Friday 5: What matters most in Cup? Youth or experience

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As a Cup champion will switch teams for the second year in row, a key question becomes what is more valuable in NASCAR’s top series: Youth or experience?

Brad Keselowski moved this year from Team Penske to what is now RFK Racing to be an owner/driver. Kyle Busch moves next year from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing. 

In both instances, the move came near the peak season, statistically, for each as a driver. David Smith — who operated his own analytics website and worked for NBC Sports before joining RFK Racing before this season — noted that the age 39 season was a driver’s peak season. Keselowski turned 38 before this year’s Daytona 500. Busch turns 38 next May.

MORE: Kyle Busch and JGR: A long, sometimes rough road

As the Cup lineup trends younger, what is the place for drivers in their late 30s?

Keselowski was replaced by Austin Cindric, who turned 24 earlier this month. Joe Gibbs Racing is expected to replace Busch with Ty Gibbs, who turns 20 in October.

Cindric is worthy, having nearly won back-to-back Xfinity championships the previous two seasons. Gibbs won in his first Xfinity start last year. He’s won more than 20% of his Xfinity starts. 

“We know Ty Gibbs is ready to race (in Cup),” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development told NBC Sports in July.

Cindric and Gibbs were among eight drivers in last weekend’s Cup playoff race at Kansas Speedway who are age 25 or younger. 

The average age of last weekend’s Cup race — won by 28-year-old Bubba Wallace — was 30.4 years. 

That’s a slightly younger average age than the field for last weekend’s IndyCar season finale at Laguna Seca. The average age for that race — won by 25-year-old Alex Palou — was 30.8.

Car owner Rick Hendrick started the change toward younger drivers in Cup, hiring a 21-year-old Jeff Gordon to run the full season in 1993. Two years later, Gordon won the first of his four championships.

It took time for other others to follow, but the sport has gradually looked to younger drivers. That became more important when the economy forced companies to scale back sponsorship of teams. Younger drivers don’t cost as much as veterans. That helped drive some of the sport’s movements in recent years. 

Joe Gibbs Racing planned to keep Busch after Mars, Inc. announced last year that it was not returning to the team and sport after this season. JGR had a company to sponsor Busch’s No. 18 team until the deal fell through because of economic factors. 

Without a sponsor, JGR could not offer Busch what he felt the only active two-time Cup champion deserved, something he alluded to last month at Watkins Glen when he foreshadowed change.

You want to be able to go somewhere that you feel like you have a legit shot to race to win,” Busch said. “You know, trust me, I don’t feel like it’s fair to me or my family or anything else if we’re going to have to spend less time together moving forward because we are going to have to change our lifestyle, no question. 

“There’s a big change coming. And so, is it worth it to go run around and not have an opportunity to win right away versus building something versus jumping in something that can win. All those questions are certainly being weighed out.”

Busch said this week, after announcing he will join RCR, that he was told at one point that returning to the No. 18 car at JGR was no longer an option.

Asked how could a deal not get done with JGR, Busch said: “Only thing I can say to that is it didn’t happen. Apparently, they’ve got other irons in the fire, maybe other sponsors for other drivers and that’s the road they’re going down.”

Asked if he felt JGR was looking at a cheaper option than paying a former champion, Busch paused and said: “Fair assessment.”

For as much as people prefer sports to be about the events, it’s often about business. Without the financial resources, teams can’t compete. Owners such as Roger Penske, Gene Haas and Hendrick can have an advantage because they have other companies and can connect those companies with sponsors, making deals more valuable to companies. 

It’s not surprising that Hendrick (nine titles), Penske (two) and Haas (two) have combined to win 13 of the last 16 Cup championships. Joe Gibbs has two titles and Barney Visser, whose Furniture Row Racing team no longer is in the sport, has the other title in that time. 

This is what teams such as RFK Racing and Richard Childress Racing face to win a championship. 

None of RFK’s cars made the playoffs this year. Both of RCR’s cars made the playoffs. Tyler Reddick enters Saturday night’s elimination race two points above the cutline, while teammate Austin Dillon is three points below. 

Richard Childress Racing seeks to have a driver finish in the top 10 in points for the first time since 2014. Busch is expected to help the organization, which has three wins this year, become even more competitive.

“I know how serious (Busch) is about wanting to win that next championship,” said Childress, who last won a Cup title in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt. “I think with his knowledge of cars and his knowledge as a racer, he’s going to bring some stuff to the table.”

Kevin Harvick said in July he would be for having Busch join Stewart-Haas Racing because of how Busch could help a team.

