Analysis: Four drivers deliver improved marks during playoff stretch

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Just because a driver didn’t qualify for the playoffs — or was eliminated early — doesn’t mean that the slate of remaining races are all lost causes. On the contrary, four drivers and teams in particular submitted improved statistical performances after losing championship eligibility.

They very well could be cases of good performances across a small sample size. Nevertheless, William Byron, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon entered the offseason on a high, delivering improved marks in key statistical categories.

William Byron

In his first year paired with crew chief Rudy Fugle at the Cup Series level, Byron ranked second in average median lap time ranking, an increase over his 12th-place speed ranking in 2020 with Chad Knaus in charge. In this sense, 2021 as a whole represented a significant leap for a driver who’s still among the three youngest in the series.

Byron’s exit from the playoffs — following a heartbreaking loss in the Charlotte Roval race, during which he turned the fastest median lap — didn’t slow his progress. He was already one of the playoffs’ best long-run passers and this was a trend that continued in the four remaining races.

He registered positive surplus passing values in each event spanning from Texas to Phoenix, which included a day of perfect restart position retention across nine attempts at Texas. Byron ended the 2021 season with an adjusted pass differential 94 positions better than his statistical expectation — with 81 of those spots earned during the nine playoff races on non-drafting tracks. Only Chase Elliott (+100) earned more among playoff drivers during the aforementioned postseason span.

But in many cases, those additional spots went for naught. Among playoff drivers, only Ryan Blaney’s team (50 positions) lost more spots on caution-flag pit stops than Byron’s (43), meaning all the efficient work the 23-year-old was able to do in traffic was for places in the running order he’d already procured or was soon to lose again. If Hendrick Motorsports ever intends to take advantage of what appears to be a strength that’s elite within the Cup Series, this is a weak area of the No. 24 team that’ll need to be addressed.

Bubba & Bootie

Bubba Wallace didn’t necessarily get faster as a result of his team’s crew chief change, which occurred after the first two playoff races. His average median lap ranking with Bootie Barker (19.83) was slightly slower than with Mike Wheeler (19.72). But that doesn’t mean improvement didn’t occur.

Tactically, 23XI Racing’s flagship team was better at defending positions across long runs. Barker’s 85.7% retention rate across green-flag pit cycles was a marked improvement over Wheeler’s 52.4% rate. Interestingly, Wallace, competing against better competition because of the less frequent drops in the running order, submitted better passing numbers, ending the playoffs with a positive surplus value (+0.32%) compared to the negative surplus earned during the regular season (-0.04%).

His ceiling for finishes also increased. In 28 races with Wheeler, Wallace finished 16th or better 11 times, or a 37.9% rate. With Barker, the rate for top-16 finishes improved to 62.5%. The uptick was such a positive that 23XI announced this week that Barker will remain the crew chief for Wallace in 2022 amid a bevy of additions within the organization’s competition department.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse turned in a carbon copy of Byron’s postseason run, albeit 10 positions down the running order.

JTG Daugherty Racing’s driver was an efficient mover during the regular season, earning an adjusted pass differential 48 positions better than his statistical expectation. But his efficiency hit overdrive during the playoff stretch, for which his car ranked as just the 21st-fastest. The playoff opener at Darlington served as the only race among the nine on non-drafting tracks that Stenhouse didn’t earn a positive surplus value. Ultimately, his playoff pass differential was 83 positions better than his statistical expectation.

Furthermore, Stenhouse saw improved restarting numbers. Within the two-lap windows following each restart, he retained position within the first seven rows 85.71% of the time in playoff races on choose-rule tracks, the single highest rate among all drivers. This represents an increase of over 23 percentage points from his regular season rate, which ranked 14th in the series.

But despite these good peripheral statistics, Stenhouse earned only five playoff race finishes better than his speed ranking. He crashed out of two races — Texas and Phoenix — and his pit crew played a role in his inability to overachieve. Their 63 positions lost during yellow-flag pit stops was the most of any team, an area of focus for JTG Daugherty as the organization consolidates from two teams to Stenhouse’s one in 2022.

Austin Dillon

From a sheer results standpoint, there wasn’t a weak performance by Dillon across the final 10 races. In fact, he was the only driver during that span to secure finishes inside the top half of the field in each race. And while none of those finishes were better than 10th, none were worse than 15th, a run of consistency and some slight overachieving given his team’s 15th-place average median lap rank in playoff races.

That diligence came in spite of four crashes in playoff races, though three of them took place at Martinsville. His Production in Equal Equipment Rating improved from its regular season mark (1.259) to 2.078, a rating ranked seventh among all drivers across the stretch and tops among non-playoff drivers.

Dillon’s playoff-race surplus passing value (-1.45%) was a drop from his regular-season mark (+0.53%), but his short-run game at some tracks made up for his overall long-run shortcoming. He completed two races — Darlington and Talladega — with perfect retention rates on restarts and gained 12 positions across three attempts out of the preferred groove at Kansas.

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.