Friday 5: Cup teams scramble for playoff points halfway through regular season


With 11 different winners in the first 13 races, this Cup season is starting to look unlike most years. 

Already this season, three drivers have collected their first career Cup victory — Austin Cindric (Daytona 500), Chase Briscoe (Phoenix) and Ross Chastain (Circuit of the Americas).

Even with all the different winners, three former champions — Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski — remain winless this season. 

But there’s something else to be mindful of as the series reaches the halfway point of the regular season: The playoffs this year could be tighter.

William Byron has a series-high 13 playoff points. That’s the lowest total for the series leader at the halfway mark of the Cup regular season since playoff points were added to the NASCAR scoring system in 2017.

In another sign of the parity this season, nine drivers are within seven playoff points of Byron. There has never been more than three drivers within seven playoff points of the leader at this point in the season since 2017.

With five playoff points for a win and one playoff point for each stage win, seven playoff points is the maximum for a race — except the Coca-Cola 600, which has an extra stage, giving it a maximum of eight playoff points. 

What this all means is that the second half of the season could see more intense racing for stage wins and race wins.

Playoff points have proved key in previous seasons.

Truex was the final driver to advance from the second round last year. He finished 25 points ahead of Harvick for the last transfer spot to the third round. The difference was playoff points. Truex had 27 more playoff points (29-2) than Harvick.

Truex also was the last of the four drivers to advance to the title race a year ago, beating teammate Kyle Busch by three points. Playoff points again were a factor. Truex had six more playoff points than Busch.

In 2019, Busch was the only driver to advance via points to the championship race. He beat Joey Logano by seven points for the final transfer spot. Busch had 16 more playoff points than Logano. Busch went on to win his second Cup title that year.

After a 21st-place finish for Denny Hamlin at Darlington earlier this month, crew chief Chris Gabehart said his message to his team was clear: Playoff points. 

“It’s no longer a season that is defined by 36 races, it’s not,” Gabehart told NBC Sports. “It’s defined as getting hot at the right time and dominating when it’s time to dominate, and this team has the ability to do that. That’s the message. The message is try to gain some more playoff points and get hot when it’s time.”

Hamlin could use those. He’s ranked lowest in points among the 11 winners this season. The top 10 drivers in points at the end of the regular season receive between one and 15 additional playoff points. Hamlin is too far from the top 10 to have a realistic chance of scoring any of those playoff points. He’ll have to score his during races.

Keep an eye on the end of the stages the rest of the regular season because the intensity is likely to increase for many drivers.

2. 16 different winners?

It’s a common debate when there is a string of different winners early in the season. Will every driver making the playoffs need a win? Will someone win in the regular season and not make the playoffs?

Five more different winners in the next 13 races will make it 16 for the season. 

While a driver or two often gets hot in the second half of the regular season and keeps others from scoring wins, could this season be the year that doesn’t happen?

There’s a lack of consistency throughout the garage with this car. 

Eight times this season, a driver won a Cup race the week after finishing 18th or worse in the previous event. No driver showed how much things can change in a week than Joey Logano and his Team Penske group. He placed 29th at Dover, finishing four laps off the lead. Logano then won the following weekend at Darlington.

Kurt Busch, who won last weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway, said it took him the first part of the season before he changed his mindset. Busch wanted to make certain changes to the car but with teams limited by NASCAR on what they could change, Busch’s requests couldn’t be completed.

“I knew the rules, I knew it was an impound (race with limited adjustments allowed), but I kept focusing on the wrong things,” Busch told NBC Sports. “I think we’re finding a better rhythm. We’re seeing patterns as well, between Bubba (Wallace) and myself as far as driving styles.”

How did Busch break his habit?

He laughs.

“At Darlington, I said I’m going to keep it simple, it’s either going to be tight or it’s either going to be loose, and I’m going to tell you and I’m going to walk away,” he said. “The keep-it-simple-stupid approach is the easiest way to describe it for us these last few weeks.”

Many other drivers are still challenged by the car and will continue to be throughout the season.  

“I think there are going to be surprises there as long as you’re going to places you haven’t been,” Alex Bowman told NBC Sports. “It definitely feels more normal than where we started the season.

“But as long as you’re going to new racetracks you haven’t been with it, there are always going to be things that catch you by surprise.”