“I know there’s a lot of things that go on around Kyle, but in the end Kyle is still one of the best that’s ever come through this garage,” Harvick said. “There’s a lot of teams that can say that they’ve never had one of those types of drivers. He literally could rebuild an organization if somebody took a chance that hasn’t had one of those types of drivers.”

Harvick, who is 46 years old, has won twice this season. He’ll likely need to win Saturday night to advance to the second round after a fire and crash sidelined him in the first two races of this round.

Hamlin also has shown what an older driver can do. The 41-year-old seeks his fourth consecutive appearance in the title race. 

“I still think that there’s a level of experience that really, really matters in our sport,” said Hamlin, who owns 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan. “I feel as good as I’ve ever been in the car. My craft, I feel as good as ever. 

“I’ve been lightning fast even though the win column hasn’t shown it as much this year. So I’m pretty happy with where I’m at considering my age. When I see Harvick, still being competitive and winning at this age, it just makes me look at my future and say, you know, I’ve got a longer runway than I thought.”

2. Former champs seek to avoid elimination

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick both enter Saturday’s playoff elimination race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) outside a transfer spot. 

Busch and Harvick have combined to win three of the last eight titles. Busch’s championships came in 2015 and ’19. Harvick won the 2014 crown. They account for 32% of all Cup title race appearances.

Neither driver has been eliminated in the first round since the playoff format debuted in 2014. Harvick was in a must-win situation in 2015 and won to advance to the second round.

He is in a similar situation after a fire eliminated him at Darlington and a crash ended his race early last week at Kansas. Harvick goes into Bristol 35 points from the transfer spot and all but needs a victory to move on in the postseason.

“It is what it is,” Harvick said last week at Kansas of his deficit. “We were racing to win anyway today, so that is what we will do again next week.”

Busch entered the 2015 first round elimination race outside a transfer spot by one point and finished second to Harvick at Dover to advance. Busch and Harvick took the spots of Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray, eliminating them.

Busch is two points out of a transfer spot this time. While he doesn’t need to win, he is winless in his last 17 short track races, dating back to 2019. His longest short track winless drought is 18 races from 2012-15.

Busch has 23 total wins at Bristol. He has eight Cup wins on concrete and won the spring race there on the dirt. He also has nine Xfinity wins and five Truck victories there. 

“If I can have past Bristol results be Bristol results, then, yeah, shouldn’t be a problem,” Busch said after the Kansas race of advancing to the next round. “But if I have Bristol results similar to what’s happened this year every week, then no, it’s going to be an uphill battle.”

3. What it will take to advance

A look at what it will take for drivers to advance to the second round of the Cup playoffs.

Christopher Bell — Has clinched a spot in the second round. Reached the second round in last year’s playoffs before he was eliminated. 

William Byron (+48 to the cutline) — Needs to score eight points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Was eliminated in the first round in 2020, made it to the second round in 2021.

Denny Hamlin (+47 to the cutline)— Needs to score eight points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the title race each of the past three years. 

Joey Logano (+40 to the cutline)— Needs to score 16 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the title race every even-numbered year of the Cup playoffs: 2014, ’16, ’18 and ’20.

Ryan Blaney (+36 to the cutline)— Needs to score 20 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has been eliminated in the first round only once. That was in 2020.

Alex Bowman (+30 to the cutline)— Needs to score 26 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to at least the second round in each of the past four seasons.

Chase Elliott (+28 to the cutline)— Needs to score 28 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the championship race each of the past two seasons. 

Kyle Larson (+27 to the cutline)— Needs to score 29 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Reigning Cup champion. 

Ross Chastain (+26 to the cutline)— Needs to score 30 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs.

Daniel Suarez (+6 to the cutline)— Needs to score 50 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs. 

Tyler Reddick (+2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 54 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Eliminated in the first round last year in his first time in the Cup playoffs.

Austin Cindric (+2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 54 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs. 

Kyle Busch (-2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 55 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Two-time Cup champion who has never been eliminated in the first round. 

Austin Dillon (-3 to the cutline)— Needs to score 55 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has twice been eliminated in the first round. 

Chase Briscoe (-9 to the cutline)— Needs to win or have help to advance (others falling out of the race early or finishing poorly). First time in Cup playoffs. 

Kevin Harvick (-35 to the cutline)— Needs to win or have help to advance (others falling out of the race early or finishing poorly). The 2014 Cup champion has never been eliminated in the first round. 

4. Bristol’s questions  

Saturday night’s race at Bristol is a mystery for teams. 

The spring Bristol race was on dirt, so this marks the first time on the track’s concrete surface. Other than wheel-force testing with one car per manufacturer, no teams have been on the track. And the right side tires are different from anywhere else the series runs (the left side tires are the same as those used at Pocono).

