Friday 5: Letting the chaos theory play out at Talladega


No matter the preparation, the best plan often is no plan when racing at Talladega Superspeedway. That likely will be the case again on Sunday when the Cup Series races there.

“(Speedway) racing is very much kind of this living, breathing, chaos theory,” Brad Keselowski, who has won six Talladega Cup races, told NBC Sports.

“There’s been races I’ve won where no way I win that race if I didn’t catch break this, break this, break this in sequence. You’re like, ‘That’s a one in a million shot.’

“There’s been races that I’ve lost where I can’t believe that one move happened three cars behind me that I couldn’t control that’s never happened before and it completely changed everything. All my planning, all my practice, there was no way to block it, there was nothing I could have done different and you’re frustrated by that.

“Really, you’re left just putting yourself in the scenario and then letting the chaos theory play out and hopeful that it plays out to your favor and not your disadvantage.”

Don’t get the sense that Keselowski is complaining about how random racing at Talladega, Daytona and now Atlanta can be. He’s just noting that a driver is trying to control something that is difficult to control.

“That’s what driving a race car is and leading a pack at Daytona and Talladega or Atlanta … you’re trying to control a whole field that’s not meant to be controlled, that doesn’t want to be controlled,” said Keselowski, who scored his first Cup win in 2009 at this track and also has won at Talladega in 2012, ’14, ’16, ’17 and ’21.

Trying to control the field is difficult enough but is more challenging as speedway racing evolves. Chase Elliott, who won at Talladega last fall in the playoffs, notes how that race was different last year with the field unable to create a third lane of racing. That left two lanes and made it more difficult for those further back to move through the field since the option of going to a third lane wasn’t viable.

“I think there’s probably even more thinking involved as we’ve seen these races kind of change … the way they look and track position has become so important,” Elliott said. “There’s not really a third lane option now with these cars. We saw that at Talladega in the fall last year. We had really good track position all day.

“Then we look at Daytona, this season at the 500, heck, you just couldn’t go anywhere. The lanes get side-by-side and they get stacked up and the third lane is just too sketchy, you almost have to tandem to do that.

“These cars aren’t just locked to the ground like the cars were when they were actually tandem drafting, and it ends up falling apart. Not having that third lane forces guys to be side-by-side … and kind of jockey for position all day. It puts a lot of emphasis on track position, your pit stop cycles, and it makes you think about where you are on the track from the start of the race because I don’t think you’re going to go from 15th to the lead in the last 20 laps unless you get lucky on a wreck or something.”

Joey Logano has found himself in the right position at the right time this season. The two-time Cup champion finished second in the Daytona 500 and won at Atlanta this season, passing Keselowski on the last lap for the victory.

His feelings on racing at those types of tracks?

“It’s a love-hate relationship,” Logano told NBC Sports. “You love it when it goes well and it’s actually a lot of fun. … If you have a good car and things are going right and you can race up in the lead lead and you don’t wreck, you get out of the car and go, ‘That’s kind of fun. I kind of enjoyed that.’

“When you wreck and it hurts, you’re like, ‘This sucks. I don’t want to do this crap. This is the worst.’”

Logano notes that winning a speedway race has a different feel because of the intensity of the racing.

“If you ran the whole race, leading the whole race, and you win you’re like, ‘Whew, thank God we won that one because we were supposed to win that,’ but at a speedway, it’s so intense to the last second. There’s never a relaxed moment. So they just feel different.”

2. Significant wins

Hendrick Motorsports scored a significant sweep when Kyle Larson won last weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

Hendrick drivers have won this season at Phoenix, Martinsville and Las Vegas — tracks that will host arguably the most important playoff races of the season.

Phoenix hosts the championship race. Martinsville is the final chance for playoff drivers to make the Championship Four at Phoenix. Las Vegas is the first race a driver can qualify for the Championship Four at Phoenix.

Joey Logano won at Las Vegas last year. He and his Team Penske crew didn’t have to worry about the next two races and could focus on the championship race, which he won. Both of Logano’s championships have come after he won the opening race of the next-to-last round.

While Hendrick was not dominant at Martinsville last weekend — Larson led 30 laps on the way to the victory — Hendrick cars were the best at Las Vegas and Phoenix.

William Byron won at Las Vegas, leading 176 laps. Hendrick drivers combined to lead 241 of 271 laps (88.9% of the race). Hendrick cars finished 1-2-3 that day with Byron, Larson and Alex Bowman.

