Friday 5: New Cup owners joining NASCAR but one thing is missing

0 Comments

Since August 2020, Justin Marks started Trackhouse Racing, added Pitbull as a partner, witnessed the team’s first season and bought Chip Ganassi Racing – allowing Trackhouse to be a two-car operation in 2022 and have a charter for each car.

“It’s certainly been a learning experience,” Marks told NBC Sports about his first season as a Cup owner. “We’ve packed a lot of stuff into the last 12 months.”

Marks is not alone. The past 15 months have seen an influx of new Cup owners: Denny Hamlin, Michael Jordan, BJ McLeod, Matt Tifft, Matt Kaulig, Brad Keselowski, Maury Gallagher, Pitbull and Marks.

Keselowski became the latest driver to move to the ownership ranks, joining Roush Fenway Racing to form RFK Racing. He’ll also drive the organization’s flagship No. 6 car this coming season.

My confidence in the sport and where it’s going increased – or has been increased – in the experience I’ve had so far, so that’s been a real positive for me,” Keselowski said. In a lot of ways, it’s reinvigorating. There were a lot of things happening behind the scenes that I didn’t know about that I think are sources of optimism.”

Gallagher, whose GMS Racing team announced in June plans to go Cup racing in 2022 with Ty Dillon, announced this month that it had purchased majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports. The new team will be called Petty GMS Motorsports.

Kaulig Racing will compete full-time in Cup next season for the first time – after winning its first Cup race this season while running a partial schedule. 

The influx of new ownership was bound to happen, as the core group of Cup owners grows older. Roger Penske is 84 years old. Joe Gibbs turned 81 in November. Jack Roush is 79. Richard Childress is 76. Rick Hendrick is 72.

Among the new group of owners, most already were in the sport. Only Michael Jordan and Pitbull came from outside NASCAR, although both were fans.

Hamlin said that the sport can use more owners coming from outside it. 

“What we want is the businessmen up in New York, or LA, or wherever they are, to say, ‘Why aren’t we owning a NASCAR team?,’” Hamlin said. “We have to create that interest somehow. But the moment in the past where you opened up your books to someone who wanted to invest in your team, they shut it after one page because it didn’t make sense. That’s been no secret.

“I think that NASCAR is trying to address that with the new car. We’ll see where the (next) TV (contract, which expires after the 2024 season) goes in the next 12-24 months, but ultimately, if you want to grow this sport, you’ve got to have people knocking on the door wanting to be a part of it. So, that’s where the next group is going to have to come from.”

But those outside the sport are not going to come to NASCAR for small investments. Medallion Corp. stated in its SEC filing that it sold its interest in Richard Petty Motorsports for $19.1 million to Gallagher.

While not to belittle the cost, it pales compared to other sports. Charlotte, North Carolina, will see its Major League Soccer team debut in February after reportedly paying a $325 million expansion fee.

Fenway Sports Group, a part owner of RFK Racing, reached a deal last month to reportedly pay $900 million for controlling interest in the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.

Team values in NASCAR have remained low because it wasn’t until 2016 that the charter system was introduced.

“We believe we made the team owner model more reliable, more stable, more open, more open to new investors, more capital to come into the sport,” former NASCAR Chairman Brian France said in announcing the charter system Feb. 9, 2016. The charter system was extended in 2020 to go through the 2024 season.

Value is predicated on supply and demand. Front Row Motorsports purchased a BK Racing charter in bankruptcy court for $2.08 million, including team assets, in Aug. 2018.

Hamlin acknowledged last week before the NASCAR Awards that 23XI Racing recently paid about $13.5 million for a second charter. 

Gallagher looked at purchasing the BK Racing charter in 2018. Mike Beam, president of GMS Racing, put in an initial bid of $1.8 million for the charter and assets. They didn’t see a value in increasing the bid because of all the other costs associated with owning a Cup team at the time.

“I think the problem with NASCAR has been the lack of a charter, the lack of equity in a franchise … because anybody could show up in any given Sunday and get in,” Gallagher told NBC Sports. “Now it’s very regimented, which is good. Will (charter prices) go up? I believe so.

