Truex in jeopardy of not advancing to Round of 12
Martin Truex Jr., the regular season champion in the NASCAR Cup Series, sits below the cutline ahead of the Round of 16 cutoff race at Bristol and is in danger or not advancing in the playoffs after Kansas.
Surviving Bristol is a prerequisite to a good finish. For playoff drivers, it’s also the key to moving on to the Round of 12.
The first two races of the playoffs were rife with mistakes, bad luck and a couple cases of bad judgement. Drivers in the bottom half of the playoff standings need flawless execution at a track where that’s a bigger challenge than most others.
Kyle Larson and Tyler Reddick head into Bristol with wins guaranteeing them a spot in the next round. Denny Hamlin, William Byron and Brad Keselowski are high enough in the points standings that they can relax just a little.
But only 40 points separate sixth-place Ryan Blaney and 15th-place Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Only 18 points separate eighth-place Ross Chastain and 13th-place Martin Truex Jr.
As Truex’s punctured tire showed last week, all it takes is one tiny misfortune and you leave the track with few enough points to count on a single hand. It’s impossible to avoid bad luck, so drivers, pit crews and crew chiefs must quickly minimize its damage.
Drivers must be on extra-high alert. For some, avoiding certain competitors might give them just enough of an edge to make it to the checkered flag.
2023 incidents and who was involved
The standard disclaimer applies: A driver’s involvement in an accident doesn’t imply he was responsible for the accident.
Larson’s Darlington win is significant because 2023 has been one of his worst seasons for accidents. After having only two DNFs in 2021, he had seven in 2022 and is up to six already in 2023. While an accident at Bristol won’t impact his ability to move to the next round, it could hurt his chances of building up playoff points.
Larson’s involvement in 14 caution-causing accidents is three more than second-place Joey Logano, who has been part of 11 accidents. Hamlin comes in third with 10 accidents.
Reddick, Keselowski, Christopher Bell and Kevin Harvick each have nine caution-causing accidents. Non-playoff drivers Ty Gibbs, Daniel Suárez and Austin Cindric are also members of the 2023 nine-caution-causing-accidents club.
Chris Buescher has the best accident-avoidance record with just three accidents. Truex takes runner-up honors with five.
I tallied the number of cars involved in each drivers’ accidents. Larson again tops the list with 61 different cars involved over the course of the season.
Gibbs comes in second, with 58 cars and Harvick third with 57 cars. Of the playoff drivers, Chris Buescher has the least number of cars impacted. The No. 17 car has been involved in incidents with 17 other cars.
Who needs to avoid whom?
The above list might seem to suggest that the best strategy for Bristol is to stay away from the No. 5 car, but the numbers don’t justify that conclusion.
Some drivers seem to run into each other more than they run into other drivers. That’s partly due to where different drivers run relative to the field. A driver typically finishing in the top 10 is less likely to run into a driver who normally finishes in the mid-20s than he is another top-10 driver.
For example, most of Austin Dillon’s incidents are with Cindric, Gibbs, Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland while Kyle Busch’s most frequent accident partner is Blaney.
Most drivers have had incidents with a good fraction of the other drivers over the course of this season. For example: Chastain has been involved in accidents with 19 other drivers once each. He’s had two accidents with five other drivers and three different accidents with Larson.
Because I’ve called out Stenhouse before for his tendency to get into accidents, I’ll point out that the No. 47 car is on the low side of accidents this year. Stenhouse has been involved in one accident with 13 other drivers and two accidents with only six other drivers.
The most mutual collisions any pair of drivers has had is four. Ten pairs of drivers have managed this dubious feat.
Harvick and Larson
Harvick and Gibbs
Harvick and Reddick
Larson and Reddick
Blaney and Reddick
Busch and Blaney
Larson and Almirola
Dillon and Burton
Cindric and Dillon
Erik Jones and Gibbs
Harvick, Larson and Reddick have each had four incidents with three other drivers. Gibbs, Blaney and Dillon have two each.
These sound like relatively small numbers but Buescher, Stenhouse, A.J. Allmendinger, Bubba Wallace, Justin Haley, and Ryan Preece haven’t collided with any other driver three times this season, much less four.
Harvick probably shouldn’t worry about Gibbs. All four of their collisions have happened during superspeedway races. But only two of the Harvick-Reddick accidents happened on superspeedways.
Both drivers might want to be extra alert when Jones and Gibbs are racing nearby: Only one of their mutual accidents happened at a superspeedway.
There’s been only one race with the Next Gen car at Bristol on the asphalt, and it was dominated by steering problems and tire issues. I instead assembled data from all Bristol races during the stage-racing era of 2017-present. I include accidents, but not those stemming from a mechanical failure like a tire or wheel loss.
Although Stenhouse significantly lessened his accident involvement in 2023, he has the highest rate of accident involvement at Bristol. Over the stage racing era, he had seven accidents in 10 races run or a 70% accident rate.
Aric Almirola comes in second with six accidents in 10 races (60%.) McDowell, Busch, Truex, Buescher, Byron, Wallace, Chastain and Reddick all come in at an accident rate of 50%.
Harvick has the lowest accident rate at Bristol (20%), followed by Bell, Keselowski and Logano.
Avoiding crashes at Bristol’s high-banked, 0.533-mile track is a stiff challenge given its reputation for beating and banging. But it’s one critical key to a good finish and a spot in the Round of 12 for the playoff drivers.