Dr. Diandra: For some drivers, Richmond is unique among short tracks

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The NextGen racecar undertakes its first true short track points race today at Richmond Raceway. By ‘true’ short track, I mean oval tracks under 1 mile: Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond. Although these three tracks have different degrees of banking and slightly different lengths, they share an important characteristic: speed.

Or rather, lack of speed. Take a look at the pole speeds from 2019, the last time we had qualifying at short tracks.

A vertical bar chart showing the average pole speed for races at Martinsville, Richmond,Bristol and Dover

Aside from the much-longer road courses (a class unto themselves), the true short tracks are the slowest tracks NASCAR runs. Dover, which my mind wants to make a short track, runs much faster than true short tracks. Because aerodynamic forces depend on speed squared, slower tracks make aerodynamics less significant.

A caveat: When I say Bristol, I mean pavement Bristol, not dirt Bristol. Although Bristol with dirt on it is still a short track, the dirt physics is significantly different than pavement physics. Also, with only one dirt race at Bristol, we don’t have enough data to determine how it compares to pavement Bristol, or to other short tracks.

Who are the best short-track drivers?

Given that the series heads for Martinsville next week, I thought maybe I could kill two races with one calculation by just figuring out which drivers are best on the three true short tracks.

I want to emphasize recent results, but I had to balance that with the fact that we have at most six short-track races a year. As a compromise, I’m using data from 2019-2021.

Let’s start by looking at drivers’ average finishes for short tracks.

A vertical bar chart showing the average finishes of Cup drivers at the three short tracks: Richmond, Martinsville and Bristol.

This looks like a promising start to picking winners: All the usual suspects surface. Kyle Busch has six career wins at Martinsville and eight at Bristol. Martin Truex, Jr. has gone from being the king of the mile-and-a-half tracks to mastering short-track racing. I was a little surprised to see Denny Hamlin so far back, but he’s had a lot of close races lately. My choices for Richmond seem pretty clear.

Then I reminded myself of the dangers of generalizing: it’s easy to find patterns where there are none.

And it’s a good thing for my fantasy team that I didn’t just stop there.

Track-by-track

I decided to examine drivers’ performances at individual tracks, as well as their averages across tracks. It turns out not all the top drivers are uniformly good at short tracks.

In the graph below, I’ve left the overall average — over all three tracks — in red. The average finishes for Richmond are in yellow, Martinsville in green, and Bristol in blue.

A vertical bar graph that compares each driver's averge finish at each of the three tracks to the composite average

This graph paints a slightly different picture than the graph of overall short-track performance.

One thing doesn’t change: Kyle Busch is still a good bet at any short track.

  • Busch earns that title by having average finishes under 10 at all three short tracks.
  • Despite a 18.8% career win rate (six wins in 32 starts), Busch hasn’t won at Richmond since 2018.
  • That makes his average finish even more impressive because the data in the graph above don’t include 2018.

In contrast, Martin Truex, Jr. is strong at some tracks and not so strong at others.

  • Truex earns his second-place short-track racer title by being really, really good at Richmond.
  • His finishing average of 2.0 at Richmond over the last three years compensates for a finishing average of 16.2 at Bristol over the same time.
  • Here’s how good Truex is at Richmond: He won three of the last five Richmond races. When he didn’t win, he still finished in the top five.

If you only depended on overall short track numbers, you might be in for an unwelcome surprise at Bristol if you pick Truex.

Joey Logano (third best in overall short track finishes) and Denny Hamlin (fifth best) both have an average finish of 4.8 at Richmond — better than Kyle Busch’s 6.6 average.

Gibbs is strong at Richmond. Of the three drivers considered (Bell is too new to have enough data), Truex has three top 10s this year and stands seventh in points. He’s a good bet to give Toyota its first win of the year.

If you’re looking for a dark horse pick for a driver to run well at Richmond, check out the ‘A’-list drivers:

This graph also tells you that there are a few drivers you might want to avoid, even though they’re on the graph for having a decent overall short-track finishing average.

  • Despite having an average finish of 11.74 at short tracks, Ryan Blaney‘s performance at Richmond has produced only 16.40 average finish. Perhaps keep him in your garage until next week.
  • Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch and Erik Jones are also drivers whose recent record at Richmond is worse than their overall short-track record suggests.

Laps led

Drivers who lead laps tend to win at Richmond. The graph below shows total laps led at each of the three short tracks. The drivers are arranged with the driver who has led the most total laps at the three tracks combined on the left.

This graph further reinforces the idea that even drivers who run well at short tracks run better at some short tracks than others. From 2019-2021:

  • Truex led 1293 laps between the three tracks, but 95.6% of his laps led were at Richmond or Martinsville.
  • Hamlin, on the other hand, has led at all three tracks, with a total of 1183 laps led.
  • Keselowski’s also been strong at all three short tracks — although with the usual caveat that he’s in different equipment this year.
  • Although Chase Elliott is fourth in laps led, only 60 of those were at Richmond.

What to expect from the track

While we often focus on drivers, understanding the track and the race rhythm can really help your prognostication skills. If the first two stages show that your driver’s car doesn’t get good until 70 laps into a run, you need to know how likely it is that there will be a long green-flag run in stage 3.

