What matters at Phoenix: Pit stops, restarts will shape championship race


What matters in today’s Cup race (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock), and how will pit stops and restarts shape the championship picture? Let’s dive into the relevant analytics and trends at Phoenix Raceway:

All can be lost on a pit stop (or two, or three)

In 2020, Brad Keselowski and Jeremy Bullins brought an undefeated chassis to the season finale in Phoenix. They figured it was their best vessel for a shot at winning the series championship.

Their hunch was correct. The car ranked as the fastest of the race, based on timing and scoring data. But that wasn’t good enough. They finished second in large part because of their pit crew’s woeful effort on the day.

Keselowski’s over-the-wall crew cost him 13 positions on caution-flag pit stops. His final turn as the race’s leader ended after lap 195 — on pit road, not on the racetrack. His above-par passing out of those internally inflicted deficits still couldn’t overcome Chase Elliott, the eventual winner and champion.

This year’s crop of championship contenders fare among the best position-getters in a variety of statistical measures; however, Keselowski, himself a brilliant short-run performer, proved that track position near the front in this particular race is elusive. It’s a lesson that bears learning: Even the most adept climbers can’t reach the surface if they’re buried too deep.

In what is slated to be the final race of the five lug-nut era, it’s fitting that the championship could be decided — or most likely lost — on a pit stop. At first blush, it appears all four Championship 4 teams are in good shape. They each rank within the top five for median four-tire box time across the last nine playoff races:

The four pit crews are effectively close, separated by one-tenth of a second with Kyle Larson’s team enjoying the advantage. The remaining three are within, no kidding, one-thousandth of a second. One long pit stop, either by virtue of a mistake or adjustments meant to improve handling, will be costly, because it’s most likely that other competitors won’t err badly enough for a position to change hands.

And it’s not just errors — simply not having stops on par with the opposition will keep good cars out of the lead. Case in point, Denny Hamlin had the fastest car in the spring race at Phoenix, per its median lap time ranking, but 31 of his 33 laps led came before or during the competition caution. After Joey Logano passed him shortly after a restart, Hamlin was stymied as Logano’s pit crew reeled off three sub-13-second stops compared to one for Hamlin’s crew.

Despite having a faster car, Hamlin couldn’t corral Logano. Clean air, an advantage frequently defended on pit road, dictated the day’s green-flag runs.

Restarts will set the tone for all that comes after

Immediately following each caution-flag pit stop is a restart. And double-file restarts, which set the tone for subsequent green-flag runs, make for quite the show at Phoenix.

NASCAR, of course, has ensured this to be the case. For the spring race, the PJ1 traction compound was applied to the outer groove. The thinking was that it’d make the high line more effective and, possibly, the desired restart lane.

But that wasn’t the case. Within the top 14, drivers in the inside line defended position at a higher rate — 73.2% compared to the outside’s 46.4% clip. Those restarting from the inside groove have more width, thanks to the apron adjacent to the dogleg, something Keselowski demonstrated early in the race to nearly a heart-stopping degree:

More measured approaches also proved successful. Logano selected the inside groove as the leader three times — on laps 84, 99 and 200 — and retained the lead with each attempt. Up until the final restart on Lap 288, the car restarting from the inside of the front row had only been passed once, and the passer emerged from the inside of the second row, not the outside of the front row.

That’s what made Logano’s loss of the lead hard to swallow. Martin Truex Jr., from the outside of the front row, took advantage of the remaining grip from the traction compound to hold onto his car well enough in the center of the corner to swipe the lead:

It was a move of the kamikaze variety, to be sure, but involved some calculation. Truex’s execution was counter to those who previously utilized the outside groove. Instead of trying to out-duel Logano in the dogleg, he got back into the throttle on the dogleg’s exit before Logano did and stayed on the throttle longer going into the next corner.

“He drove in deep. I drove in deeper,” Truex said.

An elite restarter — he ranks second in position retention rate on restarts across all tracks — Truex was aware of his limitations, saddled with a restart spot he didn’t prefer.

“If I was the leader,” he said, “I probably would have chose the bottom as well.”

In lieu of PJ1, resin has been applied to the same high line around Phoenix for today’s race. Whether a driver is able to securely hold on to his car in the manner Truex did is unclear; what is a likelihood is the strength of the inside line, especially among leaders. It’s an inherent advantage to lead the race, but for some, it’s practically a requirement in advance of each restart:

Three of the Championship 4 — Truex, Larson and Elliott — are better restarters from the front row than they are in traffic. Truex and Larson, in particular, are downright deadly when seeing clean air at the start of a run, both retaining at least 85% of such attempts in playoff races.

