Friday 5: Will Darlington finish change how drivers race on big tracks?

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Three times in the last seven Cup races, contact among the leaders in the final laps changed who won.

Joey Logano’s shove, which knocked William Byron out of the lead and into the wall last weekend at Darlington Raceway, was different. Previous duels at the end of races were at short tracks or a road course, not an oval more than 1 mile in length. 

With 10 winners in the first 12 races and eight of the remaining 14 regular-season races at tracks more than 1 mile in length, is the game changing? Is contact becoming acceptable on tracks more than 1 mile in length?

Typically, contact is limited at bigger tracks because of the speeds and the potential for injury. As drivers continue to emerge from cars after big hits without serious injury, their aggression escalates. Add that a victory puts a driver in a playoff position and drivers become more daring.

Eight of this season’s 12 Cup races has had an incident either coming to the white flag, on the final lap or as the field crossed the finish line. The Daytona 500, Auto Club Speedway, Atlanta, Talladega and Darlington — all tracks more than 1 mile in length — had such late-race contact.

As the series hits the halfway mark of the regular season this weekend, eight of the 16 drivers who won a race last year have yet to win, which adds to the building pressure.

“If you get a run and you can get a guy up the track, you probably do it,” said Austin Dillon, who holds what would be the final playoff spot heading into Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway, a 1.5-mile track.

“It’s much tougher at a mile and a half not to take yourself out of the race as well. I feel like there’s usually plenty of room at a mile and a half. You’ve seen some slide jobs go wrong at mile and a halves. Those type of opportunities are kind of the only way to make something happen when it comes to going for it on the last lap.

“Moving a guy for the win, I think that’s what NASCAR has put together with this playoff system — that wins mean so much. You do what it takes when it comes down to it to go Victory Lane. I think everybody’s organization would be upset if they didn’t.”

That mindset has been a part of the reoccurring storyline this season. Consider:

Logano, upset with Byron for forcing him into the wall on a restart as they raced for the lead, drove “angry” and got to the back of Byron’s car with less than two laps to go at Darlington. Logano later said that “I’m not going to be bullied” and responded by ramming the back of Byron’s car. Logano got by for the win. Byron hit the wall and finished 13th.

Chase Briscoe, who had already won this year at Phoenix, was second to Tyler Reddick on the last lap in the dirt race at Bristol when Briscoe charged into Turn 3. He wasn’t close to passing Reddick and slid, making contact with Reddick and spinning both. Kyle Busch, who was third, passed both to win. Reddick was second. Briscoe placed 22nd. 

At Circuit of the Americas, AJ Allmendinger chased down leader Ross Chastain on the last lap and bumped him to take the lead. Chastain responded by making contact with Allmendinger. That moved Allmendinger’s car up the track and into Alex Bowman. Chastain passed both to win. Bowman finished second. Allmendinger placed 33rd after spinning on the final corner from the contact.

NASCAR did not penalize any driver in those incidents.

“Based on our past history, we haven’t gotten in the middle of that,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week about how the sanctioning body officiates last-lap contact among the leaders.

“That is a very, very difficult thing to get in the middle. What’s right? What’s wrong? Where’s the line? Do you give the win to another driver? There’s just so many moving parts to that unless it’s just a guy who comes from half a straightaway back and cleans three cars out and wins the race. It’s really difficult for us to get up in the middle and draw that line.

“Really, the alternative would be become a no-contact sport. I don’t think the fans would appreciate that. I don’t really think the drivers would appreciate that, either.”

Briscoe says what happened last weekend at Darlington might not happen at all bigger tracks.

“I think on the bigger tracks, it’s harder to get to people in general,” he said. “Darlington is a unique place where when you go into (Turn) 3, you’re out of the gas and on the brake, so it makes it a lot easier to get somebody if you’re trying to get to them. 

“A place like Kansas, there’s usually not a huge loss of speed on corner entry, so it’s going to be a lot harder, I feel like, to do things on a bigger thing. At a track like Homestead, where you do have to slow down a lot more on the corner entry, I think it would be possible.

“Obviously, wins are important. A lot of guys have won already this year. I think that opportunity to point your way in is not really going to be there like it has been in the past. … I think it definitely seems like the last couple of weeks there has been added aggression in how each driver races.”

Logano didn’t express remorse last weekend at Darlington because he said Byron’s actions on the earlier restart changed how aggressive Logano raced him. 

Will there be a point where a driver doesn’t feel bad for winning by contact that wasn’t in retaliation?

“When you’re within range and you’ve got an opportunity with the way it is to pass and what wins mean, you’ve got to do it,” Dillon said of contact at the end. 

“It just sucks when it doesn’t work out. It’s part of the game and how much has been put on winning races. Some might feel bad if it comes down to that. If you can take home a trophy to your organization, all the guys that put in hours on hours and hours of time in these race cars, they’ll probably have your back in the end.”

