Clash at Coliseum could impact what happens at Auto Club Speedway

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LOS ANGELES — Whether the Clash remains at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Sunday’s event could spur change at Auto Club Speedway.

NASCAR revealed plans in September 2020 to convert the 2-mile track in Fontana, California, into a half-mile bullring.  But when NASCAR goes there later this month, drivers will race on the big, wide, bumpy track that many enjoy because of how it challenges them. 

NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in November that officials were “hopeful” when asked if Auto Club would be a short track by 2023.

“Us adding another half-mile racetrack in a very important marketplace for us, I’ll call it the L.A. (metropolitan area), it’s important,” Phelps said then. “We have more fans in L.A., in that L.A. (metropolitan area), than any other (metropolitan area) in the country. It’s fertile ground.”

Yet, track president Dave Allen could not give a definitive answer this weekend of when the Auto Club’s change might take place. 

Asked Saturday if the track’s 2023 race will be on the half-mile configuration, Allen said: “Possibly. We don’t know that yet, either. Possibly. We’ll continue to treat it as if it is.”

After finishing second in Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum before a crowd that appeared to be more than 50,000, Kyle Busch suggested Auto Club Speedway’s days as a 2-mile track are numbered.

“I would prefer the 2 mile, but I guarantee you it’s getting cut up, no question, after what we saw today,” Busch said.

After a move toward adding road courses in recent years, NASCAR’s focus is on short tracks. 

Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond are the only tracks less than 1 mile on the Cup schedule. Auto Club would add another date. Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, once it clears political hurdles, appears headed to a future spot on the Cup schedule. 

Add both of those and that would make eight of the 36 points races on short tracks. Provided the six road courses remain on the schedule, the series then would have 14 of 36 points races — nearly 40% — on short tracks or road courses.

“The one gauge that we have as a sport, and it never fails, is our fans,” Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway, told NBC Sports last week. 

“The fans have spoken loud and clear the last few years that they want short tracks and they want road courses. … “You really don’t know just want to expect (at those tracks). It may not be white-knuckle exciting all the time, but you’re anticipating something, and I think that’s what you can get at places like that.”

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Brad Keselowski knew it would be a challenge in moving from Team Penske to RFK Racing as an owner/driver. The organization has won four races in the last eight seasons and had a car make the playoffs twice in the past seven seasons.

Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum wasn’t the best way for RFK to show its new look. Both Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher were among the 13 drivers who failed to advance to the Clash. 

One should be careful to read too much into an exhibition race. But as Kyle Busch was told by his team on the radio before the race, it may be an exhibition race but it is a race and they were there to win it. That’s the mindset of any competitor. 

Still, there will be brighter days for Keselowski and his team. It will be how they manage the beginning and seek to turn RFK Racing into one that can win.

“We know we have a long way to go,” Keselowski said Saturday. “This team hasn’t won a race in four or five years and hasn’t won a non-restrictor plate track in almost nine or 10 years. You aren’t going to get where you want to be overnight. 

“It didn’t fall off to where it is overnight, and we aren’t going to fix it overnight. But we are damn sure going to try. I am cognizant that there will be some rough moments and all those things along the way that we are working through. … I am fairly optimistic about all the things we are doing and the direction we are going and feel it will pay dividends as we go.”

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The debut of the Next Gen car was overshadowed by the anticipation and spectacle of the Clash at the Coliseum but its performance was noteworthy.

With NASCAR’s push toward short track racing, the sport needs a car that can handle bumping and beating. There’s still more to learn about the car, but it showed some positive signs compared to the previous car in handling some contact on the track.

It wasn’t uncommon for contact to bend in a fender and lead to a cut tire with the previous car. For all the beating and banging at the Clash, drivers didn’t face that issue as much.

“Honestly I think the biggest win we saw (Sunday), with the car itself, is that we can bump and bang and not cut tires down,” Joey Logano said after his victory. “Very little cut tires down.

“For as much as cars were on each other’s doors, think about when we used to do that at Martinsville, give each other a fender rip immediately. Next thing you know your car is spinning out, you have flat tires.

“There was a lot of bumping and banging, and it was okay. That says a lot about the body on the car, but also the tire and wheel package that we were able to have really, honestly, full contact without being nervous about cutting tires down.”

There were some mechanical issues and NASCAR was examining those. Tyler Reddick said his car broke a transaxle and suggested he might have gotten too aggressive with it. Upon further examination, a Chevrolet official told NBC Sports it was studying a failure with the prop shaft(driveshaft) and not the transaxle. Chase Briscoe also had a driveline failure and NASCAR was checking with the team on that matter.

Overall, the car performed well this weekend.