“Professional sports, who knows where the ceiling is with football, baseball? … I think the next thing is the sport has to make money, as these teams (in NASCAR) have to make money. You don’t have a lot of public disclosures, so you don’t know the numbers, but if I had to speculate, it’s not been a very lucrative business for even the people at the top, particularly in the last four or five years.”

Hendrick, whose teams have won the past two series championships, sees some interest in Cup ownership as charter prices have increased due to recent demand.

“There’s a bunch interested and that’s rewarding,” he said of potential new owners. “I think that’s going to be good for the sport.”

He also knows it is not easy coming into the sport.

“You’ve got to have the right talent like Kyle (Larson),” Hendrick said of the 2021 Cup champion. “When you look at our organization, you’ve got Jeff Gordon there, you’ve got Chad Knaus. It’s hard to go out and hire those people. You can hire people, but when you put them together it doesn’t mean it’s going to work.”

New owners bring new ideas. It doesn’t mean every idea will work, but it also can help broaden a sport’s reach. That’s what Marks wants to do with his team.

“We’re going to start doing partnerships, significant partnerships, outside of NASCAR,” he said. “That means building a scalable and diverse sports brand that starts penetrating a lot of different markets – with the goal of creating a platform of popularity and value to partners.

“That means content media. That means being in music, being in other sports, aligning with other significant personalities.”

Marks admits some of his ideas are “so outlandish that I want to try to make them happen.

“I bring some ideas to the group, and they look at me like, ‘You are so crazy.’ But, every once in a while, one of them works. Like maybe it’s the (biggest) Latin music star (Pitbull) in the world coming to NASCAR.”

2. Return to dominance

This past season marked the first time since 2015 that Chevrolet was the winningest Cup manufacturer. Chevy teams won 19 of 36 points races this past season. That came after a three-year period that saw Chevy win only 20 of 108 Cup points races.

Part of the change can be traced to the push for Chevrolet teams to work closer together.

Dr. Eric Warren, who was at Richard Childress Racing at the time and now is the director of GM’s NASCAR programs, got together with Jeff Andrews at Hendrick Motorsports and Tony Lunders at Chip Ganassi Racing to form a tighter coalition between those three teams.

“We we really working close to try to build the 2020 ZL1 1LE, which turned out to win the championship the two years it raced,” Warren told NBC Sports. “Part of that was learning each other and all the trust and development. It took a little of time to get everybody to trust each other on the aero stuff.

The rules (limiting wind tunnel time for teams) kind of changed. Wind tunnel was important. You had a certain amount of time that you had to maximize. … Then we got the crew chiefs going off that side of it. That kind of built a little bit of the foundation.”

Also, Earnhardt Childress Racing engines and the Hendrick Motorsports engine department began to work together.

The result was the 19 Cup races won by Chevy this past season came from six different drivers, led by Cup champion Kyle Larson’s 10 wins and Alex Bowman’s four.

Should Chevy’s winning ways continue in 2022, it could prove lucrative for teams under a new incentive structure with the manufacturer.

“Three years, we were struggling,” Warren said. “Toyota and Ford were winning 18, 19 races. We’re winning five, seven, whatever. It got to a point that (with) our continued spend for all of the partners (that) we need to have a little more focus on the incentive. So, there is the push to get the right drivers and right engineers and all those things.”

The incentives are the same for each team. Warren said previously that organizations would get a set amount from the manufacturer per team. This plan changes the focus.

“It was like, ‘We have a lot of competitive Chevy teams now. Do we really care if we have one more team?,’” Warren said. “Now, it almost becomes a decision by the teams: ‘Is this team going to give us more chances to get the incentives?’”

Warren said the program is “not anything uncommon. It’s just a different approach.”

3. Looking ahead

Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks said earlier this year that he was looking at the potential of moving his race team to Nashville, Tennessee.

Marks told NBC Sports that the purchase of Chip Ganassi Racing changed those plans. The team will continue to be run out of Nashville, which is where Marks lives, but there are no longer plans to relocate the entire organization to Tennessee.

“Building a race shop in Nashville was something I was very, very focused on doing when there were 12 (employees) and we were just trying to find a charter,” Marks told NBC Sports.

“When the Ganassi opportunity came, all of a sudden I’ve got a shop, I’ve got millions of dollars of equipment and 125-plus people. You can’t pick that up and move it. With our relationship with Chevrolet and the fact they are building this tech center (near Charlotte), proximity is important.

