The Cup Series has more than doubled its road course stops, greatly impacting the title chase
With changes come ramifications, and the ripple effect created by NASCAR's decision to increase the traditional number of road course events from three to seven, including six in the regular season, could evolve into a tidal wave for its top programs. Gone are regular-season races at Auto Club, Texas, Michigan, Kentucky and on the oval in Indianapolis, replaced by Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Road America in Wisconsin and the Indianapolis and Daytona road courses. The new-look schedule should strengthen those teams with efficient road course navigators while penalizing those consistently good at facilities 1.5 miles or longer.
Who benefits? Who is hindered? Let's take a look:
Hendrick Motorsports benefits
It's difficult to overstate how dominant Chase Elliott has been on NASCAR road courses over the last two years. His victory last fall on Charlotte's Roval was his fourth consecutive road course win, tying a record set by Hendrick predecessor Jeff Gordon. But Elliott's speed is only one facet of Hendrick's road strength. Even in down seasons leading up to 2020, its road course program never wavered, and there's another driver set to take advantage of the enhanced focus on right-hand turns.
William Byron has yet to win a Cup Series road-course race, but the ingredients to do so are firmly in his possession. Across the last two years, he secured the fourth-most efficient surplus passing value (plus-7.09 percent, for a pass differential 72 positions better than his expectation) and qualified his way to front-row starting spots in each of 2019's three road-course events. His driver coach, Max Papis, is not only a former road course race winner in IMSA and CART, but also one of the Roval's original consulting course designers.
What is surplus passing value?
Surplus passing value is the difference in a driver's pass efficiency — measuring the percentage of positive pass encounters — and the expected pass efficiency of a driver with the same average running position, based on a field-wide slope, compiled by Motorsports Analytics.
(+) Most Efficient Road Course Passers, 2019-20
|Driver||Surplus Pass Value||Surplus Pass Diff.|
|1. Ross Chastain||+19.79%||+69|
|2. Martin Truex Jr.||+13.35%||+96|
|3. Chase Elliott||+7.53%||+58|
|4. William Byron||+7.09%||+72|
|5. Kurt Busch||+4.91%||+59|
(-) Least Efficient Road Course Passers, 2019-29
|Driver||Surplus Pass Value||Surplus Pass Diff.|
|1. Ryan Newman||-6.99%||-87|
|2. Tyler Reddick||-5.93%||-48|
|3. Kevin Harvick||-4.78%||-53|
|4. Christopher Bell||-4.44%||-31|
|5. Cole Custer||-4.40%||-31|
Stewart-Haas Racing's three returning drivers are hindered
What do Indianapolis, Kentucky and Michigan have in common, other than their change or omission from the 2021 schedule? They're tracks on which SHR claimed victory last season.
News of a schedule shuffle was a blow to this championship-contending Ford stable, evident in the road course passing efficiency of its three returning drivers — Kevin Harvick, Cole Custer and Aric Almirola. Across the last two seasons, Harvick's minus-4.78 percent surplus passing value yielded a pass differential 53 positions worse than expected, the third-least efficient mark among all active drivers. Similarly, the marks for Custer and Almirola rank as the fifth- and sixth-least efficient in the series, respectively. In nine career starts at Watkins Glen, Almirola averaged a 23rd-place finish.
This double-whammy — losing strong tracks and seeing them replaced by weak ones — will prove a high hurdle for SHR. It lessens the potential for a dominant Harvick season and greatly affects the possibility of playoff qualification for both Almirola and Custer, the latter of whom secured his 2020 postseason spot via a win at Kentucky.
Chip Ganassi Racing benefits
The latter shouldn't come as a shock; Busch, the 2004 series champion, has long been one of the sport's precision movers through traffic. He earned a pass differential 59 positions better than the expectation on road courses across the last two seasons; his frequent long-run passing helped secure a fourth-place finish in last fall's race on the Roval despite a restart gone bad on lap 25, which cost him 27 positions in the running order.
Chastain is the wild card between the two. On paper, he secured positions at a high clip in 2019 — 69 positions more than expected — but he drove for a back-marker team against similarly equipped drivers. The caliber of talent against whom he'll compete is much higher this season; however, his passing across four Xfinity Series road course races in 2020 — all on tracks that the Cup Series will visit — resulted in a surplus 40 positions gained and a trio of finishes at seventh place or better.
Richard Childress Racing is hindered
RCR's best road course finish since 2018 — and its only top-10 finish — belongs to Kaz Grala, whose eleventh-hour substitution for Austin Dillon last summer in Daytona culminated with a surprising seventh-place run. That's good for Grala, but not great for either Dillon or rising sophomore Tyler Reddick.
Texas, the site of RCR's 1-2 finish in 2020 — Dillon was the victor — is off the regular-season schedule, rocking a program that has made strides in recent seasons on the bigger ovals. Those strides have been disrupted, however, because neither Dillon, whose best career road course finish is 16th place, nor Reddick is especially adept at turning right. In his three 2019 outings, Dillon turned in negative surplus passing marks — 17 positions worse than expected at Sonoma, 14 worse at Watkins Glen and 27 worse on the Roval. Reddick, meanwhile, turned in the second-least efficient surplus passing value among active Cup drivers across the last two seasons, a minus-5.93 percent mark suggesting that his 15th-place average finish on the track type might be difficult to replicate.
Chase Briscoe benefits
Potentially SHR's lone bright spot on the road courses, Chase Briscoe earned a promotion from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series, thanks in part to his affinity for road course racing, a trait nurtured through his developmental regimen with Ford Racing.
A driver with a dirt-racing background, Briscoe was drilled in sports cars through Trans-Am and the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, participating in more than 10 races on tracks like Daytona, Sebring and Road Atlanta across the last three seasons. He triumphed last year on the Indianapolis road course, in which a race-best 88 percent of his pass encounters resulted in passes in his favor.
The rookie will have six chances at winning on a road course during the regular season to secure a playoff berth; those six races will also prove integral to his point-padding in the event he has to qualify for the playoffs in a more traditional manner.
Christopher Bell is hindered
Just as Christopher Bell lands a sweet new ride with Joe Gibbs Racing, the schedule pivots away from the tracks that traditionally suit the powerhouse organization, tracks on which he was poised to take advantage.
Instead, the dirt-racing savant must learn the ways of the road circuits, a source of consternation through his first season and a half in the Xfinity Series, in which he averaged a 13.4-place finish through his first five starts on the track type. He improved in his second full Xfinity Series season — winning at Road America and earning two more top-2 finishes — but there's still a shortcoming to be addressed if his passing numbers last season are any indication. His minus-4.44 percent surplus passing value was the fourth-least efficient mark in the Cup Series, resulting in 31 positions lost beyond his expectation and finishes of 21st and 24th in his only two road course starts in 2020.
— Written by David Smith (@DavidSmithMA), who is a writer and analyst for MotorsportsAnalytics.com and the co-host of Positive Regression: A Motorsports Analytics Podcast, for Athlon Sports' 2021 Racing magazine. With 144 pages of racing content, it's the most complete preview available today. Click here to get your copy.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)