Dr. Diandra: NASCAR Cup Series cautions on the rise

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We’re one-third of the way into the NASCAR Cup Series season, and we’ve run every type of track we’ll visit this year. Twelve races in also means we’ve accumulated enough data to start examining trends.

The trend that caught my eye is the high number of cautions in 2022. I show them below, by race and type.

A stacked bar chart summarizing the cautions in 2022 through the twelfth race of the season

We’ve had a total of 110 cautions in 12 races. Twenty-five of those cautions are competition or stage-end cautions, which leaves us with 85 unplanned or ‘natural’ cautions. That’s significantly higher than last year’s 59 natural cautions after 12 races.

To be fair, we’ve run one more superspeedway this year than last year at this time. Atlanta contributed an average of five cautions in the last five races. This year, it had 11. But that’s only six more cautions. And Martinsville was eight cautions below its five-year average in 2022.

We’ve had 10 more accidents this year (49) than there were last year at this time.

Even more interesting: We’ve had 19 spins in 12 races, which is only one less than in the entire 2021 season. We’ll likely surpass last season’s spin total in the next race or two.

Last year, we had no stalls in the first 12 races. This year, we’ve got seven. We’ve also got three more debris cautions than last year at this time.

The biggest new variable this year is, of course, the Next Gen car. The higher caution numbers may reflect a learning curve. Or, the Next Gen car might be that much harder to driver than the Gen-6 model. If the former is the case, the caution rate should slow down as the season progresses. If the trends of the first third of the season continue, we’re looking at a possible 255 total natural cautions for the 2011 season — compared to 172 last year.

Who’s involved in cautions?

A note about how NASCAR records accidents, spins and stalls: Last-lap incidents that don’t produce a caution aren’t included in the official totals. Also, remember that being involved in wreck or a spin does not necessarily mean the driver caused it.  Below, I show the accidents, spins and stalls for drivers who have run all 12 races this year.

A stacked vertical bar chart showing accidents, spins and stalls by driver for the first 12 races of 2022

There’s no obvious pattern to which drivers are struggling most (or have the most bad luck) this year.

The three largest contributors to the total are Austin Cindric (eight accidents), Brad Keselowski (seven accidents and one spin) and Erik Jones (seven accidents and one stall. That’s a Daytona 500-winning rookie, a mid-career driver with two race wins and a past series champion. Keselowski only had 12 accidents in all of 2021.

The next four drivers each have seven combined accidents/spins/stalls. They include two past champions (Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott), one very experienced driver (Denny Hamlin), and rookie Todd Gilliland. Last year, Hamlin was involved in nine accidents and one spin over the entire season. Although most of the races this year have been won by younger drivers, this data shows that some younger drivers are adapting better than others.

A history of cautions

To eliminate the possibility that last year was an anomaly, let’s examine the last 20 seasons of NASCAR Cup Series racing. I include only natural cautions to eliminate the differences introduced with stage racing.A stacked vertical bar chart that shows the numbers of natural cautions per season from 2002 to the incomplete 2022 season.

Although caution numbers vary from year to year, the data show a clear overall downward trend. In the last 20 years, the series has had a maximum of 368 natural cautions in 2005 and a minimum of 166 in 2018.

The most obvious trend is a significant decrease in debris cautions. NASCAR implemented the damaged vehicle policy in 2017 that requires teams to fix cars well enough to make minimum speed within a specified period of time (now six minutes). The Cup Series had the most debris cautions in 2005 with 89. That’s an average of 2.47 debris cautions per race.  Since implementing the damaged vehicle policy, the series has never had more than 21 in a season.

The number of accidents has decreased overall, but that’s more of a general trend than it is it tied to a policy or equipment change. In 2005, drivers tallied 199 accidents. In 2012, drivers managed the same number of races with only 104 accidents. 2012 was a the minimum in a series of four years with continuously declining caution rates. The Gen-6 car took to the track in 2013, but that was also the year the series set a track record of 15 cautions at Kansas and had a 17-caution race at Martinsville.

Spins also decreased over the years, from 73 in 2002 to 20 (in 2016, 2017, and 2021.)

Since 2018, the series hasn’t had more than 189 natural cautions in any year.

What about just 12 races?

To really narrow our comparison down, I’ve plotted the same data for the first 12 races of each season. You can’t predict the outcome of a season based on a smattering of races, but if you compare this plot with the full season data, you can see that it’s already showing the major trends.

A stacked vertical bar chart that shows the numbers of natural cautions in the first 12 races of each season from 2002 to the incomplete 2022 season.

The Cup Series has had the highest number of cautions in any year since 2016 — and it is only four short of that.