“It’s certainly an unknown,” Randall Burnett, crew chief for Tyler Reddick, told NBC Sports. “I think it makes for exciting races when you go into an unknown like that. … I think you’ve really got to do your homework, and I think our team strives on that. 

“These tracks that we’ve had a lot of unknowns, I feel like we’ve unloaded well and rose to the challenge. I look forward to these kind of races.”

Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Denny Hamlin, calls Bristol the “the last challenge of the Next Gen car and the last unknown setup-wise of the Next Gen car.”

While the series will race at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the first time this year later in the playoffs, teams will be able to test there ahead of time. That will give them a better understanding of what is needed there than what teams have going into Bristol.

“I don’t know where you go get notes for Bristol,” Gabehart told NBC Sports. “It’s very unique, so I am so thankful to be going into Bristol with a very large (points) cushion. Some of those guys toward the back of the (playoff) standings, having to go to Bristol and run 500 laps with this car, it’s going to be a nail-biter.”

5. Back in the playoffs 

Jeremy Clements said on Wednesday’s NASCAR America MotorMouths that an appeal panel rescinding the penalties against his team and putting him back in the Xfinity playoffs this week felt like “we won again. We’re celebrating again.”

Clements won at Daytona last month to earn a spot in the playoffs, but NASCAR penalized the team three days later for an intake manifold infraction found at the NASCAR R&D Center. Among the penalties was that Clements’ victory would not count toward playoff eligibility.

“We ended up noticing that there were other winning engines there and they didn’t have their intakes, and we, unfortunately, brought ours just because we didn’t know and it didn’t need to be,” Clements said on why the team appealed.

Part of the argument from Clements and his team was that other organizations did not have their intake manifolds inspected and that the Clements team shouldn’t be penalized for bringing their intake manifold to the R&D Center.

Clements said the appeal panel “just had common sense and that’s what prevailed. Just so happy to get this victory back and be back in the playoffs.”

With Clements back in the playoffs, it meant one person was dropped. Ryan Sieg, who was holding the final playoff spot after Clements’ penalty, fell out of a playoff spot with Clements back in. 

Landon Cassill holds the final playoff spot going into tonight’s regular season finale for the Xfinity Series at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network). Cassill leads Sieg by 19 points. Sheldon Creed trails Cassill by 32 points. 

Bubba Wallace’s second career Cup win was only ‘a matter of time’

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KANSAS CITY, Kans. — Winning is always special, but drivers have said, particularly those with one Cup win, that winning a second series race was important because it showed that they were not just a one-hit wonder.

Bubba Wallace passed beyond that with his second career Cup victory Sunday at Kansas Speedway.

MORE: Bubba Wallace to be on MotorMouths Monday (6-7 p.m. ET on Peacock)

“I think winning at this level is the hardest thing in life for us race car drivers,” said Wallace, who has won a Cup race two consecutive seasons.

“To be able to say we’re winners (Sunday) here at Kansas through the year that we’ve had and what we’ve been able to do the last couple of months is incredible. … To come out winners, I knew it was only a matter of time. Had a lot of people telling me that. So it’s finally cool to see it come to fruition. Two times is better than one time.”

The victory is not surprising. Wallace had arguably the best car at Kansas in May but two penalties by his pit crew caused him to restart twice at the back of the field. He went on to finish 10th. 23XI Racing teammate Kurt Busch won that race. 

At Michigan last month, Wallace was on the front row for the final restart but could not keep Kevin Harvick from getting by. Wallace then was mired in a battle to keep second and never got the chance to challenge Harvick, placing second. 

That Wallace is becoming a factor at more than superspeedways — his first career Cup win was last year at Talladega and he has three runner-up finishes at Daytona — shows the growth he and his team are making.

“We’re talked about when we go to the speedways and kind of not so much the rest of the tracks, so I want to start changing that,” Wallace said after his sixth top-10 finish in the last nine races. “We’ve been able to show up these last two months or so, all different types of racetracks, and be talked about. That’s cool. It’s a step in the right direction.

“We just can’t get complacent. We have to keep going, keep pushing for more. This is great, but we have to continue to go back out and battle. I appreciate the opportunity that I’m in right now with the team that I have and keep going.”

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A couple of key moments in Sunday’s race went against Denny Hamlin and kept him from having a chance to win. 

On what would be the final restart — at the beginning of stage 3 — Hamlin lined up fourth on Lap 172 but quickly fell back to eighth by Lap 174. In a race where track position was critical, this put him in a challenging spot.

