Dr. Diandra: Why Chase Elliott outruns the rest of Hendrick Motorsports

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The four Hendrick Motorsports drivers have the same equipment and access to the same knowledge base. So why is Chase Elliott the only driver having a better season than last year?

Let’s start by comparing finishes for the first 22 races of the 2021 and 2022 seasons.

Stacked bar graphs summarizing the finishes of Hendrick Motorsports drivers in 2021 and 2022

The table below summarizes finishes and poles.

A table showing the finishes of each Hendrick Motorsports driver for 2022

Elliott has four wins, more than anyone else in the Cup Series. That’s how many wins Kyle Larson had at this time last year, but he has only one this year.

William Byron has twice the number of wins as last year but only five top-10 finishes, while Alex Bowman has one win and half the top-five finishes he had last year.

To finish first …

The biggest metric that sticks out when comparing the four HMS drivers is DNFs.

A table showing the DNFs of each Hendrick Motorsports driver for 2022Last year at this time, Elliott and Larson each had one DNF. Both finished the year with two. Byron and Bowman have already matched last year’s season-long numbers.

DNFs are up this year in the Cup Series. While 141 cars failed to finish races so far this year, there were only 97 DNFs last year after 22 races.

Transforming Atlanta into a superspeedway accounts for some of the increase. The two 2022 Atlanta races had a total of 22 DNFs, whereas the two races in 2021 contributed only three.

Accidents and spins — not all of which result in DNFs — are also up in 2022.

  • This year, drivers experienced 81 accidents versus 62 in the first 22 races of 2021.
  • Drivers spun 45 times in 2022 compared to 15 over the same number of races in 2021.

And those are just the accidents big enough to cause cautions.

The official caution tally for the Indianapolis road course cites one accident. But aggressive driving caused collisions that would have merited cautions at ovals.

I counted 23 accidents, spins and cars off track. There’s some subjectivity to this count, but I think it’s a reasonable representation. I did the same for the other road courses, and checked to see if Hendrick drivers had issues at other races that didn’t show up in the official caution lists.

Finally, I tabulated penalties.

The hardest part was figuring out how to put all that on one graph that didn’t look like a Kandinsky painting.

On the following graphs…

  • White bars are DNFs.
  • Diagonal hash marks indicate an accident that caused a caution.
  • Crosshatches indicate an accident, spin or other contact that didn’t merit a caution. I included pitting for actual or suspected loose wheels, and exceptionally long pit stops.
  • I put a ‘P’ by races with one or more penalty.
  • I put ‘TTB’ for races the driver started at the rear due to a violation

Chase Elliott

The Cup Series had no clear front runner until Elliott put together five races without major contact or penalties. He became the first driver with three wins at the second Atlanta race — the 19th race of the season. That’s the longest it’s ever taken for one driver to reach three wins.

Over a stretch from Nashville to Pocono, Elliott won three races and finished second in the others. He’s the one driver at HMS having a strong upward trend going into the playoffs.

Kyle Larson

When you dominate a series the way Larson did last year, there’s little room to improve. Last year, Elliott trailed Larson. This year, it’s mostly the other way around.

A table showing the running statistics of each Hendrick Motorsports driver for 2022Here’s Larson’s season-at-a-glance plot.

A bar chart for Kyle Larson's 2022 season, coded to show races with accidents and penalties

The average finish in Larson’s five DNFs is 33.4, while the average finish in completed races is 10.1. His overall average finish in the first 22 races of 2022 is 14.3 — more than four positions worse than his average finishing position in 2021.

Slow starts are not new for Larson, though. Of his 10 wins in 2021, six happened in the last 14 races, including four of the last five playoff races.

Larson has the fourth-highest penalty total in the Cup Series. (I don’t include pitting before pit road is open.) Three of his nine penalties forced him to start races from the rear of the field.

When Larson isn’t hindered by accidents, penalties or loose wheels, he usually has top-10 finishes. But he’s only got seven of those races, compared to 11 for Elliott.

The good news is that Larson and his team can try to reduce penalties. He (and every other driver) also must make judicious choices about when to engage and when it’s smarter to just let another driver go. We may see strategy designed to keep drivers away from congestion on pit road — or on the track.

The last two drivers have average finishes out of the top 15 and average running positions out of the top 10. Their loop data numbers point out some weaknesses. The numbers in the table below for all but the closing stats are rank relative to other drivers. The closing stat is in units of position.

