Diandra Leslie-Pelecky

Former physics professor researching nanomaterials and nanomedicine; now applying my teaching skills to racetracks and fast cars. Author: The Physics of NASCAR.

Dr. Diandra: Data points to speed as key to breaking Blaney’s losing streak

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Richmond Raceway presents a chance for Ryan Blaney to break a losing streak that started after his win at the regular-season-ending Daytona race in 2021. A fast scan of his stats suggests Blaney is off to a good start to do just that in 2023.

Despite a poor showing at COTA, where he failed to run any higher than 16th all race, Blaney has a season average finishing position of 12.8. He’s tied with Kevin Harvick for fourth-best average finishing position among full-time drivers.

Blaney finished second at Phoenix, where the new short track aeropackage debuted. But he has not won.

Things look good on the surface

Before getting too worried by Blaney’s drought, remember that the season is only six races old. Two of those six races were superspeedway events, and a third was a road course where running through other cars has become the norm.

With 30 more races in the season, it’s far from time to hit the panic button.

Basic statistics suggest that Blaney is matching (and sometimes beating) his teammate, defending champion Joey Logano. I’ve included the statistics for sophomore driver Austin Cindric in the table below, as well.

A table comparing wins, top-fives and top-tens for Penske drivers

Logano won Atlanta and has two top-five finishes. No driver has more than three top fives thus far. Despite Logano’s win, Blaney’s average finishing position beats Logano’s.

Cindric has two top-10 finishes and an average finish of 16.5. His best finishes are sixth-place finishes at Las Vegas and last week at COTA.

After the National Motorsports Appeals Panel rescinded the 100-point penalty assessed to each Hendrick Motorsports driver and team, Ryan Blaney occupies eighth place in the season points standings.

Things would appear to look good for breaking Blaney’s losing streak this year.

Digging Deeper

But a different pattern emerges upon diving into the loop data. The next table compares more detailed statistics for all three Penske drivers. I’ve highlighted the lowest-scoring driver’s numbers in red for each metric.

A table showing some of the metrics that must be improved for to break Blaney's losing streak

Cindric lags his more experienced teammates in number of laps led, number of fastest laps and number of laps run in the top 15. But in the other stats, Blaney is the third out of three at Penske.

Average running position measures driver performance across all laps of a race, instead of just the last one. Blaney’s best average running position of the season was at Phoenix, with a 7.47. His worst was last week at COTA, where his average running position was 29.28. Apart from Phoenix, Blaney didn’t break the top 10 in average running position at any race this year.

The average speed-on-restarts rank compares a driver’s average speed in the first two laps of each green-flag run to other drivers’ speeds. Blaney ranks 32nd out of 35 full-time drivers in average restart speed rank. That places him behind Logano and Cindric.

Speed early in a run and speed late in a run measure a driver’s speed compared to everyone else on track during the first and last 25% of each green-flag run. In both metrics, Blaney again ranks 32 out of 35.

The fact that top-ranking Penske driver Logano only ranks 12th and 16th in early and late speed respectively suggests that the problem is at least partly company wide.

In overall green-flag speed — the average speed over a full green-flag run — Blaney ranks 29th out of 35. Logano ranks 12th and Cindric 19th.

These numbers identify one challenge that must be overcome to break Blaney’s losing streak.

Year over year

I’ll set aside Cindric’s numbers in this section for the sake of clarity. Blaney’s first six races this year show a large drop-off in most metrics relative to the first six races of 2022. Logano, however, either improved or stayed relatively constant in the same metrics.

In the table below:

  • Green indicates a 10% or better improvement in 2023.
  • Red indicates the 2023 value is at least 10% worse.
  • Black indicates a change (either way) less than 10%.

A table comparing statistics for Blaney and Logano in 2022 and 2023

Blaney has led a little more than 10% of the laps he led in 2022 and has less than half the number of fastest laps. His drop-offs on the speed metrics (the last four rows) are much greater than Logano’s changes.

In 2022, Blaney was beating Logano in all four speed metrics. This year, Logano is ahead.

