Texas storylines: The candy man can?


Kyle Busch is still standing.

The two-time Cup Series champion has made the Round of 8 despite facing various dramas.

In the Round of 16, he wrecked at Darlington and was fined $50,000 for his actions after the incident. Two weeks later at Bristol, a late-race flat tire nearly ended his postseason early before he recovered to finish 21st and advance.

In the Round of 12 at Talladega, he was one of nine drivers involved in the day’s biggest wreck and finished 27th. That put him on the cutline for last week’s elimination race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, but a fourth-place finish saw him advance.

These ups and downs have been typical for Busch since July. Over the past 11 races, he’s posted five top-10 finishes and six finishes of 20th or worse, including three DNFs.

But he’s now just one win away from making the championship race. At the Round of 8 tracks – Texas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Martinsville Speedway – he has eight career Cup wins.

Four of them have come at Texas, which hosts the round’s opening race Sunday (2 p.m. ET, NBC). The most recent of those Texas triumphs came last fall.

With that win, he extended his streak of consecutive seasons with at least one victory to 16. He’s since extended that streak to 17 seasons with wins this year at Kansas and Pocono.

But last fall at Texas, keeping that streak alive was all Busch could race for. He had been eliminated from the playoffs in the Round of 12.

Sunday in Fort Worth and over the next three weeks, he’ll be racing for bigger stakes.

Right from the start

Denny Hamlin has advanced to the Round of 8 by winning the opening races in the first two rounds.

Hamlin claimed his first win of the season in the Round of 16 opener at Darlington Raceway. That moved him to the Round of 12, which he began by taking another win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He’s the third driver to earn two consecutive wins in playoff round opening races.

In 2016, Jimmie Johnson won the Round of 12 opener on the Charlotte Motor Speedway oval and the Round of 8 opener at Martinsville Speedway. In 2017, Martin Truex Jr. won the Round of 16 opener at Chicagoland Speedway, then won the Round of 12 opener at the Charlotte oval.

Both Johnson and Truex went on to win the championship in those years.

Will Hamlin be the third? So far, he’s been the most consistent in the playoffs. He’s the only playoff driver to earn top-10 finishes in all six races.

The only driver with a longer top-10 streak to open the playoffs? Johnson rattled off seven straight top-10s to start the 2008 and 2009 playoffs. He won the title in both years.

But Hamlin is not entirely in an ideal situation to start the Round of 8. He only has an initial seven-point cushion above the cutline.

While Hamlin is a three-time winner at Texas, he hasn’t been solid there in recent years. In his last nine Texas races, Hamlin has earned four top-10 finishes (including a win in March 2019) but also five finishes of 20th or worse. He’s also only scored points in two of the last 10 stages at Texas.

Perhaps most important to keep in mind? Per Racing Insights, he’s suffered penalties in five of his last six Texas races.

Down to two

There will be no Hendrick Motorsports lockout of the Championship 4 in Phoenix. The eliminations of William Byron and Alex Bowman saw to that.

But if you’re Rick Hendrick, you’re still feeling good about the two drivers you have left in contention.

In his impressive first season with HMS, Larson has been dominant on 1.5-mile tracks like Texas. On that track type, he’s won twice, posted an average finish of 7.9, and led a series-best 931 laps. And he won this year’s All-Star Race at – you guessed it – Texas.

With a 42-point cushion above the cutline, Larson is in the catbird’s seat to reach his first Championship 4.

As for Chase Elliott, things seem more iffy on the surface. Elliott starts the Round of 8 at a two-point deficit below the cutline. Only eight points separate him from second-place Hamlin.

Like Larson, Texas hasn’t been a solid track for Elliott. He hasn’t had a top-five finish there since 2016 and has averaged a 19th-place finish in his last four races there.

But the reigning Cup champion should still enter with confidence after coming out on top of a revived feud with Kevin Harvick, who was also eliminated from the playoffs last week.

It’s the second time that’s happened for Elliott in the playoffs.

During the 2017 playoffs, Elliott was spun out of a potential victory and a spot in the title race by Denny Hamlin at Martinsville. Two weeks later at Phoenix, Elliott made contact with Hamlin that ultimately led to Hamlin losing a tire and hitting the wall, ruining his own shot at making the title race.

Elliott may not strike you as having a particularly intimidating presence. But the events of last week and four years ago should all add up to a warning for everyone left in the playoffs: Cross him at your own risk.


After closing the regular season with back-to-back wins at Michigan and Daytona, Ryan Blaney was one of many playoff contenders waylaid by misfortune in the opener at Darlington. A pit road penalty and a spin later in the race relegated him to a 22nd-place finish.

Since then, Blaney has reclaimed consistency with four top-10 finishes in the last five races.

He could be on for another good showing this week. While Blaney is winless at Texas, he’s recorded six finishes of eighth or better in his last seven starts there. Also, his 403 laps led there are second-most for him only to the 484 laps he’s led at Bristol.