This week, the series is racing at Kansas Speedway, its first visit to a 1.5-mile non-superspeedway track since Las Vegas in March. Before the 2022 race, Las Vegas had an average of 6.0 cautions over the last five races. This year saw double that number.

Kansas has an average of 7.6 cautions over the last five races. Will we see a significant increase over that number in this week’s race? Or have teams learned enough that the rate of cautions will start decreasing?

If the Next Gen car is increasing cautions simply because it’s harder to drive, the series may return to season-high caution levels we haven’t seen since the damaged vehicle policy took effect. If this is simply drivers and teams on a learning curve, the caution rate should start to slow down.

Questions

What do you want to know? Send your questions to ask ( at) buildingspeed (dot)org and I’ll try to answer them in future columns.

Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

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The 2023 NASCAR season will begin with Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the second race on a purpose-built track inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Although a non-points race, last year’s Clash generated intense interest as NASCAR moved the event from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to Los Angeles. The race was rated a success and opened doors for the possibility of future races in stadium environments.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

MORE: Toyota looking to expand NASCAR presence

Year Two will find drivers competing on a familiar landscape but still with a track freshly paved. Last year’s racing surface was removed after the Clash.

Drivers to watch Sunday at Los Angeles:

FRONTRUNNERS

Joey Logano

  • Points position: Finished 2022 as Cup champion
  • Last three races: Won at Phoenix, 6th at Martinsville, 18th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Won in 2022

Logano put bookends on 2022 by winning the first Clash at the Coliseum and the season’s final race at Phoenix to win the Cup championship. He’ll be among the favorites Sunday.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 2nd in 2022
  • Last three races: 3rd at Phoenix, 4th at Martinsville, 2nd at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Did not qualify last year

Chastain was the breakout star of 2022, winning a pair of races and generally putting himself front and center across much of the year. Can he start 2023 on a big note? If so, he will have to do so without replicating his Hail Melon move at Martinsville after NASCAR outlawed the move Tuesday.

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 15th in 2022
  • Last three races: 5th at Phoenix, 16th at Martinsville, 8th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 10th in 2022

Sunday will begin the final roundup for Harvick, who has said this season will be his last as a full-time Cup driver. He is likely to come out of the gate with fire in his eyes.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 13th in 2022
  • Last three races: 7th at Phoenix, 29th at Martinsville, 9th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 2nd in 2022

Welcome to Kyle Busch’s Brave New World. After 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he begins a new segment of his career with Richard Childress Racing. He led 64 laps at last year’s Clash but couldn’t catch Joey Logano at the end.

Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 14th in 2022
  • Last three races: 23rd at Phoenix, 35th at Martinsville, 35th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 21st in 2022

Reddick ran surprisingly strong in last year’s Clash, leading 51 laps before parking with drivetrain issues. He starts the new year with a new ride — at 23XI Racing.

Ty Gibbs

  • Points position: Won Xfinity Series championship in 2022
  • Last three (Cup) races: 19th at Martinsville, 22nd at Homestead, 22nd at Las Vegas
  • Past at Clash: Did not compete in 2022

After a successful — and controversial — Xfinity season, Gibbs moves up to Cup full-time with his grandfather’s team. Will he be the brash young kid of 2022 or a steadier driver in Season One in Cup?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interstate Batteries extends sponsorship with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Interstate Batteries, which has been a Joe Gibbs Racing sponsor since the team’s first race, has expanded its involvement with the team for 2023.

Interstate, based in Dallas, will be a primary JGR sponsor for 13 races, up from six races, the number it typically sponsored each year since 2008.

Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs will run the majority of Interstate’s sponsorship races, but Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. also will carry the sponsor colors.

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

“We’re extremely proud of our partnership with our founding sponsor, Interstate Batteries,” said team owner Joe Gibbs in a statement released by the team. “They have been such an important part of our team for over three decades now, and it’s exciting to have them on board all four of our cars this season. The best part of our partnership is the relationships we’ve built with everyone there over the years.”

Bell will carry Interstate sponsorship in Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the All-Star Race May 21, the Coca-Cola 600 May 28, at Texas Motor Speedway Sept. 24 and at Martinsville Oct. 29.

Gibbs, in his first full season in Cup racing, will be sponsored by Interstate at Daytona Feb. 19, Bristol April 9, Nashville June 25, Chicago July 2, Texas Sept. 24 and Charlotte Oct. 8.

Hamlin will ride with Interstate sponsorship March 26 at Circuit of the Americas, and Truex will be sponsored by Interstate July 23 at Pocono.

Interstate was a key JGR sponsor in the team’s first season in 1992.

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023 season

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR announced a series of rule changes for the 2023 season that includes outlawing the move Ross Chastain made at Martinsville and eliminating stage breaks at all six Cup road course events.