Byron won the following week at Phoenix and again Hendrick cars were strong, leading 265 of 317 laps (83.6%). All four Hendrick cars finished in the top 10.

Last year, Ross Chastain finished in the top five at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Martinsville early in the season and went on to reach the title race at Phoenix, finishing second to Logano for the crown.

Larson has scored top fives in each of those races this season, winning at Martinsville, finishing second at Las Vegas and fourth at Phoenix. His average finish in those races was 2.3.

Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Larson, said a focus was put on those three tracks at Hendrick Motorsports after how the organization performed last year.

“We as a company didn’t perform as well as we needed to in the fall,” Daniels said. “We certainly got beat by at least two organizations that I can think of just outright, forget strategy, forget anything else. They just had better and faster cars than we did.

“So, yes, we did circle Phoenix specifically over the winter, and we kind of assembled a group back at the shop to help us attack some of these tracks in the specific areas that we knew we were deficient. So big shout out and credit to those guys back at the shop, those guys and gals. … Vegas last fall, all of our cars didn’t run great. Obviously, I spoke on Phoenix.

“(Martinsville has) been hit-or-miss for us, and it was kind of that way (Sunday), too. Kind of hit-or-miss from what you saw. So we have identified all those races, the keystones that they are, to your point, for the playoffs and tried to make an effort for what those are.”

In the first nine races of this season, Hendrick cars have won four times. Larson and Byron rank first and second in laps led. They’ve combined to lead 853 of 2,385 laps (35.8%) and won seven stages (five by Byron and two by Larson).

Jeff Andrews, president and general manager at Hendrick Motorsports, says more work remains for the organization.

“I wouldn’t consider us dominant,” he said after the Martinsville victory. “I don’t think there’s anybody at Hendrick Motorsports right now that has that comfort level or that feeling. … We need to run and perform like this in the latter half of the summer, early part of the fall. That’s when it really starts to count.”

3. Overlooked moment

It was easy to miss, but the final 20 laps of the first stage in last weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway proved key to the finish. Here’s how.

Leader Ryan Preece put Joey Logano a lap down on Lap 57. By Lap 60, Preece was on the bumper of Ross Chastain to put him a lap down. For the final 20 laps of the stage, Chastain held off Preece. By doing so, Logano got the free pass to get back on the lead lap.

So, why didn’t Preece get by Chastain?

“I could have been more aggressive and really moved him, but at that point you put yourself in a position that you get moved back, and I did have some room,” Preece said with Logano behind him and then the second-place car of Aric Almirola.

That was key, having Logano between the first- and second-place cars. Logano was doing everything he could to stay there, along with cheering for Chastain to not get lapped so Logano could still get the free pass.

“I was the biggest Ross Chastain fan,” Logano said.

With Preece not forcing the issue to get by Chastain, Logano worked to keep Almirola behind him so Almirola couldn’t pressure Preece.

“I thought at that point, Preece probably isn’t going to put the bumper to (Chastain) if second place isn’t putting pressure on him,” Logano told NBC Sports. “So at that point, my job became to block second (Almirola) to make sure Preece didn’t get that pressure because as soon as Preece felt that pressure, he was going to move Ross. That was my only fighting chance for the lucky dog there.”

It worked.

Logano was put a lap down at Lap 275 but got his lap back as the field pitted under green. He was among the few who had yet to pit when the caution came out for a tire from Anthony Alfredo’s car on the track. That put him in position to finish second. Had he not gotten his lap back in the first stage, his path to the runner-up spot would have been more challenging.

4. Kyle Busch’s long wait

Kyle Busch’s lone Talladega Cup victory came in April 2008.

Should he win Sunday, it would mark the most number of races between victories at Talladega. Busch has run 28 Talladega races since that win there 15 years ago.

Here is a look at the most Cup starts between wins at Talladega:

20 — Dale Earnhardt Jr. (won Oct. 3, 2004 & May 3, 2015)

16 — Richard Petty (won Aug. 11, 1974 & May 1, 1983)

15 — Terry Labonte (won July 30, 1989 & Oct. 12, 1997)

14 — Bobby Allison (won Aug. 22, 1971 & May 6, 1979)

13 — Dale Jarrett (won Oct. 11, 1998 & Oct. 2, 2005)

Should Busch win Sunday at Talladega, scoring a victory 28 races since a previous win at the same track would rank third on the all-time list in Cup for any track.

