Hailie Deegan focuses on present, while Ford looks toward her future


The head of Ford’s motorsports program said he’s “expecting a lot” from Hailie Deegan this year, and if she performs well in the Camping World Truck Series, “we would expect that she would go into Xfinity for 2023.”

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports, made the comments Monday about the 20-year-old Deegan, who begins her second year in the Truck Series with David Gilliland Racing. The Truck season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona.

Should Deegan move up to a full-time ride in the Xfinity Series next year, she would be the first female to have a full-time ride in that series since Danica Patrick in 2012.  

Deegan’s immediate focus, though, is Friday’s Michelin Pilot Challenge at Daytona International Speedway on Peacock. She will partner with Chase Briscoe. They’ll drive a Mustang GT4 for PR Racing in the four-hour event the day before the start of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Harrison Burton and Austin Cindric will a second PR Racing entry in the race.

MORE: Why are fewer NASCAR drivers racing Rolex 24?

“I think it’s just going to be a good experience to be able to get seat time,” Deegan said of Friday’s race. “I feel that’s one thing that I’ve really buckled down and said for this 2022 year that I just need to get as much seat time as I can, whether it’s in dirt, circle track stuff, whatever I can drive.”

Deegan discovered last year in the Truck Series, as did other rookies in NASCAR’s top three series, how challenging it can be without practice at most events. Her rookie season in the Truck Series saw modest results. She had one top-10 finish in 22 starts. 

“I would say last year it took me probably twice as long as it would normally just to get comfortable and to figure out the ropes in the Truck Series, just for the sole fact that there was no practice my first time,” she said. 

Even so, Rushbrook said Ford officials saw progress in Deegan last year.

“We did see as we went back to tracks for the second time she was performing a lot better, so I think this year she’ll be a lot more comfortable in the truck,” Rushbrook said.  

Deegan says she seeks to build off last year’s experience. 

“I feel like we definitely did get that solid base last season, even if it did take longer,” she said. “To be able to go into this season, into 2022, and be better right off the bat, not have to work up to things and just the practice side of things this year, will be able to help me now that I know the changes that we need to make to the truck and really know how to affect the truck — to be able to make those decisions during practice in the short amount of time span that we do have.”

The Truck Series will have extended practice this year at eight of its 23 races: Daytona, Atlanta, Bristol dirt, Knoxville, Sonoma, Mid-Ohio, Nashville and the Phoenix season finale.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150 - Qualifying
Hailie Deegan returns to David Gilliland Racing for a second season in the Truck Series. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Deegan also looks to the new Ford F-150 Truck this season to accelerate her progress.

“I’m hoping that is going to help out a lot,” she said. “It seems like from the data that they have, it looks to be a lot better, so I think we’re going to go out there and be a lot more competitive as a whole team.  

“From a team standpoint, we do have a lot of the same guys back on my program that were there last year. I felt like they were really good. I feel like we mesh really well and built a good relationship.”

As she looks ahead to this season, she has a few races she’s looking forward to run.

“I’d say one I’m excited for is Sonoma, just because I’ve raced there before in the K&N Series and qualified on the pole, so I know it’s possible for me to do good there,” she said. “I would say that’s one I’m excited for.  

“As far as redeeming myself, I would say that would have to be the Bristol dirt track (a 19th-place finish). …  Now that I have race there, I’m going to set my truck up a lot different than I did the last time.  

“I feel like there are two ways to set up your truck for that race. You either have it really good at the beginning or really good at the end, and I had mine really good at the beginning and we weren’t there at the end.”

Her season might include more than this week’s race and the Truck Series. She competed in select SRX races last summer and could do so again.

“I talked to Ray (Evernham) and Tony (Stewart) last year and they said they would love to have me back, which is great to be able to hear that that opportunity is still there to come back and race in that series,” Deegan said. “That would be an awesome thing to do, so I’m kind of just waiting on their end, trying to figure out what the game plan is what races I’d be available to race.”


23XI Racing bolsters competition side


23XI Racing announced multiple hires to its competition side Tuesday as it expands to a two-car Cup program next season with Bubba Wallace and the incoming Kurt Busch.

