New NASCAR Cup season features several changes

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While NASCAR looks back in celebrating its 75th season, there’s plenty new for the sport heading into the 2023 campaign.

Driver moves and schedule changes and are among some of the big changes this year. Here’s a look at some of the changes this season in Cup:

Drivers

— Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch has a different look, as he moves from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Tyler Reddick. 

— Tyler Reddick goes from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Kurt Busch, who was injured in a crash last summer and has not returned to competition.

Ryan Preece goes from being a test driver and backup at Stewart-Haas Racing to taking over the No. 41 car formerly run by Cole Custer, who moves to the Xfinity Series. 

— Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson returns to Cup after running the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. He’s now a part owner of Legacy Motor Club and will run select races for the Cup team. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500, driving the No. 84 car.

Ty Gibbs goes from Xfinity Series champion to Cup rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Noah Gragson goes from Xfinity Series title contender to Cup rookie for Legacy Motor Club (and teammate to Jimmie Johnson).

Crew chiefs

— Keith Rodden, who last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne, is back in that role for Austin Dillon at Richard Childress Racing, as Dillon seeks to make back-to-back playoff appearances. Rodden comes to RCR after working with the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors.

— Chad Johnston, who has been a crew chief for Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth, will serve as crew chief for Ryan Preece at Stewart-Haas Racing.

— Blake Harris goes from being Michael McDowell’s crew chief at Front Row Motorsports to joining Hendrick Motorsports to be Alex Bowman’s crew chief. 

— Mike Kelley, who served as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief when Stenhouse won Xfinity titles in 2011 and ’12, returns to the crew chief role with Stenhouse this season at JTG Daugherty Racing. 

Races

— What’s old is new. The All-Star Race moves to North Wilkesboro Speedway in May, marking the first Cup event at that historic track since 1996.

— July 2 marks debut of the street course race in Chicago, marking NASCAR’s first street race for its premier series.

— The spring Atlanta race and playoff Texas race have both been reduced from 500 miles to 400 miles.

Rules

Ross Chastain’s video-game move on the last lap at Martinsville will no longer be allowed, NASCAR announced this week. 

— Stage breaks are gone at the road course events for Cup races. Stage points will be awarded but there will be no caution for the end of the stage.  

— If a wheel comes off a car while on track, it is only a two-race suspension (last year it was four races) for two crew members. The crew chief is no longer suspended for the violation. 

— Cup cars have a new rear section that is intended to absorb more energy in a crash to prevent driver injuries after Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman each missed races last year because of concussion-related symptoms.

— Elton Sawyer is the new vice president of competition for NASCAR. Think of the former driver as the new sheriff in town for the sport.

Achievements 

— With a win this season, Kyle Busch will have at least one Cup victory in 19 consecutive seasons and become the all-time series leader in that category, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.

Denny Hamlin needs two wins to reach 50 career Cup victories. That would tie him with Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 13th on the all-time list. 

Kevin Harvick, running his final Cup season, is 10 starts away from 800 career series starts. That would make him only the 10th driver in Cup history to reach that mark.

NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

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NASCAR’s preseason non-points race, now known as the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, was born in 1979 with the idea of testing the sport’s fastest drivers and cars on one of racing’s fastest tracks — Daytona International Speedway.

The concept was driver vs. driver and car vs. car. No pit stops. Twenty laps (50 miles) on the Daytona oval, with speed and drafting skills the only factors in victory.

Originally, the field was made up of pole winners from the previous Cup season. In theory, this put the “fastest” drivers in the Clash field, and it also served as incentive for teams to approach qualifying with a bit more intensity. A spot in the Clash the next season meant extra dollars in the bank.

The race has evolved in crazy directions over the years, and no more so than last year when it was moved from its forever headquarters, the Daytona track, to a purpose-built short track inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

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Over the decades, virtually everything about the race changed in one way or another, including the race length, eligibility requirements, format, calendar dates, sponsorship and title. From 1979-2020, the race was held on Daytona’s 2.5-mile oval and served as a sort of preview piece for the Daytona 500, scheduled a week later. In 2021, it moved to Daytona’s road course before departing for the West Coast last season.

Here’s a look at 10 historic moments in the history of the Clash:

NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 2022 — Few races have been as anticipated as last year’s Clash at the Coliseum. After decades in Daytona Beach, NASCAR flipped the script in a big way and with a big gamble, putting its top drivers and cars on a tiny temporary track inside a football stadium. Joey Logano won, but that was almost a secondary fact. The race was a roaring success, opening the door for NASCAR to ponder similar projects.