Here are the leaders for most starts between wins at a track:

45 — Terry Labonte (Darlington – won Sept. 1, 1980 & Aug. 31, 2003)

34 — Ricky Rudd (Richmond – won Feb. 26, 1984 & Sept. 8, 2001)

26 — Mark Martin (Darlington – won Sept. 5, 1993 & May 9, 2009)

26 — Jeff Gordon (Michigan – won June 10, 2001 & Aug. 17, 2014)

26 — Jeff Gordon (Dover – June 3, 2001 & Sept. 28, 2014)

26 —Matt Kenseth (Phoenix – Nov. 11, 2002 & Nov. 12, 2017)

26 — Kevin Harvick (Atlanta – March 11, 2001 & Feb. 25, 2018)

Busch has one points victory at Daytona, which came in July 2008. He nearly snapped that drought in February. He was leading on Lap 200, the scheduled distance of the Daytona 500, but the race went into overtime and Busch was collected in a crash and finished 19th.

5. 800 for Kevin Harvick

Sunday marks Kevin Harvick’s 800th career Cup start. He becomes only the 10th driver in Cup history to start at least 800 races.

Here are the drivers with 800 or more Cup starts:

1,185 — Richard Petty

906 — Ricky Rudd

890 — Terry Labonte

883 — Dave Marcis

882 — Mark Martin

829 — Kyle Petty

828 — Bill Elliott

809 — Darrell Waltrip

805 — Jeff Gordon

Harvick is scheduled to pass Gordon at Sonoma in June and pass Waltrip at New Hampshire in July.

Harvick has 1,272 career starts combined in NASCAR’s top three series — Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. That total ranks first in NASCAR history. Harvick’s 121 combined wins across NASCAR’s three national series ranks third all-time.

Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to track

MORE: Dr. Diandra: 600 tests man more than machine

And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”







Dr. Diandra: Charlotte’s 600 miles test man more than machine


This weekend’s 600-mile outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s longest race. It’s the ultimate stock car challenge: not just making a car fast but making it fast for a long time.

Although 600 miles is nowhere near the 3,300-plus miles in the 24 Hours of LeMans, the pace is similar. Most of NASCAR’s 600-mile races run between four and five hours.

The 1960 World 600 set the record for this race, requiring five hours, 34 minutes, and six seconds to complete — and it had only eight cautions. The second longest race, the very next year, ran 12 minutes shorter than the previous year’s outing.

The longest race in the modern era (1972 to present) happened in 2005. That race took five hours, 13 minutes, and 52 seconds to complete and set a record for cautions with 22.

Last year’s event was the second-longest modern-era race. With four fewer cautions than 2005, the 2022 race took just 44 seconds less to complete.

The field for the 1960 race included 60 cars. Only 18 of those cars (30%) crossed the finish line.

NASCAR disqualified six drivers for making illegal entrances to pit road. The reasons for the remaining 36 DNFs reads like an inventory of car parts, from “A-frame” to “valve.”

The number of cars failing to finish the race decreased significantly over the years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not uncommon for 50-70% of the field to drop out of the race before its end. As the graph below shows, the DNF rate is now in the range of 10-30%.

A bar chart shows how DNFs have decreased over time and turned the the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

Last year — the first year of the Next Gen car — had an abnormally high 46% DNF rate. That doesn’t signify a problem with car reliability.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Increased car reliability makes people more important

Racecar evolution has changed the nature of NASCAR’s longest race. The car have become so reliable that Charlotte’s 600-mile race is now more a test of drivers than their cars.

“All of the components in the car are pretty standard,” Chase Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “So you just want to make sure you have it all in good condition and dot all your I’s and cross your T’s.”

That wasn’t how it used to be. Kevin Harvick remembers that drivers used to be warned to take care of their equipment early so it would last until the end.

“The engine guys freak out because you have to go an extra 100 miles, but the parts and stuff on the car are a lot more durable than they used to be,” Harvick said. “Back in the day, it was ‘take care of the motor.’ ”

Drivers worry much less about their car’s engine today. The graph below shows how DNFs due to engine failure have decreased since NASCAR started running 600-mile races.

A bar chart shows that engine failures have gone from 50-70% to 10-30%, turning the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

In 1966, more than half the field lost an engine during the race. Only six cars have retired due to engine failure in the last five years.

While cars are more reliable, their drivers are still human. Crash-related DNFs (crashes, failure to beat the DVP clock and inability to meet maximum speed) show no clear trend over time.

A bar chart shows how the number of DNFs due to crashes doesn't show any overall trend with time

Typically, between five to 10% of the cars starting a race will fail to finish due to an accident rather than a mechanical failure. Last year’s race was an exception, setting a record for the largest fraction of the field taken out by crashes since the 600-miler began.

