Ryan: The racing was good at Kentucky … but the reasons why are more important

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SPARTA, Ky. – Maybe NASCAR should consider changing its rules every week?

Spin a gargantuan wheel to determine spoiler heights during prerace ceremonies. Sequester team engineers in soundproof chambers during races. Randomly change radio frequencies during the course of green-flag sequences.

This, of course, is folly inspired by the giddiness of witnessing the best Sprint Cup race of a 2015 season lacking for the sort of indelible moments that ran on a continuous loop Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

But after the smashing debut of a lower-downforce package, why stop there?

Fourth-place finisher Carl Edwards doesn’t think NASCAR should.

And the biggest takeaway from the Quaker State 400 is it proved the sanctioning body probably isn’t done, either.

“I cannot say enough positive things about this direction NASCAR is going with less downforce,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. “If you give Goodyear a little bit of time to work on a tire, take away another 700 (to) 1,000 pounds of downforce, we’re going to be racing. I felt like a race car driver.

“I could actually drive the car, I was steering and sliding. I about wrecked a few times. I felt like I was doing something.”

It felt as if we were watching something, too.

At the most maligned racetrack on the Sprint Cup circuit, NASCAR delivered, hands down, the most beguiling show on a 1.5-mile oval since last season’s gripping season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The numbers bore it out – 2,665 green-flag passes, a 132 percent increase over last year’s 1,147. There were a Kentucky-record 22 green-flag passes for the lead in a race with only 10 green-flag lead changes at the finish line – a telling indicator of how often the lead was being swapped during the course of a lap amid side-by-side battles galore for first.

Race winner Kyle Busch vs. Brad Keselowski.

Carl Edwards vs. teammates Busch and Denny Hamlin (and on a breaktaking swing to the bottom).

Busch vs. Joey Logano.

Though the race effectively was over when Busch took the lead for good with 20 laps remaining (leaving Kentucky still hunting for its first lead change in the final 10 laps of five Cup races), there was enough compelling evidence for a strong case the package should get another shot beyond the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

That would mean continuing to experiment with the rules during the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship playoff – an option that NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell left on the table last week.

There might be less resistance to that concept now than before Kentucky.

“Sold,” Edwards said with a smile when told of the passing statistics Saturday. “Keep doing it. Ship it.”

If the goal of reducing downforce as much as 30 percent was to de-emphasize aerodynamics and make it easier for drivers with stronger cars to slice through traffic, Keselowski made the best case for why it seemed to work.

Three times, his No. 2 Ford was mired deep in traffic as a result of being off-sequence on strategy or a subpar pit stop, but he roared forward after every restart on a track whose abrasive surface isn’t conducive to handling.

Hamlin fell two laps down after an unscheduled green-flag stop for a flat tire and a resultant speeding penalty. He finished third.

“I passed a ton of cars,” he said. “I blew a right front from abusing it, but that’s what this package is supposed to do.  You overdrive the car, you pay the price.

“So, this is what race car driving’s all about. I feel like now it’s back in the driver and crew chief’s hands to get their car handling like it’s supposed to.  Not just an arms race of who build the fastest cars in the shop.”

It’s too early to proclaim NASCAR smacked a home run in the quest for enhancing the quality of racing. Kentucky isn’t the best barometer for how races might unfold at the other seven 1.5-mile tracks, and Saturday marked only the first in a series of midseason experiments aimed at changing the game.

In upcoming races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, a high-drag package – essentially the opposite of Saturday night – will be rolled out.

At the dawn of a “race-specific” era in which changes will be tailor -made to tracks instead of manufacturers or seasons, there is justifiably cautious optimism.

“It’s just one race,” Hamlin said. “I think we can make it better. I think this is just a first little bits and pieces.”

The encouraging sign is NASCAR has shown the willingness to be aggressive in trying to improve.

There were many righteous openings for backing off the new package at Kentucky. Goodyear didn’t have time to bring a softer tire to match the loss of grip and provide drivers more security to maneuver. The frustrating confluence of persistent rain and weepers kept cars off the track for several hours of scheduled practice.

