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Dr. Diandra: Short track Cup changes favor more experienced drivers

Kim Coon, Nate Ryan and Kyle Petty explain why they are expecting Chevy Motorsports to keep its momentum rolling at Phoenix Raceway.

The Next Gen car was not kind to the Cup Series’ more-experienced drivers last year.

  • Despite winning two races, Kevin Harvick dropped 10 spots in the 2022 standings relative to 2021.
  • Martin Truex, Jr. went winless.
  • Spins dropped Kyle Busch to a 13th-place finish, his worst in 10 years.
  • Defending champion Kyle Larson failed to make the Championship Four and finished the season seventh.

But the new short-track package — plus a 50-minute-long practice session — favors more-experienced drivers.

Veteran drivers historically strong at Phoenix

The graph below shows active drivers with the best average finishing positions at Phoenix Raceway from 2010-2022.

A bar chart showing average finishes for drivers at Phoenix from 2000-2022 comparing more-experienced drivers with less-experienced

The drivers include:

  • Harvick (793 Cup starts)
  • Denny Hamlin (617 starts)
  • Joey Logano (510 starts)
  • Brad Keselowski (488 starts)
  • Aric Almirola (427 starts).

William Byron, last week’s winner, has the least experience of any driver on the graph with only 183 Cup starts.

Old skills become valuable again

Because of the new rules package, drivers practiced for 50 minutes Friday rather than the usual 20 minutes. The additional time allowed multiple cycles of driver feedback and changes to the car. Teams also had time between practice and qualifying to modify their set-ups.

Veteran drivers (and crew chiefs) have more experience in the process of dialing in a car at a track. Teams that have been together for a long time usually communicate better than those in new partnerships.

The new package, with its decreased downforce will emphasize drivers’ skill in getting in and out of the turns. Less downforce promotes more sliding and more tire wear. That gives drivers with more experience managing tires an advantage.

One caveat: NASCAR confiscated louvers from all four Hendrick Motorsports cars following Friday’s practice and from Justin Haley’s car before Saturday’s qualifying. While we won’t know what — if anything — was problematic until well after the race, the seizure puts a question mark on these cars’ practice stats. Larson and Byron qualified in the top five, so they were clearly fast with the new louvers. There’s no way, however, to know whether the lap falloff times from practice will hold for the race.

The first win of Harvick’s last year?

Harvick has raced four generations of cars at Phoenix. Over 40 races, he’s amassed an average finish of 8.7. His nine wins are the most of any driver at that track and correspond to a win rate of 22.5%.

The California native finished in the top 10 in the last 19 Phoenix races, with five wins. He has 13 top-five finishes (68.4%) during those 19 races.

Rodney Childers leads all crew chiefs in wins at Phoenix with five. Childers has been paired with Harvick for 352 out of the 607 races Childers has served as a Cup crew chief.

Harvick and Childers last won at Phoenix in 2018, and they qualified 15th for Sunday’s race. But being fast is only part of being competitive. The 2023 throwback package should make them strong contenders for this weekend’s race — Harvick’s second-to-last Phoenix run as a full-time Cup Series driver.

Busch’s experience may not overcome his team switch

At 9.1, Kyle Busch has the second highest average finish at Phoenix from 2010-22. But he’s still four positions behind Harvick. Busch’s career average at Phoenix is 10.6 over 35 starts.

He scored top-10 finishes 71.4% of the time, including 13 of the last 15 Phoenix races. He ranks second for wins among active drivers with three, which gives him an 8.6% win rate.

Busch already won this season at Auto Club Speedway. His 2023 average finish of 11.3 doesn’t reflect how well he’s run, or his third-place finish in the Clash at the Coliseum. His new manufacturer, Chevrolet, has won all three races run this season.

Although Busch’s new partnership with Richard Childress Racing has been hailed as a positive, RCR has not excelled at short tracks in recent years. Busch ranked 29th in Friday’s practice and teammate Austin Dillon ranked 15th in single lap time. Busch qualified ninth, but the real test will be whether the team can keep up with the car throughout the race.

Busch’s crew chief, Randall Burnett, has 151 races worth of experience in the Cup Series. Only three of those races are with Busch. The pair haven’t had the time to build a common vocabulary yet.

Other drivers to watch

I almost left Hamlin off the drivers-to-recommend list given how badly the Toyotas struggled Friday. Hamlin finished practice as the 19th fastest driver. But he qualified second and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell qualified fifth. If the short-track package works as expected, Hamlin’s experience telling his crew what he needs will give him an advantage in the race.

Larson will run his 300th race at Atlanta next week. Ryan Blaney will reach the 300 mark at Texas Motor Speedway in September. Although not as veteran as a Harvick or Hamlin, both have experience with the old way of racing. Larson was the fastest car in practice and qualified on the pole. Blaney was second fastest is practice and qualified eighth. Watch how drivers do in long runs: Blaney had a large falloff in practice whereas Larson and Harvick had much less.

Logano was fourth fastest in practice, but had more falloff from 10 to 15 laps than he did in his first 10 laps.