Friday 5: Chase Elliott embraces challenge of Roval, playoff cutoff race


Chase Elliott seeks his third consecutive victory at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval this weekend, but the reigning Cup champion also faces playoff elimination.

He is among a group of former Cup champions at or near the cutline heading into Sunday’s Round of 12 cutoff race (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Elliott and two-time Cup champ Kyle Busch hold the final two transfer spots. They are both nine points ahead of former champion Kevin Harvick, the first driver outside a transfer position.

“Well, it could always be worse, right?,” Elliott said of his spot in the standings.

Elliott knows quite well that a driver more than 20 points from the cutline in an elimination race still can advance. He’s done it in each of the past two years.

In 2019, Elliott entered the Round of 12 cutoff race 22 points from the cutline. He finished second at Kansas and beat Brad Keselowski, who placed 19th, by three points to take the last transfer spot.

Last year, Elliott entered the Round of 8 cutoff race 25 points from the cutline. He won at Martinsville to clinch a spot in the championship race at Phoenix. He won the title the following week.

It’s easy to expect Elliott to win Sunday at the Roval – or at least advance to the next round – because of his road course success. His two wins this season came at Circuit of the Americas and Road America. Elliott has won seven of the last 13 Cup road course events and is the favorite this weekend.

But the Roval hasn’t been easy for Elliott despite the victories.

He crashed into the Turn 1 barrier while leading the 2019 race and fell to 37th before winning. Last year, Elliott gave up second place to pit before a restart because of a loose left front wheel. He dropped to 36th before he came back to win.

“It’s a challenging place,” Elliott said of the Roval. “There’s just not a lot of forgiveness at that particular course. There’s nowhere to go if you make a mistake or run off course or whatever. It’s definitely a really fine balance.”

Even with those challenges, Elliott looks to Sunday’s race with excitement, reaffirming the mantra he had last year in embracing big moments.

“You better like having your back against the wall and have to perform, because if you ever want to win, that’s how it’s going to be,” he said.

Elliott also knows that Sunday’s race could be a roller-coaster affair with the differing strategies of playoff drivers. Some playoff drivers will go for points in each stage, while others will focus on winning the race.

What it means is that there may be times Elliott is shuffled to the middle of the pack due to the various strategies.

“You don’t want to sit there and count points, right?” he said of focusing on the playoff standings during the race. “But at the same time, you certainly want to be aware of what’s going on, at least leading it. And that’s kind of my approach. … The best way to get points is to go and win the stages. They offer 10 points to win each stage and that’s a lot.

“So, I would like to have both of those and would certainly like to have another (win) sticker. So, my goal is to retrieve all three.”

2. Just go win

Joining Kevin Harvick below the cutline heading into the Roval are Christopher Bell (-28 points from the cutline), William Byron (-44) and Alex Bowman (-52).

While Harvick could advance via points, Bell views his situation as needing to win to make the Round of 8.

“If we go out here and have an exceptional day, it’s still going to take some bad luck on the other competitors for us to make it,” Bell said this week at the Roval.

Bell could be one to watch because of his victory at the Daytona road course in February. He says that track is most similar to the Roval. That’s just one of a few road courses he’s had strong runs this season.

Bel finished second at Road America. At Watkins Glen, he was second on Lap 55 of the 90-lap race when contact from Kyle Larson caused Bell to drop back to 10th. Bell went on to finish seventh but the fallout from the incident continued afterward.

Bell’s focus is on the Roval and trying to ensure that all four Joe Gibbs Racing cars advance to the next round.

“I think this is a place that we all thought we can compete for a win,” Bell said. “I expect us to run good. Hopefully, we’ll be there at the end of the day.”

3. Next for the Next Gen car

Several Cup teams are scheduled to test the Next Gen car Monday and Tuesday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

For Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick, among others, it will be their first time to drive the car. Harvick said he had planned to be at the shop this week to figure out the shifting “so I can figure out how to get out of the garage stall and not embarrass myself.” The Next Gen car features a sequential five-speed shifter, a departure from the traditional four-speed H-pattern.

One of the concerns with the car has been the heat drivers have experienced.

“They’ve got to fix that,” Joey Logano said. “That’s a must-fix. It’s too hot, way too hot. If they don’t do anything, they’re going to have drivers passing out. … I’m interested to see what they come up with. It’s not a new issue with the cars. It’s been an issue for a while.”

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, notes that much work remains for the Next Gen car before it debuts in the Feb. 6 NASCAR Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

“This isn’t just an evolution,” Wilson said. “We’re taking the seat out of the current car and throwing the rest away. We can’t minimize that. … We’re going to be working on this car while we’re racing it next year and that’s to be expected. No one should be surprised.”

As for what he hopes to see from the test, Wilson said: “Hopefully, we continue to make some progress in the drivability characteristics of the car, steering system and, again, just see how they race together. We only have one data point with more than three cars on track together.

“Right now, we’re going to have multiple cars on track. See how they respond. See how they behave aerodynamically. We’ll be drinking through a firehose observing that.”

Other Next Gen tests are scheduled for November at the Charlotte Motor Speedway oval, December at Phoenix and January at Daytona.

Austin Cindric, who takes over the No. 2 car at Team Penske next season, will take part in next week’s test. He notes it’s important because it is the only test scheduled on a road course. Next year’s Cup schedule has six road course races.

4. New experience

With Todd Gordon retiring as a crew chief after this season, Ryan Blaney had to go through the process of finding and interviewing a candidate.

“That was a different deal for me,” Blaney said.

Blaney will have Jonathan Hassler as his crew chief next season. Hassler has served as Matt DiBenedetto’s crew chief since early June

Blaney said he went to Gordon for advice on questions to ask Hassler when they sat down to discuss the position.

“I had a list of questions I kind of wanted to ask (Hassler), both racing and personally,” Blaney said. “I asked Todd about it. Todd has plenty of experience (so I asked) ‘What’s a good thing to ask Jonathan from a crew chief standpoint? What do you want a driver to ask you from a crew chief standpoint?’

“One of the things that I thought was really good that Todd suggested: ‘List me some bad qualities you want to get better at.’ … I thought that was really good. You’ve got to get your problems out there in the open.

“I was the same. I told him some of my bad qualities, too, so we could help each other work on them. That’s the biggest thing is you’ve got to help each other on things you are weak at. We got that on the table. I thought that was a really good conversation.”

One area Blaney admits he’s improved in the car is remaining calm.

“It’s very easy to get frustrated when things don’t go your way, you get angry,” he said. “Then your mind is so focused on the bad thing that happened, you’re not worried about ‘I’ve got half this race left.’

“I think that comes with age and time. You figure out that not everybody is out to get you. Things happen and we have to be able to move on from it really quickly. That’s something that I think Todd and I have done really well over the last couple of years. We sat down and talked about it. I struggle with this. 

“A couple of years ago, I said I can get upset and animated and sometimes it’s hard for me to forget it and focus forward. We worked on that a lot. We’ve gotten a lot better at it and had that communication. That comes with time. Some of it is natural and some you have to work on.”

5. Crew switch

Roush Fenway Racing has switched its teams for the final five races of the season.

Crew chief Luke Lambert, his road crew and pit crew will move to Ryan Newman’s team.

Scott Graves, his road crew and pit crew will move to Chris Buescher’s team.

Buescher is 19th in points heading to the Roval. Newman ranks 26th. Newman will be replaced by Brad Keselowski in the No. 6 car next season. Keselowski will join the team as a driver/owner.

 and on Facebook

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

1 Comment

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

1 Comment

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.