Dr. Diandra: Kevin Harvick chooses the ‘just right’ time to leave

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For athletes, retirement is a Goldilocks question: Too early? Too late? Or just right?

Personal and health crises aside, no competitor wants to leave a sport while he believes he can still win. But neither does he want to be the past-their-prime athlete who overstays his welcome.

Racecar drivers are athletes. But the calculus of when to hang up the firesuit is much different than, for example, a sprinter who must push their body to the highest level of human performance.

I think Kevin Harvick got it just right.

It’s not because of age

Harvick, who turned 47 at the end of last year, was the oldest regular-season driver in 2022. Jeff Burton retired at age 47. Jeff Gordon retired at 45. Ryan Newman ran his last race just short of 44.

It’s not that older drivers don’t win. They just don’t win as often.

Drivers age 47 and older have won 29 Cup Series races1. The last time it happened was in 2009, when Mark Martin did it.

Five times.

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Drivers 46 and older have won only 50 Cup Series races — but Harvick is responsible for two of those wins. If any driver is going to go against the trend, it’s Harvick.

There’s no reason to believe Harvick can’t win in 2023.

Quantifying ‘too early’ and ‘too late’

Retirement discussions focus on age because it’s a quick and simple statistic. But a better measure of “too early” and “too late” is how many races a driver runs between his last win and his last race.

Only drivers who have won races qualify for inclusion in the calculation. I restricted the dataset even further by requiring each driver have at least 10 career wins. Harvick is an elite driver and, as such, should be compared to other elite drivers.

I counted races between last win and retirement rather than years because some drivers ran three or four races a year for a couple of years after their last full seasons.

Elite drivers before 1976 ran fewer than 60 races after their last win.

Buck Baker was the first exception. He tallied 138 winless races before retiring in 1976.

Benny Parsons ran an even 100 races between his last win and his last race in 1988.

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Buddy Baker drove the same number of winless races as his father did before retiring: 138.

The numbers go up from there. Richard Petty didn’t win any of his last 246 races. Darrell Waltrip went 265 winless races before retiring.

Bobby Labonte ran the most winless races between his last win and his last race: 363. But Labonte is the outlier.

Since the mid-2000s, elite drivers have run mostly fewer than 200 winless races before retiring. The table below summarizes the numbers for elite drivers who retired in the last seven years.

A table showing the number of races drivers ran between their last win and their last race.

In the worst case — if Harvick doesn’t win a race in 2023 — he will have run 48 winless races before retiring. In my view, leaving fans wanting more is always preferable to a once-champion driver posting an average finishing position in the high teens.

The non-quantifiable reasons for ‘just right’

The current crop of drivers is open about the challenges of juggling responsibilities as husbands and fathers while racing full time. One need only see the gleam in Harvick’s eye when he talks about son Keelan and daughter Piper.

Making the choice to step away earlier rather than later is easier today because drivers have many more options post-driving career. Early drivers didn’t make the kind of money that would allow them to retire. They opened car dealerships or pursued other business opportunities.

Today’s drivers plan for a second act — and they start early. Harvick is a prime example.

He’s run (and closed) a racing business. He owns a personal management company that represents drivers, UFC fighters, country music stars and golfers, among others. He is part of a group that just acquired the CARS tour.

He’s demonstrated his ability to bring his racing knowledge to fans in a fun and accessible way. With more drivers interested in (and capable of) becoming broadcasters than there are openings, drivers have to take opportunities when they come available.

Harvick has reached his “just-right” moment.

1 From 1960 to 1971 (excluding 1968), NASCAR lumped in the Daytona Duels with the regular-season races. To more accurately compare earlier and later seasons, I exclude those races from the regular-season count.

Front Row Motorsports Cup teams to have new crew chiefs in 2023

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Both Front Row Motorsports Cup teams will have new crew chiefs in 2023, the team announced Wednesay.

Travis Peterson will be the crew chief for the No. 34 car that has been driven by Michael McDowell. Peterson replaces Blake Harris, who will be the crew chief for Alex Bowman in 2023 at Hendrick Motorsports.

