Dr. Diandra: The best Next Gen superspeedway drivers

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The best superspeedway drivers understand the draft. Their spotters anticipate trouble and opportunity, and their crew chiefs provide cars that handle well enough to deal with both.

Saturday night’s race at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock) will determine the last of the 16 drivers who will compete for the 2022 championship.

I examine how this race will differ from February’s Daytona 500. Using data from 2022 superspeedway races at Daytona, Talladega and Atlanta, I identify which drivers have the best shot at that last playoff spot.

Summer in Daytona

Daytona has a different character in the summer. More grip produces higher speeds and a faster pace, as Alex Bowman’s crew chief Greg Ives told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” this week.

“When the pace is higher,” Ives said, “your ability to make passes gets lower because everybody starts to handle better. You’re not lifting as much, so getting those runs and just making passes is a little more difficult.”

A second factor crew chiefs must consider is the high probability of thunderstorms.

Rain has shortened the 400-mile summer race twice in the last 10 years. Aric Almirola and Justin Haley earned their first career wins at those races.

Rain or shine, Daytona hosts more first-time Cup Series career winners than any other track. Erik Jones (2018) and William Byron (2020) made their first trips to Victory Lane at summer Daytona races.

Rain could affect qualifying, but qualifying is much less important at superspeedways. Last summer’s race had an average of 55 passes per lap. With that much shuffling, there’s almost no correlation between starting position and finishing position.

The graph below shows the starting positions of the last 10 summer Daytona race winners. The colors identify where the winner started the race. Hatch marks indicate involvement in an accident or spin, and asterisks note years without qualifying.

A vertical bar chart showing where Daytona summer winners started the race

In the last 10 summer races:

  • The polesitter won only once: Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2015.
  • Five winners came from the top-10 starting positions.
  • One race winner started from P15.
  • The remaining three winners started outside the top 20.

While winning the pole demonstrates you have a fast car, sheer speed isn’t the key to winning at Daytona. Of the nine polesitters who didn’t win:

  • Four had race-ending accidents. Four more were involved in incidents that hampered their finishes.
  • Only Kevin Harvick, the 2020 polesitter, escaped involvement in accidents and spins. He finished 20th.
  • Not counting Earnhardt’s win, the best finish by a polesitter was Matt Kenseth’s third place, in 2012.
  • The other eight polesitters all finished outside the top five. Six of those eight finished P20 or worse.

With this being the final race of the regular season, expect drivers to take risks, especially toward the end of the race. Of the last 10 Daytona summer races, seven went into overtime and four ended under caution. The races that finished under green were decided by 0.159 of a second or less.

MORE: NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

The Big One — a crash that involves a large fraction of the field — is virtually inevitable. In the last 10 summer Daytona races, from 16% to 50% of the field failed to finish the race. With 37 cars on the preliminary entry list this weekend, those percentages project between six and 20 cars in the garage before the race ends.

Only 12 cars failed to finish the Daytona 500. But drivers have gained a lot more experience with the Next Gen car since then. Twenty-five races into the season, they understand better what the car can and can’t do. Given the stakes, expect the DNF numbers to skew toward the high side.

Strong superspeedways finishers

The Next Gen car has made such a difference for some drivers their career stats may be irrelevant. The graph below shows changes in average finishes at superspeedways from 2021 to 2022.

A bar chart comparing drivers' 2022 superspeedway average finish with their average finish in 2021

Red bars indicate the driver’s performance is worse this year than last. Blue bars show improvement. I’ve arranged the drivers in order of amount of change from worst on the left to best on the right.

Among drivers whose finish positions are worse this year than last:

  • Austin Dillon has the largest decline in performance, with a net change of 14.5 positions. He had DNFs at both Atlanta races due to accidents.
  • Three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin finished an average of 13 positions worse than 2021.
  • Harvick’s average finish was worse by 10.5 positions.

Among drivers performing better on superspeedways this year than last:

  • Martin Truex Jr.’s average finishing position improved by 15 positions: from 24.25 to 9.25.
  • Bowman improved by 10.75 positions, Daniel Suárez by 10.5, and Almirola by 10.25 positions.

The best superspeedway drivers in 2022

Fifteen winless drivers within the top 30 in points are eligible for the last championship slot. If none of them wins this weekend, the last playoff spot comes down to a points battle between Truex and Ryan Blaney.

Chase Elliott has the best superspeedway average finish this year at 6.0, which includes his win at Atlanta in July.

The two drivers with the next best average finish on superspeedways are Truex and Blaney at 9.25.

Truex has never won at a superspeedway. According to Racing Insights, his 69 superspeedway races without a win are the most among active drivers.

Although Truex has finished outside the top 10 in 10 of his last 12 Daytona starts, he won two stages in this year’s Daytona 500. Damage to his right front fender after being caught up in Tyler Reddick’s spin relegated him to a 13th-place finish. Truex also led laps at three of this year’s four superspeedway races.