Hamlin didn’t get to fifth until Lap 197 in the 267-lap race. He was back up to fourth when he came to pit road on Lap 214 for his final stop. 

Hamlin was first playoff car to pit. Crew chief Chris Gabehart said he came early because he was trying to leapfrog Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell.

Hamlin had an 11.5-second pit stop, according to Racing Insights. Leader Bubba Wallace came on the next lap and had a 10.4-second pit stop.

That was only part of what kept Hamlin from having a chance to challenge Wallace for the win at the end.

Gabehart said Wallace’s entry and exit off pit road, compared to Hamlin’s, was a key factor. 

“It was roughly a two second delta,” Gabehart told NBC Sports of the difference between Wallace and Hamlin. “Some of that was the pit stop just wasn’t great. And to Bubba’s credit, he’s really good at (pit entry and pit exit). His green flag entries and green flag exits have been good for a long time. And it won him a race.”

Hamlin acknowledged how good Wallace is in that area.

Bubba, historically on the metrics, has been really good on green flag entries,” Hamlin said. “So I kind of knew that it was going to be tough for me to gain. I kind of focused just on not making a mistake coming to pit road. … He just smashed us pretty bad, I think by about a second. We lost by exactly one second.

Said Wallace: “There’s a lot of metrics in our JGR metric sheet. There’s about 1,000 pages. I take pride in trying to be at the top of those. Some weeks you are. Most weeks I’m not, but pit-in, pit-out, green flag stuff has always been one of my strong suits.

Honestly, they said, ‘Pit now,’ and I’m like, OK, and just was able to capitalize and that was it. Didn’t do anything fancy, but just one of those high traits that we carry. It worked out for us.”

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Martin Truex Jr.’s fifth-place finish was not a result he celebrated. 

Truex, who still seeks his first win of the season and is not in the playoffs for the first time since 2014, gave up the lead on Lap 112 when he had to return to pit road so his crew could tighten the left rear tire. 

Truex didn’t get back into the top five until seven laps left. 

“Too many mistakes,” Truex said. 

He said he felt he had the best car in the race.

What could he do better than others?

“Pass cars,” he said. “The longer the race goes, the harder it is to do it and the longer it takes you to get through the field. Just too many mistakes.”

Asked if this was just the way the season has gone, Truex said: “Yep. Ready for the offseason.”

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Sunday marked the first time in 50 years that the same car number won two races at a track in the same season with different drivers, according to Racing Insights. Both Kurt Busch and Bubba Wallace drove the No. 45 car to a win this year at Kansas.

The No. 21 car of Wood Brothers Racing won the 1972 Daytona 500 with A.J. Foyt and won the Firecracker 400 at Daytona that July with David Pearson. 

The last time the same car number won two races with multiple drivers in the same season was 2002.

Sterling Marlin won in the No. 40 car at Las Vegas and Dover before he suffered a fractured vertebra and missed the final seven races of the season. Jamie McMurray won the fall Charlotte race in his second start in the No. 40 car in place of Marlin that season.

Dr. Diandra: The concrete facts about Nashville Superspeedway

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Twenty-seven tracks host points-paying NASCAR Cup Series races in 2022. Only Nashville Superspeedway was designed with a concrete racing surface. Martinsville installed concrete in the turns in 1976, while Bristol and Dover transitioned from asphalt to concrete in 1992 and 1995, respectively.

The 1.33-mile Nashville track is a D-shaped oval and the longest of the four concrete-containing tracks. At 14 degrees of banking, it’s slightly more banked than Martinsville (12 degrees), but much less banked than Dover (24 degrees) or Bristol (24-28 degrees.) If we count half of Martinsville, concrete accounts for 13% of NASCAR Cup Series surfaces. Dirt makes up 3.7%, leaving asphalt to account for the other 83.3%.

Concrete vs. asphalt

Concrete and asphalt are both composites: aggregate (also known as “small rocks”) bonded together by a glue-like material called a binder. Concrete dates to the Roman Empire, while the first asphalt roads weren’t constructed until 1848. The nature of the binders explains the difference in timelines.

Pictures of asphalt and concrete to show how they differ

Concrete usually uses a portland cement binder, a mix of limestone and clay. Asphalt uses bitumen, a tarry black substance derived from the heaviest components of crude oil, as a binder. The binders determine the application method. While concrete is poured and cured, asphalt must be heated to a high temperature before extruding and being allowed to cool.

Because asphalt is more flexible than concrete, asphalt can be laid in long, continuous swaths. Concrete must be poured in sections to prevent damage from weather-induced expansion and contraction. The lines between concrete sections also assist with water drainage. That’s needed because concrete is less porous than asphalt.

