Dr. Diandra: For some drivers, Richmond is unique among short tracks

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The NextGen racecar undertakes its first true short track points race today at Richmond Raceway. By ‘true’ short track, I mean oval tracks under 1 mile: Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond. Although these three tracks have different degrees of banking and slightly different lengths, they share an important characteristic: speed.

Or rather, lack of speed. Take a look at the pole speeds from 2019, the last time we had qualifying at short tracks.

A vertical bar chart showing the average pole speed for races at Martinsville, Richmond,Bristol and Dover

Aside from the much-longer road courses (a class unto themselves), the true short tracks are the slowest tracks NASCAR runs. Dover, which my mind wants to make a short track, runs much faster than true short tracks. Because aerodynamic forces depend on speed squared, slower tracks make aerodynamics less significant.

A caveat: When I say Bristol, I mean pavement Bristol, not dirt Bristol. Although Bristol with dirt on it is still a short track, the dirt physics is significantly different than pavement physics. Also, with only one dirt race at Bristol, we don’t have enough data to determine how it compares to pavement Bristol, or to other short tracks.

Who are the best short-track drivers?

Given that the series heads for Martinsville next week, I thought maybe I could kill two races with one calculation by just figuring out which drivers are best on the three true short tracks.

I want to emphasize recent results, but I had to balance that with the fact that we have at most six short-track races a year. As a compromise, I’m using data from 2019-2021.

Let’s start by looking at drivers’ average finishes for short tracks.

A vertical bar chart showing the average finishes of Cup drivers at the three short tracks: Richmond, Martinsville and Bristol.

This looks like a promising start to picking winners: All the usual suspects surface. Kyle Busch has six career wins at Martinsville and eight at Bristol. Martin Truex, Jr. has gone from being the king of the mile-and-a-half tracks to mastering short-track racing. I was a little surprised to see Denny Hamlin so far back, but he’s had a lot of close races lately. My choices for Richmond seem pretty clear.

Then I reminded myself of the dangers of generalizing: it’s easy to find patterns where there are none.

And it’s a good thing for my fantasy team that I didn’t just stop there.

Track-by-track

I decided to examine drivers’ performances at individual tracks, as well as their averages across tracks. It turns out not all the top drivers are uniformly good at short tracks.

In the graph below, I’ve left the overall average — over all three tracks — in red. The average finishes for Richmond are in yellow, Martinsville in green, and Bristol in blue.

A vertical bar graph that compares each driver's averge finish at each of the three tracks to the composite average

This graph paints a slightly different picture than the graph of overall short-track performance.

One thing doesn’t change: Kyle Busch is still a good bet at any short track.

  • Busch earns that title by having average finishes under 10 at all three short tracks.
  • Despite a 18.8% career win rate (six wins in 32 starts), Busch hasn’t won at Richmond since 2018.
  • That makes his average finish even more impressive because the data in the graph above don’t include 2018.

In contrast, Martin Truex, Jr. is strong at some tracks and not so strong at others.

  • Truex earns his second-place short-track racer title by being really, really good at Richmond.
  • His finishing average of 2.0 at Richmond over the last three years compensates for a finishing average of 16.2 at Bristol over the same time.
  • Here’s how good Truex is at Richmond: He won three of the last five Richmond races. When he didn’t win, he still finished in the top five.

If you only depended on overall short track numbers, you might be in for an unwelcome surprise at Bristol if you pick Truex.

Joey Logano (third best in overall short track finishes) and Denny Hamlin (fifth best) both have an average finish of 4.8 at Richmond — better than Kyle Busch’s 6.6 average.

Gibbs is strong at Richmond. Of the three drivers considered (Bell is too new to have enough data), Truex has three top 10s this year and stands seventh in points. He’s a good bet to give Toyota its first win of the year.

If you’re looking for a dark horse pick for a driver to run well at Richmond, check out the ‘A’-list drivers:

This graph also tells you that there are a few drivers you might want to avoid, even though they’re on the graph for having a decent overall short-track finishing average.

  • Despite having an average finish of 11.74 at short tracks, Ryan Blaney‘s performance at Richmond has produced only 16.40 average finish. Perhaps keep him in your garage until next week.
  • Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch and Erik Jones are also drivers whose recent record at Richmond is worse than their overall short-track record suggests.

Laps led

Drivers who lead laps tend to win at Richmond. The graph below shows total laps led at each of the three short tracks. The drivers are arranged with the driver who has led the most total laps at the three tracks combined on the left.

This graph further reinforces the idea that even drivers who run well at short tracks run better at some short tracks than others. From 2019-2021:

  • Truex led 1293 laps between the three tracks, but 95.6% of his laps led were at Richmond or Martinsville.
  • Hamlin, on the other hand, has led at all three tracks, with a total of 1183 laps led.
  • Keselowski’s also been strong at all three short tracks — although with the usual caveat that he’s in different equipment this year.
  • Although Chase Elliott is fourth in laps led, only 60 of those were at Richmond.

What to expect from the track

While we often focus on drivers, understanding the track and the race rhythm can really help your prognostication skills. If the first two stages show that your driver’s car doesn’t get good until 70 laps into a run, you need to know how likely it is that there will be a long green-flag run in stage 3.

I think of short tracks as having lots of cautions, lots of accidents and lots of DNFs. That’s not Richmond these days. Look at the number of accidents and spins in the last 20 years.