NASCAR and its stars still stayed on plan while trying to manage expectations, warning the tenuous preparations might deliver less-than-optimum results.

But instead, it might have helped juice the show. Without much track time to validate their sophisticated simulation programs, teams scrambled on the fly to adapt.

That’s a recognizable concept to the NASCAR R&D Center, where the buzzword these days is “nimble.” After years of trying to set rules for the course of a full season, the philosophy changed virtually overnight to trying to marry rules packages to tracks.

NASCAR, which sometimes is beset too easily by decades of institutional paralysis, must remain vigilant about being faithful to that direction.

As Keselowski noted postrace on Twitter, Sprint Cup engineers are too smart for teams to struggle for long. Solutions will emerge that help handling, and then the package could need more tweaking – perhaps by chopping the spoiler even further as Edwards as recommended.

He has been among the most vocal lobbying hard for changes like Saturday, even as NASCAR was committed to other directions. During a frenetic test last August at Michigan, eight combinations were tried. The last was a lower-downforce package (but higher horsepower) similar to Kentucky – implemented solely because drivers begged for it.

There were 10 of them raving about the results that day … but it still took NASCAR nearly a year to try it again in earnest.

Within the new setting of monthly meetings with driver councils, that response time must be more rapid. Often motivated by an understandably self-centered desire for personal results than the sport’s greater good, drivers aren’t always the best sounding boards.

Yet Kentucky illustrated their feedback is important.

“I had more fun racing tonight than I had on a mile-and-a-half (track) in a long, long time,” Edwards said. “NASCAR wants this to be the best product on the planet. And after some of the conversations that we have had, I’m really impressed that NASCAR tried this package.

“It says a lot about their willingness to try different things. Because I don’t really believe this is the package they wanted to try.”

All that mattered Saturday night is that it was the package that worked.

If that remains the guiding principle, NASCAR will be in a better spot.

 

Dr. Diandra: Muffling racecars won’t change fan experience

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Last week, NASCAR tested the muffler that will be used for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum.

“Heresy,” some fans cried. They argued that it is against the laws of man and nature to muffle racecars. That noise is an integral part of the fan experience. That you’re not supposed to be able to have conversations during races.

Relax.

The cars will be plenty loud.

Loud is fast

Engines produce power by combusting fuel and air in their cylinders. Each combustion produces high-pressure gases that push the piston up. The same gases make a loud popping sound when they escape the cylinder and finally the exhaust.

At 8,000 rpm, an eight-cylinder engine performs about 520 combustions every second. The faster an engine runs, the more combustions per second and the higher the frequency of the tailpipe noise.

That’s why NASCAR engines sound like grizzly bears and F1 engines, which run at higher speeds, sound more like angry mosquitoes.

Maximum horsepower requires getting the spent gases out of the cylinder as quickly as possible so the next combustion reaction can start. And that’s the problem with mufflers, from a racing perspective.

Mufflers on street cars bounce sound waves from the engine around a metal can. The waves interfere with each other, which decreases the overall volume coming from the exhaust.

Mufflers can also mitigate noise by directing the exhaust through a sound-absorbing material. Borla, the sole-source supplier for this weekend’s muffler, makes commercial racing mufflers that feature a robust sound-absorbing material superior to the commonly used fiberglass.

Both methods slow the exhaust gases — the first more than the second. The ideal racing muffler diminishes sound with minimal horsepower reduction.

Decibels

Sound-level measurements come in decibels (dB), a unit named after Alexander Graham, not Christopher — and apparently by someone who wasn’t the best speller.

But decibels don’t tell the whole story. Sound intensity decreases with distance, so you need to specify how far away the sound source was.

The easiest way to explain the decibel scale is to relate it to real-world noises, as I’ve done below.

A bar chart showing representative sound levels expressed in decibels.

  • Zero dB is the threshold of human hearing.
  • A whisper you can just barely make out is about 20 dB.
  • Most everyday noises are in the 60 dB to 100 dB range but are sometimes louder.
  • Exposure to 130 dBs can be painful.
  • A 150-dB sound can cause permanent hearing damage in a very short time.

