Dr. Diandra: Next Gen success depended on experience: More wasn’t better

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The Next Gen car’s introduction in 2022 challenged everyone. But more experience wasn’t better when it came to the final season ranking, the number of top-10 finishes or the average finish position.

Ranking 2022

I compared drivers’ 2022 season-ending rank to their 2021 numbers, including only drivers who ran all 36 races in both seasons.

In the graph below, drivers with the largest drop in rank are toward the left in red. Drivers with the largest improvements are toward the right in blue.

A bar chart showing changes in drivers' season rank for 2022 compared with 2021

Brad Keselowski suffered the largest drop, down 18 positions. But Keselowski also changed teams from Penske — home of this year’s champion — to RFK, which won its first race since 2017 this year.

Martin Truex Jr. fell 15 positions. Toyota got off to a slow start, in part due to fielding fewer cars than the other manufacturers. Truex got the worst of it, following up last year’s second-place finish with a 17th-place season — and no wins.

Kevin Harvick broke a 65-race winless streak but finished 15th, 10 positions down from last year’s fifth-place finish.

While Michael McDowell had a career-best year, not making the playoffs automatically lowered his ranking relative to 2021. Defending champion Kyle Larson finished sixth this year after what he called an “up-and-down” season.

If some drivers fall in the standings, others must rise.

Trackhouse Racing led the way in improvements. Ross Chastain earned his first two career wins on the way to making the largest gain in positions at 18.  Teammate Daniel Suárez, had the second-best improvement with a jump of 15 positions.

Chase Briscoe, in his second year at Stewart Haas Racing, went from 23rd to ninth, an improvement of 14 positions. Christopher Bell rose nine positions relative to 2021, and Joey Logano improved by seven positions.

Experience proves a negative

The most-improved drivers at Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing were their most-junior drivers. At Team Penske, the oldest driver not only improved the most but won the championship.

Then again, Penske’s oldest driver is only 32.

Much has been made of NASCAR’s “youth movement,” but age doesn’t measure experience. Logano and Austin Dillon were born one month apart, but Logano has run 507 Cup Series races, while Dillon has run 336.

So instead of plotting changes in rank as a function of age, I plot them as a function of how many Cup Series races each driver totaled as of the end of this season. I again put gains in blue and losses in red.

A scatter graph showing changes in rank as a function of number of races run as of the end of 2022

Only 19 drivers qualified for inclusion, but I argue that there’s a clear trend from the lower right to the upper left of the graph. The drivers with the most Cup Series experience had the largest decreases in rank.

  • With the exception of Logano, no driver with more than 365 races under his belt improved his ranking relative to last year.
  • No driver who has run fewer than 275 races lost more than one position in his season rankings. Of the two drivers in this group who each lost a single position:
    • Tyler Reddick had eight DNFs in 2022 compared with two in 2021.
    • Ryan Blaney went winless, which made matching his three-win 2021 record a challenge.
  • The top four gainers in rank have a total of 548 races between them. Suárez is the most experienced of these four drivers with 216 races run.
  • The top four losers in rank have run a combined 2,357 races. Harvick alone has run more races than all four top gainers combined.

Top-10 and average finishes support the trend

The playoff’s elimination format skews the final season rankings. So I examined top-10 finishes — and found the same results.

A scatter graph showing changes in number of top 10 finishes from 2021 to 2022 as a function of number of races run as of the end of 2022. The results show that more experience isn't always better.

More-experienced drivers had fewer top-10 finishes this year than last. Even Logano had two fewer top-10 finishes this year than last year.

  • No driver with more than 470 races earned more top-10 finishes this year than last year.
  • Trackhouse Racing again led the way.
    • Chastain went from eight top-10 finishes in 2021 to 21 in 2022, notching the biggest improvement with 13.
    • Suárez had nine more top 10s, increasing from four to 13.
  • Briscoe, McDowell and Erik Jones each earned seven more top 10s this year than last year.

Bubba Wallace isn’t on the graph because he missed one race in 2022. Nevertheless, he also earned seven more top 10s this year — while running one fewer race.

The data for changes in average finish reinforce the trend: More experience wasn’t better when it came to the Next Gen car.

But the converse isn’t true. Some less-experienced drivers improved while others didn’t.

Will the trend continue in 2023?

Veterans — Denny Hamlin in particular — improved as the season went on. This trend may just be a question of drivers needing to break old habits that don’t work in the new car.

I’ll be watching 2023 to see if the old guard springs back or if some of these drivers decide its time to hang up their firesuits.

 

Dr. Diandra: Strategies in making Clash picks

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Crew chiefs must develop their approach to today’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum using only last year’s data, plus this year’s practice and qualifying.

Fans wagering (for fun and/or profit) must contend with the same lack of data as they make their Clash picks.

The shortest regular-season track is a half mile. A quarter-mile track is a different beast, even with a year’s worth of Next Gen experience.

“Last year everything was brand-new – the track, the format and the car,” Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott, said in a team release. “We’ll have a little bit better of an idea of what we’re going for this time around, but the track is so unique that even with going there last year, we’re still learning.”

As are the fans.

There are a few changes to keep in mind as you make your Clash picks.

NASCAR increased the field from 23 cars to 27. With 36 drivers entered, only nine will miss the Clash. Even without points on the line, no one wants to head home before the main event’s green flag.

