What matters at Martinsville: Playoff teams should play to their strengths

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What matters in the Round of 8 elimination race at Martinsville Speedway and how should playoff teams choose to set up their cars? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping today’s Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock):

Martinsville magnifies a team’s strengths

A 42-lap run decided the Martinsville race last spring.

An eternity on the 0.526-mile track, Denny Hamlin’s short-run dominance gave way to the steady doses of adjustments made to Martin Truex Jr.’s car, allowing enough time for Truex to overtake his Joe Gibbs Racing stable mate. The pass for the eventual win took five tries, so inefficient it offered Chase Elliott a chance to cut into the on-track delta from third place.

Even though Hamlin lost a race he probably should’ve won, his dominance on restarts and subsequent short runs was inarguable. He successfully defended his running position across all 14 starts and restarts he made from the front row. He was the only driver in the field to restart from the outside groove and take the lead; he did it twice, on laps 141 and 459. The heavy diet of short runs — there were 15 cautions in all — magnified his short-run speed. He ultimately turned the fastest overall lap and the fastest median lap of the race.

Had the contest culminated with one or more late cautions, his gearing towards short-run strength would’ve been successful in the results column. But two opponents, first Ryan Blaney then Truex, displayed alternative methods to success. Blaney’s car was a long-run stalwart, helping him to lead 157 laps on the day. Truex’s car ranked as the fastest across the final 100 laps and didn’t fully optimize until the later legs of each green-flag run. His restarting — he didn’t cough up a single position on a restart until Hamlin bested him on the final restart of the race — helped in maintaining track position in the short term while his long-run speed allowed for passing as the run progressed.

In all, the April race in Martinsville saw a variety of plans and pathways. Polar-opposite extremes in car setup — Hamlin’s short-run strength and Blaney’s long-run relentlessness — and a methodical hedging, thanks to Truex’s ability to do a little of everything well, allowed for multiple viable shots at a race win. The idea that any strength can actually lead to victory might be the most definable characteristic of the Virginia short track and should suit most drivers well, including the seven playoff contenders who’ve yet to qualify into the Championship 4, in today’s race.

The dueling game plans were microcosms of each driver’s natural strength. Hamlin is a more efficient restarter than he is a long-run passer. Blaney’s long-run acumen has not only been a team strength this season, but it also led to a win in Atlanta’s spring race. Truex’s stature as a jack of all trades has been crucial in recent seasons, including this one, when his team dedicated its concentration on the 750-horsepower tracks with playoff representation.

Essentially, each team relied on its biggest advantage. All of them could’ve conceivably won. Might we see repeat efforts?

What’s the most realistic strength for other playoff drivers?

Of course, Hamlin, Blaney and Truex aren’t the only drivers looking to lock into Championship 4 eligibility. Three spots beside Kyle Larson are available, either via a win today or a strong-enough performance.

But Martinsville success for any of the remaining four drivers shouldn’t look identical. Each has his own strengths and different team capability:

Chase Elliott, long runs: Elliott fares as the most efficient long-run passer on 750-horsepower tracks among all playoff drivers, a plodding trait that was present in April when he utilized the fourth-fastest car late in runs to reel in both Truex and Hamlin. He ultimately passed Hamlin and finished second on a day where 60.5% of his pass encounters resulted in his favor. Only Blaney’s 66.7% rate was higher among Martinsville’s frontrunners.

Joey Logano, short runs: Long runs might serve as the downfall for Logano at Martinsville, who ranks among the eight least efficient passers this season on 750-horsepower tracks. Where he could potentially thrive, though, is if the race breaks chaotic. He ranks third in Production Equal Equipment Rating in races with a higher-than-average caution volume, in part due to his efforts on restarts at choose-rule tracks. He ranks fourth among playoff drivers in position retention rate (68.0%) and second in positions gained (+30).

Kyle Busch, long runs: While he’s a quality restarter compared to the Cup field at large, Busch ranks eighth among the eight playoff drivers in position retention rate on choose-rule restarts, a disadvantage on short runs. But long runs have brought out his best in 2021, leading to him ranking third in adjusted pass efficiency and third, among playoff drivers, in surplus passing value specifically on 750-horsepower tracks. He earned an adjusted pass differential in the spring race 12 positions better than his statistical expectation.

Brad Keselowski, short runs: Keselowski fares as one of the four least efficient long-run passers on 750-horsepower ovals, but his penchant for swinging track position on restarts is second to none. His 33 positions gained this year on choose-rule restarts is the most of any driver, while his 68.8% position retention rate ranks third among playoff contenders. Caution flags created by regular calamity would do his team wonders. His car ranks 12th overall in average median lap time on this track type, the slowest among all remaining playoff teams.

The most straightforward restart dynamic

Different from the previous two races at Texas and Kansas, where restarts were tantamount to stampedes, Martinsville’s restarting dynamic is straightforward, often orderly and on relatively equal footing. It’s arguably the most fair restarting dynamic of any track utilizing the choose rule.

Since Martinsville’s 2020 spring race, 36 starts and restarts ran a full two laps or longer. Across all of them, cars slotted on the inside and outside of the front row retained an even 80.5% of the time. Most often, the second-place car is searching for (and finds) an opening on the bottom; however, Hamlin proved last spring that a capable car can launch better than the leader and secure a lead, contrary to popular wisdom based on outdated anecdotes.

Of the top 14 restarting slots at Martinsville, all but one saw an average positional change less than 0.5 positions, meaning that these typically vulnerable moments shouldn’t induce the type of panic we see from drivers on 550-horsepower tracks. A bad restart won’t derail the rest of a run, while the slotting — inside or outside — shouldn’t cause drivers and spotters to sweat.

It’s a quality restart dynamic that blends into every subsequent run, allowing good restarters to rise to their strengths and bad restarters some wiggle room for recovery. It’s an ideal setting for a race that will determine three of next Sunday’s four championship-eligible competitors.

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.