What matters at Texas: Minimal tire wear creates strategy smorgasbord

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What matters in the Round of 8 opener and how might minimal falloff on worn tires affect track position? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping today’s race at Texas Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC):

Texas is a strategist’s delight

The setup of today’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, 500 miles on a 1.5-mile track utilizing the divisive 550-horsepower rules package, might not foster action in the traditional sense. But the minimal lap time degradation on worn tires emboldens crew chiefs, green-lighting a variety of possible pit strategies.

The 2019 spring race won by Denny Hamlin saw an outcome that surprises no one in hindsight, but in the moment, it was an impressive feat. Crew chief Chris Gabehart produced a strategy outlay that resulted in 13 positions gained across the event’s final three green-flag pit cycles, steady increases in track position that, coupled with the fourth-fastest car in the race, successfully overcame four separate pit road miscues prior to the final stage.

Last year’s summer race in Texas was a victory born out of observation. Richard Childress Racing swept the first two finishing positions with Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick after eschewing four-tire stops during the day’s final full-field pit cycle. Though they had cars ranked as the 15th and 17th fastest in the race, the organization correctly recognized that while wear on tires was optically bad, lap times weren’t falling off. They opted for track position and never looked back.

The range of degradation on worn tires in last year’s playoff race at Texas was 0.0-0.2 seconds, meaning green-flag pit cycles — namely, the question of when to pit — should see an array of timing. Long-pitting provides a built-in bet on a caution flag while guaranteeing a full tank of fuel. Short-pitting is typically advantageous in terms of immediate impact but requires some conservative throttle use in order to preserve gas for a long green-flag run. To wit, Kyle Busch was the fifth driver pitted early in the final cycle; he conserved fuel well enough to win the race.

Under yellow, two-tire bids are entirely plausible, especially late in the race. The track position and clean air that positioning provides is enough for a smart restarter to neutralize the small disadvantage he may have on tire wear.

Every possible strategic play is on the table, the winning combination unknown. How successful strategies are popularly viewed will skew once the race breaks in any certain manner.

Today’s contest will see track position as its central focus. The jockeying away from the racing surface will serve as the latest chapter in a NASCAR playoff slate that’s been heavily decided by strategy, good and bad. Hamlin and Gabehart won at Darlington thanks primarily to Joe Gibbs Racing’s organizational choice to long-pit the final stage. Hendrick Motorsports removed itself from contention in the Round of 12 opener at Las Vegas after its four teams were boxed into a situation during the second stage where a costly green-flag stop, against the grain of the field, was necessary.

In this sense, it appears Hamlin, again, has a leg up on his competition. Gabehart currently stands as the only title-eligible crew chief in the 60/60 club: 60.9% position on green-flag pit cycles and 62.5% specifically when pitting from inside the top five. While Hamlin is one of the playoffs’ most productive short-run performers, ranked second in position retention on restarts, his crew chief is doing well to supplement his long runs. Track position appears elusive for most, especially on 550-horsepower tracks. But Gabehart has a knack for taking matters into his own hands, an inherent advantage:

In addition to his crew chief’s reliable strategy, Hamlin also will have the speed necessary to sustain across the 500-mile event. His car ranks third in average median lap time this season on 550-horsepower tracks. It ranked first three weeks ago in his win at Las Vegas, the first and only time this year he had the fastest car on a track utilizing the very rules package we’ll see today in Texas.

Even the best passers still need help

What does it mean when you hear that a race on a particular track is “a track position race?”

In short, it suggests that the components that typically matter a lot — speed and passing ability — matter less, either because they’re more difficult to achieve or they’re less reliable for the result. And this season, on 1.5-mile tracks similar to Texas, passing ability and high output in passing-adjacent metrics doesn’t guarantee success.

Let’s take Chase Elliott as an example. On the whole, he’s the most efficient passer among Cup Series frontrunners, and that includes his first-place ranking in surplus passing value on 550-horsepower tracks. In effect, he’s the best passer NASCAR has on the style of track we’ll see in today’s race.

But on 1.5-mile tracks, his series-best acumen yields an uneven output, turning in a positive surplus value — the difference between his actual and expected adjusted pass efficiency — in four of seven races. It’s still good relative to the rest of the field, but this doesn’t appear to be a skill to be relied upon in this kind of race:

Despite ranking as the most efficient passer on the 1.5-mile track type, Elliott’s earned just three top-five finishes in seven attempts.

Elliott offers crew chief Alan Gustafson something of a safety net relative to most other drivers — of the remaining eight playoff contenders, Elliott is one of three ranked inside the top 10 for surplus passing this season on 550-horsepower tracks — but the onus still falls on Gustafson to call an error-free race, because in addition to the two laps following each restart, pit cycles are the most vulnerable moments, capable of positional windfalls.

Consider this a subtle reminder that auto racing is a team sport disguised as an individual endeavor, and at tracks like Texas, each team is asked to take on more than its usual share of the heavy lifting.

Logano’s personal wildcard round

With Texas and Kansas, a pair of 550-horsepower tracks, and a quintessential short track in Martinsville, there appears to be something for everyone in the Round of 8. But that might not be the case for Joey Logano.

Logano’s Team Penske entry ranks 14th this season in average median lap time on 550-horsepower tracks while also ranking as the slowest among the remaining championship contenders. Individually, the driver ranks 32nd in Production in Equal Equipment Rating on the track type and holds the third-worst surplus passing value, with a differential 55 positions worse than his statistical expectation.

Martinsville stands as the one 750-horsepower track impervious to his all-around speed on tracks utilizing the rules package. He ranks second in average median lap time but turned just the ninth-best median lap for the single race at the 0.526-mile track back in April.

The irony here is that if he were to somehow qualify for the Championship 4, he’d be a favorite based on recent performance at Phoenix Raceway. He secured finishes of first, third and second in each of the last three races there and built a 4.5-second lead in the spring race before losing out to Martin Truex Jr. on a late restart.

The site of the championship race is arguably Logano’s best playoff track, but it’ll only matter if he’s able to run the gauntlet thrown at him by a penultimate round that favors him less than any other title-eligible driver.