Peterson, 31, has been a race engineer. He spent the past five seasons at Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing. He worked with drivers Chris Buescher, Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth during that time. Peterson previously served as a race engineer at Hendrick Motorsports for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and also at JR Motorsports.

“I think there are a lot of people in the NASCAR garage who are noticing what Front Row Motorsports has accomplished with the new car and their truck program,” Peterson said in a statement from the team.

“This is an opportunity to come into a winning and championship organization and help take that next step of getting more wins in the Cup Series and be in the playoffs. I’m ready to get to work. I’ve always had the goal of becoming a crew chief, and now I’m ready to take advantage of the opportunity.”

Front Row Motorsports also announced Wednesday that Seth Barbour, who had been the crew chief for the No. 38 driven by Todd Gilliland, has been named as the organization’s technical director. Barbour will oversee all track engineering and car preparation processes for the Front Row Motorsports Cup cars.

A new crew chief for the No. 38 team will be announced later.

Also, Ryan Bergenty, car chief for the No. 34 team, has been promoted to performance director and will oversee all body and chassis assembly for all Front Row Motorsports entries.

“The past two seasons Front Row Motorsports has seen success and we’re taking the next steps forward,” said Jerry Freeze, general manager of Front Row Motorsports, in a statement.

“We know that Travis is a person that can immediately come in, take the baton, and continue to move the No. 34 team to the front. We also made several changes internally to help with car preparation and engineering for all our race cars and trucks. Our final piece is finding a new leader for the No. 38 team. We’re confident that with these changes that we’ll be even better next season.”

Front Row Motorsports has not announced its driver lineup for next season. Both McDowell and Gilliland have said they plan to be back with the organization.

Ranking the NASCAR Cup Series championship races

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The crowning of the NASCAR Cup Series champion took on a new dimension in 2014 when officials, seeking to juice the final weeks of the season with a new twist, decided on an elimination format, trimming the field as the playoffs progressed.

In part, the idea was designed to create “Game 7 moments,” or super-exciting finishes, as drivers competed to advance through the playoffs and, ultimately, to win the series championship.

The final races of the season since that change haven’t produced the electrifying, side-by-side, fender-banging finish between contenders that NASCAR might prefer, but most have seen emotional highlights.

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The tightest margin of victory over the stretch occurred in 2021, when Kyle Larson outran Martin Truex Jr. by .398 of a second to win the title. Close behind was Jimmie Johnson’s .466 of a second win in 2016.

NBC Sports ranks the eight championship races since 2014:

1. Martin Truex Jr., champion, 2017 — The Homestead-Miami Speedway victory lane excitement following Truex’s championship run reached an emotional peak rarely seen in NASCAR. Truex outran a charging Kyle Busch to win the race (and the championship) by .681 of a second, ending what had been a trying season for the Furniture Row team. Sherry Pollex, Truex’s long-time girlfriend, went through a tough battle with cancer, and Barney Visser, the team owner, suffered a heart attack, forcing him to miss the season finale.

2. Kyle Busch, champion, 2015 — Busch’s prospects looked poor indeed when he suffered a broken leg at Daytona International Speedway in February, putting him on the sidelines for 11 races. He rallied to make the playoffs and won the championship race at Homestead by 1.55 seconds over Kevin Harvick.

3. Kevin Harvick, champion, 2014 — The title race produced tension in the closing laps as Harvick held off Ryan Newman, who was seeking his first win of the season, in a three-lap run to the finish. Harvick advanced from 12th to first over the final 15 laps, winning by .50 of a second.

4. Jimmie Johnson, champion, 2016 — Johnson led the race’s final three laps despite starting in the rear because of a pre-race inspection failure. The championship was Johnson’s seventh, tying him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most in series history. Playoff contenders Carl Edwards and Joey Logano crashed late in the race.

5. Kyle Larson, champion, 2021 — Larson ended a spectacular 10-win season by outrunning Martin Truex Jr. by .398 at the finish.