The organization finalized its crew chief lineup. Billy Scott has been named crew chief for Kurt Busch and the new No. 45 team, while Bootie Barker has been elevated to full-time crew chief for Bubba Wallace and the No. 23 team.

Scott and Busch worked together at Stewart-Haas Racing during the 2018 season. Busch finished seventh in points on the strength of one win and 22 top-10 finishes.

Scott’s career as a crew chief includes stints working with Clint Bowyer, Danica Patrick and Daniel Suarez. He most recently worked with Richard Childress Racing as its head of race engineering.

“The chemistry Billy and I had together a few years back at (Stewart Haas Racing) was strong,” Busch said in a team release. “We raced smart and built solid consistency with each other. That showed with the results and the fun the team had together.

“Winning races is what it’s all about, and our past experiences will help build the future at 23XI.”

Barker took over as Wallace’s crew chief in September at Bristol Motor Speedway. The duo scored a rain-shortened win at Talladega Superspeedway.

The victory made Wallace the first Black driver to win a Cup race since 1963.

“Bootie and I clicked from the start,” Wallace said in the same release. “He’s been a great addition to the No. 23 team and in just the short time he’s been the crew chief, he’s helped me on and off the track to
be better every time I get in the car.

“To get the win together at Talladega, the first win for both of us, was really special. I’m excited to continue to build this team with Bootie and to see what we can accomplish together next season. I’m pumped to get the year started at the LA Coliseum and then head to Daytona for the Daytona 500.”

23XI also announced other additions to its staff, including race engineers and car chiefs for both the No. 23 and No. 45 teams.

However, the most notable name belongs to Dave Rogers, who is now 23XI’s performance director. He recently won the Xfinity Series title as crew chief for Daniel Hemric at Joe Gibbs Racing.

The other hires include:

  • David Bryant – No. 45 car chief (comes from Chip Ganassi Racing)
  • Etienne Cliche – No. 23 race engineer (current 23XI employee)
  • Mike Lorusso – Director, race team operation (comes from Joe Gibbs Racing)
  • Zach Marquardt – No. 23 car chief (comes from Roush Fenway Racing)
  • Julian Pena – No. 45 race engineer (current 23XI employee)
  • Steve Wolfe – Assembly manager (comes from Chip Ganassi Racing)

Analysis: Intriguing fits for five open Cup Series seats prior to 2022

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Top Cup Series rides at Team Penske, Wood Brothers Racing and Roush Fenway Racing are now accounted for, but there are still rides available for the 2022 season. With a slew of interesting free agent options on the open market, let’s take a look at the most likely choices to fill vacant seats and, in a bit of matchmaking, identify intriguing fits between drivers and organizations with a Cup Series presence this season.

Stewart-Haas Racing (No. 10 car)

Organizational Profile: Speed skewing towards 750-horsepower tracks; no emphasis between short runs and long runs; conventional pit strategy with good positional output

Most Likely Choice: Aric Almirola — It’d be surprising if the New Hampshire winner (and sponsor Smithfield Foods) didn’t return to SHR at this juncture. The No. 10 car has qualified for the playoffs in each of the four seasons since Almirola replaced Danica Patrick in 2018. Still, Almirola’s ceiling is limited per his statistical profile and SHR is a perennial contender with deep resources, in need of blue-sky talent to optimize equipment.

The Intriguing Fit: Ryan Preece

The 30-year-old Preece supplemented his full Cup Series slate with races elsewhere, helping enhance the perception of his driving ability in a contract year. He triumphed in the Truck Series race at Nashville and claimed three wins this season on various modified tours, including a victory last week in New Hampshire.

While we haven’t seen that winning output from him in Cup for JTG Daugherty Racing — his No. 37 car ranks 25th in average median lap time and his pit crew ranked as the second slowest among top 30 teams in median four-tire box time through the first half of 2021 — he’s acquitted himself well within his running whereabouts, turning in positive surplus pass differentials across all track types, ranked sixth overall. This surprisingly includes road courses, on which he ranks as the second-most efficient passer among series regulars, trailing only Martin Truex Jr.

SHR’s recent pivot to 750-horsepower tracks, visible in recent races at Nashville and New Hampshire, suits Preece, who ranked 15th in Production in Equal Equipment Rating last season on tracks utilizing the rules package, ahead of Almirola, who ranked 20th.

