Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Is Chandler Smith KBM’s No. 1 Driver?

Is Chandler Smith on the verge of overtaking John Hunter Nemechek as KBM’s No. 1 driver?

It almost seems like a preposterous question to ask, as John Hunter Nemechek won five races and the regular season championship last year in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

But make no mistake, Nemechek has been in a slump since the middle of 2021. After winning five of the first 13 races in 2021, Nemechek went winless in the final nine races. In the first 13 races, he led 485 laps; in the final nine races, he paced 87. And although he led the most laps at Daytona International Speedway two weeks ago and was on pace for a solid finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway until a last-lap crash, teammate Chandler Smith has been inching closer and closer into Nemechek’s rearview mirror.

While Nemechek is currently on an 11-race winless drought, Smith has won three of the last seven Truck races. He picked up wins at Bristol Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway last fall, and he has now followed it up with a third win at Vegas, defeating Kyle Busch in the process.

Smith is now the points leader, and Nemechek will have significant ground to make up on his teammate. With their performances going in opposite directions in the past few months, is Smith now Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 1 driver?

Not yet. Although Smith has put together an impressive string of races, Nemechek has looked significantly faster in the first two races of 2022 than he did in the second half of 2021. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Nemechek rattle off multiple wins in the upcoming weeks. But if Smith continues to win races while Nemechek’s winless streak continues to grow, Smith will leapfrog him on the KBM totem pole.

See also
Tracking the Trucks: Chandler Smith Surges Ahead for Las Vegas Win, Zane Smith Disqualified

Vegas became another instance where the leader lost the NASCAR Cup Series race after taking four tires on an overtime restart. Will this trend continue?

In shades of the 2020 Coca-Cola 600, taking four tires for an overtime restart is once again the call that costs the leader a win.

There have been 10 non-superspeedway Cup races that have gone into overtime since the beginning of the 2020 season. Of those 10, the driver leading at the beginning of overtime lost the race in three of them. One of those three was Denny Hamlin being spun by Chase Briscoe at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, but the other two were the aforementioned 2020 Coca-Cola 600 and last weekend’s race at Vegas – the two instances in which the leader took four tires on pit road.

In hindsight, it’s easy to say that it was a horrible call by Kyle Busch‘s No. 18 team. But the decision to take four tires had some logic behind it. Throughout the day, we saw Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola, Michael McDowell, Brad Keselowski and others take two or no tires on restarts, and they got swallowed up by the pack each time. Clearly, Kyle Busch’s team wasn’t alone in this thinking, as the second- and third-place cars in Martin Truex Jr. and Ross Chastain also took four tires.

But it was the Hendrick Motorsports trio of Kyle Larson, William Byron and eventual race winner Alex Bowman that took two tires, and it stole the show from the dominant cars.

Here is the fundamental problem with taking four tires for a two-lap shootout: the four-tire strategy only works if a team operates under the assumption that everyone else takes four tires. Yes, we saw throughout the day that two tires and no tires did not work. But the race is on the line and there are just two laps to go. Two circuits go by in a flash on most tracks, so drivers with track position but older tires will only need to hold off the field for approximately one minute. And if enough cars take two or no tires, that is not enough time for a team that took four to make up the lost ground.

In the case of last Sunday’s race, Bowman and Larson ran side-by-side for the final two laps; this effectively served as a blockade where the drivers with four tires were unable to pass either of them.

Non-superspeedway tracks longer than 1.5 miles, as well as the road courses, are the only places where four tires would theoretically work in such a scenario, as the laps are long enough to where drivers with newer tires will have ample time to make the necessary passes. But for 1.5-mile tracks, a driver that takes four is at the mercy of the rest of the field. And for these overtime restarts, track position means everything.

Who will leave Phoenix Raceway as the Cup points leader?

The first two races of the 2022 season saw 19 different drivers record top-10 finishes, the largest number in almost 50 years. This left the point standings incredibly close after the race at Auto Club Speedway, as anyone in the top 20 could have theoretically left with the points lead after the third race at Vegas.

And although no one went from outside the playoff standings to the points lead, Larson jumped from eighth in points to the points lead by virtue of his runner-up finish last weekend.

Heading into the fourth race at Phoenix Raceway, the opportunity remains once again for anyone in the top 20 in points to mathematically leave with the lead. In addition, the battle for the top spot is razor thin, as six drivers are within 15 points of each other.

Larson has the lead with 113 points, while Truex trails by six points, Joey Logano is behind by nine, Austin Cindric trails by 10, Kyle Busch is minus 11 and Almirola is 15 done.

Of these six, who has the best chance of leaving Phoenix with the top spot?

Either Larson, Truex or Logano. In addition to being the top three drivers in points, all three have had the most impressive performances at Phoenix in recent years. Larson won the Cup championship at Phoenix last year, while Truex won the 2021 spring race and finished runner-up behind Larson in November. Logano has also been great at Phoenix, as he won the 2020 spring race and finished second behind Truex in the 2021 spring race after leading a race-high 143 laps.

For these three on Sunday, it will depend on who stays out of trouble, collects the most stage points and shows up at the finish.

See also
Thinkin' Out Loud: 2022 Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas

Tyler Reddick and Ross Chastain have led the most laps in the last two Cup races. Who will be the next driver to have a breakout race?

Among the many pleasant surprises that Next Gen car has offered, one of them has been parity. Tyler Reddick was on his way his first Cup win at Auto Club, but a flat tire on lap 152 ended his chances after leading 90 of the first 151 laps. At Vegas, Chastain was the dominant car, and he finished third after leading a race-high 83 laps.

Who’s next? Briscoe looks to be that guy. He recorded his first top five in the Daytona 500 (a third), and although the finish didn’t show for it, he led a career-high 20 laps at Auto Club and dominated the middle stages of the race. Briscoe also impressed with a fourth-place qualifying effort at Vegas, but early crashes left him with a 35th-place finish.

If there is a race where Briscoe will challenge for the win, it will be at the road courses. All three of Briscoe’s top 10s in his rookie season came at road courses, and he was one of the best cars at the Indianapolis road course last year. In that race, Briscoe led 12 laps and restarted second with two laps to go before being slid off the track by Hamlin heading into turn 1.

If Briscoe picks up his first win in the 2022 season, it will come at a track with left and right turns.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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