Friday 5: Key questions while NASCAR Cup Series takes weekend off

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As the Cup Series heads into its final off-weekend of the season, several questions remain.

Among those: How to describe what has happened in the first 16 races?

Unpredictable comes to mind quickly. Twelve different winners — including four first-time winners — have energized talk that all 16 playoff spots could be filled by drivers with a victory.

But is unpredictable really the right word? Martin Truex Jr. forecasted in January how topsy-turvy this season could be in a conversation with NBC Sports.

“There’s going to be a lot of crazy storylines early in the year,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of surprises, and there’s going to be a lot of guys that have a good week, bad week, good week, bad week, hit and miss.

“I just feel like until we get some time under our belt and find kind of a baseline of what (the Next Gen car) wants at certain tracks, we’re all going to be searching. We’re all going to be taking gambles on what we’re taking to the racetrack setup-wise.”

No example best highlights the hit-and-miss nature of this season as a week Joey Logano had in May.

He struggled at Dover, crossing the finish line 29th and four laps behind the leaders. A week later, Logano won the pole, led a race-high 107 laps and won at Darlington.

“It’s crazy to go from where we were last weekend in Dover, where we were just off … qualified mid-20s and really run mid-20s and get into wrecks and all that,” Logano said after his Darlington victory. “Then you come back the next weekend, fast off the truck, put it on the pole, lead a bunch of laps, win a stage, third another stage, and it’s a big day for us.

“I don’t know, but it just goes to show kind of what this Next Gen car is right now where no one really has it quite figured out yet.”

No team has shown the ability to put together a streak of top-10 finishes lasting more than five races this season. Last year, four drivers had top-10 streaks of at least five races in a row, led by William Byron’s 11-race run.

“It’s no longer a season that is defined by 36 races, it’s not,” Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Denny Hamlin, told NBC Sports in May. “It’s defined as getting hot at the right time and dominating when it’s time to dominate.”

2. Is Trackhouse Racing an underdog or favorite?

Trackhouse drivers Daniel Suarez and Ross Chastain each entered the season without a Cup victory. Now, Chastain has two wins; Suarez has one. 

Trackhouse’s win total equals what Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have each done this year. Only Hendrick Motorsports — with five victories — has won more races than Trackhouse this year.

So, does that make the team owned by Justin Marks and Pitbull among the favorites to win the championship? Or does Trackhouse remain an underdog because the organization has not competed for a Cup title before?

Ty Norris, president of Trackhouse Racing, said this week on MotorMouths on Peacock that the organization is careful not to look too far ahead.

“We have two things that we continue to say,” Norris said. “We’ve got to stay hungry, and we’ve got to stay humble. If we start thinking playoffs and talking playoffs, we’re going to lose sight of these next 10 weeks that we need to sort of continue to prepare for a run.”

Also key will be how Chastain runs, and if he continues to upset drivers. Martin Truex Jr. talked to Chastain at Dover after he wrecked while battling Chastain for third place. Chastain had run-ins with Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott, among others earlier this month at World Wide Technology Raceway. Hamlin suggested payback was coming. 

Marks told NBC Sports after that race that Chastain doesn’t need to change.

“This is a very, very competitive sport, and you fight for every single inch,” Marks said. “The thing is that he’s a newcomer in the top five and the established top-five guys don’t like that there’s a newcomer there. I’m super, super proud of him. 

“He’s very aggressive. That’s what is required in winning races, and ultimately it’s going to get him to where he’s going to be a NASCAR champion — his aggression matched with his talent.”

3. Will strategies change during the final 10 races before the playoffs?

One of the fascinating elements about the parity this season is how it could impact the playoffs. 

No driver has more than 13 playoff points. Twelve drivers have at least six playoff points. Last year at this time, there was an 18-point gap between first and fourth in playoff points scored. 

With how close playoff points are, it could lead to more drivers going for stage points, especially at the road courses. Three road courses remain until the playoffs begin — Road America (July 3), Indianapolis (July 31) and Watkins Glen (Aug. 21). 

It’s not uncommon at road courses for teams to pit before a stage break, giving up on stage points to set themselves for the race’s finish. Will that still happen among potential playoff competitors? 

Strategy calls throughout each of the next 10 races could have an impact for teams in the playoffs based on how many playoff points they gain or fail to do so.