Truex’s challenge is that there will be only six Toyotas on track. He has a lower probability of finding drafting partners than Ford or Chevy drivers.

Blaney won this race last year — and Ford drivers have won the last three Daytona races. Blaney won one stage at Atlanta and led laps at all four superspeedway races in 2022.

Among the other winless drivers this season, Bubba Wallace has the next best average finish on superspeedways: 11.5. He finished second at the Daytona 500. His frustration at finishing second at Michigan shows how much he wants to win.

Almirola, Jones and Michael McDowell round out the winless drivers with superspeedway average finishes better than 14.

Every driver already in the playoffs wants to win this race. If they can’t win themselves, it’s an advantage for them to have a weaker driver in the playoffs than either Blaney or Truex.

The strategy of self-interest could make for unlikely alliances.  Watch for those alliances to form and dissolve Saturday night.

Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

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The 2023 NASCAR season will begin with Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the second race on a purpose-built track inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Although a non-points race, last year’s Clash generated intense interest as NASCAR moved the event from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to Los Angeles. The race was rated a success and opened doors for the possibility of future races in stadium environments.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

MORE: Toyota looking to expand NASCAR presence

Year Two will find drivers competing on a familiar landscape but still with a track freshly paved. Last year’s racing surface was removed after the Clash.

Drivers to watch Sunday at Los Angeles:

FRONTRUNNERS

Joey Logano

  • Points position: Finished 2022 as Cup champion
  • Last three races: Won at Phoenix, 6th at Martinsville, 18th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Won in 2022

Logano put bookends on 2022 by winning the first Clash at the Coliseum and the season’s final race at Phoenix to win the Cup championship. He’ll be among the favorites Sunday.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 2nd in 2022
  • Last three races: 3rd at Phoenix, 4th at Martinsville, 2nd at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Did not qualify last year

Chastain was the breakout star of 2022, winning a pair of races and generally putting himself front and center across much of the year. Can he start 2023 on a big note? If so, he will have to do so without replicating his Hail Melon move at Martinsville after NASCAR outlawed the move Tuesday.

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 15th in 2022
  • Last three races: 5th at Phoenix, 16th at Martinsville, 8th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 10th in 2022

Sunday will begin the final roundup for Harvick, who has said this season will be his last as a full-time Cup driver. He is likely to come out of the gate with fire in his eyes.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 13th in 2022
  • Last three races: 7th at Phoenix, 29th at Martinsville, 9th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 2nd in 2022

Welcome to Kyle Busch’s Brave New World. After 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he begins a new segment of his career with Richard Childress Racing. He led 64 laps at last year’s Clash but couldn’t catch Joey Logano at the end.

Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 14th in 2022
  • Last three races: 23rd at Phoenix, 35th at Martinsville, 35th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 21st in 2022

Reddick ran surprisingly strong in last year’s Clash, leading 51 laps before parking with drivetrain issues. He starts the new year with a new ride — at 23XI Racing.

Ty Gibbs

  • Points position: Won Xfinity Series championship in 2022
  • Last three (Cup) races: 19th at Martinsville, 22nd at Homestead, 22nd at Las Vegas
  • Past at Clash: Did not compete in 2022

After a successful — and controversial — Xfinity season, Gibbs moves up to Cup full-time with his grandfather’s team. Will he be the brash young kid of 2022 or a steadier driver in Season One in Cup?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interstate Batteries extends sponsorship with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Interstate Batteries, which has been a Joe Gibbs Racing sponsor since the team’s first race, has expanded its involvement with the team for 2023.

Interstate, based in Dallas, will be a primary JGR sponsor for 13 races, up from six races, the number it typically sponsored each year since 2008.

Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs will run the majority of Interstate’s sponsorship races, but Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. also will carry the sponsor colors.

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

“We’re extremely proud of our partnership with our founding sponsor, Interstate Batteries,” said team owner Joe Gibbs in a statement released by the team. “They have been such an important part of our team for over three decades now, and it’s exciting to have them on board all four of our cars this season. The best part of our partnership is the relationships we’ve built with everyone there over the years.”

Bell will carry Interstate sponsorship in Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the All-Star Race May 21, the Coca-Cola 600 May 28, at Texas Motor Speedway Sept. 24 and at Martinsville Oct. 29.

Gibbs, in his first full season in Cup racing, will be sponsored by Interstate at Daytona Feb. 19, Bristol April 9, Nashville June 25, Chicago July 2, Texas Sept. 24 and Charlotte Oct. 8.

Hamlin will ride with Interstate sponsorship March 26 at Circuit of the Americas, and Truex will be sponsored by Interstate July 23 at Pocono.

Interstate was a key JGR sponsor in the team’s first season in 1992.

