Jeff Burton on the Darlington race that defined his career

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Jeff Burton has a Southern 500 victory, but his most vivid memory of the Labor Day classic is the race he didn’t win – and the ensuing tempest for months.

Missed lug nuts on a mediocre final pit stop cost Burton his first Sprint Cup victory at Darlington Raceway in 1997, but he still turned in one of the more memorable charges in the 65-year history of the 1.366-mile oval. Burton rocketed from restarting 11th with 29 laps remaining to pulling even with winner Jeff Gordon as the white flag began to wave.

That also was when the sparks began to fly.

Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet hung a left into Burton’s No. 99 Ford entering Turn 1, blunting its momentum. But Burton didn’t retaliate.

“We were so much faster, my thought was the worst thing I could do here was us wreck,” Burton recalled. “Because I’m going to beat him. So I lifted and gave him the spot, and I figured we were so much faster, when I came off Turn 2, I’d pass him down the back straightaway.”

He regretted the decision when he hit the accelerator and realized his tires had been covered by slippery debris after being forced low on the track by Gordon’s block.

“I didn’t have grip,” Burton said. “I didn’t have enough time to recover because it was the last lap. In retrospect, we should have went firewall deep.”

Gordon basked in the euphoria of earning a $1 million bonus from series sponsor R.J. Reynolds by virtue of winning the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500 in the same season.

Burton brooded in the chaotic disillusionment of a near-miss that left team owner Jack Roush and crew chief Buddy Parrott fuming for different reasons.

“A lot of people don’t know this but when I’m in the gas trying to catch (Gordon), Buddy Parrott is on the radio screaming, ‘You go wreck that son of a gun!’ ” Burton said. “So when the race is over, not only do we lose the Southern 500, and Jack is irate and just ripping Buddy’s ass about the pit crew. Well, it wasn’t 20 minutes later we’re in the NASCAR trailer, and NASCAR is threatening to suspend Buddy because he was on the radio saying, ‘Wreck that son of a gun.’ So now Jack is mad about that. He’s mad the pit crew had a bad day and mad NASCAR is mad at his crew chief, but he’s taking all that out on Buddy. I’m in there trying to defuse the situation.

“Not only did it end badly, it ended badly again. That was probably the most animated meeting I’ve ever been in related to NASCAR and a crew chief, driver, car owner. It made for a long night.”

It continued as Burton rushed back to Charlotte to attend the Carolina Panthers’ 24-10 loss to the Washington Redskins in the season opener a few hours later. As he ascended the stairs at Bank of America Stadium, every step Burton took was another reminder of the race.

“I heard 20 times, ‘You should have wrecked him!’ ” Burton recalled with a laugh. “I hadn’t even been home yet. ‘Should have wrecked him! Should have wrecked him! Should have wrecked him! Should have wrecked him!’”

The chorus started anew when Burton arrived at Daytona International Speedway for the season-opening 1998 Speedweeks.

“The first day at Daytona, and I’m going through the (infield) tunnel,” Burton said. “The guard at the gate says, ‘Hey man, good to see you again. And hey you should have wrecked that son of a (gun). I’m like, ‘Hell, man, it’s another year!’ ”

Though angry in the moment, Burton eventually came to appreciate the finish.

“Jeff did what he needed to win the race,” he said. “He put a move on me that I didn’t respond to the way I ultimately should have. I did what I thought to give myself the best chance to win, and it wasn’t right.

“But what we did to get back to (second) was freaking phenomenal. That was one of the best drives of my career. So, would I have done something different now? Yeah, but at the time, I did everything I thought I needed to do. It was a great race. I don’t want to be too dramatic, but that race summed up my career. We never gave up and put ourselves in position but came up a little short. That’s kind of my career, which I’m cool with.”

Burton scored 15 of his 21 career victories from 1997-2000 while finishing top five in points in each of those four seasons. Many of his best battles were with Gordon, who won two championships during that span.

After being hired as an NBC Sports analyst, Burton joked with executive producer Sam Flood that he would emerge triumphant in his second career over Gordon, who will join Fox Sports next year.

“I said, ‘Flood, he beat me in a race car, he won’t beat me in the booth,’ ” Burton said with a laugh. “I’ve got to win something.”

The South Boston, Va., native eventually did win in Cup at Darlington – sweeping the 1999 season with two rain-shortened victories at the track.

