Stat Darlings: Celebrating the best drivers of 2021

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For the last few years and across different media outlets, I’ve recognized “Stat Darlings” for each NASCAR Cup Series season. These awards are doled out subjectively with objective, statistics-based reasoning.

Let’s hand out some hardware!

Best Rookie: Chase Briscoe

NASCAR’s award for Rookie of the Year isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.

Consider Cole Custer’s 2020 award, given to him automatically after the first 26 races solely because of his team’s playoff qualification. He was, by definition, the award’s recipient. But a cogent argument could be made that fellow rookies Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and John Hunter Nemechek had better statistical production across 36 races.

This year, the award and the designation coalesce with Briscoe smack in the middle of the Venn diagram.

Granted, 2021 saw a thin rookie class – Anthony Alfredo was the only other eligible newcomer. Briscoe displayed some slow-burn development that, to the surprise of some, shone brightest on 550-horsepower tracks.

A former dirt racer who scored nine Xfinity Series victories in 2020, the 27-year-old’s best days previously came at tracks of all types where the horsepower is high. This year, he proved most efficient as a passer on the larger oval tracks utilizing the 550 package, ranked 13th among series regulars in surplus passing value.

He was also, across all tracks, an above-average restarter on preferred groove attempt, with a 71.43% position retention rate – a mark besting all of last year’s rookies and Stewart-Haas Racing stable mate Aric Almirola, whose improved numbers regressed mightily during the season’s home stretch. Among drivers averaging running positions 20th-25th, Briscoe ranked first in position retention rate and second in weighted positions gained on restarts.

How Briscoe improves from this point is a considerable question, given the age at which he entered the Cup Series. He’s older than all of the drivers in the rookie class that preceded him. He’s also older than William Byron, Erik Jones and 2020 champion Chase Elliott.

The ceiling on his potential is unclear, but it’s inarguable that the competition he’ll likely see for the remainder of his career received a head start on obtaining valuable experience at stock car racing’s top level.

Most Improved: William Byron

Based on previous career benchmarks, no other driver enjoyed an improvement anywhere near Byron’s magnitude in 2021.

The 24-year-old driver saw a 0.625-point increase over his 2020 Production in Equal Equipment Rating; a nine-spot improvement to his speed ranking (measured by his average median lap rank); his position retention rate on restarts jump by over six percentage points; and his surplus passing on non-drafting ovals move from +0.16%, ranked 12th among series regulars, to +1.67%, ranked fifth.

Combined, these improvements manifested in three times as many top-five finishes (12) than what he secured last year (four).

Incredibly, it seems his improvement isn’t finished. Byron was one of five drivers competing in the Cup Series at age 23 or younger, and the only one of the five who qualified for the playoffs in three of his four seasons. On average, the age-24 season, which will come in 2022 for Byron, sees a monumental improvement in the overall production of Cup drivers.

It’s entirely possible we’ll be back here in a year’s time detailing more improvement from a driver that’s more regularly turning good statistical efforts on paper into tangible race finishes.

Best Restarter: Kyle Larson

Larson was good at everything in 2021 — more on that later — but if we were to pinpoint his best peripheral category, it’d be restarts. His 76.77% position retention rate ranked first among series regulars, over six percentage points greater than the second-best rate (Elliott at 70.56%). He also ranked first in retention (with a 77.22% rate) specifically on restarts utilizing the choose rule.

Now, it’s easier to maintain positioning when, as the leader, you have all the clean-air advantages of the front row. And Larson frequently led, restarting from the P1 spot on nearly 32% of his attempts. He also selected his positioning well; over 62% of his restarts from inside the first 14 spots originated from a preferred groove slot, putting the odds of retention in his favor.

But his attempts at mitigating loss from non-preferred groove restarts, typically a source of positional drops, was a cut above anyone else in the series. His was the only retention rate hitting the 60% mark, while his average loss of 0.41 spots served as the most team-friendly clip – enough water treaded for the runs that’d soon follow.

Best Passer: Chase Elliott

Elliott and Larson were relatively neck and neck when it came to passes on short runs and long runs. But whereas the latter saw 8% of his adjusted pass differential come from positions earned within the two-lap window for restarts, the former made traditional passes across long green-flag runs his primary wellspring for track position.

Elliott’s +2.59% surplus passing value ranked first among series regulars, as did his +446 adjusted pass differential. Despite his good positional defense on restarts, ranked second in retention rate to Larson, his seasonal net gain within the window was -1, indicating the totality of his forward movement was the result of the work being done on long runs.

This was a strength exploited by his team, who took more risks than most during the pre-race buildup. Elliott started from the tail end of fields six times in 2021 as a result of inspection penalties or unapproved adjustments, and scored at least one point during the first stages of all six races.

Best All-Around Driver: Kyle Larson

Larson won 10 times in 36 starts, a testament to both a good driver and a good team. But individually, the 29-year-old impressed thanks to rankings in key statistical categories:

  • 1st in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER)
  • 1st in PEER on 550-horsepower tracks
  • 1st in PEER on 750-horsepower tracks
  • 1st in PEER in races with zero late restarts
  • 1st in PEER in races with at least one late restart
  • 1st in position retention rate on all restarts
  • 1st in position retention rate on choose-rule restarts
  • 1st in position retention rate on preferred groove restarts
  • 1st in position retention rate on non-preferred groove restarts
  • 1st in adjusted pass efficiency on non-drafting tracks
  • 2nd in surplus passing value on non-drafting tracks
  • 2nd in surplus passing value on 750-horsepower ovals
  • 4th in crash avoidance

The 2021 title went to its most worthy potential recipient – never a guarantee in the playoff era.

