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

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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.

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.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.