Dr. Diandra: Sciencing Out Phoenix Raceway


A deep dive into the track and stage points will help you finalize your fantasy lineup and get you ready for today’s race.

Meet the Track

Phoenix Raceway is designed to torture crew chiefs.

A sketch of the shape of Charlotte Motor Speedway, showing its symmetryMost oval and tri-oval tracks are symmetric: One side is the mirror image of the other. If you print out the diagram of Charlotte Motor Speedway and fold it along the red line, the right side of the track overlies the left side.

Crew chiefs love symmetry because it makes their jobs easier. If their car works in Turns 1 & 2 of a symmetric track, it should work well in Turns 3 & 4, too.

Now meet Phoenix Raceway.

Phoenix (along with its big cousin Pocono) is about as far from symmetric as it gets for non-road courses. Just try to find an axis about which you can fold this track and have it line up. (Spoiler: you can’t.)

The track’s shape isn’t its only asymmetry. The progressive banking is 8-9 degrees in Turns 1 & 2, and 10-11 degrees in Turns 3 & 4. While a two- or three-degree difference seems small, it’s enough to prevent crew chiefs from optimizing their cars for both sets of turns. The dogleg is almost a fifth turn, with banking that rises to 11 degrees.

Lower banking and a 1-mile length produce the lowest speeds of any track so far this year. Lower speeds mean less aerodynamic downforce, so the suspension setup becomes even more important. Crew chiefs can either make the car really good in one set of turns and not as good in the other, or choose a compromise setup that makes the car okay at both ends of the track. Then it’s up to the driver to find the line that best suits his driving strengths and style. Phoenix rewards teams that can adapt and improve their car during the race.

Stage Points Under the Microscope

Every season has its own quirks — new drivers, new teams, and drivers with new teams. But this year, there’s also a brand-new car. That doesn’t mean historical data is useless — but it can lead you in the wrong direction if you’re not careful. Here are a few hints on how to use the information we do have to make smart picks.

Don’t Rely Too Much on This Year’s Data – Yet

NASCAR statistics – everything from number of cautions to driver points – vary a lot over the first six to 10 races of a season. Consider Kyle Larson’s 2021 week-by-week ranking, as shown below. I’ve included his finishing position for each race in the lower graph.

Graphs showing the weekly rank and finishing position for Kyle Larson in 2021
Top graph: Kyle Larson’s weekly rank. Bottom graph: Larson’s finish for each race. Clear bars: DNF

When a driver’s only earned 100 points, 10 points represents a 10% change. Later in the season, when the same driver has 500 points, 10 points only represents 2% of the total. That’s why Larson’s rank bounces between 2nd and 12th in the first five races. Each race is 20% of his entire record. Note that, later in the season, finishes out of the top 15 at Road America and Atlanta barely move the needle.

Stage Points and Race Points

As Dustin Long noted, stage and Duel points comprise almost 30 percent of some drivers’ point totals. Points earned in Duels impact the overall standings even more than stage points. For example, Brad Keselowski earned 10 points for winning his Duel at Daytona International Speedway, the most of any driver in the race. At Auto Club Speedway, Tyler Reddick earned 20 stage points, but Kyle Larson earned 52 points for winning.

After three races, a single driver could have earned a maximum of 70 stage points: 20 points for each race, plus 10 points for winning one of the Duels. The graph below shows how they’re doing.

A vertical bar chart showing 2022 stage points for drivers

Kyle Larson and Joey Logano each have 33 stage points, or 47% of the maximum points possible. Martin Truex, Jr. trails in third with 30 stage points.

Now let’s look at stage points (in yellow) relative to race points (in green).

A vertical bar chart showing total points as of week #3 of the 2022 NASCAR season

Kyle Busch, Aric Almirola and Austin Cindric have earned the most race points in the season but not many stage points. The combination of two strong race finishes and 33 stage points has Larson leading the standings. But those stage points are also why Martin Truex, Jr. is in second place despite an average finish of 11.3, and Brad Keselowski is in 12th place with average finish of 20. This anomaly will fade away as they run more races. Early in the season, it’s worth considering stage points and race points separately.