A table showing the loop data stats of each Hendrick Motorsports driver for 2022

William Byron

Byron hasn’t finished in the top five since his Martinsville win. He has 10 ‘clean’ races, but lacks speed even when unhindered by penalties or contact. He’s 10th in green flag speed, the slowest of all Hendrick cars.

While Byron has avoided being in a lot of caution-causing accidents, he’s definitely made a lot of contact during races that has hurt his finishes. That contact may have contributed to his losing 52 positions in the last 10% of races this year, the second largest loss of closing positions in the series.

A bar chart for Alex Bowman's 2022 season, coded to show races with accidents and penalties

On the positive side, Byron is second in overall laps led, trailing Elliott by just 47. The majority of those laps, however, were led in the early part of the season. Byron’s problems are not as easily fixed at Larson’s.

Alex Bowman

Bowman secured his playoff spot with a win at Las Vegas. Of nine races without accidents or penalties, five finishes were outside the top 10. He has four DNFs in the last six races. Decreasing penalties would help, but won’t make up for lack of speed. He’s ranked a surprising 29th in speed by segment, which measures how fast drivers are relative to the field.

Bowman has the best closing record in HMS with a net gain of 27 positions in the last 10% of races over the season. He’s only led 18 laps this year.

I think what we’re seeing — not only at Hendrick Motorsports, but at the other top companies — is that drivers in top equipment used to be able to compensate for penalties and minor accidents because their cars were better. The parity of the Next Gen car makes coming back from a mistake that much harder, even for the best drivers.

Winners and losers at WWT Raceway

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Winners and losers from Sunday’s Cup race at WWT Raceway:

WINNERS

Kyle BuschWins the pole, leads the most laps and holds the field off over the last five restarts to win the race. He scored six playoff points, giving him 16 on the season, second only to William Byron’s 17. Busch left Joe Gibbs Racing after last season for Richard Childress Racing. Busch’s three wins this year equals what JGR has done so far.

Ryan BlaneyHis sixth-place finish moved him into the points lead. He last led the points after the spring 2022 Richmond race. Blaney also won a stage Sunday to collect another playoff point. He has seven this season.

Kyle LarsonFourth-place finish was a big turnaround after struggles earlier in the race. It has not been easy for this team the last few weeks. He has three top-five finishes and four finishes of 20th or worse in the last seven races.

Daniel SuarezHis seventh-place finish moved him up two spots to 16th in the standings, the final playoff transfer spot at this time.

LOSERS

Ross ChastainHe finished 22nd for his third consecutive result outside the top 20. He entered the weekend leading the points and fell to fifth afterward. He is 29 points behind new series leader Ryan Blaney with 11 races left in the regular season.

Tyler ReddickRebounded from an early spin to lead but had his race end after a brake rotor failed. He was one of four drivers eliminated by brake rotor failures. The others were Carson Hocevar, Bubba Wallace and Noah Gragson.

What drivers said at WWT Raceway

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Here is what drivers had to say after Sunday’s Cup race at WWT Raceway:

Kyle Busch — Winner: “Just the restarts kind of went our way. We were able to get through on the outside on that one and push (Kyle) Larson out, then he took bottom of (Turns) 3 and 4, I was able to carry the momentum around the high side to take the lead. That was really important. I think that was kind of the key moment of us being able to win today. Being able to control the rest of the restarts for the rest of the race. Kyle is one of the best. It’s good to be able to sit up here and race hard with him, being a Team Chevy partner. He gave me great respect, I appreciate that. That will be given back down the road.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 2nd: “Yeah, I thought we were super dialed if it was 95 degrees like it was supposed to be with those delays – it kind of took away from the advantage I thought that we had. I’m proud of this whole Sport Clips Toyota team – pit crew did a phenomenal job keeping us in it and doing really good on the money stop with about 60 to go. We are going to have to wait another to get that 50th (win).”

