Aric Almirola will start first for the third time this season in the NASCAR Cup Series after drawing the pole position in the starting lineup for Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
Almirola, who finished third at New Hampshire two years ago, also started first June 27 at Pocono Raceway and July 19 at Texas Motor Speedway. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver’s No. 10 Ford has drawn a top-five starting spot in the last five Cup races set by random draws.
Denny Hamlin, who finished second at New Hampshire last year, will start second in his No. 11 Toyota.
Brad Keselowski — Runner-up finish was his 12th top-10 in the last 14 races.
Kevin Harvick — Fourth-place finish was his sixth consecutive top-five finish, top active streak in the series.
Clint Bowyer — He finished 14th but it was enough to move him up a spot in the owners points to 12th. That’s significant. The top 12 in owner points draw for starting positions 1-12. Bowyer will have a chance to start on the pole next week at New Hampshire. Had he remained 13th in owner points, he would have started between 13th-24th.
JTG Daugherty Racing — Team finished last for the fourth consecutive race. Ryan Preece finished last in the previous three races. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished last on Thursday after a cockpit fire ended his race.
Matt DiBenedetto — While Clint Bowyer was happy with climbing into 12th in the owner points, Matt DiBenedetto was left with the frustration of falling to 13th after he was hit and crashed. Now, DiBenedetto can start only between 13th-24th next week at New Hampshire. By falling out of the top 12 in car owner points, he no longer is are eligible for positions 1-12 in the random draw.
Jimmie Johnson — Collected in a crash and finished 32nd. Team couldn’t make enough repairs for him to reach minimum speed and they had to exit the race. Johnson falls out of a playoff spot with seven races left in the regular season. He is 18 points out of what is the last playoffs spot and has two other drivers between that spot and him.
How Austin Dillon’s Texas win was set in motion 1,100 miles away
When the caution flag waved 27 laps from the end of last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, crew chief Justin Alexander had a decision to make.
Austin Dillon was seventh. Pitting was the easy call — all the leaders came to pit road.
The key question was if to take two tires, four tires or no tires. Figuring a few of the leaders would take two tires, Alexander contemplated a quicker no-tire stop to pass those cars on pit road to gain track position.
In a command center 1,100 miles away at Richard Childress Racing in Welcome, North Carolina, a different option was presented.
Pit for two tires. Specifically, pit for two left-side tires.
NBCSN’s Marty Snider will give fans an inside look at the RCR command center during tonight’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App), showing what takes place and how the decisions there impact a race.
RCR’s command center, which was built about five years ago, has 10 stations for engineers and others to work and a wall-sized screen that can show various data about the RCR cars or any other car in the field along with the race broadcast. Computer programs also provide instant analysis of when to pit, how many tires to change and where each option is likely to put the car.
“Definitely the command center has helped,” said Alexander, who led the organization’s research and development and worked race days in the command center before reuniting as Dillon’s crew chief this season. “There’s more eyes on things than I can look at on my computer.”
With crew rosters limited, Alexander does not have either of his engineers with him at the the track. They work from RCR.
“As they feed me data, I can make better decisions,” Alexander said.
Dr. Eric Warren, RCR’s chief technology officer, spearheaded the effort to build the center. The technology has grown from analyzing timing and scoring to deciphering the car’s performance and strategies each team is likely to use in the race.
“The basic foundation of it is trying to learn what is the real performance of the car,” Warren told NBC Sports. “That way you are taking out things like weather, track position and laps on tires, all those things. As it gets more accurate in really understanding you’re an eighth-place car, then you can make those tradeoffs. If I take two tires and gain five seconds of track position, what’s my fall-off going to be and what’s my performance going to be?”
With such knowledge, teams can decide if such gambles are worth making.
Computer programs also study other teams and learn their tendencies and that can help plot strategy against.
Warren noted the key for Dillon came well before that last pit stop. Dillon had a four-tire stop on Lap 213 of the 334-lap race. That allowed the team to go with two-tire stops later since lap times did not significantly increase the longer the car ran on the same set of tires.
Dillon came in for a two-tire stop on Lap 245 under caution, a move that allowed him to go from 11th before the stop to eighth. The top six cars did not pit, meaning Dillon was second among those that had stopped.
A caution on Lap 307 when rookie Quin Houff made contact with Christopher Bell and Matt DiBenedetto trapped five of those six cars that had not pitted on Lap 245 a lap down, forcing them to take a wave around and not pit during that caution. That all but eliminated Ryan Blaney, who led 150 laps and pole-sitter Aric Almirola, among others.
“We knew, even an entire stop before, there were a lot of people that the way they did their pit strategy, they were going to be left exposed for a long period of time,” Warren said, noting Blaney, Almirola and others who pitted under green around Lap 290 and would remain a lap down until the rest of the field cycled through under green. “We actually altered our strategy way before those (late) cautions came out and kind of knew the likelihood of a caution happening (near Lap 307) was pretty high.”
That caution is when Dillon came in for two left-side tires, as the computer program suggested, and Reddick changed no tires, also as the program suggested. Dillon and Reddick went on to give RCR its first 1-2 finish in a Cup race since 2011.
