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 will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.

Sunday Clash at the Coliseum: Start time, TV info, race format

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LOS ANGELES – NASCAR is back and back at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Nearly three months after Joey Logano won the Cup title at Phoenix, Cup drivers return to action this weekend to run the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race on Sunday night.

This marks the second consecutive year the series has raced inside the Coliseum, which has hosted the Super Bowl, World Series and Olympics.

Details for Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum 

(All times Eastern)

HEAT RACES: There will be four 25-lap heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top five from each race advance to the Busch Light Clash. The first heat race is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.

LAST CHANCE QUALIFIERS: There will be two 50-lap qualifiers for drivers who did not advance to the Clash through their heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top three finishers in each of the qualifiers advance to the Clash. The 27-car Clash lineup will be finalized by adding one provisional spot for the driver highest in points last season not yet in the Clash field. The first of these two last chance qualifying races is scheduled to begin at 6:10 p.m.

CLASH STARTING LINEUP: To be set by heat races and the Last Chance Qualifiers. Winner of heat 1 will start on the pole for the Clash. Winner of heat 2 will start second. Winner of heat 3 will start third. Winner of heat 4 will start 4th. Runner-up in heat 1 will start fifth and so on.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 11 a.m. … Driver intros are at 7:50 p.m. … Invocation by Judah Smith, lead pastor of Churchome, at 8:07 p.m. … The USC Trojan Marching Band will perform the national anthem at 8:08 p.m. … Actor Rob Lowe will give the command to fire engines at 8:15 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to be waved by USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams at 8:20 p.m.

DISTANCE: The Clash is 150 laps (37.5 miles) on the 1/4-mile short track.

STAGES: There will be a stage break at Lap 75 (halfway in the Clash). Wiz Khalifa will perform during the break.

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the event, beginning at 4 p.m. . … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Partly cloudy with a high of 63 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the start of the heat races. Partly cloudy with a high of 61 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the Clash..

LAST TIME: Joey Logano held off Kyle Busch to win the inaugural Clash at the Coliseum. Austin Dillon placed third. .

Catch up on NBC Sports coverage

New NASCAR season features several changes

Clash at the Coliseum provides a reset for RFK Racing 

Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

Dr. Diandra: Muffling racecars won’t change fan experience

Drivers to watch at Clash in Coliseum

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023

NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events 

Looking back on 10 historic moments in the Clash

 

NASCAR Saturday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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NASCAR drivers are scheduled to hit the track today in competitive mode for the first time in 2023.

Practice is scheduled from 6-8 p.m. on the oval inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Single-car qualifying for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum is scheduled to begin at 8:35 p.m. (ET). The 36 drivers will be divided into three 12-driver groups for practice.

Cup practice groups

Cup qualfying order

Saturday’s qualifying will set the starting lineups for Sunday’s four 25-lap heat races. The top five finishers in each heat race will advance to the main event. Two 50-lap “last chance” races will follow, and the top three finishers in each of those events will join the feature field.

The 150-lap main event is scheduled at 8 p.m. (ET) Sunday.

For the second consecutive year, the Clash is being held on a purpose-built track inside the LA Coliseum, one of sport’s iconic venues. Joey Logano won last year’s race and last year’s series championship and will be among the favorites Sunday.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Saturday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High 71.

Saturday, Feb. 4

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 2 – 11:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 8 p.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

New NASCAR Cup season features several changes

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While NASCAR looks back in celebrating its 75th season, there’s plenty new for the sport heading into the 2023 campaign.

Driver moves and schedule changes and are among some of the big changes this year. Here’s a look at some of the changes this season in Cup:

Drivers

— Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch has a different look, as he moves from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Tyler Reddick. 

— Tyler Reddick goes from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Kurt Busch, who was injured in a crash last summer and has not returned to competition.

Ryan Preece goes from being a test driver and backup at Stewart-Haas Racing to taking over the No. 41 car formerly run by Cole Custer, who moves to the Xfinity Series. 

— Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson returns to Cup after running the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. He’s now a part owner of Legacy Motor Club and will run select races for the Cup team. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500, driving the No. 84 car.

Ty Gibbs goes from Xfinity Series champion to Cup rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Noah Gragson goes from Xfinity Series title contender to Cup rookie for Legacy Motor Club (and teammate to Jimmie Johnson).

Crew chiefs

— Keith Rodden, who last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne, is back in that role for Austin Dillon at Richard Childress Racing, as Dillon seeks to make back-to-back playoff appearances. Rodden comes to RCR after working with the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors.

— Chad Johnston, who has been a crew chief for Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth, will serve as crew chief for Ryan Preece at Stewart-Haas Racing.

— Blake Harris goes from being Michael McDowell’s crew chief at Front Row Motorsports to joining Hendrick Motorsports to be Alex Bowman’s crew chief. 

— Mike Kelley, who served as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief when Stenhouse won Xfinity titles in 2011 and ’12, returns to the crew chief role with Stenhouse this season at JTG Daugherty Racing. 

Races

— What’s old is new. The All-Star Race moves to North Wilkesboro Speedway in May, marking the first Cup event at that historic track since 1996.

— July 2 marks debut of the street course race in Chicago, marking NASCAR’s first street race for its premier series.

— The spring Atlanta race and playoff Texas race have both been reduced from 500 miles to 400 miles.

Rules

Ross Chastain’s video-game move on the last lap at Martinsville will no longer be allowed, NASCAR announced this week. 

— Stage breaks are gone at the road course events for Cup races. Stage points will be awarded but there will be no caution for the end of the stage.  

— If a wheel comes off a car while on track, it is only a two-race suspension (last year it was four races) for two crew members. The crew chief is no longer suspended for the violation. 

— Cup cars have a new rear section that is intended to absorb more energy in a crash to prevent driver injuries after Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman each missed races last year because of concussion-related symptoms.

— Elton Sawyer is the new vice president of competition for NASCAR. Think of the former driver as the new sheriff in town for the sport.

Achievements 

— With a win this season, Kyle Busch will have at least one Cup victory in 19 consecutive seasons and become the all-time series leader in that category, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.

Denny Hamlin needs two wins to reach 50 career Cup victories. That would tie him with Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 13th on the all-time list. 

Kevin Harvick, running his final Cup season, is 10 starts away from 800 career series starts. That would make him only the 10th driver in Cup history to reach that mark.