Also, the top 10 in points after the regular season receive playoff points. While the term points racing is viewed as having a derogatory connotation by many race fans, the focus on points could lead to more dramatic moments during the next 10 Cup races, starting with the June 26 race at Nashville Superspeedway (5 p.m. ET, NBC).

4. Is there a championship favorite?

Are you kidding? Who would it be?

Last year, it was easy to list Martin Truex Jr. as a favorite because he won at tracks that would host key playoff races: Phoenix (host of championship race), Martinsville (host of final race in the third round) and Darlington (playoff opener). 

This year, Phoenix saw Chase Briscoe win his first Cup race. The Martinsville race, won by William Byron, was a lackluster event that led drivers to call for changes before the series returns. With a tire test and an organizational test this summer at Martinsville, changes likely will be made. Darlington saw Logano bump Byron out of the lead at the end to win.

Of the six points races at tracks that will host a playoff race this year — not including Bristol since the spring race was on dirt and the playoff race will not be — there was a different winner each time. Alex Bowman won at Las Vegas, Briscoe at Phoenix, Byron at Martinsville, Ross Chastain at Talladega, Logano at Darlington and Kurt Busch at Kansas.

This year’s playoffs could be a matter of just surviving to each round. 

Pick a favorite? Too challenging now.

5. What could happen in Silly Season?

The key to Silly Season could be Martin Truex Jr., who has said that he’ll make a decision soon on if he’ll return for another season.

Truex turns 42 on June 29. The 2017 Cup champion has struggled this year. With seven top-10 finishes, he’s on pace for his fewest top 10s in a season since 2014 — the last time he missed the playoffs. Truex does not have a win and has yet to secure a playoff spot. 

Should he not return after this season, Joe Gibbs Racing will have multiple options. Ty Gibbs would seem to be a natural move to make although JGR seems more intent on having the 19-year-old remain in Xfinity another season. If Gibbs is not elevated, does JGR find someone to drive the No. 19 car for one season before Gibbs moves up, or does it go after a high quality driver that can be there for years to come?

Joe Gibbs Racing also has yet to announce a sponsor and contract extension for Kyle Busch. Since cryptic comments in late April about his status for next year — and a Toyota executive’s response — Busch has said little about next year. Signs point to him remaining at Joe Gibbs Racing. 

Stewart-Haas Racing has an opening for next season. Aric Almirola will retire from full-time competition after this season. The team has not announced a replacement. 

Provided Truex stays another year at JGR and the team complete’s Busch’s long-awaited deal, the highest profile ride available would be Almirola’s. 

Hendrick Motorsports has its four drivers signed through at least next season. Team Penske doesn’t have an opening. Trackhouse Racing President Ty Norris said this week on MotorMouths that the team will sign Daniel Suarez to a contract extension. 

Team owner Richard Childress said in March that Tyler Reddick is under contract for next year. Team owner Matt Kaulig told NBC Sports this month that he’s “torn” on if to continue to have a rotating driver lineup in the team’s second car next year or put one driver in the No. 16 for the full season.

BJ McLeod, Live Fast team move to Chevrolet

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Driver/owner BJ McLeod and Live Fast Motorsports will race in Chevrolets beginning with the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Based in Mooresville, North Carolina, Live Fast has been a Ford team.

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Live Fast is owned by McLeod, Matt Tifft and Joe Falk. Jessica McLeod, BJ’s wife, is the team’s chief operating officer.

“Our team is excited to make this transition to Chevrolet,” BJ McLeod said in a statement released by the team. “Chevrolet Camaros have proven great success on the track, and Live Fast Motorsports is looking forward to becoming a part of this advance.”

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The team will use ECR engines.

McLeod had one top-10 finish in 29 starts in the Cup Series last season.

Dr Diandra: Delving deeper into 2022 NASCAR season statistics

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As I discovered earlier this year, cautions don’t capture everything. Sometimes drivers spin, crash, lose wheels or blow tires, but racing continues. Cautions are inaccurate proxies for counting these incidents.

Improving accuracy requires re-visiting each race in detail to find those incidents that didn’t produce cautions.

So that’s what I did.

Non-caution incidents

I use the same categories for non-caution incidents as for cautions. Only incidents significant enough to cost drivers spots count, regardless of where in the field they happen. I don’t claim to have found every incident, but I think I caught most of them.

The table below summarizes my counts for caution and non-caution incidents in the 2022 Cup Series.

