dirt track graduate and Larson’s arch rival every winter at the Chili Bowl Nationals. His win this past February on Daytona’s road course was a surprise in the moment but a more understood outcome with the benefit of hindsight. He, like Larson, sees the link from high-banked dirt bullrings to sprawling road courses with riddling corners.

“I would say the big thing is just being able to adapt,” Bell said. “Because the corners are all so different and it’s all really unique. (In) dirt track racing, you’re always having to adapt and improvise. And I think that really relates to road course racing.”

Bell is one of the best short-run road course racers currently in the Cup Series. His 94.12% position retention rate on restarts ranks second (trailing Martin Truex Jr.’s 94.74% rate) as does his 18 position-net gain within two laps of the restart (only Joey Logano, with +19, has a higher total).

Through his work with driving coach Michael Self, Bell has embraced the difficulty of a motorsport genre foreign to those with dirt-centric upbringings. Road racing is now more comfortable, reminding him of the “feel” to which he’s grown accustomed.

“I enjoy the challenge of it,” he said. “You’re slipping and sliding and you can really feel the car move around, which is something a little bit different than the short tracks or the mile-and-a-halves.”

The competitive link from dirt to right-hand corners extends to Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe. Both drivers have delivered memorable road course performances this season.

Reddick captured three stage victories on road courses this past summer and, after working to improve his road racing acumen with former Formula 1 and NASCAR driver Scott Speed, is enjoying a heightened passing acumen.

His -5.93% surplus passing value on road courses last year ranked as the second-worst mark of any Cup driver over the last two seasons. This year, his +1.03% SPV fares as the 10th best, good enough for a pass differential 28 positions better than his statistical expectation.

Briscoe, nurtured through Ford’s driver development efforts heavy on road racing, scored a win on the Roval in the 2018 Xfinity Series race. He was in position to contend for a victory this year in the waning laps of the Indianapolis road course race before contact with Denny Hamlin and a flubbed corner squashed his chance at a good finish. All three of his top-10 finishes this season came on road courses. Races at COTA and Indianapolis were the only contests in which Briscoe and his car ranked inside the top 10 for median lap time.

This current generation of former dirt racers are picking up where their predecessors left off, among NASCAR’s consummate favorites for wins and sterling performances on road courses.

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.