2. 2008 — How would Dale Earnhardt Jr. handle his move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports? The answer came quickly — in his first race. Junior led 46 of the 70 laps in winning what then was called the Budweiser Shootout, his debut for Hendrick. The biggest action occurred prior to the race in practice as Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch tangled on — and off — the track. Both were called to the NASCAR trailer, where the incident reportedly accelerated. Both received six-race probations.

3. 2012 — One of the closest finishes in the history of the Clash occurred in a race that produced a rarity — Jeff Gordon’s car on its roof. Kyle Busch and Gordon made contact in Turn 4 on lap 74, sending Gordon into the wall, into a long slide and onto his roof. A caution sent the 80-lap race into overtime. Tony Stewart had the lead on the final lap, but Kyle Busch passed him as they roared down the trioval, winning the race by .013 of a second.

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4. 1984 — A race that stands out in Ricky Rudd’s career, and not in a fun way. Neil Bonnett won the sixth Clash, but the video highlights from the day center on Rudd’s 15th-lap crash. He lost control of his car in Turn 4 and turned sideways. As Rudd’s car left the track, it lifted off the surface and began a series of flips before landing on its wheels, very badly damaged. Safety crews removed Rudd from the car. He suffered a concussion, and his eyes were swollen such that he had to have them taped open so he could race a few days later in a Daytona 500 qualifier.

5. 1980 — The second Clash was won by Dale Earnhardt, one of Daytona International Speedway’s masters. This time he won in unusual circumstances. An Automobile Racing Club of America race often shared the race day with the Clash, and that was the case in 1980. The ARCA race start was delayed by weather, however, putting NASCAR and track officials in a difficult spot with the featured Clash also on the schedule and daylight running out. Officials made the unusual decision of stopping the ARCA race to allow the Clash to run on national television. After Earnhardt collected the Clash trophy, the ARCA race concluded.

6. 1994 — Twenty-two-year-old Jeff Gordon gave a hint of what was to come in his career by winning the 1994 Clash. Gordon would score his first Cup point win later that year in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, but he also dazzled in the Clash, making a slick three-wide move off Turn 2 with two laps to go to get by Dale Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan. He held on to win the race.

7. 2006 — Upstart newcomer Denny Hamlin became the first rookie to win the Clash. Tony Stewart, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, had the lead with four laps to go, but a caution stacked the field and sent the race into overtime. Hamlin fired past Stewart, who had issues at Daytona throughout his career, on the restart and won the race.

8. 2004 — This one became the duel of the Dales. Dale Jarrett passed Dale Earnhardt on the final lap to win by .157 of a second. It was the only lap Jarrett led in the two-segment, 70-lap race.

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9. 1979 — The first Clash, designed by Anheuser-Busch to promote its Busch beer brand, drew a lot of attention because of its short length (20 laps) and its big payout ($50,000 to the winner). That paycheck looks small compared to the present, but it was a huge sum in 1979 and made the Clash one of the richest per-mile races in the world. Although the Clash field would be expanded in numerous ways over the years, the first race was limited to Cup pole winners from the previous season. Only nine drivers competed. Buddy Baker, almost always fast at Daytona, led 18 of the 20 laps and won by about a car length over Darrell Waltrip. The race took only 15 minutes.

10. 2020 — This seemed to be the Clash that nobody would win. Several huge accidents in the closing miles decimated the field. On the final restart, only six cars were in contention for the victory. Erik Jones, whose car had major front-end damage from his involvement in one of the accidents, won the race with help from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, who was one lap down in another damaged car but drafted behind Jones to push him to the win.

 

 

 

Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to contract extension

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Chase Briscoe has signed a multiyear contract extension to remain at Stewart-Haas Racing, the team announced Thursday.

The length of the deal was not announced.

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Briscoe is entering his third Cup season with the team. He won his first series race last year, taking the checkered flag at Phoenix last March. That victory put him in the playoffs. He finished the season ninth in the standings. 

“It’s huge to have stability, with my team and my partner,” Briscoe said in a statement from the team. “It just gives you more confidence. Stewart-Haas Racing is where I want to be for a long time. It’s the place I’ve known longer than anywhere else in my NASCAR career.

“I remember getting signed by Ford in 2017 and I told people, ‘You know, if I could pick one place to be, it would be Stewart- Haas Racing. And if I could drive one car, it would be the 14 car. That would be the ultimate dream.’ And now, here I am.

“SHR has such a great group of people, from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series, and they’ve all just guided me in the right direction. From drivers to crew chiefs to crew members, they’ve always had my back, and that’s been a huge help – just having people believe in you.”

The 28-year-old Briscoe has been with SHR since 2018. He split a limited Xfinity schedule that season between what is now RFK Racing and SHR. He ran full time with SHR in the Xfinity Series in 2019 and ’20 before moving to Cup in 2021.

