Friday 5: Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 effort drawing interest

0 Comments

Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks says the interest in NASCAR among drivers worldwide will help fuel his Project 91, which debuts next weekend at Watkins Glen International with former F1 driver Kimi Raikkonen making his Cup debut.

“I know — and have known for a long time — that there is significant global interest among the elite motorsports drivers of the world in participating in a NASCAR race,” Marks said this week. “It’s a unique series. People in Europe and around the world look at NASCAR as this giant form of motorsports in America, which it is, and have an interest in trying that.”

The challenge has been getting that chance. With NASCAR debuting the Next Gen car this season, and spaces in the 40-car fields not taken, there is an opportunity for an effort like this to make Cup races.

Marks’ plan this season is only one race for Project 91, which is intended to provide entries for international drivers. Raikkonen, the 2007 Formula One champion and winner of 21 F1 races, was sought by Marks to be in this car for its maiden effort. Marks flew to Switzerland to detail the opportunity to Raikkonen.

“If we were going to launch this thing, obviously, we needed somebody relevant globally to set it off,” Marks said of getting Raikkonen, who made 350 Formula One starts from 2001-21 and ran one Xfinity race and one Truck race in 2011.

Raikkonen took part in a driver orientation test Thursday on the Virginia International Raceway road course.

Marks says there was much interest in the project shortly after announcing his plans in late May. After stating there would only be one race this year for Project 91, conversations slowed but interest remains. 

“The conversation got more lively among a lot of these personalities globally in motorsports,” Marks said. “They’re paying attention to it. They think it’s really, really cool, and they’ve got an interest if their schedules and contracts allow for them to be a part of it. 

“I anticipate after Watkins Glen, when everybody sees this program in the flesh, Kimi has a good race and it looks cool and all that kind of stuff, that (conversations) will start ramping up.”

Raikkonen will be one of three international drivers expected to compete at Watkins Glen. Daniil Kvyat, who made 110 Formula One starts from 2014-20, made his Cup debut at the Indianapolis road course for Team Hezeberg and is expected back at Watkins Glen. Spire Motorsports announced this week that Mike Rockenfeller, a two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, will drive the team’s No. 77 car at Watkins Glen.

One driver who could be a good fit for the Project 91 in the future could be four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Hello Castroneves.

“I spent some time with Helio, and he’s a guy that’s a perfect fit for what the Project 91 thing is all about, but we haven’t had any meaningful discussions because we’re focused on getting through Watkins Glen, then there’s going to be playoffs and then we’ll kind of reassess,” Marks said.

The project’s debut will come two weeks before the playoffs begin. Both of Trackhouse’s drivers, Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez, are in the playoffs after victories this season. It’s easy to wonder if the Project 91 effort will diminish the organization’s efforts for the playoffs. 

“I wouldn’t say we’re spread thin,” Marks said. “We’re certainly asking people to do some extra work. I think everybody understands from a business standpoint why we’re doing Project 91.

“It was important for me to do it during the regular season and not during the playoffs and to only do one race. It’s been a little bit of extra work, but the company is in a really good spot where we can do this project and and do it well. Hopefully, it’s the beginning of something that’s just going to grow over time.”

2. Impressive beginning

Kevin Harvick was among the estimated 9,000 who attended the opening night of racing at North Wilkesboro Speedway earlier this month. He liked what he saw.

“I thought it was great,” Harvick said. “I was really happy that the community came out and supported the event. That was the best part. I think it caught everybody off guard how many people actually showed up.

“I think all these races would have been super intriguing, it was intriguing anyway, but it would have been just massively intriguing if you could actually get tires. I think there would be 100 Late Model stock cars, there would have been 60 or 70, modifieds, (but) you can’t get tires.”

While racing will take place Friday and Saturday at North Wilkesboro Speedway, the racing there scheduled Aug. 19-20 has been canceled because of supply issues and the shortage of race tires. 

“That’s really kind of been the detriment of a lot of racing … that you can’t get tires,” Harvick said. “And I can’t even imagine how many cars would have shown up to that particular event, but the main thing is the people from the community showed up.

“Hopefully, they keep showing up and keep participating in the events because it’s cool facility. There’s just something about those old nostalgic facilities that you can go back to and kind of go back in time.”

Much work remains to the facility, but Harvick says he could see type of national series race at North Wilkesboro someday.

“I don’t know why you go through all that work and not have something like that there,” he said. “That would be ludicrous to think that that track is just going to survive off a Late Models and modifieds, Saturday night shows. No way. There’s no way. There’s gotta be some sort of plan for Trucks or Xfinity or something that goes into that.”

3. Work never ends

Cup rookie Harrison Burton sheds some light on the work that he does in preparation for an event. 