The second half of the regular season features several challenges for drivers. 

There are four road courses among the next 13 races. The Cup Series races for the first time at World Wide Technology Raceway, a 1.25-mile track near St. Louis. The series returns to Nashville Superspeedway, a 1.33-mile concrete track, for only the second Cup event there. There’s a race at Pocono Raceway, a 2.5-mile triangle that is unlike any other track. 

Such a schedule and a new car could lead to a situation where there are more different winners and the possibility that all 16 playoff drivers will need a win to qualify.

3. Working toward a deal with Kyle Busch

Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota continue to finalize a deal to keep Kyle Busch in the No. 18 car after this season. This is the final season in Busch’s contract. 

Busch was cryptic about this future with JGR last month at Talladega. David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, said then he was a “little disappointed” in Busch’s comments.

Wilson said this week he is “optimistic” that Busch will remain with JGR and Toyota. Wilson noted that Busch has accounted for 36% of Toyota’s wins across NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series.

“So any scenario that doesn’t have Kyle Busch retiring from Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota would be a monstrous disappointment for us and for Coach Gibbs and the family,” Wilson said. 

“Yes, Kyle has been a little outspoken. You have to be somewhat emphatic or try to be and put yourself in his shoes. He’s on the out year of his contract. This is so rare.  What the team, what we try to do is get well ahead of us, particularly with a tier-one driver like Kyle Busch. The circumstances unfortunately have made that challenging 

“We’re working on it. It’s a conversation I have with Joe (Gibbs) every week. I’m optimistic. Kyle, he doesn’t want to go anywhere else. 

“He had been very candid. He can’t wait for the day that his little boy, Brexton, races a Toyota Tundra out of the Kyle Busch Motorsports stable. He has that in his sights and that’s not going to be for another 10-plus years, which means that we’ve got to make sure that we’re still together, long after Kyle is out of the driver’s seat full-time.”

Asked how things got to this point with Busch not having a contract extension entering this year, Wilson said:

“It did simply because of Mars’ decision to leave the sport (after this season) and that catching all of us a little bit by surprise. Mars is one of a handful of Fortune 500 companies that were probably at the highest level of sprsnroshiop and the reality is that Joe Gibbs Racing can’t afford to pay Kyle Busch. That comes from corporate sponsorship. 

“Every driver’s salary comes from whatever is on that racing car on Sundays. It’s circumstantial and yet we remain optimistic. It’s a prized property in the end and has a lot of potential, and we’re working on a solution, a number of different solutions, harder than we ever have before.”

4. Pit road highs and lows

Bubba Wallace’s frustration with his pit crew after last weekend’s race at Kansas was felt by others, including the president of Toyota Racing Development. 

23XI Racing gets its pit crews for Wallace and Kurt Busch from Joe Gibbs Racing. 

Wallace’s crew was penalized twice at Kansas, causing Wallace to rally from the back multiple times before finishing 10th. Asked if he could feel good about placing in the top 10, Wallace told NBC Sports: “Nope. Pit crew sucks.”

The pit crews from Joe Gibbs Racing are posting some of the fastest times in the sport’s history but not everything has been smooth all the time. 

Denny Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart, and two pit crew members will begin serving a four-race suspension after this weekend for a tire coming off Hamlin’s car at Dover. The team lost its appeal this past week.

At Kansas, Hamlin’s team had two penalties for equipment interference and Wallace’s crew was penalized for a tire violation and a crew member going over the pit wall too soon.

Kurt Busch’s car had the left rear come off in his pit stall at Darlington, but the team stopped him from taking off. It was put back on, but he lost several positions.

Kyle Busch’s team was penalized for removing equipment from the pit box at Talladega. 

Wallace and Christopher Bell each were penalized for having a crew member going over the wall too soon at Martinsville.

“We do have work to do, and the area right now where we’re focused more so than anywhere else is execution on pit lane,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, said this week. 

“That has been a difference maker. What’s truly been amazing is the fact that we had six cars finish in the top 10 (at Kansas) with as many mistakes as were made on pit lane.”

Wilson noted that Wallace would have had a better result at Kansas if not for his pit road issues.

“He was going to finish top three I’m convinced, and he had to restart 18th because he had a ridiculous pit stop,” Wilson said. “In spite of all of that, he had the speed to drive back to the front. 