The Promise of Richmond

The encouraging news to pull from this analysis is that Blaney’s numbers for Phoenix are the best of the 2023 season so far. He ranked seventh in green-flag speed, second in restart rank, eight in early-run speed and fourth in late-run speed. All of that bodes well for a good finish at Richmond.

Blaney won the pole in last spring’s Richmond race and finished seventh. He finished 10th in the fall race after qualifying 10th.

And Blaney himself is optimistic.

“Richmond will be a good gauge of where you stack up – slow, a bunch of mechanical grip, tire conservation,” Blaney said. “So I’m optimistic for it, for sure. I thought we had good cars there last year in both races from the whole team, and I’m excited to get there.”

But breaking Blaney’s losing streak is only the start to a successful season. He must improve his speed metrics at other tracks if he is to contend for a championship.

Dr. Diandra: How to understand COTA pit strategy


Pit strategy has always been key at road courses. But some rules changes this weekend have crew chiefs digging back in the history books to develop their COTA pit strategies.

This week’s race at COTA features:

  • The first running of the short track aero package at road courses
  • A new tire with more falloff
  • The first use of the choose rule at road courses
  • No cautions at stage breaks.

The last of these is likely the most significant. It offers opportunities for the most clever — or most desperate — crew chiefs.

But pit strategy is also one of the more confusing areas to understand.

The setup

The Cup Series race at COTA is 68 laps. Stage 1 ends on Lap 15 and stage 2 on Lap 30. The top-10 drivers at the end of each stage earn stage points. Each stage winner earns a playoff point.

The fuel window, according to NBC’s Steve Letarte, is around 22 to 25 laps. Dividing 68 laps by the number of laps in the fuel window tells you that every car must stop at least twice. NASCAR sets stage lengths so that drivers must make at least one stop during the third stage.

I represented each lap by a box and the fuel run by a bar in the diagram below. The top boxes show the ideal race without stage breaks and the bottom with stage breaks.

A graphic showing the green/yellow flag pattern to illustrate COTA pit strategy

To understand pit strategy, let’s examine how three drivers ran COTA last year: Race winner Ross Chastain, second-place finisher Alex Bowman and fifth-place driver Ryan Blaney.

Chastain chooses track position

Chastain short-pitted, meaning that he pitted while he still had plenty of gas. He pitted a total of three times during the race.

  • Pit stop one was a green flag stop on Lap 13 from eighth place. With stage breaks, pit road closes two laps before stage end, so that’s the last possible chance to pit in the stage.
  • Chastain made a second green flag stop on Lap 28, again two laps before stage end. Chastain had been running second and came off pit road running eighth.
  • His last pit stop was Lap 42, due to an unexpected caution. Chastain was leading coming into the pits. Because it’s hard to lose a lap at a road track the size of COTA, he kept the lead.

Chastain earned 40 points for winning and three points from stage two, for a total of 43 points. He also earned five all-important playoff points for the win.

Bowman’s strategy

Bowman started fifth and also made three pit stops.

  • Bowman earned eight stage points running third as stage one ended. He pitted after the stage. He started the second stage in 21st, behind all the cars that pitted before the stage ended.
  • He was running 15th as the end of stage 2 neared. Because he wasn’t going to earn any stage points, he pitted early.
  • Like Chastain, Bowman took advantage of the Lap 42 caution to pit for the third time in the race.

Bowman earned 35 points for finishing second, but those eight stage points brought him up to 43 points — the same total as Chastain, but without the five playoff points.

The stage break conundrum

Those examples of 2022 COTA pit strategy illustrate the primary disadvantage of stage breaks at road courses. Crew chiefs must choose stage points or track position. As my colleague Dustin Long points out, 48.3% of drivers who finished in the top 10 in Cup road course races last year did not score points in either of the first two stages.

No road course winner in 2022 scored more than 47 points (Daniel Suárez) out of the maximum 60 points.

The other disadvantage of stage breaks is that they allow for limited strategies. Crew chiefs can mostly guess what the other crew chiefs are planning to do.

Letarte envisions the possibility of a COTA race with limited cautions.

“There’s an opportunity to not have a lot of yellows,” he said in the video above this story, “so I think this race has a chance to be won by the absolute fastest car and not double-file restarts and not those other things.”