Asphalt’s flexibility means it doesn’t spread out loads. Asphalt experiences larger, more concentrated stresses than concrete. The figure below shows typical stress distributions (in red) for asphalt and concrete.

A graphic showing how concrete and asphalt deal differently with stress. Concrete spreads stress out whereas asphalt doesn't

As you might guess — from this graphic or your own personal experience with potholes, asphalt is more easily damaged than concrete. Asphalt simply can’t stand up to the high forces of race cars taking tight curves at high speed.

Concrete costs

Transportation engineer Van Walling compiled the fascinating (as-of-yet-unpublished) compendium Oval Track Almanac. The three volumes document 45 years of extensive research of more than 1,000 tracks in the United States and abroad.

Martinsville, Walling explained, turned to concrete because race cars damaged the asphalt in the turns. Trucks can damage asphalt in expressway off-ramp loops the same way.

“Between high temperature and the force of the vehicles,” Walling said, “asphalt can be moved, creating a texture like a washboard.”

While “shoving“, as the phenomenon is called, is annoying for an off-ramp, those bumps create real trouble for race cars. Track operators have no option beyond frequent resurfacing or reconstruction — or switching to concrete.

That’s not to say that concrete tracks are impervious. In 2004, Jeff Gordon lost a Martinsville race due to concrete coming off the track. In 2018, a chunk of Dover’s concrete surface loosened and damaged Jaime McMurray’s car. Debris from the impact broke windows in a pedestrian crossover above the racing surface. That episode prompted Dale Earnhardt Jr. to tweet that “Asphalt is for racing. Concrete is for sidewalks.”

Walling, who has studied the original blueprints for Daytona International Speedway, said NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. wouldn’t necessarily agree.

“He intended the corners at Daytona to be concrete,” Walling said. “The problem was cost.”

Concrete requires a much greater up-front investment, and France was already struggling for funding.

“He initially planned a 60-foot racing surface,” Walling said, “but ended up settling for 40 feet.”

If France hadn’t found the money, Walling says, Daytona might have ended up as a much flatter track. Upfront cost is why almost all new tracks are built with asphalt, even though the upkeep is more expensive in the long run.

How concrete changes racing

The primary grip mechanism on any racetrack is the tire deforming around the aggregate. Concrete, by its nature, is smoother than asphalt. When NASCAR measured track surface roughness in 2019, Martinsville, Dover and Bristol were the three smoothest tracks.

The second grip mechanism is the adhesive interaction between rubber molecules on the track and on the tire. Although Goodyear designs their tires to lay down rubber on concrete tracks, the rubber doesn’t stay put.

“At speed,” Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, said, “the track will progressively turn black as the cars lay rubber on the concrete surface and then turn back white under the caution flag as the tires pick back much of that rubber. Keeping pace with that transition is an important element of the race strategy.”

A driver loses traction on a concrete track much faster than on asphalt. Drivers have already spun more in 2022 with the Next Gen car than in all of 2021. The accident rate is also up.

Nashville’s concrete surface may pose a real challenge. Dover, the only 2022 race on a full concrete track so far, had 13 cautions. That’s almost double the number of cautions in each of the two races before, and triple each of the two before that.

One positive, through is that concrete doesn’t wear as fast as asphalt. Even though the car is new, the surface won’t have changed much since last year. The tires are also familiar. Teams ran the Nashville left-side tire three times (including at Dover) and the right side six times this year. They’ve even run the same left-right configuration twice: at Charlotte and the Texas All-Star Race.

Black and white

Track color matters.

The sun emits a spectrum of electromagnetic waves. The tiny band we can see is what we call light.  But the sun also provides infrared waves, like the heat lamps restaurants use to keep food hot. Its ultraviolet waves are why you should wear lots of sunblock at the track.

Different colored surfaces interact differently with the sun’s waves.

We see objects because they reflect, emit and/or transmit light. A red car absorbs all wavelengths of light except those corresponding to red. Only red wavelengths reach our eyes.

A graphic showing how white light (light of all colors) hits a red surface. The surface absorbs all the light except the red. That light is reflected to our eyes.

White surfaces reflect most wavelengths of light. That’s why you see concrete as white — white light is the sum of all colors of light. Black surfaces, on the other hand, absorb a lot of light. Because no light is reflected, you see black. The same thing happens with infrared waves, which cause black surfaces to heat faster than white surfaces.

A graphic comparing light hitting black and white surfaces

White tracks also reflect more light into the drivers’ eyes. Drivers will need tinted visor peel-offs for the 4 p.m. local (5 p.m. Eastern) start, which will be broadcast on NBC.