“We saw what Denny did heroically at Dover, in having to win that race almost twice two different ways. It’s not for lack of speed, but we all know that cliche, this is a team sport. 

“In order to win you have to execute not just behind the seat but underneath the hood. You have to execute on pit lane. It takes a team. This has been one of the absolute strengths of Joe Gibbs Racing historically. 

“For Coach (Joe) Gibbs and I to spend as much time as we have been the past few weeks talking about this is indicative of how we collectively hold ourselves accountable and we need to fix that.”

5. A different perspective

NBC Sports’ Diandra Leslie-Pelecky takes an interesting look at who is the fastest early in a run and on restarts. It’s a good precursor to Sunday night’s All-Star Race, which will feature numerous short runs on the way to awarding $1 million to the winner.

With the new car and new package, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. noted that he’s attacking restarts differently this year.

“I felt like you wanted to stay in line as long as you could (at Kansas) until you got to the corner and had a good lane to get in, because if you pulled out of line at the start/finish line when we’re allowed to, you’ve got so much drag on your car, you lost speed,” said Stenhouse, who has scored three consecutive top-10 finishes.

“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. You need a full lane of clear track to get your car to handle it the way you want it to.

“Any little bit behind a car, you definitely lose some downforce on your car, and it just doesn’t drive really good. Felt like our restarts were really good at Kansas, and I was able to get to some clear track and have that speed.

“Our old car, I feel like you could be half a car width out from somebody and feel the benefit. I feel this car you need a full lane. It’s trying to get that good launch, stay in line as long as possible and pick a lane.”

Rick Hendrick hopes rough racing settles down after Chase Elliott suspension


LE MANS, France (AP) — Rick Hendrick fully supports Chase Elliott as he returns from a one-race suspension for deliberately wrecking Denny Hamlin, but the team owner believes on-track aggression has gotten out of control this season and NASCAR sent a message by parking the superstar.

“Until something was done, I think that kind of rough racing was going to continue,” Hendrick told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Elliott missed last week’s race outside St. Louis as the five-time fan-voted most popular driver served a one-race suspension for retaliating against Hamlin in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The two had made contact several times, with Elliott hitting the wall before he deliberately turned left into Hamlin to wreck him.

Hamlin immediately called on NASCAR to suspend Elliott, which the sanctioning body did despite his star power and the effect his absence from races has on TV ratings. Elliott missed six races earlier this season with a broken leg suffered in a snowboarding crash and NASCAR lost roughly 500,000 viewers during his absence.

Hendrick, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with NASCAR’s special Garage 56 project, told the AP he understood the suspension. NASCAR last year suspended Bubba Wallace one race for intentionally wrecking Kyle Larson, another Hendrick driver.

“Pushing and shoving, it’s a fine line, and when someone puts you out of the race, you get roughed up, emotions take over and you react,” Hendrick said. “I think maybe guys will run each other a little bit cleaner moving forward. “We understand the suspension, and nobody really likes to have to go through that, but you just do it and move on.”

Hendrick said he believes drivers have gotten far too aggressive with the second-year Next Gen car, which has not only tightened the field but is a durable vehicle that can withstand bumping and banging. Contact that used to end a driver’s day now barely leaves a dent.

It’s led to drivers being more forceful and, in Hendrick’s opinion, too many incidents of drivers losing their cool.

“There’s rubbing. But if you just harass people by running them up into the wall, every time you get to them, you get tired of it,” Hendrick said. “And that’s what so many of them do to cause accidents, but then they don’t get in the accident themselves.

“I think everybody understands the rules. But you’ve got an awful lot of tension and when you’re out their racing like that, and you are almost to the finish, and somebody just runs over you for no reason, I think the cars are so close and it’s so hard to pass, they get frustrated.”

Elliott, with seven missed races this season, is ranked 27th in the standings heading into Sunday’s road course race in Sonoma, California. He’s been granted two waivers by NASCAR to remain eligible for the playoffs, but the 2020 champion needs to either win a race or crack the top 16 in standings to make the field.

An outstanding road course racer with seven wins across several tracks, Elliott will be motivated to get his first win of the season Sunday at Sonoma, one of the few road courses on the schedule where he’s winless.

Hendrick said when he spoke to Elliott he urged him to use caution moving forward.

