Will Cup playoffs be calmer at Kansas? Maybe not

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After a wacky opening race at Darlington Raceway last Sunday, the Cup Series playoffs will continue this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

Darlington is unique in design, in its history of leaders suddenly turning into losers and in its ability to eat tires.

Kansas is wider, smoother and much less intimidating. Drivers typically race three-wide and often dive onto the track apron to make passes, knowing there’s plenty of room to maneuver.

So Sunday’s second race in the playoffs should be considerably tamer, right?

Not necessarily.

Kansas can be a bear.

MORE: NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

The May race, won by Kurt Busch, sparked trouble even before the green flag. Chris Buescher blew a tire in practice and sustained damage. Cody Ware and Ryan Blaney spun out, also in practice. Denny Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano also had tire issues in practice.

There were more tire problems in the race, contributing to eight cautions that ate 47 of the race’s 267 laps. Seven of the 16 drivers who would qualify for the playoffs finished 15th or worse in that race, and seven were penalized for various pit-road infractions. Kyle Larson was involved in some frantic racing with Kurt Busch, smacking the wall while searching for the lead before Busch won. Larson finished second.

In last year’s playoff race at Kansas, Blaney, Austin Dillon and Kyle Busch crashed.

What does Larson expect Sunday?

“I feel like every week has been pretty wild and unpredictable,” he said. “Darlington was maybe a little bit more than normal compared to other races this year, but I feel like every race this year, the majority of the field has had some sort of issue go on throughout the race. As much as I want to say Kansas will be different, I just don’t know. It could be even crazier.”

There have been other memorable “events” over the years at Kansas.

In the 2015 playoffs, Logano wrecked Matt Kenseth and went on to win the race. Two races later, Kenseth famously retaliated, driving hard into Logano’s car at Martinsville and crashing both vehicles. Kenseth was suspended for the next two races.

In 2013, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch tangled near the end of an Xfinity (then Nationwide) Series race at Kansas. Keselowski climbed from his wrecked car, ran across the grass separating pit road from the track and pointed at Busch’s crew before motioning to his rear end (his, not his car’s).

MORE: NASCAR addresses fire issues with rule change

In 2008, during a stretch when boring racing at several tracks had put a cloud over the Cup Series, Carl Edwards decided to create a magic moment. Running second to Jimmie Johnson on the last lap, Edwards made a daring charge to the inside down the backstretch and passed Johnson. Edwards’ momentum carried him into the outside wall in the third turn, however, and Johnson drove by him for the lead and the win. Edwards later said he actually meant to hit the wall — just not so hard.

The jumbled playoff standings, turned topsy-turvy by the Darlington results, make it even more likely that Kansas could produce some unusual activity. None of the 16 playoff drivers managed to reach victory lane at Darlington (Erik Jones won the race), and the results sent drivers moving up and down the point standings like dizzy squirrels on a tree trunk.

Christopher Bell gained six spots to fourth. Kevin Harvick dropped seven spots to 16th. Chase Elliott plummeted from first to ninth. Alex Bowman gained five spots to 10th.

After next week’s race at Bristol, the 16-driver playoff field will be trimmed to 12. Those currently below the cutoff line are Austin Cindric, Dillon, Chase Briscoe and Harvick.

Eight of the 16 drivers in the playoffs have never won a playoff race, but three of the 16 (Logano, Harvick and Hamlin) have won three times at Kansas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: The best of the 2000s

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With the Cup Series idle last weekend, the regular weekly version of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings stayed frozen.

The Rankings never rest, however, so this week we present a detour of sorts – the Top 10 Drivers of the 2000s.

There are many ways to rank athletes, of course. Numbers sometimes tell the story. As former NFL coach Bill Parcells said: “You are what your record says you are.”

But alongside the numbers there are other measurements – skill, persistence, dependability, resilience and, for drivers, that thing they have on the last lap that separates winning from second place.

Here’s a look at our top 10 for the 2000s (so far):

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, the 2000s

1. Jimmie Johnson – Boy, does he have numbers. Eighty-three wins and seven championships (five in a row) since winning for the first time in 2002. He’s a no-brainer at No. 1 and would be in the top five all-time.

2. Tony Stewart – Stewart won three championships and 46 races over the course of the 2000s and visited victory lane at least once from 2000-13. A racer’s racer, especially with a chip on his shoulder.

3. Kyle Busch – Often described as one of the best wheelmen to pass through these parts, the younger Busch brother has checked off two championships and 60 victories.