The Texas two-stop

With no stage breaks, crew chiefs are preparing multiple COTA pit strategies for everything from 68 green flag laps to lots of cautions.

COTA can be run in two pit stops, but only Ryan Blaney did that last year. He finished sixth.

I graphically compare Blaney’s COTA pit strategy last year with the other two approaches in the diagram below. Note that everyone took advantage of the first caution in Stage 3 that would let them finish the race without pitting again.

A graphic comparison of COTA pit strategies from 2022 for Alex Bowman, Ryan Blaney and Ross ChastainAlthough Blaney earned 32 points from his sixth-place finish, he left COTA with 47 points because of the stage points he collected. That’s the most points any driver earned at COTA.

Here’s one more motivation to minimize pit stops: Every time a car pulls onto pit road, it creates opportunities for mistakes and penalties. While a driver might gain positions, he could also lose them.

Don’t expect everyone to go with the Texas two-stop, however.

“If you and I don’t qualify in the top-15,” Letarte said in the MotorMouths video. “I’m not waiting for the first pit stop. I’m pitting you about Lap 17… and all I’m doing is playing the game of ‘something else.’ Sometimes you have to do ‘something else’ and hope you get a yellow.”

Here is a look at how the strategy played out in last year’s race in video form:A video showing pit strategy graphically


Dr. Diandra: With Chase Elliott out, these are the best Next Gen road racers


The Next Gen racecar is the ideal vehicle for road course racers. With none of the asymmetry of previous car generations — vehicles optimized for only turning left — the new car upended the road course pecking order.

Road course ace Chase Elliott will watch this season’s first road course race from the sideline while recovering from a fractured left leg.

Elliott has won seven of the 25 Cup Series road courses races he’s run, giving him a win rate of 28.0%. That’s a little more than one win in every four races. He posts top-10 finishes 68.0% of the time.

In 2022, Elliott:

  • led the most laps (121) at road courses
  • led four of the six road course races
  • led the most laps at three of the six road course races

But he didn’t win any of them.

Tyler Reddick won on two road courses, including his first Cup Series win on the way to a three-win season. Ross Chastain, Daniel Suárez, Kyle Larson, and Christopher Bell each won one race.

Winning isn’t everything… but it’s a start

The unusually high number of spins and tire/wheel issues last year means that finishes don’t always reflect how well a driver ran.

For example: Elliott led most of the first two stages at Sonoma but had to back up during a mid-race pit stop to retighten a wheel. His average running position was 2.2 before the glitch and 15.9 after. He finished eighth.

Despite not winning in 2022, Elliott still tied for the best average finishing position on road courses. The graph below shows all drivers with average finishing positions below 12 in 2022.

A vertical bar chart showing the most consistent Next Gen road course racers

Of last year’s road course winners, only Reddick and Bell make the graph.

  • Three finishes outside the top 20 drop Chastain’s average finish to 16.7.
  • Sonoma winner Suárez had three top-five finishes and three finishes of 24th and worse for an average finish of 16.5.
  • Although Larson finished third at Road America and won Watkins Glen, his other four finishes were 29th or worse. That averages out to 19.7.

That’s not to say these drivers aren’t contenders for a win at any road course race. But I’m more interested in the most consistent Next Gen road course racers.

Only four drivers have average finishing positions under 10: Elliott, Reddick, Chris Buescher and Austin Cindric. Michael McDowell is fifth on the list, 1.3 positions back from Reddick. Bell is 0.7 positions behind McDowell.

Going beyond averages

To gain insight, I examined driver finishes by track, as shown in the graph below. Average positions are represented by gray bars, with symbols showing individual race finishes.

A scatter plot showing 2022 road course finishes by race for 2022's best Next Gen road racers
Symbols overlaps when a driver had two finishes in the same place. For example, Tyler Reddick won twice, so the two symbols are overlaid.

This graph shows, for example, that Elliott had four top 10s and two finishes out of the top 15. Buescher had the same average finishing position but had five top 10s and one 21st-place finish.

Given the issues the new car introduced, this graph suggested that I give each driver a mulligan. So I also calculated the average of each driver’s best five road course races and summarized them in the table below.

