Drivers to watch for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix

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The top teams in NASCAR are still finding their way to Victory Lane to open the 2022 Cup Series season.

This week, Phoenix Raceway poses a unique challenge, as teams visit the 1-mile oval for the first of two races this year. The other, of course, is the title-deciding race during championship weekend in November, forcing teams to put more emphasis on Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox) as they continue to learn the Next Gen car.

Who should be expected at the head of the pack as the West Coast Swing winds to a close? And who needs their luck to turn around after just three races?

FRONT RUNNERS

Kyle Larson

  • Points position: First
  • Finishes in first three races: 32nd (DNF) — Daytona 500; WIN — Auto Club Speedway; Second — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: Six straight finishes of seventh or better at Phoenix (missed Nov. 2020 race, suspension), including November 2021 victory.

A runner-up finish last week at Las Vegas makes Larson the only driver with two top-five finishes in 2022. He heads back to Phoenix for the first time since winning his first Cup championship in November.

His recent Phoenix numbers have been phenomenal, even before he climbed into Hendrick Motorsports’ top-tier equipment. Larson has four top fives in his last five Phoenix races and has scored points in 13 of his 18 stages there, including two stage victories.

Larson’s performance here last spring was admittedly not stellar — ninth in Stage 1, 13th in Stage 2, led one lap and finished seventh after two separate speeding penalties — but he and crew chief Cliff Daniels clearly learned enough to come back and claim the title eight months later.

Let’s not forget that Larson has also won five of the last eight races. The No. 5 team is still the hottest in NASCAR.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: Second
  • Finishes in first three races: 13th — Daytona 500 and Auto Club Speedway; Eighth — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: Five top-10 finishes in last six races, including top-two finishes in both 2021 events.

Truex is the defending race winner this week, the latest triumph in a long stretch of excellence at Phoenix. Since joining Joe Gibbs Racing in 2019, Truex has three top-two finishes in six Phoenix races. He seemed poised to collect his second Cup championship in November, leading teammate Denny Hamlin through what looked to be the final run. But a caution with 30 laps to go — followed by the pit stop of a lifetime by Larson’s team — thwarted that path to the title and instead finished second.

The task is to continue this run of success this weekend. Truex believes the January test provided plenty data to lean on entering this week.

“We felt like we learned a ton at the test that hopefully gives us an idea of what we need to bring back,” Truex said in a release. “That was our first time on a smaller, flatter track in these cars, so we really went to work on trying as many things as possible that we can use and build on throughout the year.”

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: Seventh
  • Finishes in first three races: 10th — Daytona 500; 26th — Auto Club Speedway; Ninth — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: Three straight top fives at Phoenix including 2020 title win.

Elliott is a contender every time NASCAR rolls into Arizona. The 2020 champion has four consecutive top-seven finishes to accompany his top-five streak and has scored points in 18 of the 20 stages at Phoenix.

The No. 9 team tops the series in average running position at 8.190, according to NASCAR’s loop data statistics, barely edging nine-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick.

Elliott has shown speed in every race this season, including a fierce battle for the lead at Auto Club Speedway with 20 laps to go before contact from teammate Kyle Larson. Hendrick Motorsports has also won each of the last two races with Larson and Alex Bowman. Another top five from Elliott seems probable this weekend.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 30th
  • Finishes in first three races: 37th (DNF) — Daytona 500; 15th — Auto Club Speedway; 32nd (DNF) — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: Five top fives in last six races, including a 2019 win that sent him to the Championship 4.

Hamlin is off to the worst start of his career after three races, holding an average finish of 28.0 and sitting 30th in points. The last time Hamlin began with an average finish even close to this was 2008, his third full-time season when he began the year with a 22.3 average.

The good news for Hamlin is that Phoenix is next, a track at which he has excelled lately. In addition to his recent top-five accumulation, Hamlin has finished fourth or better in each of the last three Phoenix contests. In last year’s title race, Hamlin qualified third, finished fourth in Stage 1, finished third in Stage 2 and ultimately finished third after leading 33 laps.

So maybe a bad start can be wiped away with a strong run Sunday at Phoenix.

“Everyone on the team is very confident,” Hamlin said in a press release. “We know what we’re capable of and everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota are doing a great job giving us cars capable of running up front. It’s just a matter of getting to the finish without anything crazy happening and unfortunately, that has been easier said than done so far. At the end of the day, we just have to go out and execute and we’ll be fine.”

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 16th
  • Finishes in first three races: 30th (DNF) — Daytona 500; Seventh — Auto Club Speedway; 12th — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: 12 top fives in last 17 races

Anytime the series rolls into Phoenix, Harvick’s name rockets to the top of the list of contenders. With nine career wins at the 1-mile oval and 17 straight top 10s, omitting the No. 4 team from this list would be inexcusable.

His 2022 has been quiet so far and largely overshadowed by his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates’ success. Aric Almirola remains the only driver with top 10s in each of the year’s opening races, and Chase Briscoe has been near the front early and often.