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Non-caution incidents comprise 30.1% of total incidents. The percentages, however, vary widely within categories.

For example: While non-caution accidents are just 14% of all accidents, non-caution spins are almost 40% of the total spin count.

Non-caution incidents by race

The graph below shows total incidents — caution and non-caution. I show the races in chronological order from left to right. The totals do not include planned cautions.

The largest number of non-caution incidents happen at road courses. These tracks’ length and sprawling nature allow drivers to recover from a spin or accident without drawing a caution.

  • The Indy road course had the highest overall number of non-caution incidents — nine spins, six accidents and one car on fire. That comes to a total of 16 non-caution incidents and three natural cautions.
  • COTA had the second-highest total of non-caution incidents with 13 — two accidents, nine spins, one tire issue and one wheel issue. Seven natural cautions bring COTA’s incident total to 20.
  • Bristol’s asphalt race came in third in total incidents. Although all of the accidents, spins and stalls recorded there caused cautions, six tire issues and five wheel issues did not. Bristol wins the award for most non-caution incidents at an oval.

Road courses accounted for one-third of all spins in 2022. Capturing total spins is important because spins indicate how easy it is to lose control of the car.

The first third of the season tallied 34 spins. The number rose to 40 in the second third, but fell to 25 in the last 12 races of the year. The numbers from the first two-thirds of the season included 10 spins each at COTA and the Indy Road Course.

The strong dependence of spins on track type makes it hard to draw a conclusion about whether drivers improved their ability to manage the car during the year.

Tires blown

The Next Gen’s symmetry makes the car harder to turn, which demands more from the tires. Crew chiefs also gained the ability to adjust rear camber. Goodyear reported force spikes of 200 to 300 pounds in the tires. Force spikes load a tire quickly, which can lead to blowouts.

I only counted situations in which it was clear that the tire went flat before any other incident, like a spin or accident. If it was possible that another incident caused the tire to blow, I didn’t include it as a tire issue.

I counted a total of 59 blown tires in the 2022 season, which includes those that caused cautions and those that didn’t.

Teams used around 26,600 tires this season. The 59 tire failures represent about 0.2% of all tires run.

Christopher Bell and Austin Cindric had the most blown tires with five each. Bell’s teammate Martin Truex Jr. had four. Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney, Chase Briscoe and Daniel Suarez each had three.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s four cars totaled 13 blown tires or 22% of the total number. Hendrick Motorsports, with the same number of cars, had eight blown tires, while Stewart Haas Racing had only six.

The Bristol asphalt race had the most tire issues, with 13. Texas came in second with eight and Kansas third with five. Atlanta, which was repaved and reconfigured, had six tire issues across its two races.

The number of tire issues at Kansas decreased from five in the first race to two in the second. I expect the overall numbers to go down next year as crew chiefs use what they’ve learned this year to refine their setups.

Wheels lost

The Next Gen’s single-lug wheel challenged pit crews, despite built-in indicators that confirm when a wheel is properly tightened. I counted 13 times cars had to back up on pit road to deal with a loose wheel and 19 times cars pitted right after a tire change to re-tighten wheels.

The four-race suspension for crew chief and pit crew members makes teams extra cautious.

I counted 14 wheels coming off cars during the 2022 season. Seven merited cautions. The remaining seven either happened on pit road, or a car that lost a wheel on track was able to make it back to pit road.

Fourteen wheels is 0.05% of all tires used. Again, this number reflects human error more than any design flaw in the wheels. More concerning to me are the handful of stops where teams couldn’t get wheels off cars. For example, debris between the wheel and hub at Darlington ended up costing Ross Chastain four laps.

The good news is that fewer wheels left cars as the season went on.

  • Eight wheels came off cars in the first third of the season.
  • Four wheels were lost in the second third of the season.
  • Only two wheels failed to stay on in the final third of the season.

As is the case for most statistics in the first year of a new car, these numbers will become more meaningful next year, when they’ll serve as benchmarks.

Goodyear renews agreement to remain NASCAR tire supplier

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NASCAR and Goodyear have entered into a new multi-year agreement maintaining Goodyear’s role as the exclusive tire for NASCAR’s top three national series. 

Goodyear also will be the title sponsor for the Cup race at Darlington Raceway in May 2023. Goodyear and NASCAR’s relationship dates back nearly 70 years and is one of the longest-running affiliations in any sport.