A table comparing average finishes for 2022's best next-gen road course racers

Let’s look a little deeper into three of these drivers.

Chris Buescher

Buescher won the fall Bristol race and his name always comes up when talking superspeedways.

But the Next Gen car improved Buescher’s average road course finish by 3.1 positions relative to 2021. Buescher not only matches Chase Elliott’s average finish but beats Elliott in number of top-10 finishes.

If we throw out both drivers’ worst finishes — a 21st-place at COTA for Buescher and Elliott’s P20 at the Roval — Buescher beats Elliott in average finish position.

Austin Cindric

Cindric won four road courses in the Xfinity Series and posted the third-best average finish at road courses in his first Cup Series season. His 2022 performance included four top-10 finishes on the first four road courses of the season.

But even excluding his 21st-place finish at the Roval, Cindric remains ranked behind Elliott and Buescher.

Like Buescher, Cindric’s average running position is significantly higher than his average finishing position. That raises the interesting question of whether drivers advancing last year did so because they were better in the Next Gen car, or because other drivers had trouble.

Tyler Reddick

Reddick finished 35th at Sonoma last year, 13 laps down. He had been running consistently in the top six before requiring a brake repair.

But Sonoma was Reddick’s only misstep. His other five road course finishes were all top 10s, including two wins. Excluding the Sonoma finish gives Reddick a 4.4 average finishing position for 2022 road courses — the best of any driver.

Reddick’s move from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI raises some questions about how his 2023 road course performance will compare with 2022. Excepting last week at Atlanta where an ailing Reddick finished fifth, Reddick has finished the same or worse than last year. And that’s with an additional year of experience in the Next Gen car.

It’s just as hard to predict winners this year as it was last year. But if you’re looking for drivers who can reliably finish in the top 10, these are the best choices.

Dr. Diandra: Atlanta a chance for Trackhouse to regain momentum


Today’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway is a chance for Trackhouse Racing to regain the momentum it lost last week.

Daniel Suárez entered Phoenix with three top-10 finishes, including one top five. He incurred multiple speeding penalties at Phoenix: He sped on pit road. He then had to make a pass-through lap and sped doing that (he cited a mistake with the team’s pit road calculation). Although Suárez fought his way back to the lead lap, he finished 22nd.

Ross Chastain had two top 10s and a 12th-place finish — and led the standings. Chastain ran sixth approaching the last restart, but found himself in the wrong place, which was anywhere near Denny Hamlin. Chastain finished 24th.

In addition to Trackhouse regaining its momentum, a win could also slow Hendrick Motorsports’ charge.

And a Trackhouse win would make five out of five wins for Chevy.

Trackhouse’s best Next Gen superspeedway

My last post highlighted underdogs with the potential for a strong finish at Atlanta. In overall average finish at superspeedways in 2022, Chastain ranks sixth and Suárez ninth.

But superspeedways are not created equal.

Atlanta features the same type of pack racing as Daytona and Talladega — but Atlanta is a full mile shorter. Everything happens faster. Drivers don’t have the time to think and plan that long straightaways allow.

In addition to requiring more from the driver, a car that works at the larger speedways might not handle well enough for Atlanta. Balance is much more important this weekend.

Those differences play right into Trackhouse’s strengths.

The graph below shows drivers’ average finishes at Atlanta in yellow and at Talladega & Daytona in blue. The graph only covers 2022 because that’s all the data we have for the Next Gen car. I included only drivers with a 15.5 or better average at Atlanta.

A two-bar chart comparing the average finishes of drivers at Atlanta relative to those at Daytona and Atlanta

Chastain and Suárez post average finishes around 20 at Daytona and Talladega. When it comes to Atlanta, however, Chastain and Suárez are first and second with average finishes of 2.0 and 5.0.

Chastain finished second in the spring and summer races at the revamped track. Those finishes are despite being involved in two accidents in each race. Suárez finished fourth at the first race and sixth at the second.

Trackhouse fields fast cars at Atlanta. Chastain qualified second at the second race and seventh at the first. Suárez qualified 13th at the first race and seventh at the second.