Larson crashed just 0.19 times per race, a rate trailing only Joey Logano (0.14), Chris Buescher (0.17) and Erik Jones (0.17) among those regularly running inside the top 30. His clean driving combined with elite production, restarting and passing is a tough riddle for all others to solve and comprises a statistical profile unquestionably deserving of this designation.

Across the whole of 2021, Larson was the ultimate stat darling and the most important cog of a team with one of the greatest seasons in modern NASCAR history.

Sponsor adds more races in 2023 with Josh Berry

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Jarrett Companies will increase the number of races it will sponsor Josh Berry‘s No. 8 JR Motorsports ride in 2023, the Xfinity Series team announced Monday.

Jarrett Companies will sponsor Berry in six races after serving as the primary sponsor in three races in 2022. Those six races will be Phoenix (March 11), Richmond (April 1), Dover (April 29), Atlanta (July 8), Indianapolis (Aug. 12) and Texas (Sept. 23).

The deal gives Berry at least 26 races with sponsorship for next season. Bass Pro Shops will serve as the primary sponsor of Berry’s car in 11 races in 2023. Tire Pros is back with JRM and will sponsor Berry in nine races in the upcoming season.

Berry, who reached the Xfinity title race and finished fourth in the points, will have a new crew chief in 2023. Taylor Moyer will take over that role with Mike Bumgarner serving as JRM’s director of competition.

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.

 

Where are they now? Buddy Parrott enjoying down time

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Buddy Parrott played outsized roles in two of the most dramatic races in NASCAR history.

Now 83 years old and retired from the sport since 2001, Parrott looks back on those two days as highlights of a career that began in the early 1970s.

In the 1990 Daytona 500, champion driver Dale Earnhardt seemed on course to end his frustration in NASCAR’s biggest event. He held the lead roaring down the backstretch on the last lap. Suddenly, Earnhardt slowed with a blown tire.

The lead was inherited by Derrike Cope, who charged to the checkered flag to score one of racing’s biggest upsets.

Parrott was Cope’s crew chief.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes through the years

In 1984, Richard Petty edged Cale Yarborough to win the summer race at Daytona International Speedway. It was Petty’s 200th – and final – win.

Parrott was Petty’s crew chief.

Those victories were high marks in a long pit-road career that saw Parrott’s drivers win dozens of races. He worked with, among others, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Burton and Petty and for team owners Jack Roush and Roger Penske.

Parrott remains active at 83, although he admits to having moved to a slower gear.

“I haven’t been living on the edge,” Parrott told NBC Sports. “I’ve been taking it really easy. I told my sons when you get to be 80 you can do anything you want because basically you’ve already done it.”

MORE: NASCAR, ARCA 2023 schedules

His strongest current connection to NASCAR is as a voter in the annual Hall of Fame balloting.

After more than 20 years roaming pit roads as a crew chief, Parrott moved into a general manager role at Roush Racing in 1997. He retired four years later and didn’t look back.

“I finally told Jack one day, ‘I don’t have time to ride my motorcycle,’ ” Parrott said. “He looked at me and said, ‘What do you want to do about it?’ I said, ‘I’m ready to retire.’ He told me I could work whatever schedule I wanted, but I decided that was it. I didn’t have a going-away thing or whatever.”

Parrott spent much of the next 15 years traveling with his wife, Judy, who died in 2016, and playing with his grandchildren.

“I had a great time in retirement because Judy was ready and I was ready,” he said. “We had a lot of fun. We’d go to Florida for two and three months at a time. I’m so happy that I didn’t hang on and go to the shop every day and try to find something to do. I spent that time with Judy, and we had 16 years of good retirement.”

Parrott, a native of Gastonia, N.C., lives in Statesville, N.C. His sons, Todd and Brad, also were NASCAR crew chiefs.

MORE: Jody Ridley’s Dover win an upset for the ages

Parrott is perhaps best remembered as crew chief for Rusty Wallace, Team Penske and the No. 2 black cars sponsored by Miller Lite. From 1992-94, they won 19 races and were consistently competitive at the front.

“I still get a lot of cards sent to me to sign from those years,” Parrott said. “I can say that was some of the happiest times I had. Those years with Rusty – and then with Jack Roush – really stand out. And who in the hell could not have fun having a beer sponsor?”

 

 

NASCAR Awards to air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Joey Logano didn’t need much time to answer the question.

Who would the two-time Cup champion want to introduce him at the NASCAR Awards?

Racing icon Mario Andretti, Logano immediately said. 

And there was Andretti on the stage at the Music City Center introducing Logano, the 2022 Cup champion. Watch that and the rest of the night’s festivities at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock. You can order Peacock here.

MORE: See the red carpet scene

MORE: Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

NBC Sports’ Marty Snider and Kim Coon co-hosted the show along with Fox Sports’ Kaitlyn Vincie. The Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions were honored. Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, whose father died hours after Gibbs won the Xfinity title last month, received a standing ovation and thanked the industry for its support.

The highlight of the night for Logano was having Andretti on stage to introduce him.

“He’s just been a great role model for me, not only as a racer, but as a person for so long,” Logano said afterward. “I had his picture on my wall. I looked at Mario Andretti before I went to sleep every night as a kid. I thought it was the coolest thing that he signed it to me.”

NASCAR Awards and Champion Celebration
Cup champion Joey Logano on stage with racing icon Mario Andretti during the NASCAR Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Logano and Andretti have gotten to know each other through the years. Logano ran a throwback car that honored Andretti at Darlington Raceway in 2015 and 2021.

But none of that compared to being on stage with Andretti.

“That’s still like a pinch-me moment,” Logano said. “It’s Mario Andretti. He’s the man. The fact that he knows my name I think is really, really cool.”

Catch the NASCAR Awards at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”