“I just said ‘Hey, we’ve got to be careful with that,’” Hendrick said. “But I support him, I really do support him. You get roughed up and it ruins your day, you know, you let your emotions take over.”

Concussion-like symptoms sideline Noah Gragson

1 Comment

Noah Gragson will not compete in Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway because of concussion-like symptoms he experienced this week after his crash at WWT Raceway, Legacy MC announced Thursday.

Grant Enfinger will drive the No. 42 in place of Gragson.

“Noah’s health is the highest of priorities and we commend him for making the decision to sit out this weekend,” said team co-owners Maury Gallagher and Jimmie Johnson in a statement from the team. “We are appreciative that Grant was available and willing to step in since the Truck Series is off this weekend.”

The team states that Gragson was evaluated and released from the infield care center after his crash last weekend at WWT Raceway. He began to experience concussion-like symptoms mid-week and is seeking treatment.

Gragson is 32nd in the points in his rookie Cup season.

Enfinger is available with the Craftsman Truck Series off this weekend. Enfinger is coming off a victory in last weekend’s Truck race at WWT Raceway for GMS Racing, which is owned by Gallagher. That was Enfinger’s second Truck win of the season.

NASCAR implements safety changes after Talladega crash

1 Comment

NASCAR is implementing changes to Cup cars that strengthen the right side door area and soften the frontal area after reviewing the crash between Kyle Larson and Ryan Preece at Talladega Superspeedway in April.

The changes are to be in place for the July 9 race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Larson and Preece were uninjured in the vicious crash late in the race at Talladega. Larson’s car was turned and slid down the track to the apron before coming back up in traffic. Preece’s car slammed into the right side door area of Larson’s car.

Dr. John Patalak, NASCAR vice president of safety engineering, said the difference in velocity of the two cars at the time of impact was 59 mph.

“It’s pretty hard to find that on the racetrack normally,” Patalak told reporters Thursday during a briefing.

The severe impact moved a right side door bar on Larson’s car. NASCAR announced last month that it was allowing teams to add six right side door bar gussets to prevent the door bars from buckling in such an impact.

Thursday, NASCAR announced additional changes to the cars. The changes come after computer simulations and crash testing.

NASCAR is mandating:

  • Steel plate welded to the right side door bars
  • Front clips will be softened
  • Front bumper strut softening
  • Front ballast softening
  • Modified cross brace

Patalak said that NASCAR had been working on changes to the car since last year and did crash testing in January at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio. NASCAR did more work after that crash test.

As for the changes to the front of the car, Patalak said: “From an engineering standpoint we’re reducing the buckling strength of those individual parts and pieces. The simplified version is we are increasing the amount of crush that the front clip will be capable of. That’s all an effort to reduce the accelerations that the center section and driver will be exposed to during these frontal crashes.”

Adding the steel plate to the door bars is meant to strengthen that area to prevent any type of intrusion or buckling of the door bars in a similar type of crash.

Patalak also said that NASCAR inspected the car of Blaine Perkins that barrel rolled during the Xfinity race at Talladega in April. Patalak said that NASCAR consulted with Dr. James Raddin, Jr., who was one of the four authors of the Earnhardt investigation report in 2001 for the sanctioning body, in that incident.

Dr. Diandra: Brad Keselowski driving RFK Racing revival


Brad Keselowski surprised many when he didn’t re-sign with Team Penske in 2021. Penske was his home since 2010, and the team who helped him to a Cup Series championship in 2012. But Jack Roush offered Keselowski something Roger Penske couldn’t — ownership stake in the team.

Keselowski knew an RFK Racing revival would be an challenge, but also that he was prepared for it.

“I’ve been studying my whole life for this moment, and I’m ready for the test,” Keselowski said during the announcement of the new partnership.

A historic team with historic ups and downs

Roush Racing entered Cup competition in 1988. It didn’t win that first year, but the company collected at least one checkered flag every year from 1989-2014 — except for 1996.

Roush was one of the first owners (along with Rick Hendrick) to appreciate the advantages of multi-car teams. By 2003, Roush Racing fielded five full-time teams. In 2005, all five Roush cars made the playoffs, accumulating 15 wins between them. Their dominance prompted NASCAR to limit teams to four cars. That limit remains today.