“It’s starting to show that the speed of the cars are there,” Reddick told NBCSN’s Kyle Petty on this week’s Splash and Go. “Just taking advantage of some track position, taking advantage of some strategy calling played into our strengths, and it really showed that our cars had the speed on the older tires to be able to hold off the guys on four fresh tires.”
Warren also notes that while technology plays a key role in races, the human factor remains important.
“The relationship between the crew chief and the driver is critical because we might say 100% we definitely think you need to take right-side tires here,” Warren said. “The crew chief is going to know, even a little bit more than us, how far is the driver on the edge and maybe we’re not seeing a little damage on the car. My way of thinking about it has always been like we used to not have computers to do word processing, right? Well, now you have that and you can, so now you can spend time doing the next advanced thing. That’s the same with us.
“I don’t think the human element ever really is going to be replaced, at least not short term. I think it allows you to think about things more complex.”
Like winning races.
Kevin Harvick draws pole for Thursday Cup race at Kansas
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver’s previous best starting position in 2020 was second in qualifying for the March 8 race at Phoenix Raceway.
Since NASCAR’s return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic (with the majority of fields set by a random draw), the No. 4 Ford’s best starting spot had been a third at Kentucky Speedway. Harvick had started outside the top five in seven of the past 10 Cup races, but his luck changed when NASCAR randomly set the lineup Wednesday for Kansas.
Harvick has three Cup victories at Kansas, most recently in the May 12, 2018 race at the 1.5-mile speedway.
Joey Logano‘s No. 22 will start second beside Harvick, making it an all-Ford front row for the second consecutive race. Fords also will comprise the second row with Aric Almirola starting third and Ryan Blaney fourth.
Dustin Long: This is a case of what’s best for the fans and what’s best for the teams. Denny Hamlin raises a valid point by questioning what the race might be like since it is a new course — and could possibly have an added chicane to slow the cars — and most drivers have not run on the configuration. However, the cost to prepare a second car for this event in case the primary car is wrecked in practice or qualifying is not something teams want. They voted against having a practice session. Still, this seems like a time when practice would be good. I like Hamlin’s idea of practice without a backup car and if you wreck in a short practice session, you finish last in the race.
Daniel McFadin: I feel it’s needed. This is a course that no NASCAR vehicle, Cup, Xfinity or Truck has been on. Holding the Cup race without any sort of on-track prep makes the race more dangerous. This isn’t like lining up at Darlington or other tracks and dropping the green. NASCAR should want to send its top drivers into the safest possible scenario. You don’t want a historic race to be a fiasco because team owners didn’t want to spend the money on one-time costs. If anything, Hamlin’s idea about a team being scored as finishing last if they wreck in practice has merit to it.
Dustin: For a different viewpoint, check out what Brian Murphy, a fabricator at Stewart-Haas Racing tweeted about building backup cars and the impact on teams and crews …
Teams are not bringing back ups to races other than double headers. Adding practice/qualifying increases not only the amount of personnel required by NASCAR and the teams, but also the amount of time that someone could get infected.
The schedule that NASCAR has been able to provide is also not as easy for teams to manage when it comes to preparing cars. With many 550 tracks in a row and a few surprise 750 races (due to working around local governments requirements), it’s been a challenging year for builders.
Dustin: Clint Bowyer had a good take on this. He said if a sanctioning body does well with preparing drivers up the series ladder, then it shouldn’t have to worry about removing them because of numerous on-track issues. Is that realistic when money can buy rides? Maybe not but it’s a goal for any top motorsports sanctioning body.
Daniel: I think a graduation/demotion system would be too complicated and unrealistic given the business structure of the sport. But NASCAR needs to take a hard look at how it approves drivers for the Cup Series. When testing is basically banned, the minimum needs to be bolstered. Should someone with 10 Xfinity starts and only two lead-lap finishes, like Quin Houff at the end of 2018, be given the OK to go Cup racing? I wouldn’t be in a rush to give my stamp of approval if I were NASCAR.
Dustin: If there ever was a graduation format, what track should host the “ceremony” and what would it be like?
Daniel: Texas Motor Speedway. Eddie Gossage already has a graduation outfit tucked away in his closet for the occasion from his many high school graduation ceremonies for young drivers. I’d expect plenty of pyro and an embarrassing montage on Big Hoss.
Dustin: Who would be the special guest? Got to have a special guest for this event, right?
The past two weeks have seen drivers who were outside a playoff spot win to secure a postseason position. If the streak continues Thursday at Kansas, who would you think is the best candidate to shake things up?
Daniel: Tyler Reddick is the easy pick for me here. He’s coming off a second-place finish at Texas which is his second career top five, tying him with Cole Custer. One of Reddick’s two Cup starts last year was at Kansas, where he placed ninth after benefitting from pit strategy.
Dustin: You took the easy pick Daniel. I’ll take the best pick. Erik Jones. Yes, this hasn’t been a memorable season for him but he has finished in the top 10 in each of the last four Kansas races.
Daniel: Hopefully Jones’ sixth-place showing at Texas is a sign of things to come. It’s been his only top-10 finish on a 1.5-mile track this season.
Dustin: No better time than now to turn things around for Jones.