“So the vision changed. Nashville is very important to our company. We’re exploring ways to scale our presence in Nashville. I don’t think, with how fast we have grown and where Trackhouse is right now, that you will see the core of our competitive operations based here.”

So, is Marks satisfied with just being a two-car operation beginning with the 2022 season?

“Oh my gosh,” he quipped. “You can’t ask me that question. I haven’t even gotten on the racetrack yet with two.”

He said the growth to two cars in the team’s second year does not alter his five-year plan for the organization. When he looks to the future, though, he doesn’t see a four-car operation for Trackhouse. Just three cars.

“I think the sweet spot is three (teams), but we got to two really quickly,” he said. “There are absolutely zero plans in place for a third car.”

What makes having three cars better than four cars for him?

“I think when you get to four, you start to get an operation so big that it’s difficult to manage,” he said. “It’s difficult to keep a cohesive culture and a motivated workforce. I think it’s difficult because then you’re just (got) a lot of people and it’s a big operation.”

4. More Racing

William Byron, coming off his best Cup season, says one way he looks to improve as a driver is by racing more often.

“Honestly, for me, I want to try to race more outside of NASCAR,” Byron said. “I think just the hunger is there to get better for our team.

“It was different this year. I didn’t leave (the season finale at) Phoenix and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m ready for a break.’ I left, and I was like, ‘Let’s go to the next race. Let’s figure it out.’ I think with (crew chief Rudy Fugle), I think we are just ready to go to the next event.”

Byron won a race and had a career-high 12 top-five finishes and 20 top-10 finishes on the way to placing a career-best 10th in the points in 2021. He won at Homestead in the season’s third race, making him the first Hendrick Motorsports driver to score a Cup victory this past season.

As for what that type of racing Byron wants to do? He has one race planned.

“I’m doing a karting race (this week), and I like those a lot,” he said of an event at Go-Pro Motorplex in Mooresville, North Carolina. “I was racing out there with (IndyCar driver) Will Power the other afternoon.

“I think just doing some other stuff that I enjoy. I don’t want to go do any huge races, but it’s fun to just maybe go race the kart sometime or maybe go do a Trans-Am race or something.”

Cup champion Kyle Larson looks to get Byron to race a midget car on dirt, just like Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott has done since last year.

“He’s an amazing racecar driver,” Larson said of Byron. “I get to see how dedicated he is to getting better. He puts in more effort than anybody I’ve ever seen.

“I feel like if he did try (a midget car), he would jump in headfirst at it and really try to get good at it, and I believe he would get good at it. Who knows, someday you may see him in a car.”

Maybe.

5. Five seasons later

Jimmie Johnson’s seventh and final Cup championship came in 2016. In the five seasons since, there has been a different champion each year: Martin Truex Jr. (2017), Joey Logano (2018), Kyle Busch (2019), Chase Elliott (2020) and Kyle Larson (2021).

Twenty-seven drivers have won at least one race in the past five seasons. Here is a look at the drivers who have won the most Cup races in that span:

24 — Martin Truex Jr.

23 — Kevin Harvick

21 — Kyle Busch

17 — Denny Hamlin

15 — Kyle Larson

14 — Brad Keselowski

13 — Chase Elliott

10 — Joey Logano

7 — Ryan Blaney

6 — Alex Bowman

5 — Kurt Busch

 and on Facebook

Dr. Diandra: How much does Talladega shake up the playoffs?

0 Comments

Talladega Superspeedway is known for shaking up the playoffs. But how well deserved is that reputation?

Playoff drivers usually view the first race in the second round of the playoffs as the best chance to earn points, earn stage points and maybe even a win given that Talladega is the second race. Now that Texas is in the rear-view mirror, let’s turn our data analysis tools to Talladega.

The shake-up index

Determining how much one race shuffles the playoffs standings requires a simple metric that is applicable to all the years NASCAR has had stages and playoffs. In a rare point of consistency, Talladega has remained the 31st race of the season since 2017, when stage racing started.

After trying a couple different approaches, I finally settled on playoff rankings. These rankings are a zero-sum game. For each driver who moves up a position, another driver must move down.

The first graph is playoff ranking as a function of race for the second playoff segment of 2021. It’s a bit of a mess, but stay with me.

