Lacking a true dominator, 750-horsepower tracks see best of several playoff drivers

0 Comments

Two races remain in 2021, both at tracks utilizing the 750-horsepower rules package. They’ll stand as the final two races on the quantifiably popular package before it’s replaced by one using 670 horsepower and a taller four-inch spoiler (up from 2.75 inches, used both last year and this year).

This current package, predominately on tracks a mile or shorter, is the fulcrum of the two most important races of the Cup Series season — the penultimate round’s finale and the winner-take-all championship race. Different from races this season on 550-horsepower tracks and road courses where Hendrick Motorsports tallied 11 of a possible 19 wins, events on 750-horsepower ovals have been wide open, both in terms of performance metrics and results.

There doesn’t appear to be one true king of the 750-horsepower tracks this year, which makes the next two weekends all the more fascinating, in addition to their preexisting championship implications. A few of the playoff contenders have proved themselves in some form or fashion, either through basic stats (like wins or points earned) or advanced metrics:

Martin Truex Jr.

Ranks first in wins (four) and first in position retention rate on restarts (77.27%)

Truex’s four victories is the biggest tally on the track type in question. While he wasn’t an outright dominator — he turned the fastest median lap in just one of those wins (Darlington) — and ranks fourth in average median lap time this season across all 750-horsepower tracks, he and his team displayed a knack for late-race heroics. In three of his four wins, he turned the fastest median lap of the final stage. The outlier, the spring race in Martinsville, saw him secure the fastest median lap across the final 100 circuits of the 500-lap contest.

Crew chief James Small assisted in making the car progressively faster, tapping into early caution periods and whatever other yellows fell to their benefit. But Truex’s sterling short runs on 750-horsepower ovals kept them in the ballgame, even after longer-than-usual pit stops necessary for radical setup adjustments. No driver defended his restarting position on these tracks more frequently than Truex’s 77.27% clip. This maintenance of positioning at the beginning of runs was enough of a springboard until the adjusted-upon speed kicked in on long runs.

Denny Hamlin

Ranks first in average median lap time ranking (5.43) and first in points averaged (46.8)

It seemed as if Hamlin left two surefire wins on the table at both Martinsville and Richmond in the regular season, but panic over the outcomes glossed over the fact that his near-perfect performance on 750-horsepower tracks is significantly improved over his 2020 effort.

In isolation, he accomplished things this year no other driver could. His was the only car to pass for the lead on a restart when starting from the outside line on the front row at Martinsville, a short-run stalwart that ultimately lost to Truex after a 41-lap run to the finish. He also took advantage of strategy and restarts in the playoff opener at Darlington, using the fourth-fastest car in the race to defeat the fastest car (Kyle Larson), claiming his first victory of 2021 and the third Southern 500 win of his career.

For the whole of the season, no car has been faster per average median lap time than Hamlin’s. He also turned the fastest median lap and the fastest lap in general at Phoenix, a notion that, if Hamlin makes it through Martinsville, should give Larson supporters pause before anointing their driver the favorite in the championship race.

Ryan Blaney

Ranks first in expected adjusted pass efficiency (53.84%) and first in positions gained on restarts (+22)

To this point in his career, Blaney has only won on big racetracks. All seven of his Cup victories came on tracks 1.5 miles or larger. But his record belies his ability, especially at facilities utilizing the 750-horsepower package.

He led over 31% of the spring race at Martinsville and recorded the fastest median lap on the equally flat half-mile track in New Hampshire. Neither of those races amounted to commensurate results — he finished 11th and fifth, respectively — but they potentially serve as a precursor of things to come. He also led 35 laps in the Phoenix spring race. If he advances to the Championship 4, he’s a legitimate threat to win the title.

That threat is a consistent one. By virtue of his regularity at the front of fields, his expected adjusted pass efficiency (53.84%) tops the series on 750-horsepower ovals. He backs up this statistical expectation with the third-best actual adjusted pass efficiency and the biggest positional gain on restarts (+22), establishing himself as a viable driver on runs long and short.

Chase Elliott

Ranks second in actual adjusted pass efficiency (55.91%) and second in average best lap time (5.91)

The reigning champ now approaches two tracks that catapulted him to the title but may lack equivalent speed in what’s become a more crowded specialty within the series. His car ranks sixth in average median lap time, but his second-place standing in his average best lap time — the average ranking of a team’s best lap in each race — suggests there’s realistic room for growth at an opportune time.

A sudden but achievable improvement in how Elliott sustains speed, coupled with the reliability of his long-run passing — he ranks second in both adjusted pass efficiency and first among playoff drivers in surplus passing value — could unlock a driver whose best days as a NASCAR driver came at Martinsville and Phoenix just one year ago.

Joey Logano

Ranks second in average median lap time ranking (8.58) and second in positions gained on restarts (+21)

Despite going winless on the non-dirt 750-horsepower ovals, Logano averaged the fourth-most points, a subtle reminder that there’s more here than meets the eye. His Team Penske entry ranks as the second fastest on tracks utilizing the rules package and he’s one position short of stablemate Blaney’s restarting net.

But given his distance to the cutline, the stature of his performance Sunday will have to be better than anything we’ve seen from him to this point in the season and could perhaps require a healthy dose of long runs toward the end of the race, helping take advantage of his biggest strength.

Beyond Martinsville sits Phoenix, where Logano led a race-high 45.8% of the race in the spring.

Kyle Larson

Ranks first in actual adjusted pass efficiency (56.1%) and third in average median lap ranking (8.71)

Even with the heightened competition on 750-horsepower tracks, Larson is elite in spots. He’s a two-time winner this season, though his triumphs at Nashville and Bristol don’t totally translate to the tracks we’ll see over the next two weeks. Still, he has a lot of speed — ranked third in average median lap time — and passes efficiently. He has the second-biggest points total on these tracks to this point but requires improvement at Phoenix if he intends on securing the championship.

A lack of advantage for any driver, including Larson, is apparent. The next two weeks don’t favor any one driver in particular which could make for an entertaining final stretch for both the 2021 season and the era of the 750-horsepower package.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

0 Comments

Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

4 Comments

NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

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.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

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

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

1 Comment

Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

2 Comments

A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.