Dr. Diandra: Who are the best road course racers running COTA?

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The NASCAR Cup Series has only raced COTA once, and that rain-drenched race ended 14 laps early. Without COTA-specific data, our best bet for making fantasy picks is examining driver performance over all road courses.

In 2021, the number of road courses on the Cup schedule jumped from the pre-pandemic two per year to seven. This year, there are six on the schedule. Road course fans, Chase Elliott, and geeks like me wanting more data on drivers going left and right applauded the change.

Do road course ringers challenge regulars?

Road course ringers — drivers from other series brought in to run road courses — are not so common anymore. The playoff structure requires drivers contending for the championship to run all the races. There’s even a road course in the playoffs now. But some teams are bringing skilled specialists like Boris Said, Loris Hezemans, and Andy Lally to COTA.

From 1980 to now, the top road course winners are Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Chase Elliott. You have to go down to 11th place to find Marcos Ambrose, with two Cup wins. And one can argue he’s not really a ‘ringer’ given that he ran full schedules. The same goes for Juan Pablo Montoya and A.J. Allmendinger (tied at 15th).

Road-course ringers rarely win Cup-level races. We tend to remember unusual events like underdog winners better than we remember expected finishes, but regular Cup drivers win almost all the road course races.

While winning a road course may win a spot in the playoffs, drivers who earn their way into the playoffs on only one superspeedway win or only one road course win are usually eliminated early.

Is Chase Elliott road course royalty?

Let’s start planning our COTA lineup by tallying the career average finish positions at road courses. I limited the graph to drivers with average finishes of 20 or under to keep it readable.

A vertical bar chart showing drivers' average finishes over their careers.

The above graph certainly argues in favor of crowning Chase Elliott as the ‘Current Cup King of Road Courses’. Not only does he have the lowest average finish, his closest challenger, Ryan Blaney, finishes five places behind him on average. The graph below, which details Elliott’s finishes on road courses, also supports awarding Elliott the crown.

showing all of Chase Elliott's finishes on road courses

Elliott entered Cup a strong road course racer and improved with time. He’s got only one career DNF in 19 races and no finish over P21 in the other 18 races. Remarkably, Elliott finishes in the top 10 at road courses almost 70% of the time — higher than any other driver in Sunday’s race.

Blaney shows flashes of strength on road courses, but a significant number of finishes outside the top 15 explains why he lags behind Elliott in average finish.

A vertical bar graph showing all of Ryan Blaney's finishes on road courses

The driver with the third-best finishing average, Kyle Larson, is a case study for how averages often hide important details. Here’s Larson’s history at road courses:

A vertical bar graph showing all of Kyle Larson's finishes on road courses

Although Larson struggled a bit early in his career, he’s been pretty darn good since running in Hendrick Motorsports equipment.

So even if Chase Elliott is the best road course racer, will he be the best at COTA?

History vs. recent history

Comparing drivers’ average finishes for just the last seven races gives us a better gauge of their current capabilities. This analysis shows a slightly different story.

A vertical bar chart showing drivers' average finishes for the last seven road course races.

Elliott is still on top, but his closest pursuer — now Kyle Larson — is behind him by less than half a position.

Which of the two graphs do we believe?

Both of ’em.

Overperforming drivers

Comparing two graphs is tricky, so here’s the shortcut I use to quickly spot drivers finishing above their weights. Each drivers’ finishing average for the last seven races is a red bar, and their career average finish is in yellow.

A double vertical bar graph comparing drivers' career average finishes with their average finishes over the last seven races a

A driver whose red bar is smaller than his yellow bar is doing better than his career average suggests. The bigger the gap between the two bars, the more the driver is overperforming. The converse holds true: Drivers whose red bars are above their yellow bars are doing worse now than they have throughout their whole career.

The first 10 drivers (Elliott to Allmendinger) are all on the correct side of the red/yellow balance.

  • All 10 have average finishes in the top 15 in the last seven road course races.
  • Elliott, Larson and Denny Hamlin have average finishes in the top 10 in the last seven road course races.
  • Kyle Busch hasn’t won much at road courses, but he’s finished in the top 10 almost 60% of his career.
  • Kurt Busch, Ryan Blaney, and Joey Logano finish in the top 10 a little more than 50% of the time over their careers. And, of course, Blaney won the pole.
    • CAVEAT: Kurt Busch is in new equipment this year.
  • If you’re looking for longer odds, consider Chris Buescher, Alex Bowman or Christopher Bell.

This graph also highlights some drivers trending in the wrong direction.

  • Brad Keselowski‘s seven-race numbers reflect his time at Team Penske, where he drove well below his career average. He’s in new (arguably lesser) equipment this year, plus he’s coming off one of the biggest penalties in NASCAR history.
  • Kevin Harvick has an average career finish under 15 at road courses, but last year, his average was over 20.
  • William Byron had an average finish of 23.1 at road courses last year.

Best finishes

The last metric we’ll examine is each drivers’ best career finish at a road course, as shown below.

A vertical bar chart showing drivers' best career finishes on road courses

A driver who’s never finished in the top 10 at a road course isn’t the best bet to win at COTA. But just because a driver has a good finish doesn’t mean he’s a good bet.