Ringing in your ears the day after a rock concert was a badge of honor in high school. Older me wishes I had been a little smarter.

Hair cells — not to be confused with ear hair — facilitate hearing. Sound bends these hair-shaped cells, and the cells convert sound into electrical signals that the brain interprets. Loud sounds can bend these cells so much that they break.

Unlike animals such as sharks, zebrafish — and even the lowly chicken — humans cannot grow new hair cells. Once your hearing is damaged, you can’t get it back.

How loud are racecars?

A noise mitigation study for the proposed Nashville Fairgrounds track measured a single Next Gen car at COTA generating 112 dB on a straightaway at 100 feet.

A 2008 study measured the sound level inside a Gen-6 car to be an average of 114 dB. The study also compared sound in the stands, the infield and the pits.

Let’s add those numbers to our graph.

A bar chart showing representative sound levels expressed in decibels, including sound measurements from the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars

  • The Next Gen car at 100 feet is about the same loudness as a person screaming at top volume 1 inch from your ear.
  • The Next Gen car at 100 feet is just a bit quieter than sitting inside the Gen-6 car.
  • Bristol reached peak sound levels loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage.

The graph data suggests that inside the Next Gen car should be around 10 times louder than inside the Gen-6. Some drivers made new earmolds to cope with the additional noise in the cockpit.

Because of the way sound works, the numbers don’t add like you’d expect them to. A Next Gen car might be 112 dB, but two Next Gen cars are more like 115 dB. A full field would be only 5-7 dB louder.

The mufflers won’t muffle much

NASCAR expects a six to 10-dB reduction in sound with mufflers. A 10-dB reduction would make the Next Gen car about as loud as the Gen-6 car was.

Another way of looking at it: Good earplugs reduce sound levels by 25 to 30 dB. Wearing earplugs just barely gets you into the range of being able to hold a conversation if you stand very close to each other and you both shout.

You won’t notice the change in sound inside the track.

You also won’t notice a change in speed this weekend, despite a drop of 30-40 horsepower. The Next Gen car takes around 14 seconds to traverse the L.A. Coliseum’s quarter-mile track. That means cars won’t be going much faster than typical expressway speeds.

If you’re headed out to the track this weekend — despite the mufflers — bring earplugs or over-the-ear headsets. This is especially important for children, as their hearing is more easily damaged.

Joe Gibbs Racing adds young racers to Xfinity program

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Connor Mosack, 23, and Joe Graf Jr., 24, each will drive select races in the No. 19 Xfinity Series car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Mosack, who has a 20-race Xfinity schedule with Sam Hunt Racing this year, will run three races for JGR: Chicago street course (July 1), Pocono (July 22) and Road America (July 29) while also competing in six ARCA Menards Series races for JGR, including Feb. 18 at Daytona.

Graf, who has a 28-race Xfinity schedule with RSS Racing this year, will run five races in the No. 19 Xfinity car for JGR: Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 25), Las Vegas (March 4), Richmond (April 1), New Hampshire (July 15) and Kansas (Sept. 9).

“I made my Xfinity Series debut with JGR last June at Portland and from the moment I made my first lap in their racecar, I realized why they’ve been so successful,” Mosack said in a statement. “Their equipment was second to none and the resources they had in terms of people and their knowledge was incredible.

“Jason Ratcliff was my crew chief at Portland and he’s got a ton of experience. I was able to learn from him before we even went to the track. Just in our time in the simulator, we made some great changes. So, to be back with him for three Xfinity races is going to be really valuable.

“And when it comes to JGR’s ARCA program, it’s the class of the field. After having to race against JGR cars, I’m really looking forward to racing with a JGR car. No matter what track they were on, they were always up front competing for wins. To have that chance in 2023 is pretty special, and I aim to make the most of it.”

Said Graf in a statement about his opportunity with JGR: “Running five races with JGR is a fantastic opportunity for myself and for my marketing partners. I think I can learn a lot from JGR and showcase my skills I’ve been growing in the series in the past three years. 2023 is shaping up to be a great year and I’m pumped to get started with the No. 19 group.”