23XI Racing (Second car, yet to be announced)

Organizational Profile: Technically aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing; speed skewing towards 550-horsepower tracks; no emphasis between short runs and long runs; unconventional pit strategy with adequate positional output

Most Likely Choice: Kurt Busch — 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin indicated he wants someone with experience as his next driver, and Busch, a 22-year Cup Series veteran and 2004 champion, has it in spades. Furthermore, he brings sponsor Monster Energy with him, which would help the young organization stretch its dollars further in NASCAR’s Next Gen era.

The Intriguing Fit: Busch

Despite going into his age-43 season, there’s still enough reason to buy into the idea of Busch moving to an upstart JGR-affiliated program, just as long as it’s on a short-term deal.

He turned in a winning performance two weeks ago at Atlanta, a 550-horsepower track, for an organization in Chip Ganassi Racing that’s best suited for tracks utilizing this rules package. A shift to 23XI, which ranks faster with Bubba Wallace on 550-horsepower tracks, would represent more of the same for Busch.

But Busch’s more herculean efforts in totality this year have come on 750-horsepower ovals, the only track type on which he has a positive surplus pass differential, and in road races, where he scored finishes of fourth (on the Daytona road course), fourth (at Road America) and sixth (at Sonoma). His knack for individual performance on the smaller tracks and road courses with heavier horsepower would give 23XI a hedge on its current 550-horsepower bet and diminish its need for what is often unconventional pit strategy.

Trackhouse Racing (Second car)

Organizational Profile: Technically aligned with Richard Childress Racing; speed skewing towards 550-horsepower tracks; slight emphasis on short runs; unconventional pit strategy with adequate positional output

Most Likely Choice: Ross ChastainHe’s established himself as one of the most efficient passers in the series, a constant for a team with disjointed speed across the entire season. His experience in coaxing speed out of back-marker or merely average equipment — like Premium Motorsports in Cup, JD Motorsports in Xfinity and Niece Motorsports in Trucks — prepared him for doing the same at the Cup Series level. With Trackhouse ranked outside the top 20 in average median lap time, it’s a skill of his that could translate.

The Intriguing Fit: Chastain, along with current crew chief Phil Surgen

Surgen is an interesting strategist, one who’s mostly effective at retaining Chastain’s running position (currently at an above-average 75% clip), but he can also mix in some legitimate Hail-Mary shots at race wins. If the speed still isn’t there in 2022 for this young team, these kinds of calls will materialize in gambits for wins (and playoff spots), but whereas Travis Mack and Daniel Suárez make heavy use of them, Surgen’s restraint would be a welcomed sight, one necessary for padding points in the stage-racing era.

Chastain seems like someone who can evolve into a winning Cup Series driver and with Trackhouse on the same growth timeline, the two parties appear equally aligned, a shared trajectory independent of one another that, if combined, could yield a lot of success in the years to come.

JTG Daugherty Racing (No. 47 car)

Organizational Profile: Balanced speed across both rules packages; no emphasis between short runs and long runs; unconventional pit strategy with adequate positional output

Most Likely Choice: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse and crew chief Brian Pattie have a relationship pre-dating their time with JTG Daugherty and on their best day — their sixth-place finish at Nashville comes to mind — they really click. Stenhouse wants to return, and in the odd chance the organization consolidates from two teams to one, it’d benefit a driver who, despite high crash rates over the course of his career, is an efficient passer who tends to get a lot out of the speed he’s given.

The Intriguing Fit: John Hunter Nemechek

With five wins in 14 starts and a sky-high 5.750 PEER that tops all Truck Series regulars, Nemechek is doing everything he set out to do when he willingly dropped from the Cup Series to NASCAR’s third tier. The shame of it is that he’s not actively becoming a better Cup driver, mostly beating up on younger, inferior competition.

He needs a stepping-stone ride against more credible competition and this particular JTG Daugherty car provides it. In his lone Cup Series season, Nemechek was a top-10 passer with a high crash rate — the highest, in fact, among all Cup regulars dating back to David Stremme in 2009 — a younger version, you might say, of the driver presently occupying the ride. This means Nemechek brings with him more upside at age 24 than what Stenhouse offers at 33.

