5 thoughts from Sunday’s Goodyear 400 at Darlington

Hendrick Motorsports Another Playoff Track Win

I wrote about this a few weeks ago and here we are again. Another playoff track hosting a spring race and another Hendrick Motorsports victor in it. Out of the 10 postseason tracks, we’ve already visited six of them. HMS has won 4 of the 6. They only two that they didn’t win was at Talladega (a wildcard track) and Kansas to where Kyle Larson was a half of a track away from victory.

On Sunday in Darlington, William Byron won but it very easily could have been Larson instead. More on this in a bit. Still, coming down to the second to last restart, HMS had three cars in the top four. That’s been par for the course on these playoff tracks thus far.

In Las Vegas, Byron beat Larson and Alex Bowman for an HMS 1-2-3. They went 1-2 (24-5) in Stage 1 and 1-2-3 (24-5-48) in Stage 2. A week later in Phoenix, Byron was and Larson was fourth. In Stage 1 it was Byron-Larson and in Stage 2 the other way around.

For Martinsville, Larson won. In Talladega, Kyle Busch won by HMS went 1-2-4-5 in Stage 1. For Kansas, Larson was second and Byron in third. Now, they won again.

Byron A Championship Favorite Now? How Sunday Was Redemption

William Byron is the first driver with three wins this season. That automatically makes him a legitimate title threat. But, when you dig deeper, among his three wins, all are on playoff tracks. This latest one in particular, it’s redemption for how last year’s spring race ended.

He had the race won but Joey Logano pulled the bump-and-run. This year, Kyle Larson and Ross Chastain had their on track spat which allowed Byron to sneak by and take the victory instead.

Chastain Again

Ross Chastain is at it again. He’s becoming a weekly newscycle in and of itself. He’s becoming the driver you pass the price of admission to see. Sunday was the 8th race in the last 10 that he’s had a hand in an incident.

In Phoenix, it was Denny Hamlin getting payback on him. A week later, Kevin Harvick spun off his nose on a late race restart. In COTA, he got into Alex Bowman on a late restart who as a result got into his teammate Daniel Suarez. At Richmond, he didn’t necessarily do anything, but Christopher Bell blamed him for being near him when he spun on a late race restart.

The next two weeks at Martinsville and Bristol Dirt he was quiet.

Then he was back at it in Talladega when he was overly aggressive on a late race restart with Noah Gragson which as a result indirectly caused chaos behind for which Kyle Larson was t-boned by Ryan Preece. A week after that, he was too aggressive early with Brennan Poole which sent Poole spinning and into an innocent Larson. In Kansas, it was his run-in with Gragson again. Then, this past Sunday when he admitted a mistake by getting into Larson late crashing both.

See a theme here? Mostly all late race restarts and Chastain being overly aggressive.

“I don’t care if he’s driving a Chevrolet if he wrecks our cars,” said the usual even keel Rick Hendrick. “I don’t care. I’ve told Chevrolet that. If you wreck us, you’re going to get it back. If you don’t do it, they’ll run all over you.

“I’m loyal to Chevrolet, but when somebody runs over us, then I expect my guys to hold their ground. I’m not going to ask them to yield just because of Chevrolet.

“He doesn’t have to be that aggressive. I guess at this point in the race maybe you’re super aggressive, but you just don’t run people up in the fence. He’s going to make a lot of enemies. It’s hard to win a championship when you’ve got a lot of paybacks out there.”

FONTANA, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 26: Daniel Suarez, driver of the #99 Freeway Insurance Chevrolet, enters his car during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Wise Power 400 at Auto Club Speedway on February 26, 2022 in Fontana, California. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Suarez Reeling

Daniel Suarez had a great start to the season. Leaving the third race, he was one of just two drivers to have a top 10 finish in all three. In the 10 races since?

Just one.

Suarez has gone from the top five in points to 18th (-13) in this skid which has seen him finish 20th or worse in 7 of the 10 weeks. To make matters worse, his teammate, Ross Chastain, is leading the points standings with five top five finishes.

RFK Racing’s Improvement

This is what Brad Keselowski left Team Penske for. Moments like 2023. He had a stable future there, but Keselowski wanted more. He didn’t want to leave the sport when he was done driving. He wanted a bigger impact. He wanted ownership stake. That wasn’t available with Penske. So, he left a championship contending ride for a rebuilding effort. Not only that, he’s doing so as an owner too.

That was a massive undertaking. However, 13 races into his second season as a driver-owner, that hardwork and sleepless nights are paying off. Both he and his teammate, Chris Buescher, are solidly into the playoff field if the regular season ended now.

Keselowski is ninth in points and 13th in the playoff standings at +95. Buescher is 13th in points and 14th in the playoff standings at +89. That’s a far cry from where they were a year ago.

Keselowski had one top 10 finish (9th at Daytona) at this time last year. Now, he has 6 including 3 of the last 4 weeks. His average finish through 13 races in 2022 was 18.54. This year, that’s dropped significantly to 14.46. He and Buescher were 1-2 late in the Daytona 500 even.

Buescher meanwhile had three top 10’s at this time last season. He has five now with a pair of top fives already. His average finish at this time in 2022 was 18.54 too. This year? 15.15.

Both he and Keselowski have combined to score dual top 10 finishes in 3 of the last 4 weeks and are surging.

Up Next – North Wilkesboro

NASCAR’s premiere series has raced at North Wilkesboro 93 times. However, they’ve not visited the North Carolina short track in 25 years either. The last race was held in 1996. None of the drivers in this field have ran a NASCAR Cup Series car around this .625-mile track.

So, there’s really no track analysis to use since it’s essentially an inaugural event for these drivers. No trends, nothing in the past will translate over to now.

However, the best place you can look to to compare past stats off of has to be Richmond. Both similar in length (.75 Richmond, .625-mile North Wilkesboro). Both are older surfaces and wear tires quickly.

This track surface this weekend is the same one that was used in 1996. With the few tests that have been done, it was unanimous that this race will be a tire strategy event and who can go the longest without losing much pace.

Which makes this like Richmond.

The faster you go early, the slower you go in the end. The slower you go early and if you maintain that pace, as weird as this sounds, you’ll be much faster later.

Plus, with the format using strategy, tires are key.

The only scheduled caution is on Lap 100. All teams will start on new tires and have three sets to use for the race. However, after the competition break around Lap 100, only one set of new tires can be used.

Example, if you pit for new tires on Lap 100, you get one more set to use the final 100 laps. If there’s a caution on Lap 160, most are going to pit for new tires. However, if someone doesn’t and elects to stay on the older tires to risk another caution and one happens, then they’re in the catbirds seat by having that fresh set.

That’s how crucial tires are.

If this is like Richmond, it may not allow for smaller teams to prevail at. Just look at the recent winners in Richmond. Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing have won each of the last 10 there including 14 of the last 15 overall. Similar to the old North Wilkesboro. The list of winners is a who’s who of NASCAR lore. Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and Davey Allison combined to win 18 of the final 22 races there. The only four they didn’t win were won by the Bodine brothers in Geoff and Brett.

Stat to Watch: 2 of the last 3 series champions ended up winning the All-Star race the year they won the title. Chase Elliott won the 2020 All-Star race at Bristol and later won his first championship. A year later, Kyle Larson did the same thing, this time the race was held at Texas. In fact, that’s actually happened nine times overall. Darrell Waltrip (1985), Rusty Wallace (1989), Dale Earnhardt (1990, 1993), Jeff Gordon (1995, 1997) and Jimmie Johnson (2006) are the others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s