“We’ve got a really cool process where the crew chief, the spotter and engineers all sit in and we have a film room that we can go and watch race film in,” Burton said. “So we kind of start that meeting and go over some baseline things and setup ideas – normal race meeting kind of stuff – and then we just put on the race and talk about it as it goes on.  

NASCAR Production Days
Harrison Burton finished a career-high third at the Indianapolis road course in July. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“We’ll watch the whole race and skip through to restarts and things and just talk about it. … When I get home I like to watch a lot of the SMT data, where it’s all modeled cars in there and you can see steering, throttle, brake traces – see what guys are doing well, what guys aren’t doing well. You can kind of zoom in on guys or zoom out and watch the whole race.  

“What I tend to watch for in that is kind of trying to understand what guys are fighting and understand what they do better than others. You go to Martinsville and see, ‘Hey, why is this guy faster than other guys?’ And his car is a couple feet higher. At this point in the corner he’s leaving low, so whatever it might be. I look for small details by myself, and I don’t really have a super structured way to do that. I kind of just go through and pick through the data, watch different guys that I know are really great at certain racetracks and try and take off of them.”

Burton says he took a bit of a different approach in his preparation for Sunday’s Cup race at Richmond Raceway (3 p.m. ET on USA Network) since the series is returning there for the second time this year.

He’ll just watch his car on film and the data from the track’s spring race. Burton finished 18th in that event.

He’ll do that to “see everything I could have done better – every single moment, every single decision you make as far as restart selections. All of that you can watch back and understand what you did and didn’t do.”

4. How did he do it?

The last time Cup raced at Richmond this season, Denny Hamlin used a two-stop strategy in the final stage to win. Kevin Harvick used the same strategy to finish second, while William Byron, who pitted only once in last stage, was passed by both and placed third.

With all that time Hamlin and Harvick lost to Byron making an extra stop in the last stage, how did they pass him in the final laps?

With the help of Racing Insights, here’s a breakdown of how they did and something to keep in mind during the final stage of Sunday’s Cup race.

Harvick’s next-to-last pit stop was on Lap 308 of the 400-lap race.

Hamlin’s next-to-last pit stop was on Lap 310.

Byron’s last pit stop was on Lap 311.

Harvick made his last pit stop at Lap 353 under green.

NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400
Despite making an extra pit stop in the final stage, Denny Hamlin passed William Byron for the lead with five laps to go to win at Richmond in April. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

Hamlin, running second to Byron, made his last pit stop at Lap 354 under green. Hamlin was 4.85 seconds behind Byron when he entered pit road. Hamlin came off pit road 11th. He was 34.287 seconds behind Byron. 

Hamlin was a lap behind Byron for nine laps after that pit stop. Hamlin got back on the lead lap with 37 laps to go. 

Aided by fresher tires, Hamlin’s average lap time during the final 45 laps was 24.134 seconds. Slowed by older tires, Byron’s average lap time during that same span was 24.954 seconds.

Hamlin passed Byron for the lead with five laps to go.

Harvick passed Byron for second with four laps to go. 

Hamlin made up nearly 37 seconds in the final 45 laps and finished 2.735 seconds ahead of Byron, who placed third. In this case, fresher tires proved the difference, along with Hamlin’s ability to get through traffic and not have a caution when he was a lap down after his final stop. 

5. Examining the race for the final playoff spot

Ryan Blaney enters Sunday’s Cup race holding the final playoff spot. He’s the only driver among the 16 in a playoff position without a victory this season.

Blaney leads Martin Truex Jr. by 19 points with three races left in the regular season. 

Should there be a driver who hasn’t won yet this season win before the regular season ends, they could put themselves in a playoff position and knock out Blaney (provided he is not the one to win).

If it gets to 16 different winners before the regular season ends, then the driver with fewest points – among those with one victory this season – would be on the bubble. That would put Kurt Busch in the position. Richmond will be the fourth consecutive race Busch misses because of symptoms from a concussion. He has 485 points.

Busch’s status remains week-to-week. Some winless drivers, who also are in the top 30 in the standings, are more than 100 points behind Busch. So, if there were 16 different winners and they won, they might not have enough points to bump Busch out of the playoff spot. 

Dr. Diandra: How much does Talladega shake up the playoffs?

0 Comments

Talladega Superspeedway is known for shaking up the playoffs. But how well deserved is that reputation?

Playoff drivers usually view the first race in the second round of the playoffs as the best chance to earn points, earn stage points and maybe even a win given that Talladega is the second race. Now that Texas is in the rear-view mirror, let’s turn our data analysis tools to Talladega.