4. Kevin Harvick – Harvick made himself “Happy” through most of the 2000s, recording 58 wins and a title. He should have won more championships, but the cards often fell the wrong way when he was in the hunt.

5. Jeff Gordon – Many of Gordon’s highlights came in the 1990s (33 wins from 1996-98, for example), but the new century found him still a top threat. He won six races and his fourth career title in 2001 and had 10 more multiple-win seasons in the 2000s.

6. Matt Kenseth – Kenseth won the last “points-system” championship (in 2003). The ultimate points racer, he remained a title threat throughout most of the rest of his career, totaling 39 victories in the 2000s.

7. Brad Keselowski – When Keselowski got his shot at Cup, he wasn’t shy, crashing Carl Edwards on a frantic last lap at Talladega in 2009 to get his first win. A championship followed in 2012, and Keselowski continued to log victories for Team Penske.

8. Kyle Larson – Once Larson found his footing, he was a rocket. A driver who would rather be rampaging across short tracks across the country, he has transferred success on that landscape to the big time.

9. Denny Hamlin – He’s dancing perilously close to joining that group of drivers (see: Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Junior Johnson) who excel but stop short of winning a championship. But 48 victories speak loudly.

10. Joey Logano — Few expected Logano to be a slow starter (he was nicknamed “Sliced Bread,” after all), but once he got rolling at Team Penske, he began stacking wins and added a championship in 2018.

On the edge of the list: Chase Elliott, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr.

Watch some of the drivers on this list add to their resumes in Sunday’s Cup race at Nashville Superspeedway (5 p.m. ET, NBC).

 

Dr. Diandra: Charlotte offers high probability for a first-time winner

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Tyler Reddick is currently the highest-ranked driver who has never won a Cup Series race. He’s 15th in points coming into Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, fresh off an Xfinity win at Texas Motor Speedway. Although a Cup win has eluded him, he’s finished second twice this year, at Darlington and Bristol dirt. He’s led the sixth-most laps this year.

Might Charlotte be the track where Reddick proves he’s a contender?

On the ‘no’ side are three DNFs and three finishes of 30th or worse in the last four races, plus more than his share of bad luck. Reddick won the pole for the All-Star Open, but had to start from the back due to unapproved adjustments. After fighting his way to the front, he wrecked.

On the positive side, Reddick has the fifth-highest average driver rating at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Two top-10 finishes in three races at the track gives him an average finishing position of 10.33 — and both top-10 finishes came in the 600. His other Charlotte finish is 14th. He earned stage points in five of the six stages in the two Coca-Cola 600s he’s run, and he won at Charlotte in the Xfinity Series.

But here’s one more thing in his favor: Charlotte is the second-most frequent site for drivers to score their first Cup Series win.

Tracks with the most first wins

I started by identifying all drivers who won a race between 1980-2022. That includes the most recent 95 of the 200 total Cup Series winners to date. I then determined the track where each driver had his first win to make the following plot:

A vertical bar chart showing the frequency with which tracks host drivers' first Cup Series wins

 

If you guessed that superspeedways would lead the statistics, you’re half right.

  • Daytona outdoes all other circuits. Fifteen drivers have recorded their first win there.
  • Charlotte Motor Speedway ties with Talladega at nine wins.
  • Bristol, Louden and Martinsville tie for a distant fourth place with five first-time wins each.

Daytona is responsible for 15.8% of all first-time wins within this data set. Taken together, Daytona and Talladega account for 25.2% of first-time wins, while Charlotte takes credit for 9.5%. The top three most-likely tracks for first-time wins account for a little more than one-third of all first-time wins.

But are all first-time winners created equal?

Career-high rank and first-win tracks

I subdivided the data set, separating drivers by the highest season-ending rank achieved in their careers.

A stacked vertical bar chart that breaks first-win tracks down by the highest rank each driver eventually achieved.

Focus first on the red bars, which indicate drivers with one or more Cup Series championships. None won their first race at Daytona, and only one (Brad Keselowski) won his first race at Talladega. Despite accounting for more than one-quarter of first-time wins, the two superspeedways boast only one series champion.

Charlotte Motor Speedway, on the other hand, claims four eventual Cup Series champions: Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth and David Pearson.

Bristol takes second-place honors when it comes to future Cup Series champs with three drivers: Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch.

That’s not to say wins at Daytona or Talladega are any less meaningful than wins at other tracks. It’s just that the nature of racing at these tracks (and the large numbers of cars taken out by accidents) are more conducive to having a wider range of winners.

