Dr. Diandra: Predicting Kansas contenders

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Last week, I developed an algorithm to predict the first four drivers to be knocked out of the playoffs. Since we have to wait two races before evaluating how well that algorithm worked, let’s try something else.

Let’s try predicting the contenders in today’s Cup playoff race a Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on USA Network).

Predicting Kansas with only one Kansas race

Picking drivers based on only May’s Kansas race won’t give us very robust results. So we’ll add a couple of comparable tracks that have already hosted a race this year.

The track most similar to Kansas is Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Both are 1.5-mile, D-shaped tracks with low tire wear. Las Vegas has progressive banking between 18 and 20 degrees while Kansas’s banking ranges from 17 to 20 degrees.

The other track is Michigan International Speedway. Kansas and Michigan share the same shape and level of tire wear. They’re different lengths, but only by a half-mile. The corner banking at Michigan is 18 degrees, similar to Kansas’s turns.

That makes our sample data the May Kansas race, Michigan and Las Vegas.

I weighted averages to make the Kansas data equal to the other two tracks combined. Basically, I added Kansas twice and Michigan and Las Vegas once and divided by four. When I refer to average finishing position or average running position for the dataset, I mean the weighted averages.

I developed the algorithm using the same techniques I described before, but valued winning a little more here. I used the driver’s average finish over the last five races to capture momentum. For reference, all drivers but one have average finishes of 10th or worse in their last five races.

The top three contenders

No one will be surprised to see Kyle Larson at the top of my list. He’s at the top of a lot of lists. The graph of weighted finishing positions below shows his 3.25 average finishing position. That’s half the average finishing position of the second-place driver, Martin Truex Jr.

A vertical bar chart showing the weighted average finish for drivers at 2022 Kansas, Las Vegas and Michigan races

Larson enters Kansas confident, but realistic about the level of competition he expects from Toyota.

“I’m sure they’ll get the pole,” Larson said. “I’m sure they’ll be in the hunt all race long. It’ll be tough, but they can be beat, for sure.”

Larson is one of only three drivers to have top-10 finishes at all three tracks. The other two are Truex and Alex Bowman. Although Larson didn’t win any of the three races, he put up a fierce battle with eventual winner Kurt Busch at Kansas in May. He also led 7.6% of all laps run at these three tracks this year.

Drivers two and three score well behind Larson, but very close to each other.

Although Christopher Bell had a DNF at Michigan, he still had the fifth best average running position for that race. Bell led 13.5% of laps at the three tracks in 2022, the second highest total of any driver. And he’s one of only two drivers to lead laps at all three tracks this year.

Denny Hamlin has the second-best average finishing position in his last five races at 10.8. That boosted him to third place in the Kansas prediction list. Despite not finishing the Las Vegas race due to a drivetrain problem, Hamlin led 9.3% of all possible laps at the three target races.

The last of the top six Kansas predictions

The final three drivers are tightly grouped in score, but below Bell and Hamlin.

Ross Chastain takes fourth place. He’s led the most laps of any driver (15.7%) at our three-track sample. He also led each one of the three races we’re considering. Bell is the only other driver who’s done that.

“It’s pretty wild that our wins have not come on 1.5-mile tracks,” Chastain said, “because I feel like those have been our strongest races.”

Strongest or not, Chastain’s position on the list isn’t higher because his average finishing position for the last five races is 23.2. That’s the worst of any of the top-nine drivers the algorithm identified.

Las Vegas winner Alex Bowman comes in fifth, with a 7.0 average finish position. Although he had a series of P30+ finishes in the middle of the season, his average finishing in the last five races is 13.4. He’s also one of the three drivers to have top-10 finishes at all three races in the sample.

No. 6 on my list is Kevin Harvick. Aside from winning Michigan, he doesn’t have a single standout stat like the other drivers. Just solid numbers in every metric. If he can channel last week’s frustration into a strong run, he just might solidify his spot in the next round of the playoffs this Sunday (3 p.m. ET on USA Network.)

Other drivers

With the second-highest average finish at the sample tracks, how did Truex rank only seventh? He finished in the top 10 in all three races, but never cracked the top five. He only led one lap between all three tracks. But if you’re looking for a driver to run top 10, he’s a solid choice.

Joey Logano is on a hot streak with the best last-five-race average (5.8). But his average finishing position at these tracks is 13.0, with zero laps led.

Chase Elliott, who had a disappointing 36th-place finish at Darlington, has a 19.5 average finish at the three comparable tracks this year.

Chase Briscoe and Daniel Suárez have average finishes of 25.8 and 32.0 respectively. While Suárez has shown improvement since his Sonoma win, his average finishing position at the last five races is still only 18.2.

Kansas predicts tires for the playoffs

Goodyear continues to develop the 18-inch Next Gen tire. Just as teams have learned a lot about the car during the season, so have the tire engineers.

They’ve changed the construction and the tread compounds for Kansas relative to the May race. The right-side tire code was run at Pocono and Michigan, but the left-side is new.

Texas and Las Vegas are scheduled to use the same tire codes. So in addition to points, teams will scramble to gather tire data in the hopes they’ll be able to use it to their advantage in the fourth and seventh playoff races.

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.