But speed isn’t the only factor. Despite being involved in accidents, both drivers completed both races. They also gained (or didn’t lose) positions during the last 10% of each race.

The competition

Chastain and Suárez aren’t the only drivers seeking to regain momentum at Atlanta.

It’s difficult to quantify how much of a threat Kyle Busch is because he changed teams this year. He had an average finish of 26.5 last year at Atlanta with Joe Gibbs Racing, but a brilliant run at this year’s Daytona 500.

If you’re wondering about Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr., he has an average finish of 31.0 at Atlanta, with DNFs at both races.

Trackhouse’s biggest competition at Atlanta comes from Hendrick Motorsports. Trackhouse consistently placed just behind HMS last year at Atlanta.

  • William Byron, who enters Atlanta with two consecutive wins, won the first Atlanta race in 2022.
  • Chase Elliott won the second.
  • Chastain led the second-most laps at the first Atlanta race. Byron led the most.
  • Chastain led the third-most laps at the second Atlanta race. Elliott let the most, followed by Byron.
  • Suárez’s 46 points at the spring race is tied (with Ryan Blaney) for the third-most points earned at any Atlanta race in 2022.
    • Chase Elliott holds first place with a perfect 60-point race.
    • William Byron holds second with 52 points.

But 2023 presents new circumstances. Last year at this time, neither Chastain nor Suárez had ever won a Cup Series race.

This year, Elliott won’t race Atlanta due to a fractured left leg. His substitute, Josh Berry, earned his first top-10 last week. But Berry has only two races worth of experience in the Next Gen car. None are at superspeedways. He finished 33rd and second in the Xfinity Series last year at Atlanta.

Alex Bowman comes into Atlanta with an average finish of 21.0 at the track, while Kyle Larson‘s average is 21.5. Their 2022 average finishes at Talladega/Daytona are 15.7 and 22.75 respectively.

With Elliott out, Byron is the highest-ranking HMS driver in terms of average finish at Atlanta with a 15.5. In addition to the spring win, a crash relegated him to a 30th-place finish in the summer race.

But Louvergate puts the HMS drivers at a further disadvantage. Their crew chiefs are serving four-week suspensions, although HMS has appealed the penalties. Hendrick has a deep bench, but any disruption introduces the opportunity for hiccups.

This year, Trackhouse has one major advantage over Byron in this race: No driver wants Byron to win. It’s better for everyone if no driver accumulates too many points, stage points or playoff points. Chase Elliott proved that last year.

But winning at Atlanta requires the Trackhouse drivers to address issues that have plagued them in previous seasons.

Suárez has a history of speeding penalties and a knack for incurring them too late in the race to recover. Getting a pass-through penalty at Atlanta likely means losing multiple laps if a driver has to serve it under green conditions.

Chastain’s aggressive driving has made enemies. Chastain lost 18 positions following last week’s altercation with Hamlin. But even a driver choosing not to work with Chastain can send him to the back quickly.

Dr. Diandra: Don’t overlook these underdogs at Atlanta


In 2022, Atlanta Motor Speedway joined the list of tracks that Cup Series underdogs circle on their calendars. The increased banking and use of the Daytona/Talladega rules package made Atlanta race more like a superspeedway.

Some might balk at calling a 1.5-mile track a superspeedway. At the old Atlanta, grip limited how fast cars could go. The new Atlanta track is closer to drag limited, like the original superspeedways.

MORE: NASCAR issues severe penalties to Hendrick Motorsports

At drag-limited tracks, cars don’t have enough power to overcome their own drag at high speeds. This limit gives rise to pack racing, which requires a different skill set than other tracks.

Superspeedways and underdogs

Underdog talk picks up around superspeedways because of the perception that “anyone” can win at these tracks. But many of us give underdogs a higher probability of winning than they actually have.

Consider, for example, the winners of the six 2022 superspeedway races.

A table showing the winners from all superspeedway races in 2022

Austin Cindric definitely qualifies as an underdog. Ross Chastain was a quasi-underdog when he won Talladega — he had already won at COTA earlier in the year. The same goes for Austin Dillon, who is usually a contender at superspeedways.