I think of short tracks as having lots of cautions, lots of accidents and lots of DNFs. That’s not Richmond these days. Look at the number of accidents and spins in the last 20 years.

A stacked vertical bar chart showing the numbers of accidents and spins at Richmond over time

In the 2000s, two accidents would have been considered abnormally low for a Richmond race. The spring 2003 race managed 12 accidents and two spins in 393 laps.

With a couple exceptions (the spring races in 2011 and 2013, and the fall race in 2016), drivers at Richmond experience many fewer accidents and spins these days. Not only did the fall race in 2020 go accident free, there were no breaks other thaxnn the planned competition and stage-break cautions. It’s possible that the NextGen car’s durability may encourage drivers to be a little more aggressive, but it’s also possible that the durability will allow more bumping without requiring cautions.

Fewer accidents usually means fewer DNFs. But fewer accidents also mean fewer cautions and fewer cautions mean longer green-flag runs.

  • In last year’s fall race, stage 2 was caution free (148  laps), and the race ended with a 146-lap green-flag run.
  • In the 2021 spring race, stage three featured a 134-lap green-flag run.

Long green-flag runs requires crew chiefs to tune the car for more than just the short term. Fewer cautions mean fewer opportunities for crew chiefs to adjust their cars. That, in turn, makes all those computer simulations and tests that help the crew chiefs decide how to adjust the car even more important. If you’re not close to dialed in when you unload, you may not have many chances to get there.

As recently as 2013, it was normal for nine or 10 cars to retires before the end of the race. More recently, only 2-3 cars fail to finish the race. That, in turn, has led to a smaller fraction of cars finishing on the lead lap. In the last five Richmond races, only about one-third of the cars finished on the lead lap.

Qualifying on the pole doesn’t have a big impact at Richmond. In the last 10 races, the polesitter won the race only once, in 2016.

One more tidbit from my analysis: If you’re limiting your choices to drivers who haven’t notched their first win yet, this might not be the track to do it. No drivers has gotten his or her first win at a short track since 2005, when Kasey Kahne accomplished that feat.

 

Christopher Bell finishes 2nd to Tanner Thorson at Chili Bowl Nationals

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Former Camping World Truck Series driver Tanner Thorson scored his first Chili Bowl Nationals win Saturday, holding off NASCAR Cup driver Christopher Bell in the final laps.

Thorson’s win snapped the five-year streak by Bell and reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson. Bell had won three in a row. Larson had won the past two years.

Rico Abreu finished third, Michael Kofoid placed fourth and Tanner Carrick was fifth. Larson placed sixth in the 55-lap race in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

C.J. Leary, who drives for Alex Bowman‘s team, was seventh. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished ninth. Kaylee Bryson, who became the first woman to run the A main in Chili Bowl history, was 18th. NBC Sports broadcaster Dillon Welch was 22nd.

MORE: Results of Saturday’s Chili Bowl races 

Thorson, who ran 11 Truck races in 2018, suffered serious injuries in a fiery highway crash in 2019. He suffered a broken left arm, cracked sternum, broken ribs and a punctured lung in the incident.

Thorson finished fifth in the USAC national midget standings last season.

Bell started on the pole and led much of the race until Thorson got by with about 20 laps to go. Bell got by Thorson briefly on restart with five laps to go but Thorson quickly got by and went on to win.

“This is pretty awesome,” Thorson told MavTV after the race.

Bell told MavTV: “We’ll try again next year.”

Earlier Saturday, former Cup champion Chase Elliott flipped in his F feature race and did not finish, placing 19th.

“I’m fine,” Elliott told FloRacing. “Those guys kind of checked up, and (I) jumped a wheel and went for a ride. Feel good. We’ll try again and hopefully be better next year.”

Here is how other NASCAR competitors did Saturday:

Alex Bowman finished second in his C feature and moved to the B feature. He placed 11th in that race and did not advance to the A main.

Chase Briscoe finished sixth in his C feature and missed advancing to the B feature by one spot.

Ryan Newman finished 13th in his C main and did not advance.

Former NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne finished ninth in his B main and did not advance.

Jesse Love failed to advance from his D feature, placing 17th.

JJ Yeley finished third in his F feature to advance to the E main. He failed to advance beyond that, placing 11th.

Carson Hocevar was second in the J feature to move on to the I feature. He placed 10th in that race and did not advance.

Ryan Ellis placed 11th in the L main and did not advance.

Jesse Little finished ninth in the M feature and did not advance.

NASCAR drivers racing in 2022 Chili Bowl Nationals

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Next week, the 36th annual Chili Bowl Nationals will take place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. NASCAR is well-represented within the field for the six-day midget racing event.

Headlining the group is NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson. He will seek to claim the Golden Driller trophy for a third consecutive year.

Five qualifying nights (Jan. 10-14) set the stage for the championship feature races on Jan. 15. The event will run indoors at the SageNet Center on a quarter-mile clay oval.

