Drivers, crew chiefs seeking statistical breakouts in 2022 (Part 2)

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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:

James Small

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.

Ryan Blaney

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.

Rodney Childers

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.

Erik Jones

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.

Matt McCall

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.

Ty Gibbs

After competing in 18 of 33 Xfinity Series races, Gibbs’ PEER ranked third among regulars and semi-regulars, trailing only Austin Cindric (3.606) and AJ Allmendinger (3.500).

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.

Alex Bowman to miss Talladega due to concussion-like symptoms

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Alex Bowman will miss Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway after experiencing concussion-like symptoms following his accident last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports stated Thursday afternoon.

Bowman is the second Cup driver to miss a race because of concussion-like symptoms after a crash. Kurt Busch has not returned to racing since he crashed July 23 at Pocono. Busch said this week that he remains “hopeful” he can return this season. Six races remain in the season, including Sunday’s race at Talladega.

Noah Gragson will fill in for Bowman.

Hendrick Motorsports stated that Bowman, who is last in the playoff standings, was evaluated by physicians Thursday in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Provided Bowman returns, he likely will need to win the Oct. 9 race at the Charlotte Roval to avoid playoff elimination.

Bowman brought out the caution on Lap 98 of the 334-lap race at Texas when a tire blew and backed into the wall in Turn 4. The car then hit the SAFER barrier with the right side. Bowman continued, finishing the race 29th, five laps behind winner Tyler Reddick.

Drivers have stated that rear impacts have felt worse than they looked with the new car.

From the get-go, everybody could see that this car was way too stiff,” Kevin Harvick said earlier this summer. “When I crashed it (at Auto Club Speedway in practice), I thought the car was destroyed and it barely backed the bumper off. It just felt like somebody hit you with a hammer.”

Christopher Bell said in June that he had a headache after he backed into the wall in the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway in May.

Denny Hamlin said earlier this month he feels better about what NASCAR is looking to do with the car after conversations with series officials.

“I certainly feel that they’re working to help us with the hits on the chassis,” Hamlin aid. “All that stuff does take time. They can’t just knee-jerk reaction and start cutting bars out of the chassis, that’s very irresponsible.

“I think they’re doing things methodically to make sure that the next revision of car that comes out is one that is improved in the areas that we need improving on, but that does take time through design and testing.”

Gragson was to have driven the No. 62 car for Beard Motorsports in Sunday’s Cup race. Justin Allgaier will drive the car with Gragson moving to the No. 48 car.

 

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

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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

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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

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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.