It’s only one data point as far as 600-mile races are concerned. It is, however, indicative of a trend observed since the Next Gen car debuted. The car is so sturdy that contact is no longer the deterrent it used to be.

Man versus machine

NASCAR’s only 600-mile outing has become an endurance race for humans. Drivers draw upon research in hydration, nutrition and fitness, hoping to create an advantage by preparation and conditioning.

“As a driver,” Daniel Suárez said, “your goal is to be as fresh at the end of the race as you are at the beginning. It isn’t about making it to the end of the race. It’s about being at your best at the end and taking advantage of other drivers who are tired.”

Harrison Burton, who ran his first 600-mile race last year, was surprised by how taxing that extra stage was.

“I figured it’s only 100 more miles than 500 and we do that fairly frequently and didn’t think it would be that different,” Burton said, “but for whatever reason when that fourth stage starts it’s definitely daunting.

Burton also noted that last year’s Coca-Cola 600 was the first time he got hungry during a race.

“It’s actually a really important race to have something to snack on in the car during the race,” Ross Chastain said. “I typically have some sort of protein bar that I can eat during a stage break just to try and keep my stamina up.”

The driver isn’t the only one whose mental acumen gets tested during the Coca-Cola 600. Crew chiefs and pit crews must work at peak form for a longer time.

“There’s more pit stops, there’s more restarts, there’s more strategy calls and there’s more laps,” Gustafson said. “There’s more everything.”

That means more opportunities to make mistakes or lose focus — or to take advantage of other drivers who do.

Alex Bowman confident as he returns to racing from back injury


CONCORD, N.C. — Alex Bowman watched the rain-filled skies over Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday with more than a touch of disappointment.

As weather threatened to cancel Saturday night’s scheduled NASCAR Cup Series practice at the speedway, Bowman saw his chances to testing his car — and his body — dissolving in the raindrops. NASCAR ultimately cancelled practice and qualifying because of rain.

MORE: Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup practice, qualifying

Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car accident last month and has missed three Cup races while he recovers. Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the season’s longest race, is scheduled to mark his return to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It would have been really nice to kickstart that with practice today,” Bowman said. “I haven’t raced or competitively driven a race car in a month. I’m trying to understand where my rusty areas are going to be and where I’m still good.”

Bowman ran 200 laps in a test season at North Wilkesboro Speedway this week, but, of course, that doesn’t compare with the faster speeds and tougher G-forces he’ll experience over 400 laps Sunday at CMS.

Bowman admitted that he is still experiencing pain from the back injury — his car flipped several times — and that he expects some pain during the race. But he said he is confident he’ll be OK and that the longer race distance won’t be an issue.

“I broke my back a month ago, and there’s definitely things that come along with that for a long time,” he said. “I have some discomfort here and there and there are things I do that don’t feel good. That’s just part of it. It’s stuff I’ll have to deal with. But, for the most part, I’m back to normal.

“I’m easing back into being in the gym. I’m trying to be smart with things. If I twist the wrong way, sometimes it hurts. In the race car at the end of a six-hour race, I’m probably not going to be the best.”

The sprint car crash interrupted what had been a fine seasonal start for Bowman. Although winless, he had three top fives and six top 10s in the first 10 races.

“I’m excited to be back,” Bowman said. “Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off and be strong right out of the gate.”

He said he hopes to return to short-track racing but not in the near future.

“Someday I want to get back in a sprint car or midget,” he said. “I felt like we were just getting rolling in a sprint car. That night we were pretty fast. Definitely a bummer there. That’s something I really want to conquer and be competitive at in the World of Outlaws or High Limits races. Somebody I’ll get back to that. It’s probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time for a bit.”




Charlotte NASCAR Cup Series starting lineup: Rain cancels qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — William Byron and Kevin Harvick will start Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the front row after wet weather cancelled Saturday night qualifying.

Rain pelted the CMS area much of the day Saturday, and NASCAR announced at 3:45 p.m. that Cup practice and qualifying, scheduled for Saturday night, had been cancelled.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to cockpit

The starting field was set by the NASCAR rulebook.

Following Byron and Harvick in the starting top 10 will be Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The elimination of the practice session was particularly problematic for Alex Bowman, scheduled to return to racing Sunday after missing three weeks with a back injury, and Jimmie Johnson, who will be starting only his third race this year. Johnson will start 37th — last in the field.

Charlotte Cup starting lineup