Ross Chastain‘s last-lap pass at Talladega made him the second driver to win two races in 2022. That’s a significant accomplishment for Chastain and for Trackhouse Racing in only its second year of competition. Chastain’s Talladega win moves him to ninth place in the points standings. His teammate, Daniel Suárez, ranks 19th. These two drivers — competing for the same team with the same equipment — provide a case study in how close competition is in NASCAR this year.
Suárez and Chastain both drove their first Cup races in 2017, but they followed very different paths to the present.
Suárez, who won the 2016 Xfinity championship, moved up to the Cup level when Carl Edwards unexpectedly created an open seat at Joe Gibbs Racing. Suárez lost that ride two years later when JGR had the opportunity to snap up Martin Truex, Jr. in the wake of Furniture Row’s closing. Suárez spent one year with Stewart-Haas Racing and one with Gaunt Brothers Racing before securing Trackhouse’s first seat in 2021.
Chastain leveraged his connections within the watermelon farming industry to scrounge seat time and prove himself. He bounced between Xfinity and Cup rides, often running both — plus Truck races. His efforts paid off in 2021, when he earned a full-time Cup job with Chip Ganassi Racing. He joined Trackhouse when owner Justin Marks bought Ganassi’s NASCAR operation.
The drivers’ off-track stories produced two different on-track records, as the table below shows. Suárez has higher absolute numbers, but he’s run more races. That’s why I include percentages in the table. Both driver are good at finishing races. Suárez has an edge on lead-lap finishes. But Chastain, who is having a breakout year, has two wins, while Suárez is yet to visit Victory Lane.
Chastain and Suárez: The present
To hold as many variables constant as we can, let’s focus on 2022. The next table shows many of the same metrics as the first, but I’ve added stage wins, and average starting/finishing positions.
To put points in perspective, Chase Elliott leads the championship standings with 368 points after 10 races. Less than 50 points separates fourth and 10th place. Chastain is 76 points behind Elliott, and Suarez is 74 points behind Chastain.
Both drivers have two DNFs and four finishes off the lead lap. The DNFs were Atlanta and Bristol Dirt for Chastain, Las Vegas and Talladega for Suárez.
Both drivers have led laps in four different races, but Chastain has led 37 more laps than Suárez.
Although Suárez outqualifies Chastain on average, Suárez’s average finishing position is about five positions lower than Chastain’s. Even if we omit DNFs, Chastain’s average finishing position is 7.8 and Suarez’s is 14.5.
Digging down in the data
The keys to understanding the differences between the drivers’ success so far requires us to dig down into some less-familiar statistics.
The next table shows that, over 10 races, Chastain has made 51 more green-flag passes than Suárez. That’s an average of five per race. Suárez has been passed under the green flag 31 times more than Chastain. Chastain has made 84 more green-flag passes for position than Suárez. You have to be careful with green-flag passing stats, however. One reason for a driver making a lot of green-flag passes is that they’ve done something to end up in the back of the field.
Track position also impacts speed and restarts. You may argue that this reflects how a driver is running, which is true; however, I just want to point out how many statistics are dependent on each other. For example, Suárez is significantly slower on restarts (an average rank of 17.4) while Chastain comes in at 11.5. But that may be because Chastain has had more restarts from the front of the field
Penalties often put drivers down one or more laps. At Atlanta, Chastain sped on pit road under green and his crew was penalized for improper fueling, costing him two laps on one stop. But he went on to get the free pass twice and finished second.
Suárez’s team has four penalties this year and has not gotten any free passes. Last year, Suárez’s team incurred the second-largest number of penalties in the series at 13. This year, he’s got a 40% penalty rate so far, which puts him on the path to meet or beat last year’s total.
The difference in these drivers’ positions comes down to small things. It’s an indication of how competitive the series is right now. Every aspect of a team’s performance has to be spot on. Small mistakes are much more costly in this environment.
On the positive side, we’re not even a third of the way into the season yet. There’s time to catch up.
Following up on Talladega
Last week, I used drivers’ recent average finishing positions at Talladega to suggest who was likely to be good in the race. The three drivers with the worst average finishing positions at Talladega in 2020-2021 were Chastain, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson. Where did they finish?
First, third and fourth.
Below, I’ve plotted the average finishing positions for each driver, not including last Sunday’s race. In other words, the same numbers I had for my article. Rookies are not included because they don’t have enough prior data.
This time, though, I’ve ordered the drivers according to finishing position to show the relationship between past performance and the last Talladega finish. Except, as you can see from the graph, there is no relationship.
Martin Truex, Jr., with a recent Talladega average finishing position of 22.2 finished fifth. It is not until we get to Erik Jones, who finished sixth, that we reach a driver with an average finishing position under 15.
So what happened?
It may be the vagaries of superspeedway racing. NASCAR is, in general, difficult to predict because there are up to 40 drivers competing, not two teams. Add in the importance of drafting and higher-than-average numbers of drivers taken out by accidents, and superspeedways are more difficult to predict than other types of races.
At most tracks, qualifying gives us additional information to use in predictions. Superspeedway qualifying rarely correlates with outcomes. Chastain qualified 19th and finished first. Larson qualified fifth and finished fifth. Ty Dillon, the driver with the best Talladega average finishing position, got caught up in a crash and finished 33rd.
Another confounding result: Toyota, which has really struggled this year, had two top-10 finishes. That might have been three if Denny Hamlin hadn’t run out of gas. Christopher Bell won the pole and led laps. Bubba Wallace led laps before getting wrecked on the final lap. Was Talladega a repeat of Richmond, or has Toyota found something and turned a corner?
This year is proving fascinating from a statistics standpoint as we try to figure out just how much the Next Gen car has leveled the playing field.
More data, please!