Friday 5: Trackhouse duo completes long road to Cup playoffs

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When the calendar turned three years ago to Jan. 1, Daniel Suarez and Ross Chastain found themselves in much different places.

Chastain wondered if his NASCAR career was over. Suarez hoped to revive his Cup career.

Now teammates at Trackhouse Racing, Chastain and Suarez both prepare for their first Cup playoff appearance. Chastain enters Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m ET on USA Network) ranked third in the points, while Suarez is 13th in the 16-driver field. 

Three years ago, Chastain and Suarez could not have imagined the path that would lead them both to Trackhouse Racing and a chance to win a Cup championship.

After the 2018 season, Chastain looked forward to his first full season in the Xfinity Series with Chip Ganassi Racing. That changed on Dec. 18 when the FBI raided the home of DC Solar CEO Jeff Carpoff and the headquarters of DC Solar, which was to be Chastain’s sponsor. Carpoff was sentenced last November to 30 years in prison and ordered to pay $790.6 million in restitution for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering.

Without a sponsor, Ganassi shut down its Xfinity program before the 2019 season. That left Chastain without a ride.

“From the night I found out the raid happened, which was a day and a half later, to Jan. 2, in my head I was done racing in NASCAR,” Chastain said. 

“In my head, once that was gone, I just never thought I’d have an opportunity like that. I wasn’t mentally ready to go back and run scuffed tires.”

That was his reference to running with another team at the back of the field that couldn’t or didn’t typically pay for a full allotment of new tires, forcing him to run on older tires more in a race. It’s easy to get buried in such rides and never find a ride with a top team.

“Ultimately, I decided to go back and run scuffed tires,” Chastain said. 

He took any ride he could get in 2019, running 77 Cup, Xfinity and Truck races. Since 2006, only Kyle Busch had run more races in a season than Chastain did that year.

Chastain’s determination and performance led him back to Ganassi for the 2021 Cup season. He felt secure there until Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks bought Ganassi’s operation to make Trackhouse a two-car team for this season. Chastain’s anxiety faded when Marks told him he had a place with the team.

That paired Chastain with Suarez for this season. But Suarez’s journey had its roadblocks.

Suarez joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019 when he was let go by Joe Gibbs Racing after two Cup seasons there. While Suarez finished what was then a career-best 17th in the points, it was not enough to stay at SHR. He was replaced by Cole Custer for the 2020 season.

Suarez was left to search for any opportunity. With options limited, he went to Gaunt Brothers Racing, an underfunded team. He didn’t score a top-15 finish that season and was at a crossroads in his career. Rarely do drivers at such teams return to among the elite organizations.

Suarez’s opportunity came when Marks pitched him a concept of what Trackhouse Racing could be. Suarez considered that offer, along with one from a team that had won. He was unsure about the team that had won and went with Marks.

“My father told me I was crazy,” Suarez said. “A few friends from Mexico told me that ‘I’m not sure you’re making the right call.’ Eight months later, they told me, ‘I’m glad you made that call.’ 

“Sometimes you just have to trust your gut a little bit. Justin looked at me in the eyes and said, “You have to trust me on this. We’re going to build something great, and I’m going to be able to give you the opportunity to build a team around,’ something that nobody else allowed me to do before the Cup Series. It makes a huge difference when you have a team for you.”

The result is that Chastain has won twice this year and Suarez has won once, putting both of Trackhouse’s cars in the playoffs. Suarez recently signed a contract extension to remain with Trackhouse through the 2023 season. 

Challenges remain for both — Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch have each questioned if Chastain can win a championship with so many drivers upset by his driving this season, while Suarez has one top-10 finish in his last five starts — but Chastain and Suarez still have a chance for a championship.

“I’m just here to hang on for the ride,” Chastain said.

2. Short track connections

Chase Elliott said Wednesday’s sellout crowd of about 18,000 at North Wilkesboro Speedway for the CARS Tour race that featured Dale Earnhardt Jr., was an “amazing spectacle for short track racing.”

“I think the track needed that,” Elliott said. “I think the series needed that. I think our sport needed that, honestly, just from the sense of what could be. 

“We’re all connected, one way or another, whether it’s short track racing or NASCAR on Sunday, it’s all connected in a way. I just think it was really positive and cool to see that when everybody comes together and wants to support something, they show out like that.”

North Wilkesboro, a 0.625-mile speedway, hosted Cup races from 1949-96. It had largely sat idle other than select events 2010-11 before hosting various races in August. 

Earnhardt’s interest in the track helped on-going efforts to save the speedway.

“I thought for sure it was gone forever. And here we are,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports’ Mike Hembree before competing in Wednesday’s race (Earnhardt finished third).

It’s not just North Wilkesboro Speedway that could have a different future. 

Elliott has been a vocal supporter of Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville. The 0.596-mile track hosted at least one Cup race a year from 1958-84. The Xfinity Series raced there in 1984, ’88, ’89 and from 1995-2000.