“From our manufacturing plants to offices around the world, racing is ingrained in our culture, and the importance of our relationship with NASCAR is reflected in the quality, performance and engineering we put into every Goodyear Eagle race tire,” said Richard J. Kramer, chairman, chief executive officer and president at Goodyear, in a statement. “Our performance on the racetrack plays an active role in the success of the sport and inspires the development of our consumer tires, fueling our commitment to take performance and innovation to the next level.”

Goodyear produces more than 100,000 tires for NASCAR’s top three series each year at Goodyear’s global headquarters in Akron, Ohio.

“Goodyear has been a trusted partner to the NASCAR industry since 1954, playing a critical role in our shared pursuit to deliver the best racing in the world,” said Steve Phelps, president of NASCAR, in a statement. “For more than 25 years, Goodyear Eagle tires have been the only component that connects the stock car to the racetrack. Our continued partnership will allow us to push boundaries and innovate our racing product for generations to come.”  

Jes Ferreira selected as Comcast Community Champion of the Year

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Comcast announced Jes Ferreira as the 2022 Comcast Community Champion of the Year Award, the eighth to receive the annual award. Among all the turmoil of the pandemic, Ferreira looked for an opportunity to give back. Despite her heavy workload, she decided to take on an even heavier challenge, becoming a foster parent to two young girls. 

“I am overwhelmed, humbled, and blown away to be recognized as the Comcast Community Champion of the Year,” said Jes Ferreira, 2022 Comcast Community Champion, “the amount of support this will provide for the Charlotte foster families ensures the best services for these children. I hope this sheds light on the foster community and encourages everyone to support in many different ways.” 

Ferreira, originally earned a foster license to become a foster parent for one child, but a few months later, the child’s younger sibling needed a new foster home. Although Ferreira, Senior Director of Live Shows for CSM Production, already had a crazy work schedule which included traveling to the race track most weekends on top of fostering one child as a single parent, she knew without a doubt these two siblings deserved to be together while in foster care. Now two young siblings who are going through the most trying time in their lives have been reunited thanks to Ferreira. 

On any given day, there are nearly 424,000 children in foster care in the United States. In 2019, over 672,000 children spent time in U.S. foster care. On average, children remain in state care for over a year and a half, and five percent of children in foster care have languished there for five or more years.  

Ferreira’s affiliated charity is Foster Village Charlotte (FVC), an organization that allows foster parents to connect with and support each other. FVC collaborates with 16 private foster parent licensing agencies, local government, child welfare organizations and the community to serve families holistically and represent the foster family voice to Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services (DSS). 

To further honor Jes’ incredible dedication, Comcast will donate $60,000 to Foster Village Charlotte (FVC).

“Jes encompasses everything the Comcast Community Champion of the Year stands for. Anyone that is at the track knows how dedicated Jes is to the sport of NASCAR and, we are so glad we expanded the eligibility for this award so we can uncover and honor the compassion, selflessness and generosity Jes provides off the track, and that is what makes this honor so special, ” said Matt Lederer, Comcast’s Vice President, Brand Partnerships and Amplification.  

 Ferreira, was chosen by a panel comprised of Comcast and NASCAR executives, as well as Curtis Francois, the 2021 Comcast Community Champion, who received the award for his work with the Raceway Gives Foundation 

For the first time, Comcast opened the eligibility for anyone in the NASCAR community with a 2022 annual credential or NASCAR full season license, and with this expansion, Comcast is now able to share these exceptional stories.   

Josh Williams, driver of the #92 DGM Racing car for the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Sherry Pollex, founder of Sherry Strong, were selected as finalists and will be awarded $30,000 each towards their respective selected charities – the Ryan Seacrest Foundation and Sherry Strong. 

Comcast has a long track record of community service, aiding in the advancement of local organizations, developing programs and partnerships, mobilizing resources to connect people and inspiring positive and substantive change. To learn more about these efforts, visit the Comcast Community Impact site. 

About Comcast Corporation’s Partnership with NASCAR 

Comcast’s Xfinity brand entered NASCAR as entitlement partner of the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2015 and is now Premier Partner of the NASCAR Cup Series. Since then, the company has donated $840,000 to more than 20 different NASCAR-affiliated organizations to honor their efforts and to help further the impact of their worthy causes. Fans can visit ComcastCommunityChampion.com to learn more about past and present finalists and their acts of selflessness.