“The odd thing about that year, if you look at the stats, we would go there and dominate,” said Burton, who also had four Xfinity wins there. “You always knew the 99 car was going to be a threat, but we couldn’t win the damn thing. We’d always do something stupid and not win. Then we won two in a row with rain.

“Not that the track owed us anything, but it was an example that you only remember the times you got screwed. You forget the times that things work out your way. It almost felt like payback in some crazy way.”

Burton’s other thoughts on Darlington:

On where the race ranks: “Nothing against the Daytona 500, but I always viewed the Southern 500 as the race. If you could win the damn Southern 500, that was a big deal. If you were a better driver or did a better job of getting your car to handle, you had a distinct advantage at Darlington. Winning Darlington meant a hell of a lot more from a prestige standpoint than winning Daytona. I took a lot of pride of running well at that track because it was the track that was the best test of your team and a driver’s ability to be successful.”

On moving back to Labor Day: “You play the Masters a certain time of the year. Certain things just belong. I think that’s when it ought to be. Some traditions you shouldn’t mess with.”

On attending the race as a kid with two older brothers: “My dad would take the motorhome and load it with kids and camp out and stay up all night causing havoc. We’d sit in the grandstand off what’s now Turn 2 and then Turn 4. I remember my ears ringing. I think sitting underneath that roof, your ears would just echo for days.”

On excelling at Darlington: “The only way to run well at Darlington was to attack it. That suited me. My 100% wasn’t as hard as other peoples’ 100%, but that 100% was the 100% you needed at Darlington. So when I was pushing as hard as I could push, that was all there was to get. Maybe at Michigan when I pushed 100%, maybe there was a little bit more. Darlington was a test of team and driver’s ability to push everything to the edge of what that track would allow. That track wouldn’t allow what other tracks would. You ran every lap as hard as you could. You hear people talk about saving tires. I never did that. I ran as hard as I could from the time they dropped the green flag until we pitted. That’s why I believe it rewarded better drivers with better handling cars.”

On why it was so difficult: “It was the tire wear and the degradation of speed. You would run a certain pace, and that was nowhere near what you would be at in a run in a little while. So understanding the change of speed is what made it difficult. Being able to be fast when it counted. A lot of people would take off running fast. But could you still be running fast at the end of 30 laps? You’d have to continually be looking for what was the limit your car could find to run the optimum lap time. It constantly changed. You have to constantly find the limit of the tire with the limit of the grip (at the track).”

Appeal panel gives William Byron his 25 points back

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William Byron is back in a transfer spot after the National Motorsports Appeals Panel rescinded his 25-point penalty Thursday for spinning Denny Hamlin at Texas.

By getting those 25 points back, Byron enters Sunday’s elimination playoff race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC) 14 points above the cutline.

Daniel Suarez is now in the final transfer spot to the Round of 8. He is 12 points ahead of Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric. Christopher Bell is 45 points behind Suarez. Alex Bowman will not race this week as he continues to recover from concussion symptoms and has been eliminated from Cup title contention.

NASCAR did not penalize Byron after his incident with Hamlin because series officials did not see the contact. Two days later, NASCAR penalized Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for intentionally wrecking Hamlin.

The National Motorsports Appeals Panel stated that Byron violated the rule but amended the penalty to no loss of driver and owner points while increasing the fine to $100,000.

The panel did not give a reason for its decision. NASCAR cannot appeal the panel’s decision.

The panel consisted of Hunter Nickell, a former TV executive, Dale Pinilis, track operator of Bowman Gray Stadium and Kevin Whitaker, owner of Greenville-Pickens Speedway.

Here is the updated standings heading into Sunday’s race at the Roval:

Byron’s actions took place after the caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race that the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Drivers for Drive for Diversity combine revealed

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The 13 drivers who will participate in the Advance Auto Part Drive for Diversity Combine were revealed Thursday and range in age from 13-19.

The NASCAR Drive for Diversity Development Program was created in 2004 to develop and train ethnically diverse and female drivers both on and off the track. Cup drivers Bubba Wallace, Daniel Suarez and Kyle Larson came through the program.

The 2020 and 2021 combines were canceled due to the impact of COVID-19.