Heat causes the bitumen in asphalt to release oils that make the track more slippery. That doesn’t happen with concrete.

The end result is that a concrete track doesn’t change over the course of a race as much as an asphalt track. Nashville Superspeedway should be easier for crew chiefs to keep up with because temperature changes won’t change the racing surface as much.

On the negative side, if a team misses the setup, there’s much less likelihood that the track will come to them during the race.

Dr. Diandra: Best drivers of the season often win the All-Star Race

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The format and the venue have changed over the years, but the NASCAR All-Star Race remains a welcome chance for drivers to cut loose. There’s nothing on the line but the trophy and the purse.

That’s slightly less true this year. With Texas Motor Speedway hosting only one points race — the kickoff for the Round of 12 — the All-Star race weekend is teams’ only opportunity to gather data on the NextGen car’s performance at this track.

“You can certainly look at it for a lot of things,” Austin Cindric told NBC Sports. “It’s an opportunity to win a million dollars. That’s pretty cool for a 23-year-old. At the same time, you can easily use it as a practice session in many facets… I think Texas has kind of defined itself as its own beast, depending on what they do with track prep.”

But even with that caveat, most drivers won’t be able to avoid the ‘checkers-or-wreckers’ mentality.

All-Star Race victory history

Twenty-five drivers have won one or more of the 37 All-Star Races run to date.

  • Jimmie Johnson has driven to the most victories: four. All were with crew chief Chad Knaus on the pit box.
  • Hendrick Motorsports drivers have won ten All-Star Races, including the last two with Kyle Larson (2021) and Chase Elliott (2020). That’s the most wins for any owner.
  • Richard Childress Racing and RFK Racing come in a distant second with four wins each.
    • RCR won last in 2007 with Kevin Harvick (although Harvick won in 2018 for Stewart Haas Racing.)
    • Carl Edwards won in 2011 for the team that is now RFK Racing.

How All-Star Race winners finish the season

The list of All-Star Race winners reads like a who’s who of NASCAR. Let’s examine how drivers did during the season in which they won the All-Star Race.

I tallied end-of-year driver standings for All-Star-Race winners. The pie chart below shows the percentage of drivers ending the season in each position. The chart begins at 12 o’clock and goes counter clockwise.

A pie chart showing where All-Star Race winners end up in the season standings

Some highlights:

  • Almost one-third of All-Star Race winners went on to win the series championship that year. Those drivers are: Jeff Gordon (three times), Dale Earnhardt (three times), Jimmie Johnson (twice), Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip.
  • Almost two-thirds (64.8%) of the drivers who won the All-Star Race finished the season in the top four.
  • 72.9% of the drivers ranked in the top six at season’s end.
  • Once we get past sixth place, we’re looking mostly at single drivers. The exception is 14th place: Two drivers ended the year there.

Can an All-Star win kick-start a season?

The All-Star race usually happens the week before Memorial Day weekend. The exceptions were in 1986 (Atlanta, on Mother’s Day) and in 2019 and 2020, when COVID shifted the race to mid-July and mid-June, respectively. But most years, the All-Star Race comes at the perfect point to evaluate which drivers are on track to meet their goals and which one are lagging behind.

I tallied how many races each winning driver had won coming into the All-Star Race. I then calculated how many races they’d won in the same number of races after the All-Star race. If there were had 13 races prior to the All-Star Race, that means 13 races after the All-Star race.

On the graph below, the drivers are listed in order of year from left (1985) to right (2021).

  • The number of races won before the All-Star Race is shown in blue,
  • The number of races won in an equal number of races after the All-Star Race is shown in yellow,
  • Crosshatched yellow indicates wins made during the rest of the season.

Looking at Kevin Harvick’s 2018 season as an example: Harvick won five races of the 12 run before the All-Star Race. He won two races between Charlotte and Bristol (the 12 races after the All-Star Race) and then one more in the playoffs.

A stacked column chart showing the numbers of races won at various times in the season
Because of the pandemic, the 2020 All-Star Race happened much later in the year (July 15th) than usual.
  • In 15 cases (40.5%), the All-Star Race was the winner’s first win of the season. You can identify those entries because they’re the ones without any blue bar — or any bar at all.
    • Two of those 15 drivers — Michael Waltrip (1996) and Jamie McMurray (2014) — did not win any points races the year they won the All-Star Race.
    • Three of those 15 drivers (Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, and Kyle Larson in 2019) didn’t win another race in the races immediately after the All-Star Race, but won races after that.
  • The winner had only one win coming into the All-Star Race 10 times, which is 27%.
  • That makes 25 out of 37 races (67.6%) where the All-Star Race was won by a driver with one or no point-race wins entering that event.
  • The All-Star Race win was the winner’s last win of the season in six cases. Those entries have only blue bars.