2. Better days

Austin Dillon was higher in points and had a better average finish after 12 races last year than this year, but he says he’s having a better year this season.

Dillon was 12th in the points at this time last year with 316 points and had an average finish of 13.6. He goes into Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas 14th in the points with 287 points and an average finish of 15.2.

What makes Dillon feel this year is better?  

“We were pretty strong last year, and we kind of got overlooked because we didn’t make the playoffs,” he said. “We were a consistent team all of last year.

“This year, I do feel like we’ve had way more opportunities to win races. I think the disappointing part is that we’ve had more bigger catastrophes at the race track, like getting wrecked at Phoenix and finishing 21st in that race; getting wrecked at Atlanta coming to a stage end for a possibility of top-three points there and blowing up at Daytona and Bristol.

We didn’t have those types of bad days at this point last year. We had a couple more average days, but we’ve also had some bigger days with two second-place finishes (Auto Club Speedway, Talladega) and a third (Martinsville). We’ve definitely had more opportunities to win than last year. 

“My teammate (Tyler Reddick) has two … second-place finishes, as well. If you look at the total of it, we’ve done a good job and should be in victory lane at this point. That’s the disappointing part – I feel like we’ve had some really close calls and not been able to capitalize. That’s why you see us where we’re at in points. I feel confident that we can go to victory lane this year and I think it will happen.”

Between Dillon and Reddick, Richard Childress Racing has more top-five finishes (six) this year than it did  last season. Also, RCR has led nearly three times as many laps this year than last year. 

Dillon and Reddick have combined to finish second in four races. Reddick’s runner-ups came at the dirt race at Bristol and last weekend at Darlington. 

3. Highs and lows 

Just how difficult has it been for teams to get a handle on the new car?

No driver has scored more than five consecutive top-10 finishes in the first 12 races of the season. Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch each have streaks of five top 10s in a row this season.

Compare that to previous years:

  • William Byron had 10 consecutive top 10s in the first 12 races of 2021. Denny Hamlin was next with six top 10s in a row.
  • Kevin Harvick had eight top 10s in a row through the first 12 races of 2020. Brad Keselowski had a streak of seven consecutive top 10s in that span.
  • Busch scored 11 top 10s in a row through the first 12 races of 2019. Hamlin was next with a stretch of seven top 10s in a row.
  • Busch had eight consecutive top 10s through the first 12 races of 2018. Harvick was next with seven top 10s in a row in that span. 

No team has shown how things can change from one week to the next this season than Joey Logano’s team. 

He finished 29th, four laps off the leaders, at Dover. The team responded at Darlington by winning the pole, leading a race-high 107 of 293 laps and winning the race.

“That opportunity was there to get a win, and you have to grab it any chance you can because you just don’t know with this new car,” Logano said at Darlington. 

4. Work to do

JR Motorsports has won the past three Xfinity races. Joe Gibbs Racing won the two before that JRM’s recent streak. The last time a team other than JR Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing won in the Xfinity Series was AJ Allmendinger’s win in late March at Circuit of the Americas for Kaulig Racing.

That’s the only win this year for Kaulig Racing. A year ago, the organization had seven wins, the same number of races JR Motorsports won. JRM has four wins this year.

What’s changed for Kaulig Racing this year?

“I think some of the rule changes that was implemented in the offseason … we just haven’t caught back up,” Chris Rice, president of Kaulig Racing, told NBC Sports. 

“We’re not laying down. … We’re going to work hard to get it fixed before we go to the playoffs. It’s just bad because we only go to Texas (on May 21) and then we hit a stretch of road courses and different style of racetracks. 

“Hopefully, by the time we get back to the mile and a halves after Texas that you’ll see a difference in our cars because we’re really going to put a big push on trying to get better on these style (of tracks).”

Even so, AJ Allmendinger leads the points. He has 464 points. JR Motorsports’ Noah Gragson is next at 439 points. But Allmendinger is the only Kaulig Racing driver in the top 10 in points. Landon Cassill is 11th with 299 points, and reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is 12th with 286 points. 

5. Late moves 

Nine of the first 12 Cup races have been won with a pass for the lead in the final 10 laps. That’s the most ever through 12 Cup races.

Races this season with the final lead change in the last 10 laps:

Daytona 500 — Austin Cindric led the final eight laps

Auto Club — Kyle Larson led the final seven laps

Las Vegas — Alex Bowman led the final three laps

Atlanta — William Byron led the final 10 laps

Circuit of the Americas — Ross Chastain led the final two laps

Richmond — Denny Hamlin led the final five laps

Bristol dirt — Kyle Busch led the final lap

Talladega — Ross Chastain led the final lap

Darlington — Joey Logano led the final two laps