It’s also important to remember that two of his three wins this year (Atlanta, Michigan) have come with the 550-horsepower package, which at times has been an area of weakness for Team Penske and Ford this season.

This week’s race at Texas and next week’s race at Kansas Speedway are both 550 horsepower races.

Cindric’s time?

As the Round of 8 begins Saturday in the Xfinity Series playoffs (3 p.m. ET, NBC), one wonders if it’s time for Austin Cindric to make a statement.

The opening round of the playoffs was solid for Cindric, the reigning series champion. He finished fourth at Las Vegas, eighth at Talladega, and second at the Charlotte Roval to advance easily.

But Cindric has not won since mid-August. In the ensuing span, Kaulig Racing and JR Motorsports have combined to win seven of eight races. Kaulig’s AJ Allmendinger – Cindric’s biggest title rival – has won three of those eight, including last week at the Roval.

Texas seems as good a place as any for Cindric to return to Victory Lane.

Of the eight remaining playoff drivers, he’s the only one with an average finish inside the top five at Texas (4.9 through seven starts). He’s also one of two playoff drivers with previous wins there (Harrison Burton is the other). And as noted in Tuesday’s Round of 8 outlook, Cindric also has the best average finish among full-time drivers on 1.5-mile tracks this season.

He finished third in June at Texas behind winner Kyle Busch and Justin Allgaier.

Dr. Diandra: How level is the playing field after 50 Next Gen races?


Last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 marks 50 Next Gen races. The 2022 season produced 19 different winners, including a few first-career wins. Let’s see what the data say about how level the playing field is now.

I’m comparing the first 50 Next Gen races (the 2022 season plus the first 14 races of 2023) to the 2020 season and the first 14 races of 2021. I selected those two sets of races to produce roughly the same types of tracks. I focus on top-10 finishes as a metric for performance. Below, I show the top-10 finishes for the 13 drivers who ran for the same team over the periods in question.

A table comparing top-10 rates for drivers in the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars, limited to drivers who ran for the same team the entire time.

Because some drivers missed races, I compare top-10 rates: the number of top-10 finishes divided by the number of races run. The graph below shows changes in top-10 rates for the drivers who fared the worst with the Next Gen car.

A graph showing drivers who have done better in the next-gen car than the Gen-6 car.

Six drivers had double-digit losses in their top-10 rates. Kevin Harvick had the largest drop, with 74% top-10 finishes in the Gen-6 sample but only 46% top-10 finishes in the first 50 Next Gen races.

Kyle Larson didn’t qualify for the graph because he ran only four races in 2020. I thought it notable, however, that despite moving from the now-defunct Chip Ganassi NASCAR team to Hendrick Motorsports, Larson’s top-10 rate fell from 66.7% to 48.0%.

The next graph shows the corresponding data for drivers who improved their finishes in the Next Gen car. This graph again includes only drivers who stayed with the same team.

A graph showing the drivers who have fewer top-10 finishes in the Next Gen car than the Gen-6 car

Alex Bowman had a marginal gain, but he missed six races this year. Therefore, his percent change value is less robust than other drivers’ numbers.

Expanding the field

I added drivers who changed teams to the dataset and highlighted them in gray.

A table comparing top-10 rates for drivers in the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars

A couple notes on the new additions:

  • Brad Keselowski had the largest loss in top-10 rate of any driver, but that may be more attributable to his move from Team Penske to RFK Motorsports rather than to the Next Gen car.
  • Christopher Bell moved from Leavine Family Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2021. His improvement is likely overestimated due to equipment quality differences.
  • Erik Jones stayed even, but that’s after moving from JGR (13 top-10 finishes in 2020) to Richard Petty Motorsports (six top 10s in 2021.) I view that change as a net positive.

At the end of last season, I presented the tentative hypothesis that older drivers had a harder time adapting to the Next Gen car. Less practice time mitigated their experience dialing in a car so that it was to their liking given specific track conditions.

But something else leaps out from this analysis.

Is the playing field tilting again?

Michael McDowell is not Harvick-level old, but he will turn 39 this year. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 35. Both have improved with the Next Gen Car. Chase Elliott (27 years old) and William Byron (25) aren’t old, either, but their top-10 rates have gone down.

Drivers running for the best-funded teams earned fewer top-10 finishes while drivers from less-funded teams (mostly) gained those finishes.

Trackhouse Racing and 23XI — two of the newest teams — account for much of the gains in top-10 finishes. Ross Chastain isn’t listed in the table because he didn’t have full-time Cup Series rides in 2020 or 2021. His 9.1% top-10 rate in that period is with lower-level equipment. He earned 27 top-10 finishes in the first 50 races (54%) with the Next Gen car.