Larson fans concerned that he’s only won one race this season can relax. He was in the same situation last year coming into the All-Star Race. He went on to win nine more races that year — and the championship.

Chase Elliott’s win in 2020 kicked off a similar streak. The All-Star Race didn’t happen until July 15th, but Elliott had still only won once coming into the race. He, of course, went on to win four more races and the championship.

Total number of wins

Drivers who won the All-Star Race ended the season with anywhere from 0 to 11 wins. Below, I show the number of drivers who accumulated each number of wins.

A vertical bar graph showing the number of total wins All-Star-winning drivers accumulate over the course of the season

  • 94.6% of drivers won at least one points race the year they won the All-Star Race.
  • 43.2% of All-Star Race winners won five or more races during the season.
  • 67.6% of the winners ended the season with between one and five wins.

NASCAR Open winners

How do drivers who get into the All-Star Race by winning the NASCAR Open finish? Because stages are a relatively recent phenomenon, I’ll consider only the overall winners of the Open races and not the stage or segment winners in the graph below.

A vertical bar chart showing the finishes of Open winners in the All-Star Race

Given that the best drivers have mostly already qualified for the All-Star Race, it’s not too surprising that Open winners rarely win the All-Star Race.

  • The only time a driver won the Open and then the All-Star Race was in 2019. That feat was accomplished by Larson. (Although Michael Waltrip transferred into the All-Star Race in 1996, and then won the All-Star Race, he finished the Open in 5th.)
  • Open-winning drivers have come close to winning the All-Star Race. Three drivers have finished second: Sterling Marlin (1988), Tony Stewart (1999) and Martin Truex, Jr. (2010).
  • Since 2011, with the exception of Larson, no winning Open driver has finished better than fifth.
  • Overall, 16.7% of these drivers finished in the top five of the All-Star race.
  • Four of the last seven Open winners finished out of the top 10.

Winning the All-Star Race doesn’t mean you’ll do well the rest of the season. But if all your team needs is a spark, a win might do it. But the All-Star Race is better viewed as a barometer of the current field rather than a predictor of the future.

Got technical or statistical questions you’d like answered? Send them to ask (at) buildingspeed ( dot) org.

Auto Club finish continues strong start for Erik Jones

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Although crew chief Dave Elenz and Erik Jones had talked on the phone three or four times last year, they didn’t meet in person until the Nov. 17 Next Gen test at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

In barely 100 days since Elenz started working with Jones, Elenz:

  • Witnessed Richard Petty Motorsports’ merger with GMS Racing to create Petty GMS Motorsports.
  • Executed the No. 43 team’s move to the GMS shop.
  • Overseen the team’s development of the new car.
  • Helped Jones to his best Cup finish Sunday since the 2020 season – when Jones was with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Jones’ third-place finish at Auto Club Speedway follows his fourth-place result in the Clash at the Coliseum and a Daytona 500 that saw him lead three laps before he was collected in an accident while running 11th late in the event. 

Since his contract was not extended by JGR after the 2020 season — making way for Christopher Bell to take over the No. 20 car — this three-week stretch represents the most Jones has run at the front in Cup.

“I still want to make my mark in the Cup Series,” Jones said after qualifying second at Auto Club Speedway this past weekend. “I’ve been able to win before, but I want to get back to that point. I know we’re capable of it. We just have to continue to do what we’ve been doing these last four weeks and continue it into the season.”

Jones was solid throughout Sunday’s race, showing signs that all the off-season changes are working. 

“The biggest thing it means,” Elenz told NBC Sports via phone after Sunday’s race, “is just a reward to all the hard work we’ve been doing. We’ve busted our behind with the merger, moving, getting all the people together. It’s been a lot of work. 

“Of course, the parts shortage that we have, it’s created even more work and our guys have done an outstanding job. I think we’re going on like 16 days straight working. (Finishing third is) a good reward, keeps spirits high and know that we can compete with those guys.”

The 52 points Jones earned Sunday tied winner Kyle Larson for most points scored in the race. 

As Elenz talked, he could be heard receiving congratulations in the garage for the team’s finish.

When Jones and the team looked at crew chief options for this season, Elenz was at the top of the list. 

Elenz and Jones both hail from Michigan – their hometowns are less than three hours away. Racing led Elenz away from the family’s logging company. He went to Clemson for its engineering program and proximity to the race shops near Charlotte, North Carolina. Elenz spent one spring break visiting about 40 race shops seeking an internship, which he got with Jasper Motorsports in 2001.