Speedway Motorsports, which owns North Wilkesboro Speedway, seeks a deal with the city of Nashville to operate Fairgrounds Speedway and bring NASCAR races to that track.

Elliott competed in an SRX race at Fairgrounds Speedway last year with his Hall of Fame father Bill and noted the electric atmosphere. He said Fairgrounds Speedway could be “one of the, if not the best stop, on our schedule.”

But Elliott knows more must be done to help tracks such as North Wilkesboro and Fairgrounds Speedway.

“It’s really important to talk about these things,” said Elliott, who goes into this year’s Cup playoffs as the No. 1 seed. “And if you care about something, then go out there and support it. 

“And then for the fans, too, it’s more than just chiming in on Twitter and saying that you agree, it’s about going and supporting it. You saw that at Nashville with the SRX race when dad and I were up there racing, you saw that (Wednesday) night with Dale. I think that’s a really powerful statement for short track racing and for our sport.”

3. Feeling better

Denny Hamlin says he’s improving as he recovers from last week’s crash in Daytona that was triggered by a wet track.

“The best way I can describe it is like I got beat up at a bar and somebody was kicking me in the ribs while I was on the ground,” said Hamlin, who was scheduled to compete in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Darlington but is skipping to heal for Sunday’s Southern 500. “That’s really all I can equate it to. The whole right side just felt smashed.

“It was one when I hit the wall for sure, that initial hit to the wall and then somebody came and hit me on the left side. That was another pretty heavy spike as well. I’m not really sure which one did the most damage.”

Drivers have noted this year that they are experiencing harder hits with the new car. Drivers have been more vocal about the impacts since Kurt Busch suffered concussion-like symptoms in late July. 

In years past, teams could make adjustments with particular parts and pieces but with those items coming from vendors, who do the drivers talk to about safety concerns?

“It’s all in the hands of NASCAR,” Hamlin said. “It’s up to them to make sure that all of the drivers are safe and whatever the product they hand us.

“We didn’t design the Next Gen car. We left it in their hands to design it and they farmed it out to these companies to build. Certainly in the old days, we would do things in our own race shop to make them a little better based off the feedback we have, but we just have to wait and see what they hand us.”

Asked if he felt this car is as safe as it could be, Hamlin said: “I’m not really sure. … Certainly it could be better, but anytime you build something that’s more rigid and built to last longer, the softest part, which is your body, is going to take the brunt of it. Right now, that’s where we’re getting beat up.”

4. Kurt Busch update

Kurt Busch will miss his seventh consecutive race this weekend at Darlington, as he continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms suffered in a July 23 crash at Pocono Raceway.

23XI Racing co-owner Denny Hamlin provided an update Thursday.

“He’s getting better and he’s kind of plateaued, which is something he wouldn’t think would happen,” Hamlin said. “He’s gotten to about 80 percent and it’s kind of stayed there. I think the rest is just going to take quite a bit of time.”

There is no timetable for Busch’s return. Ty Gibbs continues to replace Busch.

But with Busch having won at Kansas in May, the No. 45 car is competing for the owner’s championship in the playoffs. 23XI Racing announced this week that Bubba Wallace would move from the No. 23 to the No. 45 car for the playoffs to help that car move as high as possible in the owner points standings. Gibbs goes from the No. 45 to the No. 23 car.

“It’s a lot of heavy lifting to ask Ty at 19 years old to keep it off the fence for 500 miles at Darlington,” Hamlin said of the drivers switching car numbers. “It’s probably going to be a tough ask so we wanted to put our best and most experienced guy out there to give us a chance to continue to move on and up in the standings.”

5. Youngest playoff field 

Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric, who makes his Cup playoff debut Sunday at Darlington, turns 24 Friday.

This year’s 16-driver playoff field is the youngest in the 19 seasons of NASCAR’s playoff system, which started in 2004 with the Chase. 

The average age of this year’s field is 31 years, 0 months, 16 days. Nine of the 16 playoff drivers are in their 20s. They are Cindric (24), William Byron (24), Tyler Reddick (26), Chase Elliott (26), Christopher Bell (27), Chase Briscoe (27), Ryan Blaney (28), Alex Bowman (29) and Ross Chastain (29).

Cindric is the youngest driver in the playoff field. His birthday typically is a low-key event.

“It’s just another day in the year and another tick on the calendar,” said Cindric, who enters the playoffs ranked 14th. “I guess I’m not that excitable when it comes to birthdays.”

But he does remember when he turned 10. His family had a Survivor-themed birthday party that was based on the TV show.

“All of my buddies from school came over and everyone had the bandanas and this and that and had all of the challenges, so we went all-out on the 10th birthday,” Cindric said. 

Some of the memories have faded from that day but Cindric recalled one of the games they did that day.

“I do remember there always used to be the food challenge in Survivor, where you had to eat the gross foods and not throw up,” he said. “I think we did a certain extent of that, not too far, but I do remember one where you had the Oreo on top of your head and you’ve got to get the Oreo in your mouth without using your hands.”

