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.

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

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“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Though Castroneves is out, Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported that Mayweather’s The Money Team Racing still is considering IndyCar driver Conor Daly for its seat.

Fire at Reaume Brothers Racing shop injures three

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A Thursday fire at the Reaume Brothers Racing shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, injured three individuals, according to Mooresville (North Carolina) Fire-Rescue.

Firefighters were dispatched to the shop, which is scheduled to field entries for driver Mason Massey in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this season, at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

The fire department extinguished the blaze quickly. The department stated on its Facebook page that one individual was transported to Lake Norman Regional hospital for smoke inhalation, and another was transported to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. with burn injuries. A third was treated and released.

The team stated Thursday night on social media that Taylor Collier and Devin Fokin had been treated and released. The team stated that Taylor was treated for smoke inhalation and Fokin was treated “for serious burns.”

The Mooresville Fire Marshall’s office is investigating the cause of the fire. The fire department said the shop sustained “significant fire damage.”

In a tweet, the team said it is determining the extent of damage to the building. “More importantly,” it said, “a few of our team members did sustain injuries during the fire and are being transported for medical treatment.”

 

Trackhouse, RFK Racing, Front Row Motorsports sign sponsorship deals

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Trackhouse Racing, RFK Racing and Front Row Motorsports announced sponsorship deals Thursday morning.

Trackhouse said WWEX, a Dallas-based global logistics group, will increase its sponsorship presence with the team this year, serving as the primary sponsor in 21 races for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez.

WWEX will appear on Chastain’s Chevrolets in 19 races and will sponsor Suarez twice. The organization was a Trackhouse sponsor in 11 events in 2022, which was a breakout season for both Chastain and Suarez.

RFK announced that Solomon Plumbing, which joined the team last season, will expand its presence this season and in future years. The Michigan-based company will serve as the primary sponsor for several races on driver Brad Keselowski‘s No. 6 Ford.

MORE: Chase Briscoe signs contract extension with Stewart-Haas

Solomon specializes in plumbing and fire services for new development and construction. It initially sponsored Keselowski last season in the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Front Row Motorsports has signed Quincy Compressor, a Bay Minette, Ala.-based compressor manufacturer, as a sponsor for four races.

Quincy will sponsor Todd Gilliland‘s No. 38 team in three events and Michael McDowell‘s No. 34 team in one race.

 

 

Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to contract extension

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Chase Briscoe has signed a multiyear contract extension to remain at Stewart-Haas Racing, the team announced Thursday.

The length of the deal was not announced.

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Briscoe is entering his third Cup season with the team. He won his first series race last year, taking the checkered flag at Phoenix last March. That victory put him in the playoffs. He finished the season ninth in the standings. 

“It’s huge to have stability, with my team and my partner,” Briscoe said in a statement from the team. “It just gives you more confidence. Stewart-Haas Racing is where I want to be for a long time. It’s the place I’ve known longer than anywhere else in my NASCAR career.

“I remember getting signed by Ford in 2017 and I told people, ‘You know, if I could pick one place to be, it would be Stewart- Haas Racing. And if I could drive one car, it would be the 14 car. That would be the ultimate dream.’ And now, here I am.

“SHR has such a great group of people, from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series, and they’ve all just guided me in the right direction. From drivers to crew chiefs to crew members, they’ve always had my back, and that’s been a huge help – just having people believe in you.”

The 28-year-old Briscoe has been with SHR since 2018. He split a limited Xfinity schedule that season between what is now RFK Racing and SHR. He ran full time with SHR in the Xfinity Series in 2019 and ’20 before moving to Cup in 2021.

“Chase has made the most of every opportunity and the proof is in the results. Keeping him at SHR was a priority and we’re proud to have him in our racecars for many more years to come,” said Tony Stewart, who co-owns SHR with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, in a statement from the team. 

Briscoe’s signing comes two weeks after teammate Kevin Harvick announced that this will be his final season in Cup. 

The Cup season begins Feb. 5 with the Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before going to Daytona for the Feb. 19 Daytona 500.