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023 season

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR announced a series of rule changes for the 2023 season that includes outlawing the move Ross Chastain made at Martinsville and eliminating stage breaks at all six Cup road course events.

NASCAR announced the changes in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

Among new things for this season:

  • Updated penalty for a wheel coming off a car.
  • Change to the amount of time teams have to repair cars on pit road via the Damaged Vehicle Policy.
  • Change to playoff eligibility for drivers.
  • Cars could run in wet weather conditions on short ovals.
  • Expansion of the restart zone on a trial basis.
  • Choose rule will be in place for more races.

MORE: Ranking top 10 moments at the Clash

NASCAR updated its policy on a loose wheel. Previously, if a wheel came off a car during an event, it would be a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two pit crew members. That has changed this year.

If a wheel comes off a car while the vehicle is still on pit road, the vehicle restarts at the tail end of the field. If a wheel comes off a vehicle while it is on pit road under green-flag conditions, it is a pass-thru penalty.

The rule changes once a vehicle has left pit road and loses a wheel.

Any vehicle that loses a wheel on the track will be penalized two laps and have two pit crew members suspended for two races. The suspensions will go to those most responsible for the wheel coming off. This change takes away a suspension to the crew chief. The policy is the same for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

With some pit crew members working multiple series, the suspension is only for that series. So, if a pit crew member is suspended two races in the Xfinity Series for a wheel coming off, they can still work the Cup race the following day.

The Damaged Vehicle Policy clock will be 7 minutes this season. It had been six minutes last year and was increased to 10 minutes during the playoffs. After talking with teams, NASCAR has settled on seven minutes for teams to make repairs on pit road or be eliminated. Teams can replace toe links on pit road but not control arms. Teams also are not permitted to have specialized repair tools in the pits.

NASCAR will have a wet weather package for select oval tracks: the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Lucas Oil Raceway Park, Martinsville, Milwaukee, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix and Richmond.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said that teams have been told to show up at these events prepared for wet weather conditions as they would at a road course. That includes having a windshield wiper. Wet weather tires will be available. 

“Our goal here is to get back to racing as soon as possible,” Swayer said. “… If there’s an opportunity for us to get some cars or trucks on the racetrack and speed up that (track-drying) process and we can get back to racing, that’s what our goal is. We don’t want to be racing in full-blown rain (at those tracks) and we’ve got spray like we would on a road course.”

NASCAR stated that it is removing the requirement that a winning driver be in the top 30 in points in Cup or top 20 in Xfinity or Trucks to become eligible for the playoffs. As long as a driver is competing full-time — or has a waiver for the races they missed, a win will make them playoff eligible.

With the consultation of drivers, NASCAR is expanding the restart zone to give the leader more room to take off. NASCAR said it will evaluate if to keep this in place after the Atlanta race in March.

NASCAR stated the choose rule will be in effect for superspeedways and dirt races.

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR will do away with stage breaks in all six Cup road course races and select Xfinity and Truck races this season, but teams will continue to score stage points. 

NASCAR announced the change Tuesday in a session with reporters at the NASCAR R&D Center. 

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR stated there will be no stage breaks in the Cup road course events at Circuit of the Americas (March 26), Sonoma (June 11), Chicago street course (July 2), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13), Watkins Glen (Aug. 20) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8).

There will be no stage breaks for Xfinity races at Circuit of the Americas (March 25), Sonoma (June 10), Chicago street course (July 1), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 12), Watkins Glen (Aug. 19) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7).

There will be no stage breaks for the Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas (March 25).

In those races, stage points will be awarded on a designated lap, but there will be no green-and-checkered flag and the racing will continue.

The only road course events that will have stage breaks will be Xfinity standalone races at Portland (June 3) and Road America (July 29) and the Truck standalone race at Mid-Ohio (July 8). Those events will keep stage breaks because they have non-live pit stops — where the field comes down pit road together and positions cannot be gained or lost provided the stop is completed in the prescribed time by NASCAR.

NASCAR has faced questions from fans and competitors about stage breaks during road course races because those breaks alter strategy in a more defined manner than on most ovals.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said the move away from stage breaks at road courses was made in collaboration with teams and response from fans.

“When we introduced stage racing … we took an element of strategy away from the event,” Sawyer. “Felt this (change) would bring some new storylines (in an event).”

NASCAR instituted stage breaks and stage points for the 2017 season and has kept the system in place since. NASCAR awards a playoff point to the stage winner along with 10 points. The top 10 at the end of a stage score points.

It wasn’t uncommon for many teams to elect to pit before the first stage in a road course race and eschew points to put themselves in better track position for the final two stages. By pitting early, they would be behind those who stayed out to collect the stage points. At the stage break, those who had yet to pit would do so, allowing those who stopped before the break to leapfrog back to the front.