But their rates fare worse when clean air is absent. Larson defends his restarting spot far less frequently, by over 20 percentage points. Truex’s gap is 17 percentage points. It’d behoove their teams to keep them at or near the front, helping to build a relatively impenetrable firewall on short runs.

Hamlin represents the outlier. In an odd twist, he’s been less successful at retaining front-row restarting spots, doing so at a 59.3% rate, but his defense when mired between the second and seventh rows is outstanding by comparison. In playoff races, he’s maintained his running position on 32 of 36 attempts. This suggests he’s the driver most impervious to further drops in the running order when he can’t depend on clean air. But good defense doesn’t necessarily translate to offense.

That’s why we’re likely to see title contenders driving in “deeper” as Truex succinctly put it. Ideal track position at Phoenix is elusive, at times fleeting, and the opportunities for gains are few and far between. Caution flags, which prompt pit cycles and restarts will create the very moments of vulnerability that have affected past races at the 1-mile facility.

Today, those moments will determine which of the four combatants hoists a championship trophy.

Charlotte Cup race postponed to Monday by weather


CONCORD, N.C. — All-day rain Sunday forced the postponement of the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series race to Monday.

The postponement means that Charlotte Motor Speedway is scheduled to host 900 miles of stock car racing Monday. A 300-mile Xfinity Series race, originally scheduled Saturday and first postponed to noon Monday, has been rescheduled for 11 a.m. ET Monday (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The Cup race is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. (Fox, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Sunday’s Cup race was scheduled to start at 6:21 p.m. ET, but light rain was still falling at that time in the speedway area near Charlotte. Rain intensified a few minutes later and, despite an evening forecast that showed slight improvement, officials decided at 6:30 p.m. to postpone the race.

Monday’s forecast calls for a 34% chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race and a 30% chance at the start of the Cup race.

William Byron will start the race from the pole after qualifying was washed out Saturday night.

RFK Racing gains sponsorship from submarine recruiting group


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR racing and submarines? Yes.

RFK Racing announced Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that it has entered a partnership with BlueForge Alliance, which is involved in securing workers for the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base (SIB) program. BuildSubmarines.com will be a primary sponsor for RFK drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher in 10 Cup Series races this year and in 18 races per season beginning in 2024.

The sponsorship will showcase the careers related to the submarine-building program across the nation.

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“I’m proud to support a cause of such vital significance to our country with this new partnership,” Keselowski said. “The synergies between a NASCAR team and our military’s needs to stay on track fast are countless. We hope to inspire the workforce of the next generation across the country when they see RFK race and hear our message.”

The sponsorship will support the mission to recruit, hire, train, develop and retain the SIB workforce that will build the Navy’s next generation of submarines, the team said.

“We are excited and grateful to be teaming with RFK Racing to drive awareness of the thousands of steady, well-paying manufacturing jobs available across the nation. Innovation, working with purpose and service to others are hallmarks of both of our organizations,” said Kiley Wren, BlueForge chief executive. “Together, we aim to inspire NASCAR fans and all Americans to pursue career opportunities that will support our national defense.”

Kyle Larson visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway to survey the scene


Former NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who is scheduled to run the Indianapolis 500 in 2024 as part of an Indy-Charlotte “double,” visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area Sunday on Indianapolis 500 race day.

Larson said he wanted to familiarize himself with the Indy race-day landscape before he becomes immersed in the process next year.

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Larson later returned to Charlotte, where was scheduled to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Next year, he’s scheduled to run both races.

“I love racing,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I love competing in the biggest races. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time, and I finally feel like the timing is right. It’s pretty cool to have a dream come true.

“I wanted to come here and kind of experience it again and get to experience how crazy it is again before I’m in the middle of it next year. I kind of want as little surprise as possible next year.”

In the 2024 500, Larson will be one of four drivers with the Arrow McLaren team.

Earlier this month, Larson and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon attended an Indy 500 practice day.

Larson said Sunday he hasn’t tested an Indy car.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll get in the car,” he said. “I’ve had no sim (simulator) time yet. I’ve kind of stayed back. I didn’t want to ask too many questions and take any focus on what they have going on for these couple of weeks. I’m sure that will pick up after today.

“I look forward to the challenge. No matter how this experience goes, I’m going to come out of it a better race car driver.”




Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

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And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”