“We are thrilled that we are in a position to return to an in-person evaluation for this year’s Advance Auto Parts Drive for Diversity Combine,” Rev Racing CEO Max Seigel said in a statement. “We are energized by the high-level of participating athletes and look forward to building the best driver class for 2023. As an organization, we have never been more positioned for success and future growth.”

The youngest drivers are Quinn Davis and Nathan Lyons, who are both 13 years old.

The group includes 17-year-old Andrés Pérez de Lara, who finished seventh in his ARCA Menards Series debut in the Sept. 15 race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Also among those invited to the combine is 15-year old Katie Hettinger, who will make her ARCA Menards Series West debut Oct.. 14 at the Las Vegas Bullring. She’s also scheduled to compete in the ARCA West season finale Nov. 4 at Phoenix Raceway.

 

 

Name

Age Hometown
Justin Campbell 17 Griffin, Georgia
Quinn Davis 13 Sparta, Tennessee
Eloy Sebastián

López Falcón

17 Mexico City, Mexico
Katie Hettinger 15 Dryden, MI
Caleb Johnson 15 Denver, CO
Nathan Lyons 13 Concord, NC
Andrés Pérez de Lara 17 Mexico City, Mexico
Jaiden Reyna 16 Cornelius, NC
Jordon Riddick 17 Sellersburg, IN
Paige Rogers 19 New Haven, IN
Lavar Scott 19 Carney’s Point, NJ
Regina Sirvent 19 Mexico City, Mexico
Lucas Vera 15 Charlotte, NC

 

Dr. Diandra: Crashes: Causes and complications

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Two drivers have missed races this year after hard rear-end crashes. Kurt Busch has been out since an incident in qualifying at Pocono in July. Alex Bowman backed hard into a wall at Texas and will miss Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Other drivers have noted that the hits they’ve taken in the Next Gen car are among the hardest they’ve felt in a Cup car.

“When I crashed it (at Auto Club Speedway in practice), I thought the car was destroyed, and it barely backed the bumper off. It just felt like somebody hit you with a hammer,” Kevin Harvick told NBC Sports.

The three most crucial parameters in determining the severity of a crash are:

  • How much kinetic energy the car carries
  • How long the collision takes
  • The angle at which the car hits

Angle

The last of these factors requires trigonometry to explain properly. You can probably intuit, however, that a shallower hit is preferable to a head-on — or rear-on — hit.

A graphic show shallower (low-angle) hits and deeper (high-angle) hits
Click for a larger view

When the angle between the car and the wall is small, most of the driver’s momentum starts and remains in the direction parallel to the wall. The car experiences a small change in velocity.

The larger the angle, the larger the change in perpendicular speed and the more force experienced. NASCAR has noted that more crashes this season have had greater angles than in the past.

Busch and Bowman both had pretty large-angle hits, so we’ll skip the trig.

Energy — in pounds of TNT

A car’s kinetic energy depends on how much it weighs and how fast it’s going. But the relationship between kinetic energy and speed is not linear: It’s quadratic. That means going twice as fast gives you four times more kinetic energy.

The graph shows the kinetic energies of different kinds of race cars at different speeds. To give you an idea of how much energy we’re talking about, I expressed the kinetic energy in terms of equivalent pounds of TNT.

A vertical bar graph showing kinetic energies for different types of racecars and their energies

  • A Next Gen car going 180 mph has the same kinetic energy as is stored in almost three pounds of TNT.
  • Because IndyCars are about half the weight of NASCAR’s Next Gen car, an IndyCar has about half the kinetic energy of a Next Gen car when both travel at the same speed.
  • At 330 mph, Top Fuel drag racers carry the equivalent of six pounds of TNT in kinetic energy.

All of a car’s kinetic energy must be transformed to other types of energy when the car slows or stops. NASCAR states that more crashes are occurring at higher closing speeds, which means more kinetic energy.

Longer collisions > shorter collisions

That seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Who wants to be in a crash any longer than necessary?

But the longer a collision takes, the more time there is to transform kinetic energy.

A pitting car starts slowing down well below it reaches its pit box. The car’s kinetic energy is transformed into heat energy (brakes and rotors warming), light energy (glowing rotors), and even sound energy (tires squealing).

The same amount of kinetic energy must be transformed in a collision — but much faster. In addition to heat, light and sound, energy is transformed via the car spinning and parts deforming or breaking. (This video about Michael McDowell’s 2008 Texas qualifying crash goes into more detail.)