A stacked vertical bar chart showing the numbers of accidents and spins at Richmond over time

In the 2000s, two accidents would have been considered abnormally low for a Richmond race. The spring 2003 race managed 12 accidents and two spins in 393 laps.

With a couple exceptions (the spring races in 2011 and 2013, and the fall race in 2016), drivers at Richmond experience many fewer accidents and spins these days. Not only did the fall race in 2020 go accident free, there were no breaks other thaxnn the planned competition and stage-break cautions. It’s possible that the NextGen car’s durability may encourage drivers to be a little more aggressive, but it’s also possible that the durability will allow more bumping without requiring cautions.

Fewer accidents usually means fewer DNFs. But fewer accidents also mean fewer cautions and fewer cautions mean longer green-flag runs.

  • In last year’s fall race, stage 2 was caution free (148  laps), and the race ended with a 146-lap green-flag run.
  • In the 2021 spring race, stage three featured a 134-lap green-flag run.

Long green-flag runs requires crew chiefs to tune the car for more than just the short term. Fewer cautions mean fewer opportunities for crew chiefs to adjust their cars. That, in turn, makes all those computer simulations and tests that help the crew chiefs decide how to adjust the car even more important. If you’re not close to dialed in when you unload, you may not have many chances to get there.

As recently as 2013, it was normal for nine or 10 cars to retires before the end of the race. More recently, only 2-3 cars fail to finish the race. That, in turn, has led to a smaller fraction of cars finishing on the lead lap. In the last five Richmond races, only about one-third of the cars finished on the lead lap.

Qualifying on the pole doesn’t have a big impact at Richmond. In the last 10 races, the polesitter won the race only once, in 2016.

One more tidbit from my analysis: If you’re limiting your choices to drivers who haven’t notched their first win yet, this might not be the track to do it. No drivers has gotten his or her first win at a short track since 2005, when Kasey Kahne accomplished that feat.

 

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.

Sunday Clash at the Coliseum: Start time, TV info, race format

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LOS ANGELES – NASCAR is back and back at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Nearly three months after Joey Logano won the Cup title at Phoenix, Cup drivers return to action this weekend to run the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race on Sunday night.

This marks the second consecutive year the series has raced inside the Coliseum, which has hosted the Super Bowl, World Series and Olympics.

Details for Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum 

(All times Eastern)

HEAT RACES: There will be four 25-lap heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top five from each race advance to the Busch Light Clash. The first heat race is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.

LAST CHANCE QUALIFIERS: There will be two 50-lap qualifiers for drivers who did not advance to the Clash through their heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top three finishers in each of the qualifiers advance to the Clash. The 27-car Clash lineup will be finalized by adding one provisional spot for the driver highest in points last season not yet in the Clash field. The first of these two last chance qualifying races is scheduled to begin at 6:10 p.m.

CLASH STARTING LINEUP: To be set by heat races and the Last Chance Qualifiers. Winner of heat 1 will start on the pole for the Clash. Winner of heat 2 will start second. Winner of heat 3 will start third. Winner of heat 4 will start 4th. Runner-up in heat 1 will start fifth and so on.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 11 a.m. … Driver intros are at 7:50 p.m. … Invocation by Judah Smith, lead pastor of Churchome, at 8:07 p.m. … The USC Trojan Marching Band will perform the national anthem at 8:08 p.m. … Actor Rob Lowe will give the command to fire engines at 8:15 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to be waved by USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams at 8:20 p.m.

DISTANCE: The Clash is 150 laps (37.5 miles) on the 1/4-mile short track.

STAGES: There will be a stage break at Lap 75 (halfway in the Clash). Wiz Khalifa will perform during the break.

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the event, beginning at 4 p.m. . … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Partly cloudy with a high of 63 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the start of the heat races. Partly cloudy with a high of 61 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the Clash..

LAST TIME: Joey Logano held off Kyle Busch to win the inaugural Clash at the Coliseum. Austin Dillon placed third. .

Catch up on NBC Sports coverage

New NASCAR season features several changes

Clash at the Coliseum provides a reset for RFK Racing 

Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

Dr. Diandra: Muffling racecars won’t change fan experience

Drivers to watch at Clash in Coliseum

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023

NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events 

Looking back on 10 historic moments in the Clash

 

NASCAR Saturday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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NASCAR drivers are scheduled to hit the track today in competitive mode for the first time in 2023.

Practice is scheduled from 6-8 p.m. on the oval inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Single-car qualifying for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum is scheduled to begin at 8:35 p.m. (ET). The 36 drivers will be divided into three 12-driver groups for practice.

Cup practice groups

Cup qualfying order

Saturday’s qualifying will set the starting lineups for Sunday’s four 25-lap heat races. The top five finishers in each heat race will advance to the main event. Two 50-lap “last chance” races will follow, and the top three finishers in each of those events will join the feature field.

The 150-lap main event is scheduled at 8 p.m. (ET) Sunday.

For the second consecutive year, the Clash is being held on a purpose-built track inside the LA Coliseum, one of sport’s iconic venues. Joey Logano won last year’s race and last year’s series championship and will be among the favorites Sunday.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Saturday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High 71.

Saturday, Feb. 4

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 2 – 11:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 8 p.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)