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.

 

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.

 

 

 

NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races

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The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway

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After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)