Dr. Diandra: The hidden data on accidents and spins at road courses

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Whether fantasy racing or behind the wheel, success requires avoiding drivers who rack up a lot of accidents and spins.

But identifying the drivers involved in the most accidents and spins on road courses is harder than at other types of tracks.

A recent history of cautions

Statisticians usually calculate accidents and spins from the caution list NASCAR releases for each race. The sanctioning body classifies the cause of each caution and which cars were involved.

Cautions are up in 2022 relative to last year. The graph below summarizes numbers and types of accidents through 24 races each season.

A stacked vertical bar chart showing a breakdown of cautions by race and type from 2013-2022 after 24 races
This graph shows the numbers of cautions after 24 races for each season.

I dimmed the competition and stage-end caution bars to highlight what we’ve come to call ‘natural cautions.’ Natural cautions include everything except stage-end and competition cautions.

History exposes trends. For example, the graph shows debris cautions falling from 36 in 2016 to 16 in 2017, when NASCAR introduced the Damaged Vehicle Policy.

The largest cause of cautions in any year are accidents. The 2021 season had the fewest accidents (64) since 1986 — which is how far back I have reliable caution data. We’ve tallied 86 accidents this year.

The 47 spins we’ve had are more than triple last year’s 15 spins. The increase in spins is due to the Next Gen car being harder to drive than the old Gen-6 car. Lack of asymmetry makes the current car much harder to ‘catch’ when it starts to turn.

Although accidents are higher in 2022 than in 2021, they’re lower than 2020, when we had 92 at this point in the season.

Is 2022 really high? Or was 2021 abnormally low?

Road courses are unique

I’m all in favor of NASCAR experimenting with everything from format to schedule — even though their experiments make my job harder. The fewer constants in the data, the more complex the analysis.

The plot below details this year’s cautions by type and race.

A stacked vertical bar chart showing the numbers and types of cautions for the first 24 races in 2022

The Indianapolis road course statistics immediately jumped out at me.

I didn’t need to look up any data to know there was more than one spin in that race. And definitely more than one accident.

Reviewing the race video convinced me that cautions are not an accurate way to measure accidents and spins at road courses. Road courses are long and spread out. Cars can get safely off-track or return to racing after an incident without the need for a caution.

That doesn’t change the fact that there was an incident.

Counting incidents is admittedly subjective. I included only incidents that caused significant position loss or damaged a car enough to force an unscheduled pit stop.

In addition to the incidents on the official caution list, the 2022 Indianapolis road course had:

  • 10 accidents
  • Nine spins
  • Five off-track excursions
  • Two miscellaneous incidents

The one ‘official’ accident, plus the 10 I counted, makes 11 accidents — more than any other track this year. No track has totaled nine spins in one race, either. And the off-track excursions on a road course would be hitting the wall at oval tracks.

I tallied incidents from the other three road courses this year, again based on video.

A table showing the number of Non-caution-causing incidents in 2022

I count 19 accidents and 24 more spins this year than official totals, which makes the increase over 2021 even larger.

Or does it?

Until 2017, the Cup Series visited two road courses each season: Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Uncaptured incidents weren’t as important for two reasons. First, road courses were two races out of 29 or more — from 5.5% to 6.9% of the schedule. Second, the year-to-year variation in the two tracks’ numbers was probably small.

But in 2021, road courses made up 19.4% of the Cup Series schedule.

A table showing how the number of road courses in the Cup Series has changed in recent years

NASCAR replaced four tracks where cautions capture most accidents and spins with four tracks where they weren’t.

The huge increase in spins this year is real. We haven’t had more spins in a season since 2002.

But accident totals are suspect pending going back and counting incidents at road courses in 2021. The drop in accidents from 2020 to 2021 may be due (at least in part) to schedule changes rather than drivers.

Implications for Watkins Glen

The number of uncounted incidents probably doesn’t interest fantasy racers as much as knowing which drivers are most likely to have accidents and spins at road courses.

From my count of incidents at the four road courses run this year, the drivers involved in the most incidents are Bubba Wallace, Ross Chastain, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon and A.J. Allmendinger.

Each was involved in at least five incidents. The number of incidents is greater than the number of races because drivers who have spins or accidents often have more than one in a single race.

Todd Gilliland and Michael McDowell managed to avoid incidents entirely at road courses. Other full-time drivers with minimal road-course-incident involvement include: Martin Truex Jr., Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Justin Haley, Chris Buescher, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Corey LaJoie.

Ryan Blaney, currently vying with Truex for the last playoff position open on points, has four incidents at road courses this year.

How does all this information affect choices for Watkins Glen (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, USA Network)?

Of the list of most-incident-involved drivers, only Chastain has won on a road course this year.

The other three winners are on the least-incident-involved list.

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.