Previous Trends That Continue This Season

You might think previous seasons shouldn’t matter because of the new car, but good drivers will always rise to the top. Since we’re talking stage points, let’s use them as an example.

Out of the 183 races in the stage-racing era (2017-present), a different driver has won each stage and the race 76 times (41.5%). That means a driver who wins stage 1 has a better than 50:50 chance of winning stage 2 and/or the race. Knowing these stats (summarized in the graphic below) can help you tweak your fantasy lineup before you have to finalize it.

A Block graphic showing the percentage of drivers that winning different configurations of stages and wins

Which Drivers Excel at Winning Multiple Stages?

The top drivers for winning more than one stage and/or the race are:

Truex is at the top of the list with 18. Although most of his numbers come from 2017 and 2018, he’s already won two stages in one race in 2022. If Truex wins either stage 1 or stage 2, he would be a good bet for the win.

Harvick is second on the list but the last time he won more than one stage and/or the race was 2020. Keep in mind, though, that Harvick is good at Phoenix. If Harvick wins stages 1 and 2, he’s worth risking a bet for the win.

The two Kyles have asterisks because they achieved their numbers running fewer races than everyone else on the list. Kyle Busch has accomplished the multi-stage/race win feat every year since stages started. Kyle Larson did it 10 times in 2021 alone.

Busch and Larson are two of the three drivers who’ve won Phoenix after winning one stage. The third is Hamlin. Although he’s fifth on this  list, all those races were 2019 and later. Hamlin was the only driver last year not to have a DNF all season and he’s already had two this year. He’s due for some luck.

Newer drivers have fewer races under their belt and thus don’t rank high on this list; however, Alex Bowman won stage 1 and the Las Vegas race last race. My only hesitance with him is that, in the last four races he ran at Phoenix, he has one DNF and an average finish of 13.3.

Diandra Leslie-Pelecky is the author of The Physics of NASCAR. She has undergraduate degrees in physics and philosophy from the University of North Texas and a Ph. D in condensed matter physics from Michigan State University. She spent most of her academic career in the Department of Physics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her analysis will run twice a week throughout the NASCAR season.

Concussion-like symptoms sideline Noah Gragson

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Noah Gragson will not compete in Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway because of concussion-like symptoms he experienced this week after his crash at WWT Raceway, Legacy MC announced Thursday.

Grant Enfinger will drive the No. 42 in place of Gragson.

“Noah’s health is the highest of priorities and we commend him for making the decision to sit out this weekend,” said team co-owners Maury Gallagher and Jimmie Johnson in a statement from the team. “We are appreciative that Grant was available and willing to step in since the Truck Series is off this weekend.”

The team states that Gragson was evaluated and released from the infield care center after his crash last weekend at WWT Raceway. He began to experience concussion-like symptoms mid-week and is seeking treatment.

Gragson is 32nd in the points in his rookie Cup season.

Enfinger is available with the Craftsman Truck Series off this weekend. Enfinger is coming off a victory in last weekend’s Truck race at WWT Raceway for GMS Racing, which is owned by Gallagher. That was Enfinger’s second Truck win of the season.

NASCAR implements safety changes after Talladega crash

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NASCAR is implementing changes to Cup cars that strengthen the right side door area and soften the frontal area after reviewing the crash between Kyle Larson and Ryan Preece at Talladega Superspeedway in April.

The changes are to be in place for the July 9 race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Larson and Preece were uninjured in the vicious crash late in the race at Talladega. Larson’s car was turned and slid down the track to the apron before coming back up in traffic. Preece’s car slammed into the right side door area of Larson’s car.

Dr. John Patalak, NASCAR vice president of safety engineering, said the difference in velocity of the two cars at the time of impact was 59 mph.

“It’s pretty hard to find that on the racetrack normally,” Patalak told reporters Thursday during a briefing.