Here’s when NASCAR (and NASCAR-adjacent) notables will be racing next week…

Monday, January 10

  • Chase Briscoe – No. 5 Chase Briscoe Racing (Mahindra Tractors)
  • Chase Elliott – No. 9E Kyle Larson Racing (A SHOC Performance Energy)
  • Alex Bowman – No. 55X Alex Bowman Racing (Ally)
  • Jesse Love – No. 97X Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports (NUCOR Buildings/Mobil 1)

Tuesday, January 11

  • Kyle Larson – No. 01 Kyle Larson Racing (EMI/FloRacing.com/HendrickCars.com)
  • Jesse Little – No. 3L Rick Horn Racing (Shriners Hospital for Children)
  • Santino Ferrucci – No. 16 Dave Mac – Dalby Motorsports (Webco Industries)

Wednesday, January 12

  • Tanner Berryhill – No. 17 Shophouse Racing (Eclipse Claims Consulting)
  • Carson Hocevar – No. 31X Beilman Motorsports (Dave.com/Niece Motorsports)

Thursday, January 13

  • J.J. Yeley – No. 2G Glenn Styres – Jack Yeley (Playa Azul Resorts/Rocky Point)
  • Christopher Bell – No. 71W Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports (iRacing/Mobil 1)
  • Dillon Welch – No. 81X CB Industries (Spike / Speedway Toyota / Rev 32 / Florida Safety Systems / Sundollar Restoration / Toyota)

Friday, January 14

  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – No. 47S Clauson Marshall Racing (zMAX Race Products)
  • Ryan Newman – No. 75B Clauson Marshall Racing (Driven 2 Save Lives/zMAX Race Products)
  • Ryan Ellis – No. 97R Shophouse Racing (Kansasland Tire and Service)
  • Kasey Kahne – No. 19S Reinbold Underwood Motorsports (Spike / Stanton SR-11x / AME Electrical / Indy Race Parts / FK)

Kyle Larson wins his first Knoxville Nationals crown

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Kyle Larson held off 10-time Knoxville Nationals champion Donny Schatz to win his first Knoxville Nationals crown Saturday night at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway.

Larson’s celebration will be short. He’ll fly back to Indianapolis on Denny Hamlin‘s plane to compete in Sunday’s Cup race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (1 p.m. ET on NBC).

Larson and Hamlin enter the event tied in points in their duel for the Cup regular-season title.

This has been quite a week for Larson. He won last weekend’s Cup race at Watkins Glen International. During that race he made contact with Christopher Bell that spun Bell while they raced for second. Bell was critical of Larson on Saturday with Larson telling the media Bell didn’t respond to an apology text Larson sent.

None of that mattered Saturday night for Larson, whose best finish in the Knoxville Nationals was second in 2017. Schatz won his 10th Knoxville Nationals title that year.

Larson started Saturday night’s 50-lap feature third. He won $176,000. Schatz finished second. Brad Sweet placed third. Former Cup driver Kasey Kahne was eighth in front of a capacity crowd of more than 20,000.

The win was the biggest remaining bucket list win for Larson outside of NASCAR. He won the Chili Bowl Nationals (2020 and 2021) and King’s Royal (2021).

“I’ve always dreamed of winning this race,” Larson said in Victory Lane on Dirtvision. “The atmosphere this week was unbelievable. I felt the energy all week long from you fans. It kept me excited and pumped up. I hadn’t been this nervous leading up to a race in a couple of years. I had butterflies all day and during [NASCAR] Cup practice all I could think about is what I needed to do here at the Knoxville Nationals.”

Kyle Larson charges to starting spot for Knoxville Nationals

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Kyle Larson went from 21st to second in his qualifying feature race early Friday morning to secure a starting spot in Saturday night’s Knoxville Nationals. He will start Saturday night’s race third.

Larson’s run capped a dramatic night at the half-mile Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway for the driver who won last weekend’s Watkins Glen NASCAR Cup race.

MORE: Could NASCAR’s next great rivalry be Larson vs. Bell?

Larson finished fifth in his heat race and failed to advance to feature. The top four advanced. That sent him to the B main. He won that to start 21st in the 24-car A main.

On the second lap of the 25-lap feature, Larson weaved through six-car crash unscathed, helping him gain track position. He went on to finish second to Brian Brown. The race ended at 2:10 a.m. ET. The start of the evening’s schedule was delayed more than two hours by rain. Former NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne had fast time in qualifying and finished sixth in the feature. He will start seventh in Saturday night’s Knoxville Nationals.

Larson will start Saturday night’s Knoxville Nationals third. He has never won that race, the highest profile sprint car race he has yet to win.

“I got extremely lucky missing that big wreck,” Larson said, according to a World of Outlaws release. “That deal took out a lot of good people, so I think I came from like 10th, you know, not the very back. This is my favorite week of the year. I can’t wait for Saturday.”

Larson’s Saturday will start at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Cup teams practice on the IMS road course from 11:05 – 11:55 a.m. ET. After completing duties at the track, he’ll head to Knoxville to compete in Saturday night’s event. He’ll return after the Nationals for Cup qualifying Sunday morning and the Cup race Sunday (1 p.m. ET on NBC).