Out of the 95 drivers represented, only four never finished any higher than 20th at the end of a season. Three out of those four drivers had their first wins at superspeedways.

Career wins vs. first track

If we examine how many career wins each driver posted, we again see differences between the superspeedways and Charlotte.

A stacked vertical bar chart showing the numbers of career wins by first win at track

Of the 15 Daytona winners, 12 (80%) have four or fewer career wins.

  • For five drivers, their Daytona win was their only career win.
  • Another five drivers got a second win.
  • One driver finished with three wins and two with four wins.
  • The two drivers who won more than four races won 10 and 19 races respectively.

The numbers are comparable for Talladega. Out of the nine winners, seven (77.8%) had four or fewer career wins.

Winning at Charlotte doesn’t guarantee a path to the Hall of Fame, but the percentages are quite different from the superspeedways. Of the nine Charlotte winners, only three (33%) won four or fewer races during their careers.

What to watch at Charlotte

After Reddick, Daniel Suárez is the next highest-ranked driver (19th in points) without a Cup Series win. His teammate, Ross Chastain, is one of only two drivers with two wins this season, and Trackhouse Racing has been surprisingly strong this year. The negatives are that Charlotte has not been one of Suárez’s best tracks, and, while he’s showed bursts of promise, he’s tied for second-most number of accidents this year with seven.

Reddick and Suárez’s chances will depend on the nature of Sunday’s race, only the fourth at a non-superspeedway 1.5-mile track. The Next Gen car garnered rave reviews at Las Vegas, but encountered tire issues at Kansas and Texas. Goodyear noted in its weekly news release that it continues to work with teams regarding appropriate minimum tire pressures and rear suspension settings.

But even without a new car, the last five 600-mile races at Charlotte Motor Speedway have been very different races. Cautions varied between four and 16, accidents between one and 11, and numbers of penalties from seven to 25. This is relevant because the more drivers make mistakes or whose cars are damaged in accidents, the greater chance of winning the remaining drivers have.

And while a record number of passes for the lead have happened within the last 10 laps this year, the last five margins of victory at the Coca-Cola 600 have ranged from 0.29 seconds to 10.05 seconds.

Sunday Darlington Cup race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The main event of NASCAR Throwback Weekend at Darlington Raceway comes Sunday, as the NASCAR Cup Series faces “The Lady in Black” in a 400-miler.

Chase Elliott virtually guaranteed himself a Cup Playoff berth with his first win of the season last week at Dover Motor Speedway.

With Elliott’s win, all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers have scored at least one victory through the season’s first 11 races.

However, while HMS has a record 14 wins at Darlington, its last win there was in May 2012 (Jimmie Johnson). According to Racing Insights, the organization has earned 85 wins on 26 different tracks since then.

For more key storylines to follow Sunday, check out our Darlington viewer’s guide.

Details for Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway

(All Times Eastern)

START: Rich Kramer, CEO of Goodyear, will give the command to start engines at 3:32 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:42 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 12:30 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 2:55 p.m. … Kim Burton, mother of NASCAR Cup Series driver Harrison Burton and wife of NASCAR on NBC’s Jeff Burton, will give the invocation at 3:24 p.m. … TSgt. Katie Edelman, U.S. Air Force Band, will perform the National Anthem at 3:25 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 293 laps (400.2 miles) on the 1.366-mile speedway.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 30

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 90. Stage 2 ends at Lap 185.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 3:30 p.m. Pre-race coverage begins at 2 p.m. … Motor Racing Network’s radio coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. and will also stream at MRN.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: Fox Sports

FORECAST: Weather Underground – Mostly cloudy skies, high of 62 degrees, dry conditions at start of the race

TO THE REAR: Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick each did not make a qualifying attempt after incidents in practice. BJ McLeod also did not make an attempt in qualifying and will start at the rear. Denny Hamlin will go to the rear after damaging the diffuser in his qualifying lap and having that replaced.

STARTING LINEUP: Darlington Cup starting lineup

LAST TIME: In the opening race of the 2021 Cup Playoffs, Denny Hamlin narrowly held off eventual series champion Kyle Larson to claim his third career Southern 500 win. The race saw many playoff contenders bitten by mistakes and misfortune. Seven of the 16 playoff drivers finished 20th or worse, with four finishing outside the top 30.