Ryan Truex has previously been announced as the driver of the No. 19 Xfinity Series car in six races this season for JGR. The remaining drivers for the car will be announced at a later date.

Mosack didn’t start racing until he was 18 years old. He went on to win five Legends car championships before moving to Late Model stock cars in 2019. He graduated from High Point University in 2021 with a degree in business entrepreneurship. Mosack’s first Xfinity Series race with Sam Hunt Racing this season will be March 11 at Phoenix Raceway.

 

NASCAR weekend schedule for Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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NASCAR’s winter break ends this weekend as Cup Series drivers return to the track for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

The second Clash at the LA Memorial Coliseum has been expanded to 27 (from 23) drivers for the 150-lap main event. Qualifying, heat races and two “last chance” races will set the field.

MORE: Drivers to watch in the Clash

Joey Logano won last year’s Clash, the perfect start to a season that ended with him holding the Cup championship trophy.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (Cup)

Weekend weather

Saturday: Mostly sunny. High of 71.

Sunday: Partly cloudy. High of 66.

Saturday, Feb. 4

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 2 – 11:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 8 p.m. — Cup Series practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 p.m. — Cup Series qualifying (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Feb. 5

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. – 12:30 a.m. Monday — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 5 – 5:45 p.m. — Four Heat races (25 laps; Fox, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 6:10 – 6:35 p.m. — Two Last chance qualifying races (50 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8 p.m. — Feature race (150 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

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The 2023 NASCAR season will begin with Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the second race on a purpose-built track inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Although a non-points race, last year’s Clash generated intense interest as NASCAR moved the event from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to Los Angeles. The race was rated a success and opened doors for the possibility of future races in stadium environments.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

MORE: Toyota looking to expand NASCAR presence

Year Two will find drivers competing on a familiar landscape but still with a track freshly paved. Last year’s racing surface was removed after the Clash.

Drivers to watch Sunday at Los Angeles:

FRONTRUNNERS

Joey Logano

  • Points position: Finished 2022 as Cup champion
  • Last three races: Won at Phoenix, 6th at Martinsville, 18th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Won in 2022

Logano put bookends on 2022 by winning the first Clash at the Coliseum and the season’s final race at Phoenix to win the Cup championship. He’ll be among the favorites Sunday.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 2nd in 2022
  • Last three races: 3rd at Phoenix, 4th at Martinsville, 2nd at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Did not qualify last year

Chastain was the breakout star of 2022, winning a pair of races and generally putting himself front and center across much of the year. Can he start 2023 on a big note? If so, he will have to do so without replicating his Hail Melon move at Martinsville after NASCAR outlawed the move Tuesday.

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 15th in 2022
  • Last three races: 5th at Phoenix, 16th at Martinsville, 8th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 10th in 2022

Sunday will begin the final roundup for Harvick, who has said this season will be his last as a full-time Cup driver. He is likely to come out of the gate with fire in his eyes.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 13th in 2022
  • Last three races: 7th at Phoenix, 29th at Martinsville, 9th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 2nd in 2022

Welcome to Kyle Busch’s Brave New World. After 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he begins a new segment of his career with Richard Childress Racing. He led 64 laps at last year’s Clash but couldn’t catch Joey Logano at the end.

Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 14th in 2022
  • Last three races: 23rd at Phoenix, 35th at Martinsville, 35th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 21st in 2022

Reddick ran surprisingly strong in last year’s Clash, leading 51 laps before parking with drivetrain issues. He starts the new year with a new ride — at 23XI Racing.

Ty Gibbs

  • Points position: Won Xfinity Series championship in 2022
  • Last three (Cup) races: 19th at Martinsville, 22nd at Homestead, 22nd at Las Vegas
  • Past at Clash: Did not compete in 2022

After a successful — and controversial — Xfinity season, Gibbs moves up to Cup full-time with his grandfather’s team. Will he be the brash young kid of 2022 or a steadier driver in Season One in Cup?