Analysis: Why each Championship 4 driver will (or won’t) win at Phoenix

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The NASCAR Cup Series championship race (Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock) is wide open on paper as Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. each have relevant strengths and weaknesses that may surface in Phoenix.

Here is analytics-driven rationale as to why — and why not — each of the four championship-eligible drivers has a shot at claiming NASCAR’s crown:

Denny Hamlin

Why he’ll win: Raw speed

Without question, Hamlin owns the most favorable speed record on 750-horsepower tracks this season among the Championship 4. He ranks first in average median lap time ranking on this track type, which includes Phoenix, and first in average best lap time ranking, the average ranking of a team’s best lap in each race. His Joe Gibbs Racing car ranks as the fastest of the playoffs to date and ranked first specifically at Phoenix last spring.

These top rankings hold weight. Prior to last year’s race, Chase Elliott placed atop the majority of relevant speed measures across the season. He went on to dominate the event and claim the championship. Sometimes prognostication in auto racing really is as simple as identifying the fastest car.

Why he won’t: He’s the least efficient passer of the four

Hamlin’s car makes plenty of passes. In fact, 52.57% of his pass encounters are passes in his favor, a rate that ranks fifth among series regulars. But that belies his efficiency. Based on a statistical expectation formed by his average running position in each individual race and a field-wide slope, this rate should be higher by at least 0.51 percentage points.

While this seems like a minor stat-geek gripe, it’s notable because each of his three competitors for the championship secured positive surplus passing values this season. In this category, Elliott ranks first in the Cup Series (+2.71%), while Kyle Larson ranks second (+2.05%) and Martin Truex Jr. ranks 12th (+0.33%). Hamlin’s mark ranks 21st, suggesting he’s at a disadvantage if the race is predominately shaped by long green-flag runs and he’s without clean air or good track position, situations in which straightforward passing is required.

Chase Elliott

Why he’ll win: He’s better than his results suggest

Elliott ranks second to Hamlin — and ahead of both Truex and Larson — in average best lap ranking on 750-horsepower ovals but it’s a designation he can’t seem to sustain. Possibly due to frequent handling imbalance for the duration of long runs, Elliott’s car ranks fifth in average median lap ranking, suggesting he’s underachieved to a degree this season, both in speed and results.

His best performance on an oval this year came last week in Martinsville, when he turned the fastest lap and the fastest median lap on a day when he commanded the lead for 57.7% of the race. He rounded into championship form similarly last season, winning both Martinsville and Phoenix; if last week’s showing was a glimpse of what’s to come, then it’s fair to think of him as Hendrick Motorsports’ best shot to win on Sunday.

Why he won’t: He’s ill suited for a chaotic race

Could this be a caution-filled tilt? The yearlong trend is one of low caution volumes, but recent weeks have seen an increased disregard of the typical give-and-take dynamic between competitors. If Sunday’s contest does indeed break chaotic, Elliott appears to be the Championship 4 driver with the most to lose.

His Production in Equal Equipment Rating in races averaging two or fewer cautions per 100 miles ranks third, trailing only Hamlin and Larson. But his PEER in races with a higher volume ranks eighth. This production split makes sense given that a calamitous race yields a high number of short runs, neutralizing his biggest strength: A long-run passing ability that quantifiably fares as the best in the Cup Series.

Kyle Larson

Why he’ll win: Long runs and good track position

Larson ranks as the second-most efficient long-run passer this season and the most efficient passer on 750-horsepower tracks specifically. Additionally, Cliff Daniels has emerged as an able defender of Larson’s running position on green-flag pit cycles, retaining all top-five spots at a 62.2% rate, the best among Championship 4 crew chiefs. In tandem and coupled with the best yearlong speed across all track types, the No. 5 team is a long-run stalwart.

Good track position, most likely earned as a result of long-run offense, should act as his best defense for what’s bound to be a volatile restart dynamic. From the front row, Larson has retained his position on 85.7% of playoff-race restarts; from the second through seventh rows, his retention rate drops to a more pedestrian 64% clip, indicating a clear benefit to this team from controlling the race as the leader.

Why he won’t: His elite speed isn’t universal

For the most part, Larson and Daniels have done an exceptional job at producing speed across all tracks in an era of specialization. They turned the fastest median lap in 13 different races; however, their “slow” races share a common denominator: He’s plenty vulnerable to the style of track he’ll see this weekend.

On conservatively banked 750-hp tracks, Larson’s speed failed to impress. He ranked fifth in median lap time earlier this year in Phoenix, the first in a pattern of uninspiring speed. He ranked fourth in the Martinsville spring race, 21st in the Richmond spring race, seventh at New Hampshire, fifth in the Richmond playoff race and seventh in last week’s Round of 8 finale in Martinsville. He won none of those races, averaging an 8.3-place finish across the slate.

Martin Truex Jr.

Why he’ll win: Late-race speed

A common theme beneath each of Truex’s wins this season was his team’s ability to produce the fastest median lap time in either the final stage (Phoenix, Darlington and Richmond) or across the final 100 laps of an exceptionally long final stage (Martinsville). A combination of Truex’s feedback over the course of a race and James Small’s use of the competition caution and the initial stage break to make adjustments allowed the team to get progressively faster in key 750-horsepower races.

In theory, having a practice session on the weekend schedule should eliminate the need for such early guesswork, allowing them an initial race speed that’s eluded them on most tracks.

Why he won’t: Self-inflicted wounds

Truex has a knack for earning procedural penalties while in a position of power. From missing the chicane under caution in the Daytona Clash exhibition to speeding on pit road after winning strategy gambits at Road America and Darlington to jumping the initial start of the race at Richmond, Truex buried himself while on or near the lead in marquee moments this year.

Naturally, a penalty is something each of the Championship 4 should strive to avoid but his team’s slow-burn improvement over the course of each race is only rewarding if the track position is already favorable. In order to pull off highlight-reel, race-winning restarts, like the pass on Joey Logano last spring in Phoenix, he’ll first need to be within sniffing distance of the lead.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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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

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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

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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

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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.