“The Next Gen car really wasn’t a story, and I’m happy for that,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “This is probably the toughest test we could have on the track that we set up in terms of durability, beating and banging, driveline, different things. We’ll learn from that. All in all really successful debut for the car, as well.”

Jesse Iwuji Motorsports seeks $4.125 million in lawsuit against sponsor

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Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team, has filed a $4.125-million lawsuit against Equity Prime Mortgage, one of the team’s sponsors.

In the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the team alleges that EPM committed a breach of contract. JIM alleges that EPM agreed to pay the team $2.25 million for sponsorship in the 2022 season and $3.75 million for 2023.

The lawsuit attempts to recoup what Jesse Iwuji Motorsports calls two missed payments totaling $375,000 from 2022 and the $3.75 million for 2023. The filing of the lawsuit was first reported by TobyChristie.com.

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The team scored one top-10 finish in 30 Xfinity starts in 2022. The team’s cars were driven by Kyle Weatherman and Iwuji. Weatherman had a best finish of eighth; Iwuji’s best run was an 11th.

The team was founded by Iwuji, former National Football League player Emmitt Smith and a group of investors.

The lawsuit claims that an EPM executive informed the team in September 2022 that EPM had been “margin called” and was dealing with problems because of rising mortgage rates and that EPM could not make any more payments to Jesse Iwuji Motorsports .

According to the lawsuit, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports sent EPM a Notice of Intent to terminate the sponsorship agreement after the payment due Oct. 1 was missed. The suit claims EPM “took no action” after EPM offered 30 days to remedy the situation.

The suit also claims EPM “allegedly continued to take advantage of their status as a sponsor of the NASCAR Xfinity Series team, as EPM continued to make promotional posts on social media, which featured the company’s logo on the JIM race car.”

EPM is based in Atlanta.

Dr Diandra: The best driver of 2022

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NASCAR’s elimination playoff format means that the driver with the best statistics — arguably the “best driver of 2022” — doesn’t always win the championship.

Races unfinished

Drivers involved in a lot of crashes also failed to finish a lot of races. But not all accidents end drivers’ races. Comparing accidents and spins to DNF (did not finish) totals helps gauge how serious those incidents were.

Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were involved in the most accidents for a single driver with 15 caution-causing crashes each. The difference is that Chastain had only five DNFs (33.3%), while Stenhouse had nine (60.0%).

Ty Dillion tied Stenhouse for the most DNFs in the series with nine DNFs and 10 accidents.

Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Corey LaJoie tied for third place with eight DNFs each. Reddick had 10 accidents, while Dillon and LaJoie were each involved in 11 crashes.

No driver avoided DNFs entirely. Among full-timers, Michael McDowell had the fewest DNFs in 2022 with two. Justin Haley and Ryan Blaney tied for second with three DNFs each.

In 2021, only Denny Hamlin finished every race running. This year he had five DNFs, with four in the first nine races.

This year’s 225 DNFs are up significantly from 179 in 2021. and the most DNFs since 2017. I’ll be watching in 2023 to see if the rise in DNFs continues, or if this was a one-time phenomenon due to the first year with a new car.

Wins

“Best driver” doesn’t necessarily mean most wins.

This year’s champion, Joey Logano, didn’t have the most wins. That’s not at all uncommon in NASCAR. With 19 different winners in 2022, no driver dominated the season the way Kyle Larson did in 2021 with 10 wins.

The winningest drivers in 2022 were: Chase Elliott (five wins) and Logano (four wins). Christopher Bell, Larson and Reddick tied for third with three wins each.

Top-five and top-10 finishes

While wins matter more than good finishes, the number of top-five and top-10 finishes show how close a driver got to taking home the checkered flag. Running up front means being there to take advantage of other drivers’ mistakes and misfortune.

In 2021, Larson had the most top-five finishes (20) and the most top-10 finishes (26). This year, good finishes were much more spread out.2022's best drivers in terms of top-five and top-ten finishes

Chastain deserves a special shoutout for having 13 more top-10 finishes than he earned in 2021.

Also deserving of a shoutout, but for different reasons: Hamlin had the same number of wins this year as last, but nine fewer top-five finishes. William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. also had nine fewer finishes in the top five.

Logging laps

While Truex didn’t make the championship race, he did tie Elliott for the most lead-lap finishes in the season with 29, or 80.6% of starts. Blaney, Byron and Kevin Harvick each had 28 lead-lap finishes.

Elliott led the most laps in 2022 with 857. He’s followed by Logano (784), Byron (746), Chastain (692) and Blaney (636).