This analysis suggests that age isn’t the only relevant variable. One interpretation of the data thus far is that the Next Gen (and its associated rules changes) eliminated the advantage well-funded teams built up over years of racing the Gen-5 and Gen-6 cars.

The question now is whether that leveling effect is wearing off. Even though parts are the same, more money means being able to hire the best people and buying more expensive computers for engineering simulations.

Compare the first 14 races of 2022 to the first 14 of 2023.

  • Last year at this time, 23XI and Trackhouse Racing had each won two races. This year, they combine for one win.
  • It took Byron eight races to win his second race of the year in 2022. This year, he won the third and fourth races of the year. Plus, he’s already won his third race this year.
  • Aside from Stenhouse’s Daytona 500 win, this year’s surprise winners — Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney — are both from major teams.

We’re only 14 races into the 2023 season. There’s not enough data to determine the relative importance of age versus building a notebook for predicting success in the Next Gen car.

But this is perhaps the most important question. The Next Gen car leveled the playing field last year.

Will it stay level?

NASCAR weekend schedule at World Wide Technology Raceway, Portland


NASCAR’s top three series are racing this weekend in two different locations. Cup and Craftsman Truck teams will compete at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, and the Xfinity Series will compete at Portland International Raceway.

World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (Cup and Trucks)

Weekend weather

Friday: Partly cloudy with a high of 87 degrees during Truck qualifying.

Saturday: Sunny. Temperatures will be around 80 degrees for the start of Cup practice and climb to 88 degrees by the end of Cup qualifying. Forecast calls for sunny skies and a high of 93 degrees around the start of the Truck race.

Sunday: Mostly sunny with a high of 92 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the Cup race.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 1 – 8 p.m. Craftsman Truck Series
  • 4 – 9 p.m. Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 6:30 p.m. — Truck practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. — Truck qualifying (FS1)

Saturday, June 3

Garage open

  • 8 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.  — Cup Series
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series

Track activity

  • 10 – 10:45 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 10:45 a.m. – 12 p.m. — Cup qualifying  (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 1:30 p.m. — Truck race (160 laps, 200 miles; FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, June 4

Garage open

  • 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (240 laps, 300 miles; FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)


Portland International Raceway (Xfinity Series)

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly sunny with a high of 77 degrees.

Saturday: Mostly sunny with a high of 73 degrees and no chance of rain around the start of the Xfinity race.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 6-11 p.m. Xfinity Series

Saturday, June 3

Garage open

  • 10 a.m.  — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 11:30 a.m. – 12 p.m. — Xfinity practice (No TV)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 4:30 p.m. — Xfinity race (75 laps, 147.75 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR Cup playoff standings after Coca-Cola 600


The severe penalty to Chase Briscoe and his Stewart-Haas Racing team Wednesday for a counterfeit part dropped Briscoe from 17th to 31st in the season standings. Briscoe now must win a race to have a chance at the playoffs.

The penalty came a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for his retaliation in wrecking Denny Hamlin in Monday’s Coca-Cola 600. Elliott is 28th in the points. The 2020 Cup champion also needs to win to have a chance to make the playoffs.

Ten drivers have won races, including Coca-Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney. That leaves six playoff spots to be determined by points at this time. With 12 races left in the regular season, including unpredictable superspeedway races at Atlanta (July 9) and Daytona (Aug. 26), the playoff standings will change during the summer.

Among those without a win this season are points leader Ross Chastain and former champions Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Elliott.

Here’s a look at the Cup playoff standings heading into Sunday’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois. Drivers in yellow have won a race and are in a playoff position. Those below the red line after 16th place are outside a playoff spot in the graphic below.

NASCAR issues major penalties to Chase Briscoe team for Charlotte infraction


NASCAR fined crew chief John Klausmeier $250,000 and suspended him six races, along with penalizing Chase Briscoe and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team 120 points and 25 playoff points each for a counterfeit part on the car.

The issue was a counterfeit engine NACA duct, said Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition. That is a single-source part.

MORE: Updated Cup playoff standings

The team stated that it accepts the L3 penalty.

“We had a quality control lapse and a part that never should’ve been on a car going to the racetrack ended up on the No. 14 car at Charlotte,” said Greg Zipadelli in a statement from the team. “We accept NASCAR’s decision and will not appeal.”

Asked how then piece could have aided performance, Sawyer said Wednesday: “Knowing the race team mentality, they don’t do things that would not be a benefit to them in some way, shape or form from a performance advantage.”

The penalty drops Briscoe from 17th in the season standings to 31st in the standings. Briscoe goes from having 292 points to having 172 points. He’ll have to win to make the playoffs. Briscoe has no playoff points at this time, so the penalty puts him at -25 playoff points should he make it.

Briscoe’s car was one of two taken to the R&D Center after Monday’s Coca-Cola 600 for additional tear down by series officials.

The penalty comes a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in last weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.