6. Chase Elliott, champion, 2020 — Elliott’s car failed pre-race inspection, putting him at the back of the field for the start. That proved to be a non-issue as he won by race by 2.74 seconds over Brad Keselowski, sparking a wild celebration for the sport’s most popular driver in the first title race at Phoenix Raceway.

7. Joey Logano, champion, 2018Logano led the final 12 laps to breeze to his first Cup championship, finishing 1.72 seconds ahead of Martin Truex Jr.

8. Kyle Busch, champion, 2019 — In statistically the biggest runaway in the playoff era, Busch outran Martin Truex Jr. by 4.57 seconds to claim his second championship.

 

Friday 5: Jordan Anderson recounts fiery Talladega crash

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Life can change in a second, but Jordan Anderson endured 20 terrifying seconds in a burning truck before he could bail out of it Oct. 1 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Count to 20. 

Getting to 10 seems to take forever. 

Yet that is only half the time in which Anderson felt flames that burned his eyelashes, cheeks, neck, right hand, right arm and both knees. The heat was so intense that the front windshield started to crack. Smoke enveloped the cockpit.

One thought rushed through Anderson’s mind.

“Whatever is on the other side of this window can’t be worse than what’s going to happen if I just sit here.” 

His truck was still moving and headed for a wall. 

Nearly a month after the accident, Anderson said he will be at the track for the first time this weekend to watch his Xfinity Series team compete with Myatt Snider at Martinsville Speedway.

Anderson is recovering from second- and third-degree burns. He is thankful for the medics who treated him, NASCAR’s safety officials, friends, family, team members and fans for all they’ve done for him since the accident.

The letters and notes have been overwhelming, he told NBC Sports in his first public comments about the incident. He was struck by a message from a 13-year-old who stated that he was praying for Anderson.

“I keep saying the word humbling,” Anderson said of the support he’s received.

While it would be easy to lament his painful injuries, Anderson reflects upon what father-in-law Larry McReynolds recently told him. 

“There was more right that happened than what could have potentially gone wrong,” Anderson said, recounting McReynolds’ words. “With 32 trucks behind me, it could have been really ugly if I’d gotten hit or pinned in the truck or something like that.”

The 31-year-old Anderson was making his 138th Camping World Truck Series start that day at Talladega. While he’s had limited success with his underfunded operation, he’s gained notoriety for his dedication. He ran one truck an entire season and often drove the dually that pulled his ride in a trailer. 

He sold some items after the 2019 season to have money to purchase an updated truck. He finished second in the 2020 season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway in that truck and said: “This finish tonight, hopefully, is for every underdog in America, every kid that stays up late and works on his dirt late model or his Legends car and dreams of coming here to Daytona. Hopefully, this finish tonight encourages them to never give up on their dreams.”

Anderson started racing at age 7 and gained notice of NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin at age 10 when Anderson competed against Martin’s son in the Bandolero division at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Anderson was dominant. 

Eventually sponsorship mattered and Anderson didn’t have as much as he worked his way to NASCAR. The lack of funding stunted his success, but it didn’t stop him from competing.

That runner-up finish at Daytona in 2020 was his career-best result in the Truck Series. He matched it in the 2021 season-opening race at Daytona in the same truck.

He was driving that vehicle at Talladega on Oct. 1. Anderson qualified ninth in the 36-truck field and was running fourth on Lap 19 when smoke suddenly shot from the truck and then flames engulfed it. 

“From what we could tell,” Anderson told NBC Sports, “something got into the oil line off the pump on the front of the motor and cut hole in it. It basically drained the entire contents of the oil tank to the headers. That’s why the fire was so big and so hot and lasted for so long. 

“The way the Trucks have the naca duct on the right front A post (between the windshield and right side window) that basically kind of acted like a vacuum as the fire came out from underneath the hood and went right inside the (truck).”

What happened next, Anderson said, felt like was in slow motion.