Roush sold half the team to Fenway Sports Group in 2007. The renamed Roush Fenway Racing team, however, never reached the highs of 2005 as the graph below shows.

A vertical bar chart showing the challenges Brad Keselowski has in driving RFK's revival

The 2015 season was Jack Roush’s first winless season since 1996. By the time Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won two races in 2017, RFR was down to two cars. The company had four consecutive winless seasons before Keselowski came on board.

Keselowski is a perfect choice to drive the RFK revival. After all, how many other NASCAR drivers run a 3D-printing business? Or worry about having enough properly educated workers for 21st century manufacturing jobs?

“I feel like I’m buying into a stock that is about to go up,” Keselowski said.

Keselowski’s record

The new RFK Racing team started off strong at Daytona, with Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher each winning their Duels. During that week, NASCAR confiscated wheels from both drivers’ cars. Despite concerns about the team’s modifications, NASCAR ultimately levied no penalty. But after the fifth race of the year at Atlanta, NASCAR docked Keselowski 100 points for modifying single-source parts. Keselowski needed to win to make the playoffs.

It wasn’t Keselowski, but Buescher who won the first race under the new name. Unfortunately, Buescher’s Bristol win came too late to make the playoffs.

Keselowski finished 2022 ranked 24th, the worst finish since his first full-time season in 2010 when he finished 25th.

In the table below, I compare Keselowski’s finishes for his last two years at Team Penske to his finishes with RFK Racing in 2022 and the first 15 races of 2023.

Comparing Brad Keselowski's finishes for his last two years with Penske and his first two years (so far) with RFK RacingKeselowski’s lack of wins since switching teams is the most obvious difference; however, the falloff in top-five and top-10 finishes is even more significant. Keselowski was not only not winning races, he often wasn’t even in contention. In 2020, Keselowski finished 91.7% of all races on the lead lap. In his first year with RFK, that metric dropped to 61.1%.

On the positive side, his numbers this year look far better than his 2022 statistics. Keselowski finishes on the lead lap 86.7% of the time and already has as many top-10 finishes in 15 races as he had in all 36 races last year.

Keselowski’s top-five finish rate improved from 2.8% in 2022 to 20.0% this year. That’s still off his 2021 top-five-finish rate of 36.1%, but it’s a step forward.

I summarize the last four years of some of Keselowski’s loop data metrics in the table below.

A table comparing Brad Keselowski's attempt to drive RKF's revival with his last two years of loop data at Penske

In 2022, Keselowski was down between six to seven-and-a-half points in starting, finishing and average running positions relative to 2021. This year, he’s improved so that the difference is only in the 2.6 to 3.6-position range.

Two keys for continued improvement

Ford is playing catch-up this year, having won only two of 15 points-paying races. Ryan Blaney, who won one of those two races, has the highest average finishing position (11.3) among drivers with at least eight starts. Keselowski is 14th overall with a 15.7 average finishing position, and fourth best among Ford drivers. Buescher is finishing an average of 1.2 positions better than his teammate.

Kevin Harvick is the top-ranked Ford driver in average running position, coming in sixth overall. Keselowski is 13th overall in average running position and the fourth-best among the Ford drivers.

Average green-flag speed rank is the average of a driver’s rank in green-flag speed over all the races for which he was ranked. Harvick is the fastest Ford as measured by this metric, ranking eighth among all drivers who have completed at least eight races. Keselowski is the fifth-fastest Ford, but the 20th-ranked driver in average green-flag speed rank.

The other issue, however, is particular to Keselowski: He is involved in a lot of accidents. That’s not new with Keselowski’s move to RFK Racing. Since 2016, Keselowski has been involved in at least eight caution-causing incidents every year.

What may be new is that he has a harder time recovering from non-race-ending incidents now than he did at Penske.

In 2021, Keselowski was involved in 12 caution-causing accidents. Last year, it was 10 (nine accidents and a spin). He’s already been involved in 12 incidents this year, the most of any full-time driver.

Keselowski isn’t too concerned about accidents. He views them as a consequence of pushing a car to its limits. His competitors, however, have called him out for for his aggressive driving style.

Neither accidents nor Keselowski’s attitude toward them changed with his transition from Team Penske to RFK Racing.

Except now he’s the one paying for those wrecked cars.