He’d also offer a tangible benefit to JTG Daugherty, an organization lacking straightforward, playoff-worthy speed. For Front Row Motorsports, Nemechek recorded 15 races in which he spent at least 20% of his completed laps inside the top 15 despite having the 27th-fastest car. In eight of those 15 races, he crashed at least once, removing the possibility of good finishes. If a willing team stands by him as he curbs the crash rate, Nemechek’s star would surely ascend.

Front Row Motorsports (No. 38 car)

Organizational Profile: Speed skewing towards 550-horsepower tracks; no emphasis between short runs and long runs; unconventional pit strategy with excellent positional output

Most Likely Choice: Anthony Alfredo — The 22-year-old rookie holds a negative PEER, the fulcrum of a frustrating season for the Seth Barbour-led No. 38 team. He does, however, provide a source of funding for Front Row, an organization needing every bit of it in order to compete with deeper-pocketed competition.

The Intriguing Fit: Matt DiBenedetto

If the need for a funded driver wasn’t there, DiBenedetto would make for a gettable option, someone who’d stamp an interesting new identity on top of what Front Row already does well.

He’d fit seamlessly into Front Row’s focus on 550-horsepower tracks and benefit from having a productive strategist, in Barbour (39 positions earned through green-flag pit cycles this year on behalf of Alfredo), for the first time since he was paired with Randy Cox at GoFas Racing. His short-run prowess — he’s a top-five restarter from the preferred groove and ranks fourth in PEER in races ending with at least one late restart — could help mold Front Row into a program able to make better use out of heady, potentially risky pit strategy, something it lacks in both Alfredo and Michael McDowell.

For DiBenedetto, Front Row would represent a competitive step down from Wood Brothers Racing, but it’s a potential destination that perfectly suits his strength as a driver.

Friday 5: Female pit crew members making their mark in NASCAR


On the morning of this year’s season-opening Cup race, Brehanna Daniels stood alone and shed tears.

A few hours later, she was joined by Dalanda Ouendeno on pit road, marking the first time two Black women changed tires for a team in the Daytona 500.

“It meant so much to me,” Daniels told NBC Sports. “From where I started, I was the only (Black woman). I’m just sitting there thinking like, ‘Dang, I don’t want to be the only one.’ … I was hoping for someone to see me and then actually want to be a part of the sport. Now she’s here. Even though it’s three years later, it still happened.”

Daniels made her Cup debut three years ago this week, joining Breanna O’Leary as the first female tire changers for the same team in NASCAR’s premier series. Daniels and O’Leary remain in the sport. Ouendeno joined them on pit road this season, but a pit crew diversity program does not have any females this year.

O’Leary and Daniels both were in the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development program in 2016. O’Leary made her Cup debut in June 2018 at Michigan. Daniels’ Cup debut came a month later at Daytona, teaming with O’Leary.

Since that night in Daytona — where spectators and media crowded the team’s pit stall to witness the two female tire changers in action — the journey has been challenging for Daniels, 27, and O’Leary, 29.

“Just like anything, it’s had its ups and downs,” said O’Leary, who has changed tires for Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series teams this year and trains with Chip Ganassi Racing. “There were even times in between then and now that I’ve questioned what I’m doing and wondering why I’m doing it. But it’s one of those things, I guess, when you have moments like that first Cup race I did or getting to do the 500 with Brehanna (in 2019) … all that makes it worth it.”

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 61st Annual Daytona 500
Breanna O’Leary made her Cup debut changing tires in June 2018 at Michigan. She teamed with Brehanna Daniels at Daytona in July 2018 to become the first female tire changers for the same team in NASCAR’s premier series. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Daniels admits it would have been easy to quit when she started, but she wouldn’t allow herself to do it.

“I’ve always known that my hard work paid off and it continues to pay off,” said the former Norfolk State University basketball player. “I’ve always had that competitive drive, competitive nature. I like competing, so going out there and doing pit stops, you’re competing against other teams and trying to get better within yourself. I just want to get better and do better.”

