Playoff analytics: Most efficient passers, best restarters and fastest teams

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At the halfway mark of the 2021 NASCAR playoffs, 12 challengers remain championship eligible. But coming into today’s Bank of America Roval 400 (2 p.m. ET, NBC), drivers and teams are separated by the magnitude of their statistical strengths.

Let’s take a look at the best and worst of the playoffs in key stat categories:

Most efficient passer: William Byron

Byron teetered on the edge of elimination during the first playoff round and might be in need of a walk-off win today on Charlotte’s Roval to break into the Round of 8. But those notions mask what’s been a sound individual effort in the postseason, one suggesting improvement in his long-run passing acumen across a small sample size.

No driver has a higher surplus passing value* during the playoffs than Byron’s +5.03% mark, from which he’s earned a combined pass differential 68 positions better than a statistical expectation set by his average running position.

Given his average whereabouts in four of the five playoff races were on par with his regular-season average, this is a significant leap over his regular season effort. His SPV after the first 26 races finished in the red, a -0.15% mark, the worst among Hendrick Motorsports’ four drivers.

* Surplus passing value measures the difference in a driver’s adjusted pass efficiency and the expected APE of a driver with the same average running position, based on a field-wide slope.

Least efficient passer: Kevin Harvick

Harvick fares as the least efficient long-run mover among remaining playoff drivers. His -4.81% SPV yielded a combined pass differential 49 positions worse than his statistical expectation and no single race with a positive differential.

Through green-flag pit cycles, crew chief Rodney Childers secured 16 spots worth of track position at Richmond and Las Vegas, supplementing his driver’s long runs well enough to emerge with top-10 finishes in both races.

Best all-around restarters: Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin

Both Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have put on short run masterclasses during these playoffs.

Truex’s 76% retention rate from inside the first seven rows paces all drivers. He’s one of three drivers with a perfect 100% rate when restarting from the preferred groove specifically. He’s earned 1.64 positions per restart, the second-best average among playoff drivers.

Hamlin, meanwhile, has mitigated typical positional losses on non-preferred groove restarts better than any of his fellow playoff competitors. On 11 such attempts, he’s lost just four positions, beneficial to his playoff-best 17-position net gain. His 75.86% retention rate ranks second, trailing only Truex.

Worst all-around restarter: Kevin Harvick

In addition to his poor output on long runs, Harvick’s short runs — namely, the two-lap windows following each start or restart — are hindering his positional progress.

His 53.33% position retention rate stands as the worst among playoff drivers, as does his 9.09% retention rate from the non-preferred groove specifically.

Fortunately, he seems to be aware of this shortcoming; across 30 choose-rule attempts, he elected to restart from the preferred groove 19 times. Leaning on the strength of each track’s strongest groove has allowed him to minimize a net positional loss (-5 spots) one might expect to be larger given the relative tossup provided by his retention rate.

Fastest team: Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing

Hamlin’s Toyota Camry, the fastest car in the playoffs, ranked as the fastest (per its median lap rank) at Richmond and Las Vegas, while his fastest lap in each of the first five playoff races placed within the top four among each driver’s best lap.

It’s a development that’s somewhat surprising but not unexpected. His car ranked as the second fastest overall during the regular season and fastest on 750-horsepower ovals specifically. This initial stretch of playoff races saw three 750-horsepower tracks — key in his success during the run — but producing the fastest car at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway represented a new, result-shifting wrinkle for 2021 from this No. 11 team.

Hamlin’s fastest outings on 550-horsepower tracks during the regular season came at Kansas and Michigan, races in which his median lap time ranked third.

Slowest team: Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports

It’s been a forgettable playoffs to date for Bowman, in part because he and his team have yet to produce top-five speed on any track, a feat they managed in five of the 26 regular-season contests.

Success in the playoffs, based on speed, was likely to prove difficult for Bowman. He came into the playoffs ranked 10th in median lap time on 550-horsepower tracks and 11th on 750-horsepower ovals, facing a schedule predominantly comprised of his slowest track type.

His fastest car relative to the playoff field came last weekend at Talladega. His median lap ranked eighth in the race and fourth among playoff drivers but didn’t manifest in a windfall of points or a good result. A crash on lap 99 relegated him to a 38th-place finish. He sits 52 points below the cutoff, in need of a win today at the Roval to advance into the Round of 8.

Biggest speed improvement: Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing

Harvick’s survival in the playoffs to this point and his potential advancement — he’s nine points below the cutoff in advance of today’s race — are a testament to a team effort, a yearlong turnaround after an early-season struggle. At the conclusion of the regular season, his No. 4 team ranked 11th in average median lap time, sixth on 750-horsepower ovals specifically and 11th on 550-horsepower non-drafting tracks.

