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

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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.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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.