Ouendeno, 23, joined Daniels at Rick Ware Racing this season after going through the pit crew diversity program. The Paris native played soccer at the University of Miami before joining NASCAR.

“When I first started the program, training to be on a pit crew, I didn’t even have my driver’s license because you don’t have to drive (to get around) Paris,” Ouendeno told NBC Sports. “I definitely learned a ton about cars. Now my friends come to me for car advice.”

NASCAR Xfinity Series Contender Boats 250
Tire changers Brehanna Daniels (L) and Dalanda Ouendeno (R) have worked together this season in the Xfinity and Cup Series. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

While Ouendeno has joined the sport, it will take time for more growth. Danica Patrick’s entry into NASCAR didn’t suddenly increase the number of women seeking to race stock cars. The same has been the case for female pit crew members.

Still, Daniels, O’Leary and Ouendeno each said they get a lot of support from fans.

“I have parents that reach out to me … they send me pictures of their kids working on a car,” Daniels said. “(They’re saying) ‘Look at my son trying to be like you,’ or ‘my daughter trying to change this tire.’ Just sending me pictures like that. That’s a big deal.”

This year’s Indianapolis 500 featured Paretta Autosport, which had female team members as a majority of its over-the-wall pit crew. O’Leary said that was important to see.

“I loved it,” she said. “It wasn’t a gimmick. These women earned their spot. They earned their positions to be where they were and to able to bring this team to competition at the Indy 500.”

Phil Horton, director of Athletic Performance at Rev Racing, oversees the pit crew diversity program. He says a dozen women have come through the program in about the last decade. 

While there isn’t a woman in this year’s program, Horton noted that a program to train those for roles as a car chief or crew chief has a woman. That program also will include pit training.

Horton, a strength coach with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks before moving into NASCAR in 1998, said the diversity pit crew program goes to colleges to show male and female athletes potential opportunities in stock car racing.

“For the individuals that have decided to do that, it works,” he said. “It is definitely possible.”

2. Searching for those winning ways

Kevin Harvick, who won a series-high nine races last year, remains winless this season as the series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN).

He’s scored four top 10s in the last six races but has not led any laps since Darlington on Mother’s Day. The struggles are something the team has fought since last season.

“You can look at it, starting back in the fall last year, we started to kind of lose our stride a little bit and the Hendrick cars got going really good there at the end of the year,” crew chief Rodney Childers said. “This year, we’ve just kind of been off a little bit all year long, no matter if it’s been a road course or a 550 (horsepower) race or a 750 (horsepower) race – kind of off all together. 

“It’s definitely been tough. Everybody has been working really hard trying to get better. As you know, too, it’s tough to start reeling all that back in. You head down one direction and you’ve got to try to just keep after it and hopefully keep getting better every week. We’ve made some gains, but we haven’t just been knocking it out of the park as far as catching up, so we just have to keep working and hopefully get better.”

NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400 - Qualifying
Kevin Harvick (L) and crew chief Rodney Childers (R) on the grid during qualifying at Nashville Superspeedway. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Childers said in March that the team had lost 70 counts of downforce because of rule changes this season. He was asked this week how much the team had gotten back.

“That remark back then was compared to last year when we were the best and everybody in the field lost some downforce,” Childers said. “I think some lost 30 counts. Some lost 45 counts and some lost 70 counts, and I think the 70 counts was Stewart-Haas, so that part sucks, but, overall, it is what it is. 

“Our goal is to work through that and to try to get better. I wish I could tell you that we have more downforce than the beginning of the year, but we really don’t.

“We’ve probably lost some since the beginning of the year because every week that you go through tech there’s something else that is going on throughout the garage. Jay (Fabian, Cup Series director) will send out the (communications) and say, ‘We’re not gonna do this anymore and we’re gonna check this differently and we’re gonna do this.’ 

“Those things just keep adding up. So one week you might find something that adds seven or eight counts of downforce and then the next thing, you’re fixing something that loses seven or eight counts of downforce. So compared to the field, it’s hard to say where we’re at.”

3. Looking ahead

Matt DiBenedetto says he still does not know what his future holds beyond this season.

DiBenedetto is among the drivers who could play a key role in Silly Season this year.