I remain slightly wary of metrics that purport to measure quickness because so much of a car’s speed depends on where in the field it’s running. Lap traffic, or even being far back in the field, can slow fast cars. That’s especially true at short tracks.

For completeness, however, the next two tables show the drivers’ numbers of fastest laps and those with the best rank in green-flag speed according to NASCAR’s loop data.

Two tables showing the drivers with the most fastest laps and the highest rank in green-flag speedChampion Logano ranked 11th in fastest laps with 319, and eighth in overall green-flag speed with an average ranking of 9.281.

Best Finishes

The tables below show drivers’ rankings throughout the season for average finishes and average running position.

Two tables comparing 2022's best drivers in terms of average finish and average running position

Elliott ranks first in both average finish and running position. Chastain takes second for best average finish and fourth for best average running position, while Blaney is second for running position and fourth for finishing position.

Logano finished 2022 third in both metrics.

Passing

NASCAR defines a quality pass as a pass for position inside the top 15. Interpreting the meaning of the number of passes is a little tricky. A driver who runs up front a lot doesn’t make many quality passes because he doesn’t need to.

I focus instead on the percentage of quality passes: the fraction of all green-flag passes that qualify as quality passes. A higher percentage means that the driver is efficient: The passes mean something.

Elliott scores first in percentage of quality passes with 63.4%, just edging out Bell, who has 63.3% quality passes. Larson is third with 61.2%.

Who was the best driver in 2022?

I combined the metrics I think matter most for determining the best driver in the table below. I color-coded drivers who appear in the top five in more than one metric to make it easier to see patterns.

A table showing the top five in each of the metrics discussed in the hopes of identifying 2022's best driver.

This table confirms that the NASCAR playoffs format did a good job identifying the top four drivers in the series. Elliott, Logano, Chastain and Bell are well-represented in the top five in each metric.

The table also shows that Larson and Blaney contended strongly in 2022. With a slightly different distribution of luck, one (or both) might have found their way to the Championship Four.

Logano’s consistency is also evident, even though he doesn’t rank first in any of these metrics and fails to make the table in top-five finishes or quality passes. It’s not uncommon for the driver with the most wins not to win the championship. And this year has been anything but common.

But overall, it’s hard not to argue that Elliott had the statistically best year. He led the series in wins, laps led, average finish, average running position and percent quality passes. If his playoffs had been comparable to his regular season, he would have taken the trophy.

But they weren’t and he didn’t. That may have ended the 2022 season on a down note for the No. 9 team, but they can look forward to 2023 knowing they have a strong base on which to build.

While skill is reproducible, luck isn’t.

Kaz Grala, Connor Mosack join Sam Hunt Racing for 2023

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Kaz Grala is scheduled to run the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule for Sam Hunt Racing in 2023.

Connor Mosack will drive a second Hunt car — No. 24 — in 20 races for the team. Grala will drive the No. 26 Toyota.

The new season will mark Grala’s first as a full-time Xfinity driver.

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“I’ve scratched and clawed for each opportunity over the past several seasons, and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s made me appreciate this sport and its difficulty more than I ever could if things had been easy,” Grala said in a statement released by the team. “I feel like everything has finally come together at the perfect time in my life with the right team around me to start that next chapter in my career.”

Grala, 23, has scored five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 44 Xfinity starts. He has raced in all three NASCAR national series and won a Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2017.

Allen Hart will be Grala’s crew chief.

Mosack, who will begin his schedule at Phoenix Raceway March 11, was the CARS Tour rookie of the year in 2020. He drove in two Xfinity and two Truck races in 2022.

Kris Bowen will be Mosack’s crew chief. The team said it will announce other drivers for the 24 car later.

 

Ryan Truex to drive six races for JGR Xfinity team in 2023

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Ryan Truex is scheduled to run six Xfinity Series races in the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023.

Truex ran five races for JGR in 2022, finishing in the top five three times. He ran third at Atlanta.

Truex also drove limited Xfinity schedules for JGR in 2011 and 2012.

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“We are looking forward to having Ryan back in our lineup in 2023 to run the No. 19,” said JGR vice president Steve DeSouza in a statement released by the team. “He has done well in the races he has run at JGR. His previous experience and driving ability will be assets as the No. 19 competes for an owner’s championship next year.”

JGR has not announced which races Truex will run or which drivers will be his teammates in the 19.

“I am thrilled to be behind the wheel of the No. 19 for a few races next season,” Truex said in a team statement. “It was fun to run well with this team this past year. I appreciate the opportunity to race for JGR again next year.”

Jason Ratcliff will be the team’s crew chief.

Truex, 30, has run 26 Cup, 84 Xfinity and 73 Camping World Truck Series races without a win.