The force a collision produces depends on how long the car takes to stop. Compare the force from your seat belt when you slow down at a stop sign to what you feel if you have to suddenly slam on the brakes.

To give you an idea of how fast collisions can be, the initial wall impact in the crash that killed Dale Earnhardt Sr. lasted only eight-hundredths (0.08) of a second.

SAFER barriers use a car’s kinetic energy to move a heavy steel wall and crush pieces of energy-absorbing foam. That extracts energy from the car, plus the barrier extends the collision time.

The disadvantage is that a car with lower kinetic energy won’t move the barrier. Then it’s just like running into a solid wall.

That’s the same problem the Next Gen car seems to have.

Chassis stiffness: A Goldilocks problem

The Next Gen chassis is a five-piece, bolt-together car skeleton, as shown below.

A graphic showing the five parts of the Next Gen chassis.
Graphic courtesy of NASCAR. Click to enlarge.
The foam surrounding the outside of the rear bumper
The purple is energy-absorbing foam. Graphic courtesy of NASCAR. Click for a larger view.

That graphic doesn’t show another important safety feature: the energy absorbing foam that covers the outside of the bumpers. It’s purple in the next diagram.

All cars are designed so that the strongest part of the car surrounds the occupants. Race cars are no different.

The center section of the Next Gen chassis is made from stout steel tubing and sheet metal. Components become progressively weaker as you move away from the cockpit. The bumper, for example, is made of aluminum alloy rather than steel. The goal is transforming all the kinetic energy before it reaches the driver.

Because the Next Gen car issues are with rear impacts, I’ve expanded and highlighted the last two pieces of the chassis.

The rear clip and bumper, with the fuel cell and struts shaded

The bumper and the rear clip don’t break easily enough. The rear ends of Gen-6 cars were much more damaged than the Next Gen car after similar impacts.

If your initial thought is “Just weaken the struts,” you’ve got good instincts. However, there are two challenges.

I highlighted the first one in red: the fuel cell. About the only thing worse than a hard collision is a hard collision and a fire.

The other challenge is that a chassis is a holistic structure: It’s not like each piece does one thing independent of all the other pieces. Changing one element to help soften rear collisions might make other types of collisions harder.

Chassis are so complex that engineers must use finite-element-analysis computer programs to predict their behavior. These programs are analogous to (and just as complicated as) the computational fluid dynamics programs aerodynamicists use.

Progress takes time

An under-discussed complication was noted by John Patalak, managing director of safety engineering for NASCAR. He told NBC Sports’ Dustin Long in July that he was surprised by the rear-end crash stiffness.

The Next Gen car’s crash data looked similar to that from the Gen-6 car, but the data didn’t match the drivers’ experiences. Before addressing the car, his team had to understand the disparity in the two sets of data.

They performed a real-world crash test on a new configuration Wednesday. These tests are complex and expensive: You don’t do them until you’re pretty confident what you’ve changed will make a significant difference.

But even if the test goes exactly as predicted, they aren’t done.

Safety is a moving target.

And always will be.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval

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NASCAR Cup Series drivers race on the road for the final time this season Sunday, as the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval course ends the playoffs’ Round of 12.

The 17-turn, 2.28-mile course incorporating the CMS oval and infield will determine the eight drivers who will advance to the next round of the playoffs. Chase Elliott won last Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway and is the only driver who has qualified for a spot in the Round of 8.

Entering Sunday’s race, Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman are below the playoff cutline. Bowman will not qualify for the next round because he is sidelined by concussion-like symptoms.

The race (2 p.m ET) will be broadcast by NBC.

Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Cup and Xfinity)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 81 with a 6% chance of rain.

Saturday: Mixed clouds and sun. High of 67 with a 3% chance of rain.

Sunday: Sunny. High of 68 with a 3% chance of rain.

Friday, Oct. 7

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 12 – 5 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Saturday, Oct. 8

Garage open

  • 7 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 8:30 a.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10 – 10:30 a.m. — Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)
  • 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying (NBC Sports App)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Cup practice (NBC Sports App, USA Network coverage begins at 12:30 p.m.)
  • 1 – 2 p.m. — Cup qualifying (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 3 p.m. — Xfinity race (67 laps, 155.44 miles; NBC, Peacock, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 9

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup race (109 laps, 252.88 miles; NBC, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)