“I remember seeing the fire on the right side of the floor, shutting the motor off, slowing down,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of motors blow in the past and there’s some fire that comes in and then typically goes away. (This time) it’s like, ‘Alright, there’s fire. There’s a lot of fire. Now the fire is in my face. 

“It’s getting hot. It’s getting really hot.’”

Anderson tried to slow his truck so he could exit. 

He drove off the banking between Turns 1 and 2, started sliding and slammed the brakes, which turned him back up the track as flames shot through the front wheel wells and the back of the vehicle. The field passed as he fought to regain control of the burning truck.

Anderson removed his seat belts, lowered the window net and poked his head out the window.

“I was ready to get out of there, whether it was the roof or the deck lid,” he said. “I was going to try to climb out there just because I couldn’t stay in there any longer. 

“It got to the point where all the adrenaline in me was like anything is better than staying in this truck. (That’s) how hot it got. I could feel like my whole body was just so hot. I could feel everything start to burn.”

He poked his head out the left side window a second time but saw he was about to hit the wall. He ducked his head back into the vehicle.

“I got on the brakes as hard as I could,” Anderson said. “I’m kind of like watching the wall get closer, and I was like as soon as I hit the wall, I need to be on the way out the window. You watch the video (of the accident) and if (I exit) a second earlier, it would have been really bad because it would have been me between the truck and the wall.

“I tried to time it just perfectly. It’s crazy going back and watching it because it looks like I can’t see where I’m going, but, thankfully, I can see out the left side window. I could see the wall. I’m trying to time it. Just was very fortunate that when I hit the wall, it just kind of helped (me exit). 

“I laugh about it now, it wasn’t funny at the time, but it kind of helped to jack me out of the truck when I hit the wall. I can’t say that I planned it like that. It looked like something out of a James Bond movie the way it worked out.”

With smoke billowing from the vehicle, Anderson climbed atop the SAFER barrier along the inside wall. He jumped from the barrier, briefly buckled, rolled to the ground and laid flat on his back as a safety crew arrived.

“I remember leaning on the wall, standing up, looking at the truck and jumping off the wall, landing on my feet and it was just like the pain of the burns kicked in,” Anderson said. “That’s when I went to the ground. 

“I can’t remember the lady’s name that was the first one to me, but everybody on the NASCAR side, they were to me so quickly and helped get everything off me. When they got me in the ambulance, they cut my suit off. That gave me some relief. 

“When I got to the care center, I was in a lot of pain. So they gave me an IV and that’s when they got me to the helicopter. To be honest, once I got to the care center, I don’t remember much until waking up at the hospital (after a helicopter flight from the track). … It’s crazy what heat can do because it did just feel like my whole body was on fire when I was laying there on the ground (next to the truck) just because everything got so hot.”

Anderson suffered third-degree burns on his right arm and neck. He had second degree burns elsewhere. 

Jordan Anderson is loaded into a medical evacuation helicopter at Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

It wasn’t until he was in the hospital for a few hours that he was offered a mirror by a nurse to look at his face.

“I looked over at my wife (Kendall) and asked the nurse, ‘Do you think all of this is going to be healed up by mid-December?”

“Why?”

“Well, that’s when we’re actually supposed to go on our honeymoon because we never got to take it during the season.”

“If you’re worried about that,” the nurse said, “you must already be feeling better.”

Jordan and Kendall were married April 16. She wasn’t supposed to be at Talladega when he raced because she was to have run in a marathon in North Carolina. The event was postponed by weather, so she went to Talladega for the race.

“I know it was hard for her to see it, but I can only imagine how hard it would have been if she hadn’t been there,” Anderson said of his wife. 

She was among several friends and family members who went to the hospital to be with Anderson after the accident.

“When they rolled me out of the hospital with a wheelchair, they were all in the waiting room,” Anderson said. “It was pretty humbling.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. dispatched his plane to take Anderson home to North Carolina. Earnhardt was among many in the sport who offered their support or well wishes.

“We all want to be competitive on the race track, but things like that off the race track, that means a lot,” Anderson said. 

Anderson can’t wait to get back on the track. This accident hasn’t diminished his desire to race.

“I’m not going to let this incident define me and who I am,” he said. “If anything, it’s just going to give me that much more motivation to get back out there.”

The 2023 season opener for the Truck Series at Daytona is less than four months away. Anderson eyes that event for his return. He may even drive the same truck that burned in Talladega since it has such a good track record at Daytona.

“We’ve already looked at the truck in the shop,” Anderson said. “The front clip is OK. We got to cut the A post forward and go send it to the blasters and replace the wiring because it’s all burnt up. The motor is not hurt too bad.

“I’m already figuring out what we’ve got to do to fix the truck and take it back to Daytona.”

2. Pivotal session 

Saturday’s qualifying session at Martinsville Speedway (12:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) could be the most important of the season.

Seven playoff drivers are vying for the final three spots in next week’s championship race at Phoenix and at least two drivers will advance via points. 

In the four previous short track races this season — both Richmond races, the spring Martinsville race and the Bristol night race — at least five of the top six finishers in the first stage of the race started in the top 10. 

Track position matters at short tracks since passing can be difficult. It was at Martinsville in the spring. The top six finishers in the first stage all started in the top seven. Stage points could determine who advances to the title race.

That’s why qualifying could be so important Saturday. 

“It’s tough,” Ross Chastain said of qualifying at Martinsville. “I haven’t figured it out. I just have struggled to maximize a single lap. It takes me, especially at Martinsville, a bit of time to get into a rhythm and start making lap time. … Definitely don’t want to start back wherever we started in the spring.”

Chastain started 27th in the spring at Martinsville. While he finished the race fifth, he scored no stage points. Six other drivers scored more points than he did at Martinsville that day. 

Chastain enters the weekend with the biggest advantage, sitting 19 points above the cutline, but that’s not a guarantee he’ll advance. Twice in the last three years a driver 20 points or more above the cutline going into the Round of 8 finale did not advance to the title race.

Chase Elliott enters the weekend 11 points above the cutline. William Byron is five points above the cutline going into Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBC)

Those below the cutline are Denny Hamlin (-5 points), Ryan Blaney (-18), Christopher Bell (-33) and Chase Briscoe (-44).

Hamlin qualified 25th at Martinsville in the spring, scored no stage points and finished 28th in the race. Twenty-six drivers scored more points than Hamlin did in that race. 

In the spring race at Martinsville, Elliott won the pole, Byron qualified fifth and Bell started seventh. 

3. Looking for a turnaround

It has been a rotten Round of 8 for Ryan Blaney, leaving him outside a transfer spot to the championship race. 

“If I wouldn’t have made a mistake the last two weeks, we’d be sitting in a really good spot heading into this weekend, but that’s just not the case,” he said. 

Blaney lost control and hit the wall while running third at Las Vegas two weeks ago. He finished 28th. Last week, Blaney spun on the access road after exiting pit road during a green-flag stop. He finished 17th. 

That’s left him 18 points behind William Byron, who won the spring Martinsville race, for the final transfer spot. 

In Blaney’s favor is that his average finish of 10.2 at Martinsville is best among active drivers. He’s also led in four of the last five races at the historic half-mile track.

Blaney also gets crew chief Jonathan Hassler back this weekend. Hassler had missed the past four races as a penalty for a wheel coming off Blaney’s car in the Bristol playoff race. Zachary Price returns as the rear tire changer. Jourdan Osinskie, who took over jackman duties after the penalty, will remain in that position. Graham Stoddard, who had been Blaney’s jackman, moves over to Joey Logano’s team.

Blaney still seeks his first points win of the season. If he gets it Sunday, he’d be the record-setting 20th different winner this year.  The only driver to make it to the championship race without a points win in that particular season was Ryan Newman in 2014. 

4. More to watch

While the focus will be on playoff drivers this weekend at Martinsville, non-playoff drivers will have some things to focus on.

AJ Allmendinger has finished in the top 10 in each of his last six starts. 