Joey Logano — Finished 3rd: “I’m proud of the fight. We were mediocre – just outside the top five all day long. There was a group of cars that were a tick better than us. Then we executed at the end and beat a few of them. We tried some new things from last year, and we learned some lessons. But overall: Good. We needed a solid run. We’ve been going through hell here lately. So, it’s nice to get a top five, third place, and some points there in each stage. Good day.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 4th: “Proud of the effort today. It’s been a couple tough races. We’ve been so good all year long and the last few have been pretty bad and we’ve had to work on it quite a bit. The team got us in a place where we could contend for the win, so you can’t ask for much more than that. …  I wish I would have done a better job. When I was the leader, I hadn’t been at the front all day, so I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know where people were running on restarts, and I didn’t know how hard they could go. I just got kind of caught off guard and lost the control.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 5th: “Started off the race near the front and stayed there through Stage 1 and thought we could get a little bit better and maybe have a shot at the couple, three in front of us. We had a pit road penalty and had to go to the back, and it was just an uphill climb from there. Just really tough to get through the field. We got some damage from when someone’s brake rotor exploded, that slowed us down even more. Really with all we went through today, a top-five is a really good day for us. I’m proud of the effort.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 6th: “We ran pretty good today. Won the second stage which was good, second in the first stage. Just kind of lost track position, lost the lead. Through a couple stops and restarts, we could just never really get it back. I thought that (Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin) and I were similar. It was just a matter of who was out front. I just got a bad restart at the end and fell to sixth. But overall, it wasn’t a bad day. It was a good points day too, and we’ll keep going.”

Daniel Suarez — Finished 7th: “The entire weekend was very solid for us. We barely missed the second run in qualifying and really, we missed it because of me and not because of the car. The car was capable of advancing. In the race, the car was strong right away. It was fun today and we really needed this as a team. We needed a result that we deserved, and I felt like lately it’s been a little difficult on us when it comes to that. Today, I felt like we deserved a top-10 or top-five and we came home seventh, so we will take it.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 9th: “We kind of learned last year that track position is super important. Taking two tires was an option last year, so we knew it’d be one this year. We did it early on and got track position, but we got spun out. So, went all the way to the back and then we put four on, and then you’re just buried back there. So, we had to go for it again, put two on and just left two on. We never took four again. There were a lot of laps on the left-side tires, but track position was super important. We had a great FR8 Auctions Ford Mustang, so I knew we could kind of hold our ground. Those last few cautions kind of hurt us a bit, but still came away with a Top-10. So, it was a good day.”

Chris Buescher — Finished 12th: “That was a long day – long race. There were a lot of cautions and red flags. It really started yesterday. I was in a little bit of a hole after qualifying, and I just didn’t do a good job. I had to dig out of that today. We had pretty good speed in our Fastenal Ford Mustang. I was pretty happy with it, and at times, had to move around the track quite a bit. I figured out Gateway really quickly. Not being able to run here last year, I felt a little behind getting going. Definitely found something there at the end. Honestly wish it was a 600-mile race because I felt like we could have kept getting better.”

Austin Cindric — Finished 13th: “Definitely frustrating having a speeding penalty … I’m a little frustrated with myself with that. You think something at the end of Stage 1 isn’t going to affect your race, but it just put us behind. We tried a bunch of strategy calls to get our Freightliner Ford Mustang up there. Had some good restarts at the end and made the most of it, I feel like. Those restarts got really scrappy. Proud of the team effort, proud of the recovery. Definitely a lot to clean up on my end to maximize what I thought was a Top-10 race car.”

AJ Allmendinger — Finished 14th: “We had an up-and-down day today fighting the balance in our No. 16 Chevy. I felt like we had a top-15 car most of the day, but we had to play defense to stay there. I wasn’t able to roll speed through the corner like I needed to be more aggressive and keep moving forward. We made a strategy call to take two tires, which didn’t work in our favor. Then we got caught up on pit road and restarted pretty far back at the beginning of the third stage. We’ll take a 14th- place finish after everything we battled with our car today and move forward to Sonoma.”

Justin Haley — Finished 16th: It was an up-and-down day for this No. 31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection team. We fired off tight in traffic, and it was just hard to pass. My crew chief, Trent Owens, made some really good strategy calls and we had positive adjustments all day, despite a couple pit-road mishaps. We had another good Chevrolet hot rod, and we will take a 16th-place finish after a hard fought day.

Ryan Preece — Finished 17th: “That was a really long day. I fought a tight race car all day long and every time we came down pit road, my guys made really strong adjustments. It just wasn’t enough to get us to the front and stay there. There were so many cautions there at the end, I was just trying to save the car. Overall, it wasn’t a terrible day for us after qualifying 29th. The fans were out in full force today, too, that was awesome to see. We’ve just got to keep grinding for better finishes.”

