Breaking down the Xfinity Series’ Championship 4

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The NASCAR Xfinity Series crowns its champion in Saturday’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway (8:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Noah Gragson, AJ Allmendinger, Daniel Hemric and reigning series champion Austin Cindric are eligible to compete for the title. The highest finisher among them will take it.

Allmendinger and Cindric have been the top two drivers in the series this season. But Hemric has again mastered the art of making the title race without winning. And coming off his win in last week’s elimination race at Martinsville Speedway, Gragson may have the most momentum.

How do the four title contenders shape up entering Saturday?

Noah Gragson – No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet

  • Age 23 from Las Vegas, Nevada
  • First Championship 4 appearance
  • Best Xfinity points finish: Fifth in 2020
  • This season: Three wins, four stage wins, 13 top-five finishes, 20 top-10 finishes, 360 laps led
  • Xfinity career at Phoenix: Winless in five starts (best finish – second, Nov. 2020), avg. finish of 13.8

A clutch victory last weekend put Gragson into the Championship 4 for the first time.

He started his season with four finishes of 28th or worse in the first five races and didn’t post his first win until September. Now, he’s ending the season with a shot at the title.

An engine failure in March at Phoenix was part of his season-opening skid. But he also nearly won last year’s championship race at Phoenix before Austin Cindric passed him on the last lap.

With the Championship 4 being new territory for Gragson, he’ll be glad to have crew chief Dave Elenz with him. Elenz guided William Byron to the 2017 Xfinity title, with Byron finishing third in the title race. The following year, Elenz repeated with Tyler Reddick, who won the title race.

AJ Allmendinger – No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet

  • Age 39 from Los Gatos, California
  • First Championship 4 appearance
  • 2021 Xfinity Series regular season champion
  • This season: Five wins, 11 stage wins, 18 top-five finishes, 22 top-10 finishes, 422 laps led
  • Xfinity career at Phoenix: Winless in three starts (best finish – fifth, March 2021), avg. finish of 10.0

Win or lose Saturday, AJ Allmendinger has continued his career rebirth in his first full-time Xfinity season.

After claiming the regular season title in dramatic fashion at Bristol, Allmendinger has carried on to the title race thanks to an opening-round playoff win at the Charlotte Roval and a solid Round of 8.

That consistency has been prevalent all season. He’s finished first or second in 28% of this year’s races (nine of 32) and has largely avoided bad results with just two DNFs.

But Allmendinger’s biggest advantage may be his experience. Saturday will mark his 450th national series start. Twenty-two of them, including 19 Cup starts, have come at Phoenix dating back to the 2007 season.

Daniel Hemric – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

  • Age 30 from Kannapolis, North Carolina
  • Third Championship 4 appearance
  • Best Xfinity points finish: Third in 2018
  • This season: Zero wins, nine stage wins, 14 top-five finishes, 20 top-10 finishes, 615 laps led
  • Xfinity career at Phoenix: Winless in seven starts (best finish – second, Nov. 2018), avg. finish of 14.0

Hemric came up short again in his quest for a first career national series win last week at Martinsville. But once again, a steady playoffs – five top-five finishes, including a runner-up at Texas – have put him into the Championship 4.

He can clinch the title with victory No. 1 or by simply being top finisher among the contenders. Either way would be perfect to end his one-year run with Joe Gibbs Racing before moving to Kaulig Racing next season.

However, Hemric could use some better luck than he’s gotten lately at Phoenix.

Last year, he ran both Phoenix races for JR Motorsports. That March, he finished 30th after involvement in a multi-car crash. Then in November, a throttle linkage issue on his car led to time behind the wall for repairs and a 25th-place finish.

This past March, Hemric was in the mix for a win on the final restart with two laps to go but ended up in the wall as drivers jockeyed for position. He finished 23rd.

Austin Cindric – No. 22 Team Penske Ford

  • Age 23 from Mooresville, North Carolina
  • Second Championship 4 appearance
  • 2020 Xfinity Series champion
  • This season: Five wins, 12 stage wins, 21 top-five finishes, 25 top-10 finishes, 1,037 laps led
  • Xfinity career at Phoenix: Two wins (2020 championship race, March 2021) in seven starts, avg. finish of 5.9

Cindric aims to repeat as Xfinity Series champion before moving to the Cup Series next season as Brad Keselowski‘s replacement in Penske’s No. 2 car.

Carrying an average finish of 3.8 in this year’s playoffs (worst finish: eighth at Talladega), Cindric now comes to Phoenix, where he’s won the last two races. He followed up his title clincher from last fall with another victory in March.

He’s also been top finisher most often among the Championship 4 drivers this season. Cindric earned that distinction 10 times, besting Allmendinger’s nine, Gragson’s eight, and Hemric’s five.

While Cindric is capable of three Phoenix wins in a row, that’s important to keep in mind considering the success of non-playoff drivers this postseason.

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.