Continuing our look at those with legitimate opportunities for statistical growth in the new year — Part 1 was posted Thursday — here are three drivers and three crew chiefs hoping to push their careers in positive directions:
The efflorescence of Small, heading into his third season ever as a crew chief, has been a sight to behold.
Following a rocky first season in which he and Martin Truex Jr. tallied just one victory — a five-year low for the driver — and position retention rates on green-flag pit cycles of 52.38% overall and 40.91% specifically when relinquishing a top-five spot, the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 team resembled championship contenders in 2021.
Truex won four times, all on prominent playoff racetracks. But for the whole of the season, Small’s strategic designs delivered better output, hitting 63.89% and 55.56% in the respective aforementioned categories. He called a near-perfect championship race, only to fall short of the win following a late caution and a pit stop 1.5 seconds slower than what was produced by Kyle Larson’s crew.
There’s still room for improvement in what his strategy is able to yield — he’s yet to reach the vaunted “60/60” mark that predecessor Cole Pearn hit four times during the Gen 6 era. But a change in race car provides Small a blank slate. This year is an opportunity for him to not only continue his growth as a crew chief, but also to see his progress manifest in a greater win total and a second legitimate chance at the title.
Before 2021, Blaney had never won more than one race in a given season. Last year, he won three times, at Atlanta, Daytona and Michigan.
In this sense, the year was something of a breakthrough, but the 28-year-old still left some potential unfulfilled. Despite strong past performances at tracks like Martinsville and Bristol, he’s yet to win at a facility shorter than 1.5 miles. His surplus passing beyond the restart window — what used to be a discernible weakness — regressed after quantifiable growth in 2020. His pass differential last season ended in the black; however, he created 34 less positions than he did the previous year.
Could 2022 see several steps forward and none going backwards? He’s not fully formed as an all-around driver — he ranked second in Production in Equal Equipment Rating on tracks with low lap-time falloff on worn tires but just 10th on tracks with high falloff, which included Atlanta. But he’s made significant strides in virtually every stat category since entering the Cup Series on a regular basis in 2016. One of these days, all of those strides will coalesce for a banner season.
Without the car speed for which the Childers-Kevin Harvick combination is known, the crew chief had his hands full in a year with restrictions on parts development and otherwise normal methods for improvement. But the ability to do the heavy lifting when it came to procuring track position did not elude him.
Within the top-tier 7th-12th running range, Childers ranked in the 78th percentile for position retention rate during green-flag pit cycles. Against the entire series, Childers and Harvick benefited from having the fastest pit crew. This helped supplement the driver’s inability to overtake, both on short runs and long runs, where Harvick ranked as the least efficient restarter and passer within these running whereabouts.
At age 46, it’s doubtful Harvick will grow into a more reliable mover through traffic. Absent of a fast car and clean air, Childers will again have to fashion himself as an adept defender of his team’s running position and potentially turn green-flag stops into opportunities for offense.
The drop from JGR to Richard Petty Motorsports appeared precipitous for Jones, who went from the 15th-fastest car in the series to the 22nd fastest and nine top-five finishes to none.
Independent of his equipment, the statistical outlay of the 25-year-old Jones suggested he still offers quite a bit. With JGR in 2020, he ranked as the fourth-most efficient passer in the series. He ranked as just the eighth-best passer among series regulars last year, though his skilled maneuvering on road courses provided a welcome surprise — his +3.07% surplus value ranked fifth among all drivers.
The acquisition of RPM by GMS Racing and a new crew chief — two-time Xfinity Series title-winner Dave Elenz — brings upside for Jones, who out-finished his yearlong speed ranking in 21 of 36 races last year.
Within the running whereabouts Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 1 team called home, the green-flag pit strategy of McCall ranked in the 33rd percentile for both offense (weighted positional gain) and defense (position retention rate). While this was detrimental at times to Kurt Busch’s yearlong effort, it represented a vast improvement for the crew chief.
In 2020, he defended Busch’s running spot on 48.84% of green-flag pit cycles and just 9.09% when pitting specifically from the top five. Last year, those rates shifted to 62.90% and 30.77%, respectively. These rates weren’t ideal, but they were certainly much, much better.
Another significant step forward will be necessary for McCall as he moves to RFK Racing to serve as race-caller for Brad Keselowski. On paper, this is a match that should create a cutthroat competitor on big tracks. Keselowski was statistically more productive on the large tracks utilizing the 550-horsepower rules package in 2021 while all three of McCall’s Cup victories came at 1.5-mile facilities.
His ability to replicate that production mark isn’t in doubt — his peripheral stats like surplus passing (+3.35%) and position retention rate on restarts (70.49%) were stellar. But the manner in which his team went about scoring results might not be replicable this year given their change in status.
As part-timers, Gibbs and crew chief Chris Gayle were able to ignore the need for stage points, certainly key in their road course performances which netted victories at Daytona and Watkins Glen. Now fully eligible for the Xfinity Series championship, those stage results can’t easily be punted.
How Gibbs and this team manage the season’s overarching goal will dictate their title-winning validity and could provide another dimension for one of the top prospects in all of NASCAR.