Erik Jones — Finished 18th: “Just an up-and-down day for the No. 43 Bommarito.com Chevy team. Didn’t end up how we wanted it to go, but we’ll go to work and get the car a bit better. I thought we had good speed, just didn’t have things go our way. We’ll work on it and hopefully go to Sonoma (Raceway) and have a solid day.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 19th: “We battled handing issues all day and just couldn’t find it. We were loose to start the day and it felt like our car was tight on aero and loose mechanically. Our long-run speed was really all we had today and we could pass cars late in the run, but we had so many cautions in the final stage we didn’t have the chance to run those cars down. Drew (Blickensderfer, crew chief) put me on offense on the last 20 laps with fresh tires and I thought we could’ve driven up to 15th, but someone missed a shift on the last restart and stacked us up and put us behind. Just one of those days. We had to battle to get all we could get.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 32nd: “We kept our track position just like we wanted to. We got stage points, and I felt like we had a top-eight or so car, which was a big difference from last year. Obviously we’re striving to be better everywhere. We had a really good streak going of really good runs. It looked like the No. 2 (Austin Cindric) just, for some reason, right-reared the No. 3 (Austin Dillon) and took both of us Chevy guys out, so that’s a bummer. We definitely had a top-10 car today.”

Tyler Reddick — Finished 34th: “Our day kind of went bad early on, but our McDonald’s Camry was able to get through traffic pretty well, but as the track stated to cool off, it just started going away from us. It was starting to get frustrating out there for sure, to have a car that good, and it felt like it was just going away. I had a bad feeling that was coming soon. I was just getting ready to have to back off with how soft the brakes got, but I obviously should have been thinking about that a lap or two sooner.”

Carson Hocevar — Finished 36th: “I thought it was great. I had a blast. Just so thankful for the opportunity. I don’t have a job for next year. I know Al Niece and Cody Efaw wants me to run for them and I will forever run a race or however many. But man, I’m just so thankful that they gave me the opportunity – the opportunity to drive a Xfinity car and now driving a Cup car. I was running 16th.. just so surreal for the first time ever. I thought we were going to have a good day and be in a good spot for Schluter Systems, Celsius, Spire Motorsports, Ryan Sparks and the No. 7 Chevy team. Hopefully that call for a Cup ride isn’t the only one I get in my life.”

Cup results at WWT Raceway, driver points

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Kyle Busch scored his third Cup victory of the season, winning Sunday’s Cup race at WWT Raceway in overtime.

Busch is tied with William Byron for most victories this season. Busch and Byron have combined to win three of the last six Cup points races (two by Busch and one by Byron).

MORE: Cup race results at WWT Raceway

MORE: Cup driver standings after WWT Raceway

Denny Hamlin finished second. Joey Logano placed third. Kyle Larson overcame struggles early in the race to finish fourth. Martin Truex Jr. completed the top five.

Corey LaJoie finished 21st, driving the No. 9 for the suspended Chase Elliott.

Ryan Blaney placed sixth and took the points lead from Ross Chastain, who placed 22nd. Chastain fell to fifth in the standings.

Kyle Busch wins Cup race at WWT Raceway in overtime

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Kyle Busch scored his third victory of the season Sunday, holding off the field on five restarts in the final 45 laps at World Wide Technology Raceway.

Busch’s previous two wins this season were at Fontana and Talladega. Sunday’s win is the 63rd of his Cup career. He started on the pole and led 121 of 243 laps — including the last 60 — in a race extended three laps by overtime.

MORE: Race results, driver points 

MORE: What drivers had to say

“That was pretty awesome,” Busch said to FS1. “Man, to sit on the pole, lead a lot of laps and have my guys do such a great job today was pretty phenomenal for us.”

Denny Hamlin finished second and was followed by Joey Logano, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr.

Sunday’s race featured an event-record 11 cautions. Failures with brake rotors led to crashes by Carson Hocevar, Tyler Reddick, Noah Gragson and Bubba Wallace.

Corey LaJoie finished 21st, driving the No. 9 for the suspended Chase Elliott.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Busch

STAGE 2 WINNER: Ryan Blaney

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Denny Hamlin’s runner-up finish is his fourth top-five result of the year. All have come in the last seven races. … Joey Logano’s third-place finish was his first top-five result since Martinsville in April. … Ryan Blaney finished sixth for his sixth top 10 in the last seven races and took the points lead from Ross Chastain. … Michael McDowell‘s ninth-place finish is his second top 10 of the year.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Brad Keselowski, making his 500th career Cup start, had mechanical issues early that left his car underpowered for most of the event. He finished 28th. … Carson Hocevar, making his Cup debut, was running 16th when a brake rotor failed and he crashed, finishing last. … Tyler Reddick spun early in race. After getting back toward the front, a brake rotor failed and he crashed, finishing 35th.

NOTABLE: This is the 11th time in Kyle Busch’s Cup career that he has had at least three wins in a season.

NEXT: The series races June 11 at Sonoma Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox)