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Sport Lacking a true dominator, 750-horsepower tracks see best of several Cup playoff drivers

14:55  28 october  2021
14:55  28 october  2021 Source:   nbcsports.com

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Martin Truex Jr. standing in front of a crowd © Provided by NBC Sports

Two races remain in 2021, both at tracks utilizing the 750-horsepower rules package. They’ll stand as the final two races on the quantifiably popular package before it’s replaced by one using 670 horsepower and a taller four-inch spoiler (up from 2.75 inches, used both last year and this year).

This current package, predominately on tracks a mile or shorter, is the fulcrum of the two most important races of the Cup Series season — the penultimate round’s finale and the winner-take-all championship race. Different from races this season on 550-horsepower tracks and road courses where Hendrick Motorsports tallied 11 of a possible 19 wins, events on 750-horsepower ovals have been wide open, both in terms of performance metrics and results.

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There doesn’t appear to be one true king of the 750-horsepower tracks this year, which makes the next two weekends all the more fascinating, in addition to their preexisting championship implications. A few of the playoff contenders have proved themselves in some form or fashion, either through basic stats (like wins or points earned) or advanced metrics:

Martin Truex Jr.

Ranks first in wins (four) and first in position retention rate on restarts (77.27%)

Truex’s four victories is the biggest tally on the track type in question. While he wasn’t an outright dominator — he turned the fastest median lap in just one of those wins (Darlington) — and ranks fourth in average median lap time this season across all 750-horsepower tracks, he and his team displayed a knack for late-race heroics. In three of his four wins, he turned the fastest median lap of the final stage. The outlier, the spring race in Martinsville, saw him secure the fastest median lap across the final 100 circuits of the 500-lap contest.

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Crew chief James Small assisted in making the car progressively faster, tapping into early caution periods and whatever other yellows fell to their benefit. But Truex’s sterling short runs on 750-horsepower ovals kept them in the ballgame, even after longer-than-usual pit stops necessary for radical setup adjustments. No driver defended his restarting position on these tracks more frequently than Truex’s 77.27% clip. This maintenance of positioning at the beginning of runs was enough of a springboard until the adjusted-upon speed kicked in on long runs.

Denny Hamlin

Ranks first in average median lap time ranking (5.43) and first in points averaged (46.8)

It seemed as if Hamlin left two surefire wins on the table at both Martinsville and Richmond in the regular season, but panic over the outcomes glossed over the fact that his near-perfect performance on 750-horsepower tracks is significantly improved over his 2020 effort.

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In isolation, he accomplished things this year no other driver could. His was the only car to pass for the lead on a restart when starting from the outside line on the front row at Martinsville, a short-run stalwart that ultimately lost to Truex after a 41-lap run to the finish. He also took advantage of strategy and restarts in the playoff opener at Darlington, using the fourth-fastest car in the race to defeat the fastest car (Kyle Larson), claiming his first victory of 2021 and the first Southern 500 win of his career.

For the whole of the season, no car has been faster per average median lap time than Hamlin’s. He also turned the fastest median lap and the fastest lap in general at Phoenix, a notion that, if Hamlin makes it through Martinsville, should give Larson supporters pause before anointing their driver the favorite in the championship race.

Ryan Blaney

Ranks first in expected adjusted pass efficiency (53.84%) and first in positions gained on restarts (+22)

To this point in his career, Blaney has only won on big racetracks. All seven of his Cup victories came on tracks 1.5 miles or larger. But his record belies his ability, especially at facilities utilizing the 750-horsepower package.

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He led over 31% of the spring race at Martinsville and recorded the fastest median lap on the equally flat half-mile track in New Hampshire. Neither of those races amounted to commensurate results — he finished 11th and fifth, respectively — but they potentially serve as a precursor of things to come. He also led 35 laps in the Phoenix spring race. If he advances to the Championship 4, he’s a legitimate threat to win the title.

That threat is a consistent one. By virtue of his regularity at the front of fields, his expected adjusted pass efficiency (53.84%) tops the series on 750-horsepower ovals. He backs up this statistical expectation with the third-best actual adjusted pass efficiency and the biggest positional gain on restarts (+22), establishing himself as a viable driver on runs long and short.

Chase Elliott

Ranks second in actual adjusted pass efficiency (55.91%) and second in average best lap time (5.91)

The reigning champ now approaches two tracks that catapulted him to the title but may lack equivalent speed in what’s become a more crowded specialty within the series. His car ranks sixth in average median lap time, but his second-place standing in his average best lap time — the average ranking of a team’s best lap in each race — suggests there’s realistic room for growth at an opportune time.

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A sudden but achievable improvement in how Elliott sustains speed, coupled with the reliability of his long-run passing — he ranks second in both adjusted pass efficiency and first among playoff drivers in surplus passing value — could unlock a driver whose best days as a NASCAR driver came at Martinsville and Phoenix just one year ago.

Joey Logano

Ranks second in average median lap time ranking (8.58) and second in positions gained on restarts (+21)

Despite going winless on the non-dirt 750-horsepower ovals, Logano averaged the fourth-most points, a subtle reminder that there’s more here than meets the eye. His Team Penske entry ranks as the second fastest on tracks utilizing the rules package and he’s one position short of stablemate Blaney’s restarting net.

But given his distance to the cutline, the stature of his performance Sunday will have to be better than anything we’ve seen from him to this point in the season and could perhaps require a healthy dose of long runs toward the end of the race, helping take advantage of his biggest strength.

Beyond Martinsville sits Phoenix, where Logano led a race-high 45.8% of the race in the spring.

Kyle Larson

Ranks first in actual adjusted pass efficiency (56.1%) and third in average median lap ranking (8.71)

Even with the heightened competition on 750-horsepower tracks, Larson is elite in spots. He’s a two-time winner this season, though his triumphs at Nashville and Bristol don’t totally translate to the tracks we’ll see over the next two weeks. Still, he has a lot of speed — ranked third in average median lap time — and passes efficiently. He has the second-biggest points total on these tracks to this point but requires improvement at Phoenix if he intends on securing the championship.

A lack of advantage for any driver, including Larson, is apparent. The next two weeks don’t favor any one driver in particular which could make for an entertaining final stretch for both the 2021 season and the era of the 750-horsepower package.

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Lacking a true dominator, 750-horsepower tracks see best of several Cup playoff drivers originally appeared on NBCSports.com

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