After college, he joined Ginn Racing as an engineer, working with Mark Martin. Elenz later moved to Red Bull Racing and was a part of the team when Brian Vickers scored the organization’s first Cup win in 2009. 

Elenz joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2012 and was an engineer on Jimmie Johnson’s 2013 championship team. Elenz went to JR Motorsports in 2015 and won Xfinity titles with William Byron in 2017 and Tyler Reddick in 2018. 

Even without experience as a Cup crew chief, Jones knew Elenz was right for him.

“I just think of what he’s done in the Xfinity Series over the last few years, where he’s worked in his career, the things he’s been able to do, the people he’s been able to work with, all molded him into the type of person and crew chief that I was looking for,” Jones told NBC Sports in January.

“The attributes that he has is, No. 1, decisiveness in a crew chief. I give feedback, and I’m looking for a change or a call, or whether we’re pitting or what we’re doing. I want somebody to give me a straight answer pretty quickly. Dave is pretty good at that. 

“(Two), someone who is engineering based. My whole career and background, especially in NASCAR, has been very engineering-heavy on the crew chief and what they can do there, and Dave has definitely got that. Three, just the experience level. If that sounds funny because he has never been a Cup crew chief, he’s been a crew chief for so long at the Xfinity level.”

One of the keys with any crew chief/driver pairing is the communication between the two. There’s no set time on how quickly it comes. For some pairings, it never quite works. For others, it can come naturally.

So far, things are going well.

“I think, between him and I, our communication is pretty direct, and he gives very accurate feedback to what he’s looking for,” Elenz said. “… I think we’re kind of like-minded. I feel we’ve clicked pretty well at understanding where each other is at right now.” 

That helps because Elenz is still learning the car after having been in the Xfinity Series since 2015. Some elements carry over. Some don’t.

“The geometry and setups in these things are definitely drastically different and that’s been probably the most challenging part to comprehend how to adjust them,” Elenz said.

Even with a this past weekend’s strong performance, Elenz said work remains for the team.

“I’m very content with a third,” he told NBC Sports. “It was a good day for points. We had mistakes we’ve got to clean up. Our pit road was not the greatest. Some of our restarts weren’t very good. Just kind of learning adjustments throughout the race, we felt we could have done a better job on. 

“There are things we need to clean up and do better, and to still come away with a third-place finish with all the stuff we have to work, I feel good about that.”

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Seven of the 12 cautions in Sunday’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway were for single-car incidents or spins.

It wasn’t until the eighth race of last season that the Cup series had seven single-car incidents for the year.

With a low-downforce package and the Next Gen car, drivers are learning the vehicle’s nuances while also trying to figure out how far they can push the car before losing control. Habits gleaned on how to keep a car from spinning in the past aren’t as effective with the new car.

“There are a lot of things that are new, and when you have a lot of things new, especially in race cars you are trained by muscle memory in a lot of ways to key off different things,” Austin Cindric said after winning the pole on Saturday. 

“I am not saying I am doing anything better than anybody else, but you key off different things with different race cars when you get loose or have a moment or when things are right or wrong.”

Four former champions — Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano — each hit the wall or spun in practice or qualifying Saturday. In Sunday’s race, former champions Kyle Busch, Elliott and Keselowski were among those who spun.

Aric Almirola slid through Turn 4 on Saturday and in Sunday’s race.

“These cars are certainly a handful,” he said. 

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Daniel Hemric came back from six laps down to finish in the top 10 Sunday. He placed ninth.

An issue with the shifter early in the race forced the team to lose multiple laps for repairs.

“I can’t believe we got all of them back and were even able to contend there at the end,” Hemric said after the race. ”

Hemric credited crew chief Matt Swiderski and his team for the effort.

“It was really good and super fast,” Hemric said. “It was just a matter of being back on the lead lap.”

Hemric’s achievement puts him in a rare group.

In 2014, Jamie McMurray went seven laps down after being involved in an incident at Talladega in the spring race. He got the free pass six times, finishing one lap down in 29th.

Kyle Busch came back from five laps down at Watkins Glen in 2006 to finish ninth.

There have been a couple of cases since 2007 where a driver four laps down got back on the lead lap and finished in the top 10.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. went on to finish ninth at Dover in Oct. 2018.

Marcos Ambrose went on to finish 10th in the 2013 Coca-Cola 600.

According to Racing Insights, there have been 19 times a driver has rallied from three laps down to finish in the top 10 since 2007.