Using the most liberal definition, underdogs won half the superspeedway races in the table. But even a three-in-six chance is better odds than at most other tracks.

The graph below shows active full-time drivers with average finishing positions less than 20 for last year’s six superspeedway races.

A vertical bar chart showing the drivers with the best average finishes in the six superspeedway races of 2022

A vertical bar chart showing the drivers with the best average finishes in the six superspeedway races of 2022

They’re not all underdogs. For example: Kyle Busch’s performance in the first four races of the year disqualifies him.

But driving for a well-established team doesn’t preclude one from being an underdog at Atlanta. With Chevrolet winning four out of four races this year, driving a Ford or Toyota confers underdog points.

Two promising quasi-underdogs

Neither Ryan Blaney nor Martin Truex Jr. has won a points race in the Next Gen car — at any kind of track. Blaney squeaked his way into the 2022 playoffs while Truex missed it entirely.

Blaney has an average finish of 12.3 for the first four races of the season, which includes an eighth-place finish at Daytona. Truex has an average finish of 12.5, with only one top 10 (at Las Vegas). He finished 15th at Daytona this year. But Blaney is much less of an underdog than Truex.

Four of Blaney’s eight career wins came at superspeedways. He has the best average finishing position of any driver at superspeedways in 2022 with a 9.0 and a worst finish of 17th.

Truex has 31 career wins but has never won a superspeedway race. He’s got two second-place finishes, but no checkered flags.

Atlanta might be the place where one of these two drivers — underdogs or not — can finally stop answering questions about when they’re going to win.

Three true underdogs

Bubba Wallace is an underdog with an advantage: He is good at superspeedways, with one win and three second-place finishes. Like Blaney, he didn’t finish lower than 17th at any superspeedway in 2022.

But 2023 has not started well for the No. 23 team. Wallace has only one top-five finish (at Las Vegas) and two finishes of 20th or worse. He crashed out at Daytona and retired due to engine trouble at Fontana.

Last week, a 37-second pit stop dropped him from 11th to 21st. That puts his average finish at 17.0 for the year. Atlanta offers Wallace a chance to shift his season onto a better trajectory.

Erik Jones won the summer race at Daytona in 2018, so we know he can compete at superspeedways, too. But Legacy Motor Club has started 2023 with a whimper. Jones’ best finish is 19th. Accidents knocked him out of two of the four races.

The only laps Jones led this year were last week at Phoenix, when he stayed out during green-flag pit stops. A win at Atlanta would be a great backdrop for co-owner Jimmie Johnson returning to race next week at COTA.

Aric Almirola has had a similarly frustrating start to the 2023 season with DNFs at the first two races and a best finish of 16th. He has, however, won two superspeedway races. His average superspeedway finish in 2022 was 13.8 in the Next Gen car. That’s better than his 18.3 average pre-Next Gen.

Almirola will be at a disadvantage at Atlanta: A loose-wheel penalty from Phoenix will bench two of his pit crew for the next two races.

Cindric, McDowell, Haley: Long-shot underdogs at Atlanta

Cindric has the second-highest average finishing position at superspeedways in 2022. That’s not just because he won the Daytona 500 that year.

Cindric had top-10 finishes in the last three superspeedway races last year. He was running around 10th place in this year’s Daytona 500 until a crash. If he can avoid accidents, Cindric’s got a good shot at a strong finish and maybe even Penske’s first win of the season.

Michael McDowell didn’t win the 2021 Daytona 500 by luck. He’s got 12 top-10 finishes at superspeedways while running for decidedly underfunded teams.

McDowell first partnered with owner Bob Jenkins in 2018. Since then, he has a mean finish of 18.2. That puts him ahead of Kyle Larson (23.2), Brad Keselowski (21.4) and Busch (20.6).

Justin Haley won a rain-shortened summer Daytona race in 2019 before he was even a full-time Cup Series driver. He’s the longest of these three long shots, but he’s got a 16.1 career average at superspeedways, the same as his average for 2022. And he’ll need the points after this week’s penalty for modifying his car’s louvers at Phoenix.

I didn’t mention the Trackhouse drivers, who both appear on the graph. I’ll focus Sunday’s column on them.