For example, Daniel Suarez and Ross Chastain of Trackhouse Racing have best finishes of third and fourth respectively. Both had great finishes last week.

But Atlanta is now a superspeedway, so its results don’t necessarily translate to other tracks. And we have to consider the circumstances of each driver’s best finish, which means going back to the race-by-race record.

showing all of Daniel Suarez's finishes on road coursesSuarez’s only top-five finishes came in 2017 and 2018 while at Joe Gibbs Racing. He hasn’t finished in the top 10 since 2018. Of course, he also hasn’t had the chance to qualify since moving to Trackhouse. He starts Sunday’s race in P2.

Chastain’s road course graph is below. (I’ve done race-by-race summaries for all drivers. If I haven’t mentioned you driver, you can still check them out.)

showing all of Ross Chastain's finishes on road coursesHis best finishes are more recent (2021), but they came in Chip Ganassi Racing cars. Even so, he finished outside the top 20 in the last two road course races of the year.

These are the types of factors you have to weigh as you make your picks — which is what makes choosing winners a game of skill. Of course, once drivers are on the track, you’re subject to the same luck — or lack of luck — they are.

Even math is powerless against car crashes.

 

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

HELIO’S ‘DAYS OF THUNDER’ MOMENT: Recalling a memorable 2022 victory drive through the smoke

“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Fire at Reaume Brothers Racing shop injures three

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A Thursday fire at the Reaume Brothers Racing shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, injured three individuals, according to Mooresville (North Carolina) Fire-Rescue.

Firefighters were dispatched to the shop, which is scheduled to field entries for driver Mason Massey in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this season, at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

The fire department extinguished the blaze quickly. The department stated on its Facebook page that one individual was transported to Lake Norman Regional hospital for smoke inhalation, and another was transported to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. with burn injuries. A third was treated and released.

The Mooresville Fire Marshall’s office is investigating the cause of the fire. The fire department said the shop sustained “significant fire damage.”

In a tweet, the team said it is determining the extent of damage to the building. “More importantly,” it said, “a few of our team members did sustain injuries during the fire and are being transported for medical treatment.”

Trackhouse, RFK Racing, Front Row Motorsports sign sponsorship deals

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Trackhouse Racing, RFK Racing and Front Row Motorsports announced sponsorship deals Thursday morning.

Trackhouse said WWEX, a Dallas-based global logistics group, will increase its sponsorship presence with the team this year, serving as the primary sponsor in 21 races for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez.

WWEX will appear on Chastain’s Chevrolets in 19 races and will sponsor Suarez twice. The organization was a Trackhouse sponsor in 11 events in 2022, which was a breakout season for both Chastain and Suarez.

RFK announced that Solomon Plumbing, which joined the team last season, will expand its presence this season and in future years. The Michigan-based company will serve as the primary sponsor for several races on driver Brad Keselowski‘s No. 6 Ford.

MORE: Chase Briscoe signs contract extension with Stewart-Haas

Solomon specializes in plumbing and fire services for new development and construction. It initially sponsored Keselowski last season in the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Front Row Motorsports has signed Quincy Compressor, a Bay Minette, Ala.-based compressor manufacturer, as a sponsor for four races.

Quincy will sponsor Todd Gilliland‘s No. 38 team in three events and Michael McDowell‘s No. 34 team in one race.

 

 

Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to contract extension

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Chase Briscoe has signed a multiyear contract extension to remain at Stewart-Haas Racing, the team announced Thursday.

The length of the deal was not announced.

MORE: A better way to determine the Cup champion?

Briscoe is entering his third Cup season with the team. He won his first series race last year, taking the checkered flag at Phoenix last March. That victory put him in the playoffs. He finished the season ninth in the standings. 

“It’s huge to have stability, with my team and my partner,” Briscoe said in a statement from the team. “It just gives you more confidence. Stewart-Haas Racing is where I want to be for a long time. It’s the place I’ve known longer than anywhere else in my NASCAR career.

“I remember getting signed by Ford in 2017 and I told people, ‘You know, if I could pick one place to be, it would be Stewart- Haas Racing. And if I could drive one car, it would be the 14 car. That would be the ultimate dream.’ And now, here I am.

“SHR has such a great group of people, from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series, and they’ve all just guided me in the right direction. From drivers to crew chiefs to crew members, they’ve always had my back, and that’s been a huge help – just having people believe in you.”

The 28-year-old Briscoe has been with SHR since 2018. He split a limited Xfinity schedule that season between what is now RFK Racing and SHR. He ran full time with SHR in the Xfinity Series in 2019 and ’20 before moving to Cup in 2021.

“Chase has made the most of every opportunity and the proof is in the results. Keeping him at SHR was a priority and we’re proud to have him in our racecars for many more years to come,” said Tony Stewart, who co-owns SHR with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, in a statement from the team. 

Briscoe’s signing comes two weeks after teammate Kevin Harvick announced that this will be his final season in Cup. 

The Cup season begins Feb. 5 with the Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before going to Daytona for the Feb. 19 Daytona 500.