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.

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.