Dr. Diandra: Next Gen road course masters

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Watkins Glen marks the fifth road course race with the Next Gen car. That’s enough data to start separating Next Gen road course masters from those still struggling with the new car. That’s particularly important given the impact of a 16th winner on the playoffs.

Overall average finishing positions

Before delving into road course stats, let’s consider drivers’ overall average finishing positions. They look a lot different than at this point last season.

A vertical bar chart showing average finishing positions for 2022

Some drivers, even those with wins, struggle with the Next Gen car.

  • Denny Hamlin’s current average finishing position is 18.7, which is 9.6 positions higher than in 2021.
  • Hamlin’s drop is double that of the driver with the next largest change. Brad Keselowski‘s average finishing position of 18.8 is 4.8 positions worse relative to 2021.
  • William Byron (up 4.7 positions), Kyle Larson (up 4.4 positions) and Kyle Busch (up 3.7 positions) round out the top-five drivers with worse average finishing positions in 2022 than 2021.

Other drivers have found advantages.

  • Justin Haley has improved the most, from a mean finish of 25.9 to 18.6. That’s 7.3 positions. (This comparison may be a little unfair. Kaulig Racing had very limited experience with the Gen-6 car.)
  • Aric Almirola improved by 4.6 positions.
  • Ross Chastain has improved 4.5 positions, and teammate Daniel Suárez has improved 4.4 positions.

Gaining in the middle

Most of 2021’s top-ranked drivers have worse average finishes in 2022. This year’s gainers are predominantly last year’s mid-tier drivers. That’s consistent with the large number of winners.

  • In 2021, 21 full-time drivers had average finish positions under 20 after 24 races.
  • In 2022, 25 full-time drivers have average finish positions under 20.

Compare those numbers with the numbers of drivers with top-15 average finishes.

  • Thirteen drivers had average finishing positions under 15 in 2021.
  • Only eight drivers have average finishing positions under 15 in 2022.

That’s numerical confirmation of a more-level playing field.

The drivers with under-15 average finishes in both 2021 and 2022 are Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Larson and Kevin Harvick, winner of the season’s past two races. The two drivers with average finishing positions above 15 in 2021 but under 15 in 2022 are Ross Chastain and Christopher Bell.

But these drivers arrived at their average finishing positions in very different ways.

The best 2022 road racers

The next graph shows average finishing positions for road courses in 2022.

A vertical bar chart showing the average finishing position at road courses in 2022 for drivers with an average finishing position under 17

Austin Cindric hasn’t won a Cup Series road course race, but he holds the highest average finish in 2022 road course competitions. Two of Cindric’s four top-five finishes came at road courses. His worst finish at a road course is eighth at Circuit of the Americas.

Cindric beats second-place Elliott by two full positions. A 16th-place finish at the Indianapolis road course pulls Elliott’s average down. He has a 4.7 average finishing position at the other three road course races. Elliott’s 7.5 average finishing position is 1.4 positions higher than his 2021 average.

Michael McDowell ranks third in 2022 with an average finishing position of 8.0 — an 18-position improvement. In 2021, McDowell tied for 20th with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Toyota’s highest ranking driver on road courses is 10th overall. Christopher Bell has a 15.0 average finishing position. He’s improved 1.6 positions over 2021.

Biggest gains and losses 2021 versus 2022

Let’s compare drivers’ 2021 and 2022 average finishes at road courses directly. The bar length indicates the size of the change. Red arrows indicate poorer performance in 2022 than 2021. Blue arrows indicate improvement.

A difference chart showing the changes in average driver finish position at road courses from 2021 to 2022

I arranged the drivers from biggest loss to biggest gain.

Drivers whose performance hasn’t changed very much occupy the graph’s center. In addition to Elliott’s already noted consistency:

  • Truex’s average finish dropped from 15.1 to 16.8.
  • A.J. Allmendinger’s average finishing position is up one spot relative to 2021.
  • Blaney is better in 2022, but only by 0.18 positions.

Comparing changes in road course finishes to overall finishes shows that some drivers are doing much better — or much worse — at road courses than in general.

  • Kyle Busch’s average finish at road courses showed the largest drop. But his overall average finish position is only 3.7 positions worse than 2021.
  • McDowell has the largest improvement in road course finishes, but his overall average only improved by 1.7.

Those differences prompted me to separate road course data from other track types.

Road course versus non-road course finishes

I compared each driver’s change in average finish at road courses relative to his change in finish at non-road courses on the scatter plot below.

A scatter plot comparing change in average finish at road courses vs. change in average finish at non-road courses

The horizontal axis represents change in finish at road courses. A positive number (i.e., the right side of the graph) means the driver finished better at road courses in 2022. Being on the left side means the opposite.

The vertical axis is the change in non-road course finishes. Being in the top half of the graph means improvement relative to 2021. Being in the lower half means the driver’s performance at non-road courses is worse this year than last.

The best place on this graph is the upper right-hand quadrant. Drivers there improved in road course and non-road course tracks.

The worst place is the bottom-left quadrant. Drivers there have worse performances this year in both categories of tracks.

The upper-left quadrant includes drivers doing worse on road courses, but better on non-road courses. The lower-right quadrant holds drivers doing better on road courses and worse on non-road courses.

  • McDowell is in the upper-right quadrant, but close to the horizontal axis. That means his road course improvement is much greater than his improvement on non-road courses.
  • Kyle Busch exemplifies the opposite situation. His average finish in non-road course races is worse by just 0.21 positions. But his road course average finish is worse by almost 13 positions.
  • Larson’s numbers are smaller but in the same direction as Kyle Busch. His non-road course average is worse by 3.2 positions, but his average road course finish was 12.8 positions worse.

When choosing drivers for Watkins Glen (3 p.m., USA Network), give the drivers on the right-hand side of this graph a second look.

Comparing last year with this year necessarily eliminates rookies. It also neglects this year’s non-Cup Series regulars. Although Cindric’s rookie season has been rocky, road courses have been some of his best races. Don’t overlook him.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

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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

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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

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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.

 

 

 

NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races

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The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.