Dr. Diandra: Which drivers are superspeedway specialists?

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We often view superspeedway races as events anyone can win, but that’s not the case. It’s just that we remember surprise winners much more vividly. We also tend to lump Daytona and Talladega together despite being very different tracks. Most of the true underdog winners — the Trevor Baynes and Michael McDowells — win at Daytona.

Eleven drivers earned their first win at Talladega. For six of those 11, that win is their only Cup win. Some drivers in Sunday’s field have only won at superspeedways: David Ragan, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Bubba Wallace and Justin Haley. Two out of three of Aric Almirola‘s wins are at superspeedways. Some drivers have developed unique skill set necessary to succeed Talladega, Daytona and the new Atlanta. This fast-paced form of racing requires drivers to rapidly process information, understand the draft, and avoid wrecks.

Who’s good at superspeedways?

I focused on the 2020-22 seasons to keep the results recent enough to be relevant to this weekend’s race. The trends observed, however, hold for other ranges of time as well.

I limited my analysis to Talladega and Daytona because we’ve had only one race at Atlanta in its superspeedway configuration.

I excluded drivers who ran fewer than three superspeedway races. That, unfortunately, eliminates rookie drivers. Don’t overlook Austin Cindric, this year’s Daytona 500 winner.

I also excluded drivers with an average finishing position higher than 25.

I plotted drivers’ average finishes below. We’ve had nine combined Cup Talladega and Daytona races between 2020-22. If a driver didn’t compete in all nine races, I noted the number of races run atop the bar. Drivers are ranked from left to right in order of best average finishing position.

A vertical bar graph showing the average finishing positions of drivers at superspeedways from 2020-2022

No one will be surprised by the first three names on the left side of the graph. A lot of pundits recommend Ryan Blaney and Wallace this weekend as winning picks. Despite a disappointing 2021, Kevin Harvick finished fourth, fourth, 15th and eighth at superspeedways last year.

You might not expect to find Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on the right side of the graph. His two superspeedway wins both occurred back in 2017. In the last two years, he finished second at Talladega in 2020, but every other finish was out of the top 15.

What’s more surprising are the last two names on the far right: Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch, two recent champions. We know they’re good drivers, but superspeedways seem to have been their Achilles heels recently.

Sussing out superspeedway skills

To separate out good drivers who aren’t so good at superspeedways from drivers who are mid-pack everywhere, I compared each driver’s average finishing position at superspeedways to their averages at all other types of tracks. I kept superspeedway data in green and added the non-superspeedway data in yellow. I again ordered the drivers with the best finishing average at superspeedways to the left.

A vertical column chart that compares average finishes on superspeedways to average finishes on all other types of tracks.

The graph shows that some drivers, like Hamlin and Chris Buescher, have relatively similar average finishes at superspeedways as they do at other tracks. But many drivers have big differences in their finishes at the two types of tracks.

I’ve dotted in the green bars for the seven drivers with the largest ratio of average superspeedway finish vs. other-track finish. Wallace’s superspeedway results are almost twice as good as at other types of tracks. The other six drivers are: Justin Haley, Corey LaJoie, Chase Briscoe, Ty Dillon, McDowell and Blaney. These drivers clearly have an edge at superspeedways that makes them better bests there than at other tracks.

On the other side, we have drivers who finish worse at superspeedways than at other types of tracks.

Kyle Larson’s average finish at superspeedways is about three times worse than elsewhere. His weakness seems to be not finishing races. Larson has 12 DNFs at the 30 Daytona and Talladega races he’s run. That’s a 40% DNF rate.

Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Martin Truex, Jr. also do much better at non-superspeedways. Logano and Truex finish about twice as far back at superspeedways compared to other tracks. Each of these drivers has a teammate at the other end of the graph. This looks like a driver issue and not an equipment/team issue.

Don’t base Talladega picks on Daytona results

Some drivers perform very differently at different short tracks. The same is true for superspeedways.

The graph below shows average finishing position for Talladega in red and Daytona in blue. Drivers with the best Talladega average finishes are to the left. I again shaded the red bars for drivers who perform much better at Talladega than Daytona.

A vertical bar chart that compares average finishing position for Talladega to average finishing position for Daytona

 

Wallace won the last fall’s Talladega race, but he didn’t finish within the top 10 at any other Talladega race from 2020-22. All but one of those finishes were out of the top 15. At Daytona, Wallace only has one finish out of the top 15 and two second-place finishes. He’s on many ‘recommend’ lists for Talladega. The numbers don’t seem to support that degree of enthusiasm.

Ty Dillon finishes three times better at Talladega than Daytona. This stat is based on only three Daytona and two Talladega races. I left him in because I think he’s a good underdog pick.

Brad Keselowski was undeniably good at Talladega with Penske. He won his Daytona Duel this year. But his new team is still struggling to get good finishes.

Erik Jones is about 2.5 times better at Talladega than Daytona. His stats are skewed by fifth- and second-place finishes in 2020 running for JGR. He did finish ninth in the last Talladega race, though.

Although Byron ranks low on the superspeedway finish graph, he’s eighth in Talladega ranking and the highest Hendrick car.

The news from this chart isn’t good for Kyle Larson fans. His average finish at Talladega is worse than at Daytona by a factor of two.

Chase Elliott has an even larger differential on the Daytona-favoring side. His average finish at Daytona is three times better than at Talladega.

Luck is necessary at Talladega. But drivers with better-developed superspeedway skills have a distinct edge on their competition. This isn’t a race just anyone can win.

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).

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“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.

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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.