Harvick, as is typical for the 2014 Cup champion, has been lurking and collecting good-but-not-flashy finishes. That can easily change at Phoenix, where he last won in 2018.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 12th
  • Finishes in first three races: Ninth — Daytona 500; 27th — Auto Club Speedway; 24th — Las Vegas Motor Speedway
  • Recent at Phoenix: Three straight top 10s, including a fourth-place finish in November.

Keselowski has shown early speed in his new venture driving the No. 6 Ford for the RFK Racing program he now co-owns. But the results so far have been mixed.

After winning his qualifying Duel race at Daytona and contending for the Daytona 500 win, the 2012 champion has spun at least once in each of the last two races at Auto Club and Las Vegas. Surely that comes as he continues to adapt to the Next Gen car, but those incidents are costing him results.

In Phoenix, Keselowski has finished inside the top 10 in five of the last seven events since the start/finish line was moved. He’s also led 164 laps over the past eight races at Phoenix, spending time out front in six of the last events.

Dr. Diandra: Is Talladega really the biggest, fastest, fiercest track?

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Talladega Superspeedway has a reputation as one of the wildest tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

Is it hype? Or do the numbers prove the point?

The biggest

Talladega is the longest oval track in the NASCAR circuit. At 2.66 miles (14,045 feet), one Talladega lap is the length of about 468 football fields. Talladega is longer than Mauna Kea is tall.

If we measure lengths in terms of Talladega:

  • The distance from Charlotte to Nashville (the location of the NASCAR awards ceremony) is 339 Talladegas.
  • If you flew direct from Los Angeles to New York City, you would cover 2500 Talladegas.
  • Martinsville is just 0.20 Talladegas.

Talladega also holds the record for banking in current Cup Series tracks with 33 degrees. Talladega’s banking is so high that the outside lane of the 48-foot wide racing surface is 26.1 feet higher than the inside lane. That difference is about the height of a two-story house.

Talladega is a tri-oval. Think of it as three straight lines connected by three curves.

A graphic showing the tri-oval shape and how it got its name

 

While tri-oval describes the track shape, it is also used to refer to the frontstretch — the most triangular part of the track.

And Talladega’s frontstretch is formidable. The 4,300-foot segment is banked at 16.5 degrees. Talladega’s frontstretch has more banking than all three of Pocono’s turns.

The backstretch, known as the Alabama Gang Superstretch, isn’t too shabby, either. It’s 1,000 feet longer than Daytona’s backstretch. If you were to unroll Richmond, its entire 0.75-mile length would just cover Talladega’s backstretch.

Talladega’s infield is so large that it could hold the L.A. Coliseum, Martinsville, Bristol, Dover, Richmond and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A graphic showing that it's possible to pack five smaller tracks, plus the NASCAR Hall of Fame into Talladega's infield

The Fastest

Bill France Sr. originally envisioned Talladega as Indianapolis Motor Speedway with higher banking. At a time when raw speed was the big attraction, higher banking would allow Talladega to wrest away the closed-track speed record from Indy.

In 1970, just six months after Talladega hosted its first race, Buddy Baker became the first driver to break the 200 mph mark on a closed course.

Baker’s breakthrough happened at a testing session. It wasn’t until 1982 that Benny Parsons became the first Cup Series driver to qualify over 200 mph. Just four years later, all but one of the 42 drivers starting the spring race qualified over 200 mph.

In May 1987, Bill Elliott set the all-time Cup Series qualifying record at 212.809 mph. That record will likely never be broken. During the race, Bobby Allison got airborne and crashed into the catchfence. NASCAR subsequently mandated restrictor plates (and now tapered spacers) to keep speeds down and cars on the ground.

Restricting airflow to the engine makes drafting even more important. That, in turn, leads to large packs of cars racing within inches of each other. That’s why four of the top-10 closest finishes in the Cup Series happened at Talladega.

In the spring 2011 race, Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer by just two-thousandths (0.002) of a second. That ties the famous 2003 Ricky Craven/Kurt Busch Darlington finish for the smallest margin of victory in Cup Series history.

Of all Talladega races run after NASCAR introduced electronic scoring in May 1993, 44 ended under a green flag. Of those races:

  • Seven (15.9%) were won by less than 25 thousandths of a second.
  • Fifteen (34.1%) were won by less than one-tenth of a second.
  • Thirty-nine (88.6%) were won by less than two-tenths of a second.
  • The largest margin of victory was 0.388 seconds.

The Fiercest

Pack racing leads to more contact. Out of 35 Talladega races run under the current green-white-checkered rule, 14 (40%) ended under caution. Rain caused one of those yellow/checkered finishes. The rest were due to accidents.

In 64 races since 1990, Talladega has seen 228 caution-causing spins or accidents, which involved 1,120 cars.

Almost half (49.2%) of these incidents involved only one or two cars. A one- or two-car accident is no less problematic for the drivers involved than a larger crash. But the more cars involved in accidents, the more likely a driver is to be knocked out of the race.

  • 3.5% of all accidents since 1990 involved 20 or more cars.
  • 5.7% of accidents collected 15 or more cars.
  • 16.7% were 10-car or larger crashes.
  • 38.2% involved five or more cars.