The severe impact moved a right side door bar on Larson’s car. NASCAR announced last month that it was allowing teams to add six right side door bar gussets to prevent the door bars from buckling in such an impact.

Thursday, NASCAR announced additional changes to the cars. The changes come after computer simulations and crash testing.

NASCAR is mandating:

  • Steel plate welded to the right side door bars
  • Front clips will be softened
  • Front bumper strut softening
  • Front ballast softening
  • Modified cross brace

Patalak said that NASCAR had been working on changes to the car since last year and did crash testing in January at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio. NASCAR did more work after that crash test.

As for the changes to the front of the car, Patalak said: “From an engineering standpoint we’re reducing the buckling strength of those individual parts and pieces. The simplified version is we are increasing the amount of crush that the front clip will be capable of. That’s all an effort to reduce the accelerations that the center section and driver will be exposed to during these frontal crashes.”

Adding the steel plate to the door bars is meant to strengthen that area to prevent any type of intrusion or buckling of the door bars in a similar type of crash.

Patalak also said that NASCAR inspected the car of Blaine Perkins that barrel rolled during the Xfinity race at Talladega in April. Patalak said that NASCAR consulted with Dr. James Raddin, Jr., who was one of the four authors of the Earnhardt investigation report in 2001 for the sanctioning body, in that incident.

Dr. Diandra: Brad Keselowski driving RFK Racing revival


Brad Keselowski surprised many when he didn’t re-sign with Team Penske in 2021. Penske was his home since 2010, and the team who helped him to a Cup Series championship in 2012. But Jack Roush offered Keselowski something Roger Penske couldn’t — ownership stake in the team.

Keselowski knew an RFK Racing revival would be an challenge, but also that he was prepared for it.

“I’ve been studying my whole life for this moment, and I’m ready for the test,” Keselowski said during the announcement of the new partnership.

A historic team with historic ups and downs

Roush Racing entered Cup competition in 1988. It didn’t win that first year, but the company collected at least one checkered flag every year from 1989-2014 — except for 1996.

Roush was one of the first owners (along with Rick Hendrick) to appreciate the advantages of multi-car teams. By 2003, Roush Racing fielded five full-time teams. In 2005, all five Roush cars made the playoffs, accumulating 15 wins between them. Their dominance prompted NASCAR to limit teams to four cars. That limit remains today.

Roush sold half the team to Fenway Sports Group in 2007. The renamed Roush Fenway Racing team, however, never reached the highs of 2005 as the graph below shows.

A vertical bar chart showing the challenges Brad Keselowski has in driving RFK's revival

The 2015 season was Jack Roush’s first winless season since 1996. By the time Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won two races in 2017, RFR was down to two cars. The company had four consecutive winless seasons before Keselowski came on board.

Keselowski is a perfect choice to drive the RFK revival. After all, how many other NASCAR drivers run a 3D-printing business? Or worry about having enough properly educated workers for 21st century manufacturing jobs?

“I feel like I’m buying into a stock that is about to go up,” Keselowski said.

Keselowski’s record

The new RFK Racing team started off strong at Daytona, with Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher each winning their Duels. During that week, NASCAR confiscated wheels from both drivers’ cars. Despite concerns about the team’s modifications, NASCAR ultimately levied no penalty. But after the fifth race of the year at Atlanta, NASCAR docked Keselowski 100 points for modifying single-source parts. Keselowski needed to win to make the playoffs.

It wasn’t Keselowski, but Buescher who won the first race under the new name. Unfortunately, Buescher’s Bristol win came too late to make the playoffs.

Keselowski finished 2022 ranked 24th, the worst finish since his first full-time season in 2010 when he finished 25th.

In the table below, I compare Keselowski’s finishes for his last two years at Team Penske to his finishes with RFK Racing in 2022 and the first 15 races of 2023.