Team Penske announced last year that Austin Cindric would replace DiBenedetto in the No. 21 ride with Wood Brothers Racing after this season. DiBenedetto’s contract is with Team Penske.

With Brad Keselowski expected to move to Roush Fenway Racing after this season, that could present an opportunity for DiBenedetto to remain within Team Penske.

“I’m just kind of in the wait-and-see moment and watching all the dominos fall is really my situation,” said DiBenedetto, who expects to hear about his status for next season by the end of the month. “I hope to stay within our family, Team Penske and Wood Brothers. I love driving for the Woods. I really feel like we’re on the brink of really having a lot of good things go our way.”

The Wood Brothers changed crew chiefs in June, replacing Greg Erwin with Jonathan Hassler. DiBenedetto heads to Atlanta 20th in the season standings, 74 points behind Kurt Busch for the final playoff spot.

Also, Erik Jones says he’s had talks with Richard Petty Motorsports management about next season.

“I’m pretty involved in what’s kind of happening,” Jones said.

At age 25 and a two-time Cup race winner, Jones could draw some interest.

“I’ve always felt confident in my abilities and what I can do,” he said. “I’ve been able to win races at the Cup level and that’s been awesome. I want to get back to that. I don’t want to not win races. All of our goal in the Cup Series is to win.

“I know I’m capable of that. I know we can get back to that. That’s the goal. I want to go back to winning races and doing that wherever that may be. If it’s at RPM, that’s awesome. I’d love to do that for RPM. They’ve been great to me the last year and gave me a home and it’s been a good experience for me.”

Jones has five top-20 finishes in the last seven races. He is 26th in the season standings.

4. Friendly foes

Friends Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin are dueling to win the title for the regular season. Hamlin leads Larson by three points heading to Atlanta.

Larson noted last weekend at Road America how much he and Hamlin are going for that title (and the five extra playoff points the champion gets over the runner-up).

But the racing hasn’t impacted their friendship, Larson says.

“I think I’ve always been really good about separating racing vs. off the racetrack,” Larson said. “Denny and I are really good friends and we golf a lot together. We travel together. I haven’t traveled with him as much this year just because I’ve been so busy.”

Larson flew with Hamlin to Road America last Saturday, giving Larson an extra day at home.

“You can rely on Denny for a lot of good things,” Larson said. “He’s a good friend and a good competitor, too. It has been fun competing with him and racing hard together. We’ve always raced really well together even before we were friends.”

Larson said the only incident they’ve had between them was at Auto Club Speedway last year

“Other than that, we’ve never had any issues,” Larson said. “I’m an easy guy to get along with. I can separate racing from off the track.”

5. Back at the track

Dax Gerringer, an engineer with Kevin Harvick’s team, returns to the track this weekend for the first time since being injured in a dirt bike incident. He last was at the track at Richmond in April.

Gerringer was riding dirt bikes with crew chief Rodney Childers in Georgia when he was injured. Gerringer broke five ribs, suffered a collapsed lung and a bleeding spleen. Childers said Gerringer spent 11 days in a hospital.

“He’s doing better,” Childers said. “He’s been working from the shop. As you know, Dax has been around me for a long time and been good friends, so I hate that happened to him.”

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Analysis: Lacking speed, Aric Almirola excels in other key stat categories


A lack of speed, up until last weekend’s race at Nashville Superspeedway, had defined the 2021 season for Aric Almirola; however, at no point was everything a loss. As their underlying statistics showcase, the driver and his team are far better than their results would have you believe.

At his best, Almirola is a dark horse. When Stewart-Haas Racing initially struggled to set up around NASCAR’s new rear wheel template, he was among the three SHR drivers hit the hardest. It appeared as if Almirola went as his equipment went, the sign of a driver in over his head and a team not nearly as inventive as the organizational bellwether led by Rodney Childers.

And while it’s true that before Nashville, Almirola’s 24.5-place average finish was a stain of sorts, in line with Danica Patrick’s results record in the same car, a look at this driver and his program from a more macro level reveals far more daylight than any his predecessor had. They haven’t been especially good, but they aren’t as bad as their surface-level stats suggest — there’s nuance to explore here.

Frankly, there’s a lot going right despite a lot going bad.

