Dr. Diandra: All-Star Race should favor drivers fast in short runs, good at restarts

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Texas Motor Speedway hosts its second NASCAR All-Star Race this weekend and its first with the Next Gen car. That leaves us with little data to help identify the most likely winners.

Recent winners and current points standings have limited predictive value because the All-Star Race isn’t like other races. The main event features three 25-lap segments, followed by a 50-lap final segment. If a natural caution doesn’t occur between laps 15-25 of the last segment, NASCAR will issue a competition caution.

The Open — the race that gives drivers who didn’t qualify for the All-Star Race a chance to earn a starting spot — has two segments of 20 laps each. It ends with a 10-lap shootout.

Given the short segments, drivers who have proven fast early in green flag runs and those who are good on restarts might have an advantage this weekend.

Fastest drivers at 1.5-mile non-superspeedway tracks

I averaged NASCAR’s loop-data rankings of how fast each driver is early in green flag runs at Las Vegas and Kansas — the only two 1.5-mile, non-superspeedway tracks run so far. This metric measures speed during the first 25% of a green flag run.

In the graph below, drivers already qualified for the All-Star Race are shown in yellow and those running the Open in green.

A vertical bar chart showing the average rank of drivers early in green-flag runs at Las Vegas and Kansas
Drivers with only one race included: Hamlin, Blaney, Haley, Custer, Ware, Briscoe, McLeod.

NASCAR doesn’t rank drivers who crash, so some drivers’ numbers are based on only one race.

Some drivers have one very good and one not-so-good ranking, while others are more consistent. For example, Bubba Wallace and Joey Logano both have an average ranking of 13. Wallace gets to 13 with individual rankings of 14 and 12, while Logano gets the same average with rankings of 18 and 8.

Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch both have an average ranking of 4.0, with Larson ranked 4.0 for both races, and Busch ranked 1 for Kansas and 7 for Las Vegas. You may prioritize one driver over the other depending on whether you value consistency or recent results.

Picks based on early-in-run speed

  • Only one of the top-12-ranked drivers is not already in the All-Star Race.
  • Eight of those 12 drivers have won races this year.
  • For the All-Star Race:
  • For the Open:
    • Tyler Reddick, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Chris Buescher and Justin Haley are the top-ranked drivers.
    • Stenhouse, Buescher and Haley are well out of the top 10, but everyone ahead of them (except Reddick) isn’t competing in the Open.
    • Although Reddick ranks highest, he’s had three finishes worse than 30th in the last four races.
    • Daniel Suárez is not shown because he crashed at both Las Vegas and Kansas.
    • Erik Jones also is not shown: He crashed at Las Vegas and finished laps down at Kansas because of an over-tightened lug nut.

Of the 20 drivers confirmed for the All-Star Race, there are six Chevys, all six Toyotas and eight Fords. The Open has 16 drivers on its preliminary entry list (nine Chevys and seven Fords).

  • Chevy drivers make up five of the top-six-rated drivers for speed early in a green-flag run.
  • The top 12 drivers are in Toyotas (five) or Chevys (seven).
  • All four Hendrick drivers fall within the top-eight ranked drivers.
  • All four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers are in the top-11 ranked drivers.
  • The highest ranked Ford is Ryan Blaney at 12th.

Fastest early in a run at pavement ovals

Given that the above graph only represents two races, I expanded the analysis to include all pavement ovals run this year. We’re looking for confirmation that the drivers best at Las Vegas and Kansas are also good elsewhere. We’re not looking for drivers that move up in the rankings, because that means they’re better at other types of tracks than the one being contested this weekend.

I made separate graphs for those already in the All-Star Race and for those trying to race their way in. Here’s the graph for the All-Star Race drivers:

A vertical bar chart showing drivers fastest early in a run at pavement oval tracks so far in 2022

  • Larson, Kyle Busch, Chastain and Byron remain in the top five.
  • Bowman moves out of the top five, but given that he’s the only one of the top five in our prior graph who’s won a 1.5-mile track, you have to keep him in the mix.
  • Logano moves up quite a bit. But as I noted, that just tells us that he’s worse at tracks like Texas than other types of tracks.

Here’s the data for the those in the “hooligan’s race”:

A vertical bar chart showing drivers fastest early in a run at pavement oval tracks so far in 2022 for those drivers who must race their way into the All-Star race

The two stage winners and the overall race winner get into the All-Star race. The driver with the most fan votes who is not already in the All-Star Race also transfers. That means one-quarter of this field will move into the All-Star race. The much-higher-than-normal number of accidents, spins and stalls we’ve had this year could make this race a real wild card.

For this metric, Reddick, Buescher, Jones and Stenhouse are the strongest performers.

Restarts

I examined speed on restarts for the two intermediate tracks using the same protocol. NASCAR ranks drivers according to their speed during the first two laps following a restart. I only show drivers with an average rank under 30.

A vertical bar chart showing how drivers rank on speed during restarts for intermediate tracks

  • The top 11 drivers on restart speed are already in the All-Star Race.
  • 16 out of the top 17 drivers are already in the All-Star Race.
  • Of drivers running the All-Star Race:
    • Chastain, Larson and Kyle Busch — the top-three fastest early-in-run drivers at intermediate tracks — are all within the top five for fastest on restarts at intermediate tracks.
    • Denny Hamlin is second on this graph. He’s got one win, but only one other top-10 finish out of 13 races.
    • Ryan Blaney is third fastest on restarts at the two intermediate tracks run so far; however, Blaney has yet to win and Ford drivers have earned only two of the 13 wins this year.
  • Of drivers running the Open:
    • Reddick, the best of the drivers in the Open in terms of speed at the start of runs, tied for fourth among Open drivers when it comes to restarts.
    • Stenhouse has the highest ranking on restarts at intermediate tracks. He’s earned three top-10 finishes in the last three races, which might make him strong competition for Reddick.
    • Jones ranks second. That’s useful given that we don’t have any early-in-run speed rankings for him.

Restarts are different with the Next Gen car because of its increased drag. Fanning out as soon as you can isn’t always the best move.

“I feel like you’ve got to stay in line a lot longer and then make your decision once you get into the corner and people start having to lift,” Stenhouse said. “You need a full lane of clear track to get your car to handle it the way you want it to.”

That forces drivers to consider all the possibilities before taking action.

“We used to just fan out and just take any lane we could and just roll with it,” Stenhouse said. “Now I feel like people are looking and almost playing chess instead of checkers on restarts.”

Making picks for NASCAR races is tough given all the variables — especially the ones we can’t control, like crashes, penalties, potential left-rear-tire problems and recalcitrant lug nuts. Good luck!

If you have a question about the technical or statistical side of NASCAR, send it to ask (at) buildingspeed (dot) com. Let us know what you’d like to know.