Brad Keselowski seeks to extend his streak of consecutive seasons with a win to 12 either this weekend or next. Martin Truex Jr. also seeks to extend his streak of consecutive seasons with a win to eight either this weekend or next.

Michael McDowell has the best average finish in the playoffs among non-playoff drivers at 13.6.

Keselowski has scored the most points in the playoffs among non-playoff drivers at 213 (William Byron has scored the most points in the playoffs of any driver at 294).

5. What’s next for Texas?

Marcus Smith, chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports, which owns Texas Motor Speedway, joined Dale Earnhardt Jr. on this week’s Dale Jr. Download and discussed a variety of topics, including if any changes will be made to the Texas surface.

With the All-Star Race moving from Texas to North Wilkesboro next year, Texas Motor Speedway will host only one Cup weekend in 2023 and it comes in the playoffs. That gives Smith time to decide what to do with Texas.

“What we’re doing now is working with iRacing to research a couple of different profile changes that we might do at the track,” Smith said. 

“I want to kind of investigate what the options are. We learned a ton with iRacing around the Atlanta (reconfiguration). Atlanta is the first track that’s been (reconfigured) based on an iRacing simulation.  … We were able to not just build a track with a CAD drawing and all the engineering and math that goes into designing a track, we were able to put virtual cars and go race and tweak it and make little itty-bitty changes that made a big difference in Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“The way it raced was the way we saw it was going to race on iRacing. That was a huge lightbulb moment. So we’re trying to figure out what could happen differently at Texas Motor Speedway. We haven’t figured out exactly what it’s going to look like yet.”

Sunday morning’s Cup race at Daytona: Start time, TV info, weather

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The final race of the NASCAR Cup Series regular season has been postponed by rain to an old-school time: Sunday morning at Daytona International Speedway.

Originally scheduled to be run Saturday night, persistent rain forced NASCAR to move the finale to Sunday at 10 a.m. ET (CNBC, Peacock). It’s a throwback to Daytona’s first few decades when the track would play host to a race on the July 4 holiday that started at 10 a.m. (allowing teams and drivers to be on the beach).

The track’s summer race shifted to Saturday nights after lights were installed in 1998, and it was moved to late August two years ago as the regular-season finale that sets the 16-driver playoff grid.

Among matters to be determined in Sunday’s race are the final two spots in the Cup playoffs. Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. control those positions entering the race, and at least one of them will make the playoffs on points. Both will advance on points if there is not a new winner Sunday.

Fifteen drivers have won races during the regular season, but 23XI Racing and Kurt Busch declined to use the waiver that would have put him in the playoffs. He continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms following a crash at Pocono Raceway last month.

Details for Sunday’s Cup race at Daytona International Speedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The CNBC broadcast will begin at 10 a.m. ET, the green flag is at 10:05 a.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 160 laps (400 miles) on the 2.5-mile oval.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 35. Stage 2 ends at Lap 95.

STARTING LINEUP: Daytona Cup starting lineup

TV/RADIO: CNBC and Peacock will broadcast the race at 10 a.m. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 10 a.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com and Peacock

FORECAST: According to wunderground.com, it’s expected to be 81 degrees with a 51% chance of rain at the green flag.

LAST YEAR: Ryan Blaney led seven laps and won last year’s race. Following in the top five were Bubba Wallace, Ryan Newman, Ryan Preece and Tyler Reddick.

CATCH UP ON NBC SPORTS COVERAGE:

Kurt Busch to miss start of Cup playoffs

Chase Elliott: ‘Nothing to be fixed’ between Kyle Larson and him

Julie Giese to lead NASCAR’s Chicago street race project

Dr. Diandra: The best Next Gen superspeedway drivers 

Zane Smith will stay with Front Row and expand schedule 

Joey Logano signs contract extension with Team Penske

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Daytona

Rick Ware Racing penalized for Watkins Glen infraction

Kyle Larson says he should have raced Chase Elliott with ‘more respect’

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson 1-2

Drivers to watch at Daytona