Smith: Title paths for Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin viable despite Phoenix result

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Defeated but not despondent, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin answered last week’s post-race questions clear-eyed and with an emotional neutrality that falls short of fostering the agony of loss we closely associate with sports.

Their losses were easy to swallow because the yearlong slog to get to that very point — discussing what went wrong while Katelyn Larson was shotgunning a celebratory beer — had actually worked out despite everything about this outlier season in a lame-duck car acting against them. Sure, there were heavy limits on parts development, wind tunnel time and engineering research. Yes, Toyota (and Ford) were already handcuffed to an engine package they weren’t permitted to improve while Hendrick Motorsports and ECR were allowed additional, uncontested time to develop and submit a new product.

Unable to outspend the competition, Joe Gibbs Racing’s biggest strength across the last two decades, the teams of Truex and Hamlin were hip to the disadvantage. They chose an alternative path through the season and towards the playoffs, one focused heavily on the 750-horsepower tracks with prominent positioning on the schedule. These teams were never popular betting favorites but never needed to be.

Was it a successful path? If points were any indication, yes. Hamlin and Truex ranked first and second, respectively, during the regular season in points scored on playoff tracks. If wins were any indication, yes. All of their combined six wins took place on playoff tracks. If the championship race was any indication, yes, so long as we don’t confuse the destination for the journey.

Before the race, Hamlin warned that it’d be some isolated moment or the race breaking in a way beneficial to some more than others that’d separate the four title contenders. So close were Hamlin, Truex, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott that each of them ranked second in at least one statistical metric this season on 750-horsepower tracks. The four teams ranked within the top five for average median lap time on the track type and the race played out as the spreadsheets suggested; they ranked within the top five for median lap time, separated by a 0.05 seconds. In that regard, only Darlington, among all playoff races, saw a closer disparity between its five fastest drivers.

Hamlin’s prediction proved true when the race broke with a short run and catered to the track position established by the final pit stop. Given one of the fastest four-tire stops of the last three seasons, all Larson needed to do was safely launch from the lead position with 24 laps to go and the JGR cars, tuned for long runs to an extreme extent, would offer no trouble.

“Track position just means so much,” Hamlin said. “You kind of know, like when someone gets a restart and controls the race late, it’s so hard. You’re going to need them to really make a huge mistake.”

The fact that Larson couldn’t extend a lead over Truex beyond one second was a testament to both the relative equality in this final race and the last-ditch effort by James Small, Truex’s crew chief, to increase air pressures on his driver’s tires to allow for a more efficient launch on the restart. It was meant to supplement a deliberate weakness and very nearly worked. One wobble by Larson, notably battling a car his crew chief deemed “terrible” at its lowest point, and he would’ve been overtaken by Truex and possibly Hamlin.

“My crew chief kept telling me how bad (Larson) was handling,” Hamlin said. “You could see he was just plowing, but the clean air made up for any deficiencies in that setup.”

Defending positions on short runs wasn’t much of a problem for the JGR duo despite cars optimized for long runs. Hamlin’s perfect retention rate across six restarts from the preferred groove was a sign of discipline, as was Truex netting a positional loss of zero from six non-preferred groove attempts. They were the two best position defenders on restarts across the entire playoff slate, but Phoenix’s race demanded offense. There was little to be had.

From the second row, there were four individual restarts worthy of multi-position gains from the Championship 4. Three of them belonged to Larson. The fourth was Truex’s final bid, air pressures high. The lead car retained position on 80% of restarts. A JGR car restarted from the lead only once.

“We just didn’t have the short-run speed all day, and then certainly with 20 (laps) to go, it’s going to be hard to pass anybody out front in clean air,” Truex said. “I think if we would’ve had the lead, we could’ve held him off. But hindsight is 20/20 and we didn’t have the lead, so here we are.”

If not for David Starr’s brake rotor disintegrating directly in front of Race Control, Truex and Hamlin, first and second, would’ve battled against one another for the title across a 58-lap green-flag run. Their teams’ long-haul approaches to both this race and the season at large could’ve culminated in a way befitting their daring master plan, stealing the championship from Hendrick Motorsports with the deftness of a pickpocket.

But that didn’t happen, as the race broke against JGR’s favor.

“There’s nothing else I felt like I could’ve done differently,” Hamlin said.

There’s no trophy and thus no validation, but the radical manner in which JGR’s two title-contending teams subtly attacked the season and the championship race is a blueprint for years to come, so long as there’s a playoff format, a splitting of the rules package and teams at a competitive disadvantage.

If it wasn’t clear before, it’s now been crystallized: Season-long dominance and the series championship do not have to coalesce. Truex and Hamlin took their best shots, missed by a hair and, afterwards, shared no regrets. The destination yielded no reward, but their paths less traveled proved viable.

It’s now a trail fully blazed, ready for eager new followers.

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.