CATCH UP ON NBC SPORTS COVERAGE:

Friday 5: NASCAR’s youth movement carries over to Hall of Fame

Matt Kenseth, Kirk Shelmerdine join NASCAR Hall of Fame as Class of 2023

Nate Ryan’s ballot for the 2023 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame

Dr. Diandra throwback: The three best NASCAR Cup driver seasons in last 50 years

William Byron signs 3-year contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports

William Byron spotlights ‘different’ negotiation process with Hendrick

NASCAR issues suspensions for Dover violations

Xfinity Series: Sam Hunt’s rise to ownership came from humble beginnings

Friday 5: NASCAR’s youth movement carries over to Hall of Fame

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NASCAR’s youth movement is spilling over into its Hall of Fame selections. 

While the Cup Series has seen 15 of its last 17 races won by drivers 30 and under, the Hall of Fame also is experiencing a youth movement — even with 94-year-old Hershel McGriff’s selection Wednesday from the Pioneer Era.

Matt Kenseth’s selection to the Hall of Fame from the Modern Era at age 50 marks the fourth consecutive class a driver 50 or under had been picked for enshrinement. 

It started when Jeff Gordon was tabbed for the Class of 2019 at age 46. Tony Stewart was 48 when he was voted to the Class of 2020. Dale Earnhardt Jr. became the youngest member at age 45 when he was selected for the Class of 2021.

The streak will continue next year. Drivers who have competed at least 10 years in NASCAR and been retired for two years are eligible for nomination. That makes Jimmie Johnson, who turns 47 in September, eligible for the Class of 2024. The seven-time Cup champion will be a shoo-in. 

While Kenseth will be among the youngest to be in the Hall, he says it doesn’t feel odd for it to happen at this time.

“I would say if it wouldn’t have been going back and racing in 2020 again, it would feel a little bit weird,” Kenseth said. “I think going back and running the rest of the schedule that year, not performing well … I felt like once that year was over, I definitely knew my professional driving career was behind me. I can’t say the same thing when we ended 2017 at Gibbs or even when I ended 2018 running for Roush.

“I still got through ’19 and there was still, you kind of had that feeling … still in my head the thought I could go be an asset for a race team and still win races and still try to contend for championships and still be competitive. It all got out of my system in 2020. I realized that it was over.”

Kenseth was eligible for this class even though he ran the final 32 races for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2020. The NASCAR Hall of Fame nominating committee deemed that a unique situation where he was asked to help that team after Ganassi fired Kyle Larson for using a racial slur during an online race.

Kenseth finished his career with the 2003 Cup title and 39 series wins, including two Daytona 500 victories. 

Part of Kenseth’s legacy will be on display this weekend at Darlington Raceway. RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher will drive a throwback car that pays tribute to the No. 17 DeWalt car that is synonymous with Kenseth. 

One of Buescher’s favorite memories of Kenseth was something that didn’t happen on the track.

In 2011, Buescher, a development driver for Roush Fenway Racing, was tabbed to fill in for Trevor Bayne, who was out because of a health issue, for the Xfinity race at Richmond. It marked Buescher’s debut in the series, which was known as the Nationwide Series at the time. 

Buescher was in his first full season in ARCA and going for the championship that year. He had a race in Salem, Indiana, that same weekend.

Kenseth offered his plane to get Buescher to Salem for that event after running at Richmond.

“I was the only person on his plane,” Buescher said. “It was the first time I had been in any kind of nice, private aircraft like that, and he was really nice enough to get me over to Salem so that I could get some rest and get ready for the race weekend and get after it as we were racing for a championship that year.

“Matt was really good to me early on when he probably hardly knew who I was, and then enjoyed being able to have some of those conversations with him during those times (they raced in Cup).” 

2. Reunited years later

Kirk Shelmerdine’s selection to the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2023 reunites key figures from one of the best seasons by a team in the last 50 years. 

Shelmerdine, 64, was the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing. He’ll join Earnhardt (inaugural class in 2010) and Childress (Class of 2017) in the Hall. Together, they won four championships between 1986-91. 

Earnhardt won a career-high 11 races in 1987 and scored 21 top-five finishes in 29 starts that season, making it one of the best seasons in the last 50 years in Cup. 

“It’s always kind of been a surreal thing for me, like here I am in the middle of all these legends,” Shelmerdine said of following Earnhardt and Childress into the Hall. “As the years go by, the stats pile up and you start to be thought of in the same sentence … it’s all just kind of surreal. It really is a big honor. It means a lot to me. My career has meant a lot to me.”

Shelmerdine left his role as Earnhardt’s crew chief after the 1992 season to focus on a driving career. The move came after Earnhardt finished 12th in points that season, the only time in an 18-year period he finished outside the top 10 in points. 