“Chase has made the most of every opportunity and the proof is in the results. Keeping him at SHR was a priority and we’re proud to have him in our racecars for many more years to come,” said Tony Stewart, who co-owns SHR with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, in a statement from the team. 

Briscoe’s signing comes two weeks after teammate Kevin Harvick announced that this will be his final season in Cup. 

The Cup season begins Feb. 5 with the Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before going to Daytona for the Feb. 19 Daytona 500. 

Dr. Diandra: Denny Hamlin, Dale Jr. right about altering playoff format

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“It needs to have a bigger sample size.” You might expect that from a statistics nerd, but Denny Hamlin said it. He was addressing questions raised by Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the Dale Jr. Download last fall about changing the playoff format.

“I think Dale Jr. covered it perfectly,” Hamlin told NBC Sports’ Dustin Long. “Should one season come down to this three-hour window?”

It shouldn’t.

Here’s why.

NASCAR is not like other sports

Under points systems up to 2003, a driver could secure the championship before the season’s final race. NASCAR’s playoff structure eliminates that possibility.

The last 10 races build excitement through multiple elimination rounds and lay the groundwork for more of those elusive “Game 7 moments.”

Just like other sports.

But NASCAR isn’t “just like” other sports.

The first difference is the field of play. Every NFL game is played on basically the same field. The difference between artificial and natural turf is minuscule compared to the difference between Talladega and Bristol.

Even if NASCAR rotates the season’s final track, some drivers have an advantage at some tracks. Weather limits the tracks that can host a November race.

Secondly, only two teams compete in other sports’ playoff games. Everyone competes in NASCAR’s playoffs. That lets mistakes or poor sportsmanship affect the outcome.

Forcing NASCAR into the mold established by other sports misses a chance to highlight racing’s differences.

Leverage NASCAR’s uniqueness to change the playoff format

When teams compete in twos, the number of teams in each playoff round is limited to powers of two: two, four, 8, 16, 32, 64. The graphic below shows NASCAR’s current playoff structure.

A graphic showing NASCAR's playoff format before any changes

Because NASCAR is different, it can have as many teams and rounds of playoffs as it wants.

Hamlin (and others) propose ending the season with a round instead of a race. The next graphic shows one possibility for changing the playoff format.

A possible NASCAR playoff format change

There are three rounds instead of four, and different numbers of races before eliminations.

There are many possibilities, but I chose a system with 14 drivers. Since 2017, when the playoffs started in their current form:

  • Only one of the six drivers entering the playoffs at 16th finished better than 11th. Kevin Harvick is the exception, finishing fifth in 2021.
  • No driver entering the playoffs in 15th finished the season better than seventh.

The number of drivers could be cut even more.

  • Of the six drivers entering the playoffs as 14th seeds, none finished better than fifth.
  • The highest-ranked driver entering the playoffs to make it into the Championship Four was Christopher Bell, who came into the 2022 playoffs ranked 10th.

Cutting the number of drivers in the playoffs is unlikely to impact the championship contenders.

I have only two races before the first cut because drivers making the playoffs with a single superspeedway, road course or dirt win rarely last very long before being eliminated. Darlington and Kansas are perfect tracks for this purpose.

I’d also require drivers to win two races before becoming eligible for an automatic playoff berth instead of the current one race.

Five superspeedway-style races, five road courses, and one dirt race made up 42.3% of the 2022 regular season schedule. Winning a single race doesn’t prove a driver is championship-contender material.

I’d fill the remainder of the slots with the drivers with the most points, regardless of wins.

Game 7 moments?

I have six drivers competing in the final four races. More drivers mean less chance of one driver running away with the championship. Make Talladega the first or second just to liven things up. Put Talladega too late in a round and the drivers will spend most of the race protecting their cars for the end rather than racing.

Only once since 1990 has one driver won the first three of the last four races. In 2007, Jimmie Johnson did one better: he won the first four of the season’s last five races.

One driver won the first two of the last three races three times since 1990.

  • Johnson (2007)
  • Tony Stewart (1999)
  • Davey Allison (1991)

Although the possibility of missing a “Game 7 moment” remains, it’s small.

Don’t underestimate the fans

One argument often made against changing the playoff format (or any other type of change) is that it would “require too much math” or “confuse the fans.”

NASCAR does an excellent job of disseminating information, especially statistics. NASCAR’s broadcast partners employ their own specialists, who not only do the math, but also explain it in the clearest possible ways.

And if my modification of the playoffs is too complex, let’s talk about the arcane Daytona 500 qualifying process or recent All-Star Race rules.

Hamlin was a little reticent to speak out on the issue of changing the playoffs because changes would likely benefit him.

But I don’t have a dog in this race, and I think he’s right.

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.