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.

Dr. Diandra: Strategies in making Clash picks

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Crew chiefs must develop their approach to today’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum using only last year’s data, plus this year’s practice and qualifying.

Fans wagering (for fun and/or profit) must contend with the same lack of data as they make their Clash picks.

The shortest regular-season track is a half mile. A quarter-mile track is a different beast, even with a year’s worth of Next Gen experience.

“Last year everything was brand-new – the track, the format and the car,” Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott, said in a team release. “We’ll have a little bit better of an idea of what we’re going for this time around, but the track is so unique that even with going there last year, we’re still learning.”

As are the fans.

There are a few changes to keep in mind as you make your Clash picks.

NASCAR increased the field from 23 cars to 27. With 36 drivers entered, only nine will miss the Clash. Even without points on the line, no one wants to head home before the main event’s green flag.

Last year, equipment failures caused four out of five DNFs in the main race. Expect fewer mechanical issues this year.

But perhaps more aggression.

Don’t pay too much attention to practice

Last year’s practice times showed no correlation with Clash performance. Eventual winner Joey Logano finished practice last year with the 26th fastest lap — also known as the 11th-slowest lap. But he qualified fourth.

This year, despite losing about 40 hp to mufflers, Martin Truex Jr. set a fastest lap of 13.361 seconds. Truex’s lap beats last year’s best practice lap time of 13.455 seconds, set by Chase Elliott.

Although only seven-tenths of a second separate the fastest practice lap and the slowest, the change is far from linear.

A graph showing practice times for the Busch Light Clash field

  • The top 11 drivers are separated by just 0.048 seconds out of a 13- to 14-second lap
  • Brad Keselowski, who didn’t make the race last year, had the third slowest practice time.
  • Tyler Reddick ran the most total practice laps with 117. He was followed by Kevin Harvick (116), and Noah Gragson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., both of whom made 115 laps.
  • Most drivers ran their best times in their first or second session. Austin Dillon, however, ran his best time on lap 109 of 112.
  • The top three in practice also had the three best 10-lap averages.

Qualifying is the key to good Clash picks

Last year, qualifying position correlated well with driver finish in the Clash. If your driver qualified on the front two rows for his heat race, last year’s results suggest that the only thing keeping him from making tonight’s Clash is an accident or mechanical failure.

That’s bad news for Ty Gibbs, who wasn’t allowed to qualify and will start in the back of the field. It’s also a negative for Ryan Blaney, who posted a 40-second lap, however, Blaney has a shot at the provisional and Gibbs doesn’t.

The heat races are only 25 laps, which doesn’t leave much time for passing. Heat race starting position is highly correlated to heat race finishing position.

  • Last year, the pole-sitter for each of the four heat races held the lead for the entire race.
  • Of the 12 drivers starting in the top three for each heat race, nine drivers — 75% — finished in the top three.
  • Only the top-four finishers of each heat race advanced last year. This year, the top five move on. Last year, 16 of the 25 drivers (64%) starting in positions one through five finished in the top five of their heat races.
  • No driver who started a heat race from ninth finished better than sixth. That’s not encouraging news for Blaney and Gibbs, among others.

That means Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron are pretty much guaranteed locks for a good starting spot in the Clash.

The 20 drivers who qualified in the top five for their heat race have a very high probability of making it through to the main — and of finishing well there.

As was the case last year, practice showed little correlation with qualifying. Martin Truex Jr. qualified 22nd despite posting the best practice time.

The Last Chance Qualifiers

Three drivers from each of the two last chance qualifiers fill out the final rows of the Clash starting grid. Last year, drivers were more aggressive in these 50-lap races than the first four heats.

Again, the closer to the front a driver starts, the better his chance of making the race. Last year, both pole-sitters finished in the top three and advanced.

The last chance qualifiers are long enough for a driver starting in the rear to make it to the front. Last year, Ty Dillon came from 10th place to win the second race. He was subsequently disqualified for jumping the final restart and Harrison Burton, who had started seventh, advanced. If you’re looking for long-shot Clash picks, don’t count the back of the field entirely out.

The Big Show

Last year, the 150-lap main had five lead changes and five cautions.

  • Of last year’s four heat-race winners, two finished in positions one and two, while the other two didn’t finish the race.
  • Of the six drivers who advanced from the last chance qualifiers, none finished higher than A.J. Allmendinger in ninth.
  • Allmendinger tied with Erik Jones for most spots gained. Jones started 16th and finished fourth.
  • Excluding drivers who failed to finish the race, Danial Suárez had the biggest position loss, starting fifth and finishing 14th.

If you want to avoid the frontrunners, you might want to keep an eye on Aric Almirola, who qualified fifth, and had the seventh best 10-lap average run during practice. Austin Dillon didn’t put together a strong 10-lap run, but his team found something in the last minutes of practice that allowed him to go from finishing practice in 22nd to qualifying sixth.

And although Bubba Wallace qualified 16th, he ranked first in runs of 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 laps. He was second in five-lap speed.

Good luck with your Clash picks!

NASCAR Sunday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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It’s race day for the NASCAR Cup Series.

The Clash at the Coliseum will open the 2023 season for NASCAR on Sunday with the featured 150-lap race scheduled for 8 p.m. ET at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The field for the non-points race will be set by a series of heat and last chance races Sunday afternoon. The top five finishers in each of four 25-lap heat races will advance to the feature, and the top three finishers in two 50-lap last chance races will join the grid.

Joey Logano won last year’s Clash as it moved from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to the Coliseum.

The Cup Series regular season is scheduled to begin Feb. 19 with the Daytona 500.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Sunday: Partly cloudy with a high of 64 degrees in the afternoon and no chance of rain. It is expected to be sunny with a high of 62 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the Clash.

Sunday, Feb. 5

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. Sunday – 12:30 a.m. Monday — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 5 – 5:45 p.m. — Four heat races (25 laps; Fox, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 6:10 – 6:35 p.m. — Two last chance qualifying races (50 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8 p.m. — Feature race (150 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.