Restarts are Almirola’s biggest strength

Almirola’s highlight reel for the season is void of restarts — he notably lost the lead on the initial start last weekend at Nashville — but in totality, his ability to retain position from within the first seven rows is workmanlike to the point of elite efficiency. In fact, his rate (72.73%) leads the series, slightly better than those of Kyle Larson (72.15%), Ryan Blaney (71.62%) and Brad Keselowski (71.23%), each of them superb short-run drivers.

His improvement in retention percentage from last year (57.47%) to this year is a vital one, even if he isn’t frequenting the top 14 as prolifically as he did last year. It appears legitimate; he ranks seventh in retention specifically in choose-rule races, omitting Daytona, Talladega, the road courses and the volatility of those tracks that might goose restarting numbers. If his second half sees more regular restarts from these running whereabouts, then on paper, he’s ripe for a regression, but that doesn’t alter what’s already happened. When he’s been near the front when taking the green flag, he’s kept spots at a competitive clip. As dicey as the restart windows are in modern-day NASCAR, it’s tough to expect much more than that.

Almirola is passing more efficiently than his statistical expectation

Based on his average running position for the season, 49.12% of his pass encounters were expected to fall in his favor. That’s a rate that’d come out to a negative pass differential, an anticipated net loss of 24 spots. But Almirola has passed more efficiently, beyond his expectation, for a differential of -6, symbolizing a surplus differential of +18.

His best outings in regards to passing have come on 750-horsepower tracks, where his +3.01% surplus passing value ranks fourth, trailing Corey LaJoie (+3.71%), Chase Elliott (+3.38%) and Larson (+3.12%). It’s netted him 24.48 positions beyond his statistical expectation.

Currently 151 points from the playoff cutoff, it’d most likely take a win in the next nine races to secure a postseason spot, at which point, half of the playoff schedule is comprised of 750-horsepower oval tracks, a slate falling into his wheelhouse for 2021.

An unexpected green-flag pit cycle stalwart

The ability to score and retain more track position than the car’s speed should allow extends to crew chief Mike Bugarewicz, who’s dutifully chipped in a series-best 52 positions across green-flag pit cycles as a necessary supplement.

It seems and is easier, at times, to devise a strategy around landing a bounty of spots and potential stage points when there’s inherently nothing to lose while mired so deep in the running order, but it’s still the result of heady planning that requires deliberate timing and proper execution. To wit, several of Almirola’s surrounding competition — notably the teams of Chase Briscoe (61.76%), Erik Jones (59.38%) and Bubba Wallace (57.58%) — are retaining green-flag pit cycle positions over 12 percentage points less often than the 74.07% rate at which Bugarewicz is successfully defending spots.

Much like Almirola’s restarting, this is an area of improvement for Bugarewicz, who retained the No. 10 team’s running spot on just 55.56% of green-flag pit cycles in 2020.

Without speed, nothing else matters

When Almirola backed up his pole-winning lap with the third-best median lap in the Nashville race, a combination that led to his best finish of the season, it was like nothing we’ve seen from the No. 10 team since last fall.

Ranked 15th last season, Almirola’s car is the 21st-fastest this year (it ranked 25th prior to Nashville), according to its average median lap rank. Speed rankings tend to be the statistic most correlative with finishing position; therefore, ranking this low, as Almirola does, masks all the good a team is able to accomplish. Their efforts in restarting, in passing and on green-flag pit cycles aren’t visible on the results sheet, namely because they lack any sort of competitive speed.

It’s also helped drive up Almirola’s crash rate, currently 0.47 times race, tied for the fifth-highest in the series. While it’s possible he’s overdriven the car at times to compensate for the lack of speed, it’s very much uncharacteristic of the 37-year-old driver, based on his crash history. The last time his crash rate fared worse was in 2009 (0.63 times per race in an eight-race sample size).

If Nashville is a sign of things to come, then it signifies a return to normalcy. Almirola won’t be among the betting favorites for the championship in the odd chance he secures a playoff spot, but the driver’s ability and the team’s strength could be more accurately reflected in the week-to-week running order.

That normalcy, and the results it’d bring, would represent a fair reward for a team that’s excelled in key categories to this point in the season despite lacking the component of auto racing that matters most.