Comparing Brad Keselowski's finishes for his last two years with Penske and his first two years (so far) with RFK RacingKeselowski’s lack of wins since switching teams is the most obvious difference; however, the falloff in top-five and top-10 finishes is even more significant. Keselowski was not only not winning races, he often wasn’t even in contention. In 2020, Keselowski finished 91.7% of all races on the lead lap. In his first year with RFK, that metric dropped to 61.1%.

On the positive side, his numbers this year look far better than his 2022 statistics. Keselowski finishes on the lead lap 86.7% of the time and already has as many top-10 finishes in 15 races as he had in all 36 races last year.

Keselowski’s top-five finish rate improved from 2.8% in 2022 to 20.0% this year. That’s still off his 2021 top-five-finish rate of 36.1%, but it’s a step forward.

I summarize the last four years of some of Keselowski’s loop data metrics in the table below.

A table comparing Brad Keselowski's attempt to drive RKF's revival with his last two years of loop data at Penske

In 2022, Keselowski was down between six to seven-and-a-half points in starting, finishing and average running positions relative to 2021. This year, he’s improved so that the difference is only in the 2.6 to 3.6-position range.

Two keys for continued improvement

Ford is playing catch-up this year, having won only two of 15 points-paying races. Ryan Blaney, who won one of those two races, has the highest average finishing position (11.3) among drivers with at least eight starts. Keselowski is 14th overall with a 15.7 average finishing position, and fourth best among Ford drivers. Buescher is finishing an average of 1.2 positions better than his teammate.

Kevin Harvick is the top-ranked Ford driver in average running position, coming in sixth overall. Keselowski is 13th overall in average running position and the fourth-best among the Ford drivers.

Average green-flag speed rank is the average of a driver’s rank in green-flag speed over all the races for which he was ranked. Harvick is the fastest Ford as measured by this metric, ranking eighth among all drivers who have completed at least eight races. Keselowski is the fifth-fastest Ford, but the 20th-ranked driver in average green-flag speed rank.

The other issue, however, is particular to Keselowski: He is involved in a lot of accidents. That’s not new with Keselowski’s move to RFK Racing. Since 2016, Keselowski has been involved in at least eight caution-causing incidents every year.

What may be new is that he has a harder time recovering from non-race-ending incidents now than he did at Penske.

In 2021, Keselowski was involved in 12 caution-causing accidents. Last year, it was 10 (nine accidents and a spin). He’s already been involved in 12 incidents this year, the most of any full-time driver.

Keselowski isn’t too concerned about accidents. He views them as a consequence of pushing a car to its limits. His competitors, however, have called him out for for his aggressive driving style.

Neither accidents nor Keselowski’s attitude toward them changed with his transition from Team Penske to RFK Racing.

Except now he’s the one paying for those wrecked cars.

NASCAR weekend schedule at Sonoma Raceway


The NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series head to Sonoma Raceway this weekend. This marks the first time the Xfinity Series has competed at the 1.99-mile road course.

The Cup and Xfinity Series will take the following weekend off before the season resumes at Nashville Superspeedway. NBC and USA will broadcast each series the rest of the year, beginning at Nashville.

Sonoma Raceway

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 69 degrees.

Saturday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 73 degrees. Forecast is for a high of 70 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race.

Sunday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 67 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the Cup race.

Friday, June 9

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — ARCA Menards Series West
  • 1 – 10 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 2 – 3 p.m. — ARCA West practice
  • 3:10 – 3:30 p.m. — ARCA West qualifying
  • 4:05 – 4:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 p.m. — ARCA West race (64 laps, 127.36 miles; live on FloRacing, will air on CNBC at 11:30 a.m. ET on June 18)

Saturday, June 10

Garage open

  • 12 p.m. – 8 p.m.  — Cup Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 3 – 4 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 5 – 6 p.m. — Cup practice  (FS2)
  • 6 – 7 p.m. — Cup qualifying  (FS2)
  • 8 p.m. — Xfinity race (79 laps, 156.95 miles; FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, June 11

Garage open

  • 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (110 laps, 218.9 miles; Fox, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)