Even with that season, does Shelmerdine think back to what could have been had he stayed with Earnhardt and Childress beyond that season?

“For me, I was pretty much worn out at that point,” Shelmerdine said. “I’ll say this, the championships they won after I left (in 1993 and ’94 with Andy Petree as crew chief), they probably happened a little sooner than if I had stayed. 

“Things needed to change big time. I just kind of concluded at the time that maybe I was part of that change that needed to happen. I was certainly used up at the time.

“I couldn’t see how we were going to win that championship the next year. I was kind of out of answers. A lot of big changes happened sort of in the wake of me leaving. Turns out, it was probably for the best.”

Shelmerdine went on to win three ARCA races and finished 20th in the 2006 Daytona 500 as a driver.

3. Loose wheels

Eight times in the first 11 Cup races of the season, NASCAR has suspended crew members for a loose wheel coming off a car. The teams of Denny Hamlin and AJ Allmendinger were the latest after each had a wheel come off their car during Monday’s race at Dover Motor Speedway.

Brad Moran, managing director of the Cup Series, discussed the issue this week on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and if there would be any increased penalties. The current penalty calls for a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two team members.

“There hasn’t been a lot of talk of increasing it,” Moran said of the penalty. “It’s a pretty stiff penalty, but we’ve looked at what’s causing it, we’ve looked at trying to help. Again, these teams are trying to get a lot of speed out of their pit stops. We’ve changed like over 8,100 tires and we’ve had eight failures … so the percentage is low, but we want that to be pretty much zero percent.

“There has been no talk of increasing the penalty, but we do have a separate group working on it and will continue to work with the teams and try to come up with a process that eliminates it all together. We’re only 11 races in … there’s a lot of work being done behind the scenes. Give us a little time here between NASCAR and the teams and we’ll kind of put this behind us.”

4. Race for points

Erik Jones holds what would be the final playoff spot after 11 races. He has 262 points. That’s an average of 23.8 points a race.

But that pace won’t be enough to make the playoffs based on the past four seasons. The driver who was the last of the 16 to make the playoffs had to average at least 24.1 points in the 26 regular-season races to advance.

Last year, Tyler Reddick averaged 27.5 points in the regular season to be the 16th and final driver to make the playoffs. His point total was so high because five drivers behind Reddick in the season standings earned playoff spots by wins. Reddick finished the regular season 11th in the standings last year.

Reddick heads to Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1) outside a playoff spot. He is 13 points behind Jones.

With 15 races left in the regular season, Reddick was asked this week if he and his team are focused more on points or winning.

“We try to be aware of everything,” Reddick said. “You don’t want to turn a blind eye to something and pretend it’s going to be OK. It’s important to know what’s going on. We don’t even have to look at the points standings to know that the last month hasn’t really been good for us in points. That does add to the frustration of what’s going on. 

“We’ve been fortunate that we’re having some repeat winners. That’s been good for us. … There’s a lot of drivers left ahead of us, behind us (that have not earned a playoff spot) that have shown speed and the capability to go out there and win. We need to get back to being one of those drivers, one of those teams that was doing that like we were in the beginning of the year.”

5. Memorable throwback schemes 

Since it is throwback weekend at Darlington, a look at five of my favorite paint schemes that have run at Darlington in recent years. Some good ones were left off, but I’ll take these five:

Kyle Larson drove this car in the 2015 Southern 500. The car debuted in the 1990 movie “Days of Thunder” and was driven by Kyle Petty from 1991-94 while racing for car owner Felix Sabates. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)

 

Dakoda Armstrong drove this Davey Allison throwback car in the 2016 Xfinity race at Darlington. This car pays tribute to the car Allison drove in his rookie Cup season in 1987. Allison won rookie of the year honors. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

 

Matt DiBenedetto paid tribute to Bobby Allison with this car in the 2017 Southern 500. This replicates the Miller High Life car Allison drove to victory in the 1988 Daytona 500. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

 

Jeff Gordon drove the “Gray Ghost” in the 2016 Southern 500. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was to have driven the car but was out because of symptoms from a concussion. Buddy Baker make the car famous, winning the 1980 Daytona 500. Earnhardt would run with this paint scheme in the 2017 Xfinity race at Martinsville. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Getty Images)

 

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 - Practice
Brad Keselowski drove this car in the 2017 Southern 500. Keselowski’s car paid tribute to the “Midnight” car Rusty Wallace drove from 1992-94. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)