The shake-up index

Determining how much one race shuffles the playoffs standings requires a simple metric that is applicable to all the years NASCAR has had stages and playoffs. In a rare point of consistency, Talladega has remained the 31st race of the season since 2017, when stage racing started.

After trying a couple different approaches, I finally settled on playoff rankings. These rankings are a zero-sum game. For each driver who moves up a position, another driver must move down.

The first graph is playoff ranking as a function of race for the second playoff segment of 2021. It’s a bit of a mess, but stay with me.

A scatter graph of rank changes to help determine how much shaking-up Talladega actually does

Playoff rank runs along the left side of the graph. The highest ranked driver is at the top and the 12th ranked at the bottom.

The leftmost set of dots shows the rankings coming out of Bristol, after eliminating the lowest four drivers and re-seeding the rest. The second column of dots show the rankings after Las Vegas, which was the first race in the second round in 2021.

Each driver is represented in a different color, with lines connecting his rankings. For example, the dark purple lines show Denny Hamlin rising from third to first over these three races. The light blue lines at the bottom show Alex Bowman plummeting from seventh to 12th.

The messier the lines between two races, the more the playoffs were shaken up. Because it’s hard to quantify “messiness,” I counted each time one driver’s line crossed another driver’s line.

Each crossing indicates two drivers changed places in the rankings. The number of intersections between Bristol and Las Vegas, for example, tells you how much Las Vegas shook up the standings.

Three intersecting lines count as three shake-ups because there are three pairs of drivers crossing.

In 2021, Las Vegas had nine intersections, Talladega 13 and the Roval only five. This seems consistent with our hypothesis that Talladega is the biggest shaker-upper in the second round.

Talladega Timeline

In addition to being only one point, the 2021 Talladega contest poses another problem. Bubba Wallace won the rain-shortened race, which went 311 miles instead of the scheduled 500 miles.

That raises the possibility that 2021 might not be the most representative year for Talladega races. I therefore repeated the analysis going back to 2017. Since we didn’t have stage racing — and thus stage points — before 2017, it doesn’t make sense to compare previous years.

The table below shows the shake-up index from 2017-2021. Note that the first and third races changed from year to year.

A table summarizing the shake-up index for Talladega and other races in the second playoff round from 2017-2021

This five years of data show that Talladega wasn’t always the race that most shook-up this round of playoffs. From 2017-19, Dover and Charlotte held that honor. That’s surprising, especially in 2017. That’s the year 26 of 40 cars failed to finish the Talladega race and NASCAR parked Jimmie Johnson and Matt DiBenedetto.

In 2020, the three races had just about equal shake-up indices.

The Roval has been the third playoff race for only two years. It was equally chaotic with Talladega in terms of affecting the standings in 2020, but less so in 2021. Kansas beat the Roval for switching up the playoff standings twice.

 A caveat for the first race

If you’re surprised to see a larger shake-up for the first race in the second round of the playoffs, you’re not alone.

The 2021 fall Las Vegas race was remarkably uneventful. There were only two DNFs, both non-playoff cars. And one single-car accident that, again, didn’t involve a playoff car. Yet it had a shake-up index of nine.

It turns out that this is a side-effect of the re-seeding protocol.

The graph below shows the same time period as the rankings graph, but reports total points for the top-12 drivers.

A scatter plot showing how points changed for the top-12 playoff drivers in 2021 in the second round of the playoffs

Immediately after re-seeding, the drivers are separated by 57 points from first to 12th. If you omit Kyle Larson’s 30-point lead, the bottom 11 drivers are separated by only 27 points.

Since a driver can earn a maximum of 60 points in a single race, the first race in a round has a lot more impact in changing the standings. In effect, the first race decompresses the re-seeding compression.

After Las Vegas, the 12 playoff drivers were separated by 78 points. After Talladega, the margin grew to 98 points.

The larger numbers for the first races in any round are more due to the re-seeding-induced points compression than to the nature of the track.

Applied to 2022

Drivers don’t have to win at Talladega. They just have to finish ahead of the other playoff drivers. In fact, if a given driver can’t win, the next best case for him is if none of the other playoff drivers win, either.

The largest drop in positions a driver has seen from Talladega is five — and that’s from the rain-shortened 2021 race. On the other hand, drivers have also seen as much as an eight-position gain in the standings following Talladega. That gain was after the 2017 race where more than half the field failed to finish, but at least one driver has come out of the fall Talladega race each of the last four years up at least three positions.

As far as the stats for this year’s second round playoffs so far: Last week’s Texas race had a shake-up index of 14. That’s higher than all but the first year of the stage-racing playoff era.

And the William Byron penalty (which Hendrick Motorsports is contesting) has a shake-up index of seven.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

0 Comments

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

0 Comments

Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

0 Comments

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.