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.

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.