In the playoffs, they rank third overall, with his best single-race speed of the entire season coming at Bristol, at which he had the second-fastest car and led 71 laps en route to a runner-up finish. But his 13th-ranked median lap time at Las Vegas might be a sign of things to come in a penultimate round consisting of two similar tracks at Texas and Kansas, if he advances past the Round of 12.

Despite the driver’s foibles and what his team’s speed might deliver him within the next three weeks, it’s been a better, more productive playoff appearance than Harvick or crew chief Childers probably anticipated at its onset.

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond Raceway

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The NASCAR Cup Series’ first short track points race of the season is scheduled Sunday at Richmond Raceway, a presence on the NASCAR schedule since 1953.

Tyler Reddick is coming off his first win of the season last Sunday at Circuit of the Americas. He gave Toyota its first victory of the year.

MORE: William Byron is No. 1 in NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

The Richmond race is the first of three consecutive events on short tracks. The series will race on the dirt surface at Bristol Motor Speedway April 9 and the Martinsville Speedway half-mile April 16.

A look at drivers to watch Sunday at Richmond:

FRONTRUNNERS

Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 10th
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (COTA)
  • Past at Richmond: No finish better than 11th in five career starts

Reddick showed the promise of what could be a strong season by dominating Sunday’s race at COTA. His victory boosted him five spots in points to 10th. Richmond, a track where he has never led a lap, will be a test.

William Byron

  • Points position: 22nd
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (Las Vegas 1, Phoenix 1)
  • Past at Richmond: Led 122 laps in April race last year

Byron had a top car in this race last season but was passed by Denny Hamlin for the win with five laps remaining. Byron finished third, his career-best run at Richmond.

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 11th
  • Best seasonal finish: 6th (Auto Club, Atlanta 1)
  • Past at Richmond: Four consecutive top-four runs, including a win

Hamlin can be counted on to challenge for the win every time the tour rolls into Richmond. He has won there in 2009, ’10, ’16 and ’22.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Daniel Suarez

  • Points position: 14th
  • Best seasonal finish: 4th (Auto Club)
  • Past at Richmond: Best career finish is 7th

After opening the season with top-10 runs at Daytona, Fontana and Las Vegas, Saurez has plummeted into the 20s in three consecutive races. Richmond will present another big challenge. Suarez has five consecutive finishes of 16th or worse there.

Ryan Preece

  • Points position: 29th
  • Best seasonal finish: 12th (Phoenix 1)
  • Past at Richmond: Top finish of 20th in five career starts

Preece’s first full-time season in the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 has started poorly. He has been sidelined by accidents in three races and was more upset than most after being parked by a multi-car crash Sunday at COTA.

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: 16th
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Las Vegas 1, COTA)
  • Past at Richmond: Three top 10s, including a win, in past five races

Bowman seems poised to score his first victory of the season. He has been among the tour’s most consistent drivers to date, with five top-10 finishes in six races.

 

 

 

What takes place in a NASCAR appeal hearing? Here’s a look

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Hendrick Motorsports is scheduled to have its appeal hearing at 10 a.m. ET Wednesday.

So what will happen in the appeal hearing? Here is a look at the process, based on the NASCAR Cup Rule Book.

NASCAR penalized Hendrick Motorsports for modifications to hood louvers. Those penalties were:

  • Docked Alex BowmanKyle Larson and William Byron 100 points and 10 playoff points each.
  • Suspended crew chiefs Cliff Daniels, Alan Gustafson, Rudy Fugle and Blake Harris four races each and fined each $100,000.
  • Penalized each of the four Hendrick teams 100 owner points and 10 playoff points.

Before the appeal hearing starts, both sides — in this case, Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR — must file a written summary presenting their case before the hearing.

The summary must not be longer than two single-spaced pages. Any attachments or appendices either side intends to present during the hearing must be included. Such attachments or appendices may include, but are not limited to, video, written statements, diagrams, photographs and charts.

The summary is to be filed by 5 p.m. ET two days before the beginning of the hearing. The summary shall be confidential and not released to the public. The Cup Rule Book says that releasing the summary to the public “may result in a penalty.”

The appeal will be heard by three members. They will come from a pool of panelists. The Cup Rule Book lists 19 panelists. That group includes former drivers Mike Skinner, Lake Speed, Bill Lester, Shawna Robinson and Lyn St. James, along with others in various roles in motorsports.

The Cup Rule Book states that “in seating an Appeals Panel, the Administrator shall take into consideration the panelists’ availability, background, professional experience and knowledge.”

The Cup Rule Book states “the burden rests on NASCAR to show that it is more likely than not that a violation … has occurred, and that the Penalty Notice issued is within the guidelines of the NASCAR Rules.”

Both parties are allowed in the hearing room while each side presents evidence. NASCAR goes first.

After both sides finish, there is a break before an optional rebuttal period. NASCAR has the chance to go first, followed by those appealing.

Once that is complete, NASCAR is permitted one last opportunity to “argue, explain, or present rebuttal on the facts and violation” to the appeal panel since NASCAR carries the burden of proof.

The appeal panelists may ask questions to either group or any witnesses at any time during the hearing.

Decisions by the three-member National Motorsports Appeals Panel do not need to be unanimous.

The National Motorsports Appeals Panel can affirm the penalty or adjust it. The panel can rescind some or all of the penalties or increase any or all penalties.

When NASCAR penalized William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Hamlin during a caution in last year’s playoff race at Texas, Hendrick Motorsports appealed. The National Motorsports Appeals Panel rescinded the 25-point penalty but increased his fine to $100,000. NASCAR amended its rule book after the panel’s decision.

NASCAR does not have the option to appeal the panel’s decision. Those who filed the appeal can further appeal the panel’s decision to the Final Appeal Officer. That decision can’t be appealed.

Kaulig Racing and Denny Hamlin each will go through this process when their appeals are heard. Kaulig Racing’s appeal is April 5 for modifications to a hood louver. Hamlin’s appeal is April 6 for intentionally wrecking Ross Chastain on the last lap of the Phoenix race.

NASCAR Power Rankings: William Byron returns to No. 1

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After last Sunday’s crashfest at Circuit of the Americas, the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings experienced another jumble, and William Byron returns to the top spot.

Byron took fifth place in the chaos of the triple-overtime finish. He and winner Tyler Reddick were the top dogs in the Cup Series’ first road race of the year, Byron leading 28 laps and Reddick 41. No one else led more than two laps.

MORE: COTA finish — Entertaining and messy

Christopher Bell, last week’s No. 1, fell to fifth place after a 31st-place finish at COTA.

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. William Byron (second last week) — Byron, the season’s only multiple winner with two, finished fifth Sunday, marking his career first top five on a road course. He won the pole and the first stage.

2. Kyle Busch (third last week) — Busch continues to make his new partnership at Richard Childress Racing look good. His second-place run Sunday is his fourth top-10 finish in the season’s first six races.

3. Ross Chastain (sixth last week) — Despite being pushed around in the late going Sunday, Chastain persisted, re-emerging at the front to challenge the leaders and finish fourth. He has finished in the top four in all three COTA races and leads the points standings.

4. Alex Bowman (fifth last week) — Bowman continued his seasonal consistency, finishing third at COTA. He has finished in the top 10 in five of six races.

5. Christopher Bell (first last week) — Bell falls from the top spot in the rankings after being booted from Sunday’s race in a late-race accident. He dropped three spots in the Cup points standings to fifth.

6. Joey Logano (fourth last week) — Logano was mostly absent from Sunday’s front-of-the-pack jousting. He limped home in 28th and drops two spots in the rankings.

7. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick bursts into the rankings in a big way, easily outclassing the rest of the field on the way to victory at COTA. Challenged repeatedly by cautions that extended the race into three overtimes, he refused to give up the shot at his first win of the year.

8. Denny Hamlin (seventh last week) — Winless this year, Hamlin nevertheless keeps popping up around the front. Sunday’s late-race mess dropped him to 16th at the checkered flag.

9. Kyle Larson (eighth last week) — Larson seemed to be the race’s pingpong ball Sunday as he was bounced around during some of the tightest racing. He rallied to reach 14th.

10. Kevin Harvick (ninth last week) — Harvick’s final season has been a mix of the good and the bad, with two top-five runs, challenges for wins and a 33rd-place finish at Atlanta. He was 13th Sunday.

Dropped out: Brad Keselowski (10th last week).

 

Ross Chastain after COTA race: ‘Are you not entertained?’

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One driver evoked the movie “Gladiator” after Sunday’s Cup race at Circuit of the Americas. Another could be penalized for his actions after the checkered flag. Others expressed dismay at what the end of the event became.

A race that had been a thrilling duel devolved into a demolition derby over the final laps, leaving feelings as bruised as some of the cars.

While Tyler Reddick celebrated his first win of the season, other drivers stewed at what the racing became. Three overtimes were needed to finish the event due to incidents in the Turn 1 hairpin. Then again, it should not have been surprising, coming a week after Kyle Busch said: “We have completely lost any sense of respect in the garage between the drivers”.

“Are you not entertained?” Ross Chastain exclaimed, evoking Russell Crowe’s famous movie line. “This is what we love. I don’t love doing it, but … as a sport we’re not boring.”

Chastain is correct, the sport is not boring. But it’s fair to ask if the sport has crossed a line. Is it OK for races to end this way? If not, how to change it is a more difficult notion.

The action has been getting more aggressive this season. It was evident in the Clash at the Coliseum when drivers charged into the corners and slammed into the back of cars as a way to slow down to make the tight turns.

Sunday marked the third time in the last four road course races that the event went to overtime. In the previous 28 road course races — dating back to 2012 — only three went to overtime.

It makes one wonder what could happen this weekend when the Cup series races at Richmond Raceway, beginning a three-week stretch at short tracks that includes the Bristol dirt race and Martinsville.

“These cars are so tough,” Chastain said. “We can run into each other. There are just lines of cars all pushing each other (on the restarts) on the brakes. Nobody is going in there saying, ‘I’m going to hit somebody,’ but it’s just the leader has to check up and it just magnifies itself.”

Chastain’s teammate, Daniel Suarez, was not happy after the race. He ran into the back of Chastain’s car, knocking him out of the way as they entered pit road and then hit the back of Bowman’s car on pit road.

Section 4.4.B of the Cup Rule Book states that drivers can be penalized for “Intentionally damaging another vehicle on pit road.” Such a penalty could result in the loss of 25-50 driver and/or team owner points and/or $50,000-$100,000 fine. Violations may also result in a suspension.

Suarez restarted fifth in the second overtime restart but left the inside lane open. Alex Bowman, with Ross Chastain and Chase Briscoe aligned behind, charged and got beside Suarez as they approached Turn 1.

As Bowman slowed to make the tight turn, he was hit from behind and that sent him into Suarez, who clipped the left rear of Martin Truex Jr.’s car. Truex spun in front of Suarez and blocked his path, allowing the rest of the field to drive by and costing Suarez a top-five finish. Suarez finished 27th.

Suarez spoke briefly with Bowman before having a discussion with Chastain.

“The problem is if you don’t peek out and bomb the guy in front of you, the guy behind you does it to you,” Bowman said. “So what do you do there? It’s not right. The way we race is embarrassing, and if 12-year-olds were doing it, we’d be yelling at them, but here we are saying it’s the best thing in the world on TV.”

Chris Buescher simply called Sunday’s race “our first bumper car race of the year.”

Austin Dillon said: “The end of the race became a typical NASCAR road course race. It was just a mess. We drove up into the hill on a restart and everyone just pile drove into each other.”

Jordan Taylor, making his first Cup start as he filled in for an injured Chase Elliott, was struck by what the restarts were like.

“Every restart, you just get smashed in the front, rear, side,” he said. “So yeah, it was pretty much just survival.”

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Sunday’s race was scheduled to go 68 laps but was extended to 75 laps by the late cautions.

Here is a look at the drivers who gained the most and lost the most positions from where they were running on Lap 68 to where they were running on Lap 75:

Most positions gained

18 – Kyle Larson (finished 14th)

17 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (finished 7th)

16 – Kevin Harvick (finished 13th)

12 – Todd Gilliland (finished 10th)

9 – Ryan Blaney (finished 21st)

8 – Noah Gragson (finished 20th)

7 – Austin Cindric (finished 6th)

6 – Corey LaJoie (finished 11th)

Most positions lost

23 – Daniel Suarez (finished 27th)

20 – Joey Logano (finished 28th)

15 – Kimi Raikkonen (finished 29th)

12 – Christopher Bell (finished 31st)

12 – Martin Truex Jr. (finished 17th)

10 – Aric Almirola (finished 30th)

9 – Jordan Taylor (finished 24th)

6 – Michael McDowell (finished 12th)

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Tyler Reddick and Kyle Busch, who switched rides before this season, have both won in the first six races.

This marks the third year in a row that two drivers with new Cup rides have won so early in the year.

Last year, Austin Cindric and Ross Chastain each won in the first six races of the year. Cindric had driven a few Cup races previously for Team Penske but last year was his first year in the No. 2 car. Chastain did have the same crew chief and other crew members at Trackhouse Racing after it purchased Chip Ganassi Racing.

In 2021, Kyle Larson, in his first season at Hendrick Motorsports, and Christopher Bell, in his rookie Cup season with Joe Gibbs Racing, each won within the first four races of that year.