Last year, equipment failures caused four out of five DNFs in the main race. Expect fewer mechanical issues this year.

But perhaps more aggression.

Don’t pay too much attention to practice

Last year’s practice times showed no correlation with Clash performance. Eventual winner Joey Logano finished practice last year with the 26th fastest lap — also known as the 11th-slowest lap. But he qualified fourth.

This year, despite losing about 40 hp to mufflers, Martin Truex Jr. set a fastest lap of 13.361 seconds. Truex’s lap beats last year’s best practice lap time of 13.455 seconds, set by Chase Elliott.

Although only seven-tenths of a second separate the fastest practice lap and the slowest, the change is far from linear.

A graph showing practice times for the Busch Light Clash field

  • The top 11 drivers are separated by just 0.048 seconds out of a 13- to 14-second lap
  • Brad Keselowski, who didn’t make the race last year, had the third slowest practice time.
  • Tyler Reddick ran the most total practice laps with 117. He was followed by Kevin Harvick (116), and Noah Gragson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., both of whom made 115 laps.
  • Most drivers ran their best times in their first or second session. Austin Dillon, however, ran his best time on lap 109 of 112.
  • The top three in practice also had the three best 10-lap averages.

Qualifying is the key to good Clash picks

Last year, qualifying position correlated well with driver finish in the Clash. If your driver qualified on the front two rows for his heat race, last year’s results suggest that the only thing keeping him from making tonight’s Clash is an accident or mechanical failure.

That’s bad news for Ty Gibbs, who wasn’t allowed to qualify and will start in the back of the field. It’s also a negative for Ryan Blaney, who posted a 40-second lap, however, Blaney has a shot at the provisional and Gibbs doesn’t.

The heat races are only 25 laps, which doesn’t leave much time for passing. Heat race starting position is highly correlated to heat race finishing position.

  • Last year, the pole-sitter for each of the four heat races held the lead for the entire race.
  • Of the 12 drivers starting in the top three for each heat race, nine drivers — 75% — finished in the top three.
  • Only the top-four finishers of each heat race advanced last year. This year, the top five move on. Last year, 16 of the 25 drivers (64%) starting in positions one through five finished in the top five of their heat races.
  • No driver who started a heat race from ninth finished better than sixth. That’s not encouraging news for Blaney and Gibbs, among others.

That means Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron are pretty much guaranteed locks for a good starting spot in the Clash.

The 20 drivers who qualified in the top five for their heat race have a very high probability of making it through to the main — and of finishing well there.

As was the case last year, practice showed little correlation with qualifying. Martin Truex Jr. qualified 22nd despite posting the best practice time.

The Last Chance Qualifiers

Three drivers from each of the two last chance qualifiers fill out the final rows of the Clash starting grid. Last year, drivers were more aggressive in these 50-lap races than the first four heats.

Again, the closer to the front a driver starts, the better his chance of making the race. Last year, both pole-sitters finished in the top three and advanced.

The last chance qualifiers are long enough for a driver starting in the rear to make it to the front. Last year, Ty Dillon came from 10th place to win the second race. He was subsequently disqualified for jumping the final restart and Harrison Burton, who had started seventh, advanced. If you’re looking for long-shot Clash picks, don’t count the back of the field entirely out.

The Big Show

Last year, the 150-lap main had five lead changes and five cautions.

  • Of last year’s four heat-race winners, two finished in positions one and two, while the other two didn’t finish the race.
  • Of the six drivers who advanced from the last chance qualifiers, none finished higher than A.J. Allmendinger in ninth.
  • Allmendinger tied with Erik Jones for most spots gained. Jones started 16th and finished fourth.
  • Excluding drivers who failed to finish the race, Danial Suárez had the biggest position loss, starting fifth and finishing 14th.

If you want to avoid the frontrunners, you might want to keep an eye on Aric Almirola, who qualified fifth, and had the seventh best 10-lap average run during practice. Austin Dillon didn’t put together a strong 10-lap run, but his team found something in the last minutes of practice that allowed him to go from finishing practice in 22nd to qualifying sixth.

And although Bubba Wallace qualified 16th, he ranked first in runs of 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 laps. He was second in five-lap speed.

Good luck with your Clash picks!

NASCAR Sunday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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It’s race day for the NASCAR Cup Series.

The Clash at the Coliseum will open the 2023 season for NASCAR on Sunday with the featured 150-lap race scheduled for 8 p.m. ET at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The field for the non-points race will be set by a series of heat and last chance races Sunday afternoon. The top five finishers in each of four 25-lap heat races will advance to the feature, and the top three finishers in two 50-lap last chance races will join the grid.

Joey Logano won last year’s Clash as it moved from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to the Coliseum.

The Cup Series regular season is scheduled to begin Feb. 19 with the Daytona 500.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Sunday: Partly cloudy with a high of 64 degrees in the afternoon and no chance of rain. It is expected to be sunny with a high of 62 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the Clash.

Sunday, Feb. 5

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. Sunday – 12:30 a.m. Monday — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 5 – 5:45 p.m. — Four heat races (25 laps; Fox, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 6:10 – 6:35 p.m. — Two last chance qualifying races (50 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8 p.m. — Feature race (150 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.