Dr. Diandra: How much does Talladega shake up the playoffs?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for shaking up the playoffs. But how well deserved is that reputation?

Playoff drivers usually view the first race in the second round of the playoffs as the best chance to earn points, earn stage points and maybe even a win given that Talladega is the second race. Now that Texas is in the rear-view mirror, let’s turn our data analysis tools to Talladega.

The shake-up index

Determining how much one race shuffles the playoffs standings requires a simple metric that is applicable to all the years NASCAR has had stages and playoffs. In a rare point of consistency, Talladega has remained the 31st race of the season since 2017, when stage racing started.

After trying a couple different approaches, I finally settled on playoff rankings. These rankings are a zero-sum game. For each driver who moves up a position, another driver must move down.

The first graph is playoff ranking as a function of race for the second playoff segment of 2021. It’s a bit of a mess, but stay with me.

A scatter graph of rank changes to help determine how much shaking-up Talladega actually does

Playoff rank runs along the left side of the graph. The highest ranked driver is at the top and the 12th ranked at the bottom.

The leftmost set of dots shows the rankings coming out of Bristol, after eliminating the lowest four drivers and re-seeding the rest. The second column of dots show the rankings after Las Vegas, which was the first race in the second round in 2021.

Each driver is represented in a different color, with lines connecting his rankings. For example, the dark purple lines show Denny Hamlin rising from third to first over these three races. The light blue lines at the bottom show Alex Bowman plummeting from seventh to 12th.

The messier the lines between two races, the more the playoffs were shaken up. Because it’s hard to quantify “messiness,” I counted each time one driver’s line crossed another driver’s line.

Each crossing indicates two drivers changed places in the rankings. The number of intersections between Bristol and Las Vegas, for example, tells you how much Las Vegas shook up the standings.

Three intersecting lines count as three shake-ups because there are three pairs of drivers crossing.

In 2021, Las Vegas had nine intersections, Talladega 13 and the Roval only five. This seems consistent with our hypothesis that Talladega is the biggest shaker-upper in the second round.

Talladega Timeline

In addition to being only one point, the 2021 Talladega contest poses another problem. Bubba Wallace won the rain-shortened race, which went 311 miles instead of the scheduled 500 miles.

That raises the possibility that 2021 might not be the most representative year for Talladega races. I therefore repeated the analysis going back to 2017. Since we didn’t have stage racing — and thus stage points — before 2017, it doesn’t make sense to compare previous years.

The table below shows the shake-up index from 2017-2021. Note that the first and third races changed from year to year.

A table summarizing the shake-up index for Talladega and other races in the second playoff round from 2017-2021

This five years of data show that Talladega wasn’t always the race that most shook-up this round of playoffs. From 2017-19, Dover and Charlotte held that honor. That’s surprising, especially in 2017. That’s the year 26 of 40 cars failed to finish the Talladega race and NASCAR parked Jimmie Johnson and Matt DiBenedetto.

In 2020, the three races had just about equal shake-up indices.

The Roval has been the third playoff race for only two years. It was equally chaotic with Talladega in terms of affecting the standings in 2020, but less so in 2021. Kansas beat the Roval for switching up the playoff standings twice.

 A caveat for the first race

If you’re surprised to see a larger shake-up for the first race in the second round of the playoffs, you’re not alone.

The 2021 fall Las Vegas race was remarkably uneventful. There were only two DNFs, both non-playoff cars. And one single-car accident that, again, didn’t involve a playoff car. Yet it had a shake-up index of nine.

It turns out that this is a side-effect of the re-seeding protocol.

The graph below shows the same time period as the rankings graph, but reports total points for the top-12 drivers.

A scatter plot showing how points changed for the top-12 playoff drivers in 2021 in the second round of the playoffs

Immediately after re-seeding, the drivers are separated by 57 points from first to 12th. If you omit Kyle Larson’s 30-point lead, the bottom 11 drivers are separated by only 27 points.

Since a driver can earn a maximum of 60 points in a single race, the first race in a round has a lot more impact in changing the standings. In effect, the first race decompresses the re-seeding compression.

After Las Vegas, the 12 playoff drivers were separated by 78 points. After Talladega, the margin grew to 98 points.

The larger numbers for the first races in any round are more due to the re-seeding-induced points compression than to the nature of the track.

Applied to 2022

Drivers don’t have to win at Talladega. They just have to finish ahead of the other playoff drivers. In fact, if a given driver can’t win, the next best case for him is if none of the other playoff drivers win, either.

The largest drop in positions a driver has seen from Talladega is five — and that’s from the rain-shortened 2021 race. On the other hand, drivers have also seen as much as an eight-position gain in the standings following Talladega. That gain was after the 2017 race where more than half the field failed to finish, but at least one driver has come out of the fall Talladega race each of the last four years up at least three positions.

As far as the stats for this year’s second round playoffs so far: Last week’s Texas race had a shake-up index of 14. That’s higher than all but the first year of the stage-racing playoff era.

And the William Byron penalty (which Hendrick Motorsports is contesting) has a shake-up index of seven.

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.