While probable, the Big One is by no means inevitable.

Neither are accidents in general. Three races since 1990 finished with no cautions, but all three of these races took place before 2003. The lowest number of cautions in a Talladega race since 2003 is three. That happened at the fall races in 2013 and 2015.

The average number of caution-causing accidents and spins in a Talladega race is 3.5.

  • Seven races (10.9%) had a single caution-causing accident or spin.
  • 14 out of 64 races (21.9%) had four caution-causing accidents or spins
  • 13 of 64 races (20.3%) had three caution-causing incidents.

Races with four or fewer accidents make up 71.9% of all Talladega races — which means that races with five or more accidents only account for 28.1%.

The numbers definitely uphold Talladega’s reputation. Although the track itself remains the same, the racing varies. Tune in to NBC (2 p.m. ET) to see whether this fall’s bout is accident-filled or accident-free.

Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.

Safety key topic in meeting for drivers at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup drivers met Friday with Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council, and discussed safety issues ahead of this weekend’s playoff race, which will be without two drivers due to concussion-like symptoms from crashes.

Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch will not race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Busch suffered his head injury in a crash at Pocono in July. Bowman’s injury followed his crash last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Both were injured in accidents where the rear of the car hit the SAFER barrier first.

Two drivers injured in less than three months — and the series racing at a track where crashes are likely — raises tension in the Cup garage. 

Denny Hamlin blasted NASCAR on Saturday, saying it was “bad leadership” for not addressing safety concerns drivers had with the car. Hamlin also said that the Next Gen vehicle needs to be redesigned.

Burton, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, said in an exclusive interview that Friday’s meeting was lengthy because there were several topics to discuss. Burton didn’t go into details on all the topics.

Safety was a key element of that meeting. Burton, whose role with the Drivers Advisory Council is to coordinate the group and communicate with NASCAR, discussed the cooperation level with NASCAR.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” he said. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car. 

“We want to see that come to conclusion as soon as possible. They have made commitments to us and are showing us what is happening, communicating with us in regard to timing, and we want to see it come to conclusion, as they do. 

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get some changes done before last weekend. It just takes a long time to test stuff.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on a new rear clip and rear bumper. Even if the test goes well, there’s not enough time for any such changes this season with five races left.

The frustration from drivers — and voiced by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — has been that NASCAR was informed about issues with a stiffer car for more than a year. Some questions were raised after William Byron crashed in a test in March 2020 at Auto Club Speedway.

“William Byron busted his ass at (Auto Club) Speedway and that should have raised a red flag right off the bat,” Harvick said Saturday.

Hamlin said more drivers needed to speak up about concerns with the car.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said.

Byron is looking for changes to be made.

“I want to have a long career, and I don’t want to have a series of concussions that make me either have to step way from the car or have to think about long-term things,” he said.

Chase Elliott also shared his frustrations Saturday.

“You come off a week like we had in Texas and somebody getting injured and then you come into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point (Sunday) and probably not lightly at that,” Elliot said.

So what do drivers do?

“Do you just not show up?” Elliott said. “Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask. There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. 

“My frustration is … I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had a choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry. 

“That should have just never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that that we had years and time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t, and now we’re having to fix it. 

“I just hate that we did that. I think we’re smarter than that. I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Burton told NBC Sports that drivers did not discuss in Friday’s meeting running single-file in Sunday’s race as a form of protest.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to see single-file (racing Sunday) because of what happened at Texas and what could happen next week (at the Charlotte Roval),” Burton said. “Drivers need a period of calmness. 

“There was not a discussion, a collaborated effort or any sort of thing of how you race (Sunday). That conversation did not come up in that meeting.”

Harvick said Saturday that he’ll continue to be vocal about safety issues.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure these guys are in a good spot,” Harvick said. “Whatever I have to do.”

Harvick later said: “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position. We have to have the safety we deserve to go out and put on a great show and be comfortable with that. 

“Obviously, we all have taken the risks of being race car drivers, but there’s no reason we should be in a worse position than we were last year.”

Harvick said it was a matter of trust.

“The reality of the situation is much different than what they’re looking at,” Harvick said of NASCAR officials. “I think that the trust level is obviously not where it needs to be from getting it fixed. I think they’re going to have to earn the trust level back of reacting quick enough to do the things that it takes. The drivers’ opinion, especially when it comes to safety side of things, has to be more important than the data or more important than the cost. Safety can’t be a budget item.”

Corey LaJoie, who is a member of the Drivers Advisory Council board, said that while challenges remain with the car, he sees the effort being made by NASCAR.

“Nothing happens quick in this deal when you have 38 teams and you have seven cars per team,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It has to be a well-thought-out process to implement the changes.

“It’s easy to get up in arms and prickly when we have guys like Alex and Kurt out. You don’t ever want that to happen. Every conversation I’m having is what we, as the Driver Council, is trying to communicate to NASCAR and NASCAR making proactive changes and moving timelines up aggressively to try to implement these changes.”