The Next Gen car was not kind to the more experienced Cup Series drivers last year.
Despite winning two races, Kevin Harvick has dropped 10 places in the 2022 standings compared 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 qualify for Championship Four and finished the season seventh.
But the new short-track package – plus a 50-minute practice session – favors more experienced drivers.
Historically strong veteran pilots in Phoenix
The chart below shows the active drivers with the best average finish positions at Phoenix Raceway from 2010 to 2022.
Last week’s winner William Byron has the least experience of any rider on the chart with only 183 The Cup begins.
Old skills become valuable again
Due to the new rules package, the drivers trained for 50 minutes on Friday instead of the usual 20 minutes. The extra time allowed for several rounds of driver feedback and car modifications. The teams also had time between practice and qualifying to modify their settings.
Veteran drivers (and crew chiefs) have more experience in the process of numbering a car on a track. Teams that have been together for a long time usually communicate better than those in new partnerships.
The new package, with its reduced downforce, will emphasize riders’ ability to enter and exit corners. Less downforce promotes more slippage and more tire wear. This gives an advantage to drivers with more experience in tire management.
One caveat: NASCAR confiscated the louvers of all four Hendrick Motorsports cars after Friday practice and Justin Haley’s car before Saturday qualifying. While we don’t know what – if anything – was problematic until well after the race, the seizure puts a question mark over these cars’ drive stats. Larson and Byron qualified in the top five, so they were clearly quick with the new louvers. There is no way, however, of knowing if the fall times from practice will be valid for the race.
Harvick’s first victory last year?
Harvick raced four generations of cars in Phoenix. Over 40 races, he amassed an 8.7 average finish. His nine victories are the best of any driver at this track and correspond to a win rate of 22.5%.
The California native has finished in the top 10 of Phoenix’s last 19 races, with five wins. He has 13 top-five finishes (68.4%) in those 19 races.
Rodney Childers leads all team leaders in wins at Phoenix with five. Childers has been paired with Harvick for 352 of 607 carries. Childers served as the Cup team leader.
Harvick and Childers last won at Phoenix in 2018 and qualified 15th for Sunday’s race. But being fast is only part of being competitive. The 2023 comeback package should make them strong contenders for this weekend’s race – Harvick’s penultimate race at Phoenix as a full-time Cup Series driver.
Busch’s experience may not overcome his team change
At 9.1, Kyle Busch has the second-highest average in Phoenix from 2010 at 22. But he’s still four spots behind Harvick. Busch’s Phoenix career average is 10.6 over 35 starts.
He’s finished in the top 10 71.4% of the time, including 13 of Phoenix’s last 15 races. He ranks second in wins among active pilots with three, giving him an 8.6% win rate.
Busch has already won this season at Auto Club Speedway. His average result of 11.3 in 2023 does not reflect the quality of his race, nor his third place in the Clash at the Colosseum. Its new manufacturer, Chevrolet, won all three races contested this season.
Although Busch’s new partnership with Richard Childress Racing has been hailed as a positive, RCR hasn’t excelled on short tracks in recent years. Busch was 29th in Friday practice and teammate Austin Dillon was 15th in a single lap. Busch qualified ninth, but the real test will be whether the team can follow the car through the race.
Busch crew chief Randall Burnett has 151 races of Cup Series experience. Only three of those runs are with Busch. The couple has not yet had time to build a common vocabulary.
Other drivers to watch out for
I almost left Hamlin off the list of drivers to recommend given how difficult the Toyotas were on Friday. Hamlin finished the trials as the 19th fastest driver. But he qualified second and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell qualified fifth. If the short track package works out as expected, Hamlin’s experience telling his crew what they need will give him an edge in the race.
Larson will run his 300th race in Atlanta next week. Ryan Blaney will hit the 300 mark at Texas Motor Speedway in September. Although not as veteran as a Harvick or a Hamlin, both have experience with the old way of running. Larson was the fastest car in practice and qualified on pole. Blaney was second fastest in practice and qualified eighth. Look how the riders are doing in the long stints: Blaney had a big crash in practice while Larson and Harvick had a lot less.
Logano was fourth fastest in practice but had more 10-15 lap drops than he did in his first 10 laps.
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Dr Diandra: Short Track Cup changes favor more experienced drivers originally appeared on NBCSports.com