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.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway

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After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

 

 

 

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”