A scatter graph of rank changes to help determine how much shaking-up Talladega actually does

Playoff rank runs along the left side of the graph. The highest ranked driver is at the top and the 12th ranked at the bottom.

The leftmost set of dots shows the rankings coming out of Bristol, after eliminating the lowest four drivers and re-seeding the rest. The second column of dots show the rankings after Las Vegas, which was the first race in the second round in 2021.

Each driver is represented in a different color, with lines connecting his rankings. For example, the dark purple lines show Denny Hamlin rising from third to first over these three races. The light blue lines at the bottom show Alex Bowman plummeting from seventh to 12th.

The messier the lines between two races, the more the playoffs were shaken up. Because it’s hard to quantify “messiness,” I counted each time one driver’s line crossed another driver’s line.

Each crossing indicates two drivers changed places in the rankings. The number of intersections between Bristol and Las Vegas, for example, tells you how much Las Vegas shook up the standings.

Three intersecting lines count as three shake-ups because there are three pairs of drivers crossing.

In 2021, Las Vegas had nine intersections, Talladega 13 and the Roval only five. This seems consistent with our hypothesis that Talladega is the biggest shaker-upper in the second round.

Talladega Timeline

In addition to being only one point, the 2021 Talladega contest poses another problem. Bubba Wallace won the rain-shortened race, which went 311 miles instead of the scheduled 500 miles.

That raises the possibility that 2021 might not be the most representative year for Talladega races. I therefore repeated the analysis going back to 2017. Since we didn’t have stage racing — and thus stage points — before 2017, it doesn’t make sense to compare previous years.

The table below shows the shake-up index from 2017-2021. Note that the first and third races changed from year to year.

A table summarizing the shake-up index for Talladega and other races in the second playoff round from 2017-2021

This five years of data show that Talladega wasn’t always the race that most shook-up this round of playoffs. From 2017-19, Dover and Charlotte held that honor. That’s surprising, especially in 2017. That’s the year 26 of 40 cars failed to finish the Talladega race and NASCAR parked Jimmie Johnson and Matt DiBenedetto.

In 2020, the three races had just about equal shake-up indices.

The Roval has been the third playoff race for only two years. It was equally chaotic with Talladega in terms of affecting the standings in 2020, but less so in 2021. Kansas beat the Roval for switching up the playoff standings twice.

 A caveat for the first race

If you’re surprised to see a larger shake-up for the first race in the second round of the playoffs, you’re not alone.

The 2021 fall Las Vegas race was remarkably uneventful. There were only two DNFs, both non-playoff cars. And one single-car accident that, again, didn’t involve a playoff car. Yet it had a shake-up index of nine.

It turns out that this is a side-effect of the re-seeding protocol.

The graph below shows the same time period as the rankings graph, but reports total points for the top-12 drivers.

A scatter plot showing how points changed for the top-12 playoff drivers in 2021 in the second round of the playoffs

Immediately after re-seeding, the drivers are separated by 57 points from first to 12th. If you omit Kyle Larson’s 30-point lead, the bottom 11 drivers are separated by only 27 points.

Since a driver can earn a maximum of 60 points in a single race, the first race in a round has a lot more impact in changing the standings. In effect, the first race decompresses the re-seeding compression.

After Las Vegas, the 12 playoff drivers were separated by 78 points. After Talladega, the margin grew to 98 points.

The larger numbers for the first races in any round are more due to the re-seeding-induced points compression than to the nature of the track.

Applied to 2022

Drivers don’t have to win at Talladega. They just have to finish ahead of the other playoff drivers. In fact, if a given driver can’t win, the next best case for him is if none of the other playoff drivers win, either.

The largest drop in positions a driver has seen from Talladega is five — and that’s from the rain-shortened 2021 race. On the other hand, drivers have also seen as much as an eight-position gain in the standings following Talladega. That gain was after the 2017 race where more than half the field failed to finish, but at least one driver has come out of the fall Talladega race each of the last four years up at least three positions.

As far as the stats for this year’s second round playoffs so far: Last week’s Texas race had a shake-up index of 14. That’s higher than all but the first year of the stage-racing playoff era.

And the William Byron penalty (which Hendrick Motorsports is contesting) has a shake-up index of seven.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

0 Comments

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

0 Comments

Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

0 Comments

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.