NASCAR announced the changes in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

Among new things for this season:

  • Updated penalty for a wheel coming off a car.
  • Change to the amount of time teams have to repair cars on pit road via the Damaged Vehicle Policy.
  • Change to playoff eligibility for drivers.
  • Cars could run in wet weather conditions on short ovals.
  • Expansion of the restart zone on a trial basis.
  • Choose rule will be in place for more races.

MORE: Ranking top 10 moments at the Clash

NASCAR updated its policy on a loose wheel. Previously, if a wheel came off a car during an event, it would be a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two pit crew members. That has changed this year.

If a wheel comes off a car while the vehicle is still on pit road, the vehicle restarts at the tail end of the field. If a wheel comes off a vehicle while it is on pit road under green-flag conditions, it is a pass-thru penalty.

The rule changes once a vehicle has left pit road and loses a wheel.

Any vehicle that loses a wheel on the track will be penalized two laps and have two pit crew members suspended for two races. The suspensions will go to those most responsible for the wheel coming off. This change takes away a suspension to the crew chief. The policy is the same for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

With some pit crew members working multiple series, the suspension is only for that series. So, if a pit crew member is suspended two races in the Xfinity Series for a wheel coming off, they can still work the Cup race the following day.

The Damaged Vehicle Policy clock will be 7 minutes this season. It had been six minutes last year and was increased to 10 minutes during the playoffs. After talking with teams, NASCAR has settled on seven minutes for teams to make repairs on pit road or be eliminated. Teams can replace toe links on pit road but not control arms. Teams also are not permitted to have specialized repair tools in the pits.

NASCAR will have a wet weather package for select oval tracks: the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Lucas Oil Raceway Park, Martinsville, Milwaukee, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix and Richmond.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said that teams have been told to show up at these events prepared for wet weather conditions as they would at a road course. That includes having a windshield wiper. Wet weather tires will be available. 

“Our goal here is to get back to racing as soon as possible,” Swayer said. “… If there’s an opportunity for us to get some cars or trucks on the racetrack and speed up that (track-drying) process and we can get back to racing, that’s what our goal is. We don’t want to be racing in full-blown rain (at those tracks) and we’ve got spray like we would on a road course.”

NASCAR stated that it is removing the requirement that a winning driver be in the top 30 in points in Cup or top 20 in Xfinity or Trucks to become eligible for the playoffs. As long as a driver is competing full-time — or has a waiver for the races they missed, a win will make them playoff eligible.

With the consultation of drivers, NASCAR is expanding the restart zone to give the leader more room to take off. NASCAR said it will evaluate if to keep this in place after the Atlanta race in March.

NASCAR stated the choose rule will be in effect for superspeedways and dirt races.

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR will do away with stage breaks in all six Cup road course races and select Xfinity and Truck races this season, but teams will continue to score stage points. 

NASCAR announced the change Tuesday in a session with reporters at the NASCAR R&D Center. 

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR stated there will be no stage breaks in the Cup road course events at Circuit of the Americas (March 26), Sonoma (June 11), Chicago street course (July 2), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13), Watkins Glen (Aug. 20) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8).

There will be no stage breaks for Xfinity races at Circuit of the Americas (March 25), Sonoma (June 10), Chicago street course (July 1), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 12), Watkins Glen (Aug. 19) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7).

There will be no stage breaks for the Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas (March 25).

In those races, stage points will be awarded on a designated lap, but there will be no green-and-checkered flag and the racing will continue.

The only road course events that will have stage breaks will be Xfinity standalone races at Portland (June 3) and Road America (July 29) and the Truck standalone race at Mid-Ohio (July 8). Those events will keep stage breaks because they have non-live pit stops — where the field comes down pit road together and positions cannot be gained or lost provided the stop is completed in the prescribed time by NASCAR.

NASCAR has faced questions from fans and competitors about stage breaks during road course races because those breaks alter strategy in a more defined manner than on most ovals.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said the move away from stage breaks at road courses was made in collaboration with teams and response from fans.

“When we introduced stage racing … we took an element of strategy away from the event,” Sawyer. “Felt this (change) would bring some new storylines (in an event).”

NASCAR instituted stage breaks and stage points for the 2017 season and has kept the system in place since. NASCAR awards a playoff point to the stage winner along with 10 points. The top 10 at the end of a stage score points.

It wasn’t uncommon for many teams to elect to pit before the first stage in a road course race and eschew points to put themselves in better track position for the final two stages. By pitting early, they would be behind those who stayed out to collect the stage points. At the stage break, those who had yet to pit would do so, allowing those who stopped before the break to leapfrog back to the front.