Restart controversy all the rage entering Chase

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CHICAGO – From lengthening the controversial zone where a leader controls the field to expanding NASCAR’s enforcement, every Chase for the Sprint Cup contender seemingly had an opinion about restarts Thursday.

It’s been the topic du jour for the past month in the Sprint Cup Series, where prerace driver meetings have drawn a plethora of questions from drivers, crew chiefs and team owners about the proper procedures. After a final restart Saturday at Richmond International Raceway by winner Matt Kenseth left rival team owner Roger Penske fuming at NASCAR for the lack of a penalty, it remained top of mind for title contenders entering Sunday’s playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway on NBCSN.

Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon suggested NASCAR should lengthen the restart zone in which the leader is required to hit the accelerator. The distance of the zone in feet is the pit speed doubled – for example, if pit speed is 35 mph, the zone is 70 feet long.

“The first thing you’ve got to do is make the restart box bigger,” Gordon said. “I mean, we’ve been asking for this for a long time. It’s too small. We went from having it way too big to now it’s way too small.

“The box is so small that the guy who is in second place has an advantage. They can anticipate the start because they know you’re going to start in that box. So of course a driver is going to try to get any edge he can, and they’ve earned that right being the leader, and the leader is supposed to start the race. So that’s why guys are jumping.”

Gordon hadn’t seen a replay of Kenseth’s restart but said it wouldn’t be surprising if Kenseth left early because “he knows they’re not going to call it. And until they call it, guys are going to continue to push (the limit). And it’s mainly because the restart box isn’t big enough. If you make the restart box bigger, they’re not going to have to worry about calling that because now you can (go) anywhere in that box and get that edge you deserve (as the leader).”

NASCAR implemented double-file restarts six years ago, and the howls from competitors began almost immediately. For the 2013 Chase opener, a rule was changed to allow the second-place car to beat the leader to the starting line after gamesmanship prompted controversy.

Officials have maintained they want to leave the officiating in the drivers’ hands, but Kyle Busch said NASCAR needed to be more proactive in throwing the black flag for restart infractions.

“I’m not comfortable one bit with how they’re officiating it,” he said. “I think they need to step in. I think it’s gone too long. It’s really stupid the way some of these restarts are being handled by the drivers.”

Busch, who was in a precarious points position trying to make the Chase after missing the first 11 races of the season, said he had been punished by NASCAR’s laissez-faire policy.

“I’ve had it bite me,” he said. “I always have it in the back of my mind there’s a chance I’m going to get black-flagged for a bad restart or a poor choice in how I handle a restart. Some of these other guys, I don’t think they give a crap. They do whatever they want and get away with it.

“You can’t have one guy being scared of it and another guy taking advantage of not being afraid of it. You just have to start having everybody being afraid of NASCAR stepping in. … I have come to the conclusion myself that I can’t give NASCAR that opportunity to penalize me. I have to do it by the book and make sure it’s right so I don’t put it in their hands to make a bad choice because they’re really good at making bad choices for me.”

Busch said another option would be for drivers to return the positions gained by an unfair advantage on a restart. He suggested he would have done so if asked after passing Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin for the lead on a restart at Richmond.

“It’s probably the better thing to do to have the race still play out without having as big a penalty as if you were black-flagged and had to do a pass-through on pit road,” he said. “That kills your race.”

“If somebody is laying back and they get a run and pass a guy, if they want to give us the opportunity to fix it first, that’s fine. I’m OK with that. If somebody jumps a restart, if they give the lead up on the track or fall to second or third, but if they give it up and go back and race again, that’s OK in my book. You have a chance to fix it.

“But if you just flat out jump a restart and they don’t do anything about it, and it wins the race, that’s not what we need to be having happen.

What other Chase drivers were saying about restarts Thursday:

Kevin Harvick: “It’s very gray. I don’t think any of us really know for sure how far you can push it, but you have to push it because you can. How far is too far? I don’t think anybody really knows. If there’s going to be a restart zone, I would prefer it be pretty black and white as to how it’s managed. If there’s not going to be a restart zone, we just need to take the lines down and race like we did forever growing up with the leader being in control of the restart and going when you want to.”

Denny Hamlin: “I think drivers want longer restart zones. Ultimately now, it’s so short that if you don’t go right away, the second-place guy does – and knowing he can beat the first-place guy to the line, there’s no repercussions for it. At a local short track, (the box) is between (Turns) 3 and 4 and nearly the flagstand (where) the leader restarts the race. So the second-place person can’t anticipate that much. I think it would be better to open that zone up two or three times the size it is right now – and then don’t let that second-place guy be the first one to the line.”

Clint Bowyer: “NASCAR should do this: Call ‘em out. That’s all you’ve got to do. … All you’ve got to do is call somebody on ‘em once and that’ll fix the problem. I understand their intent of not wanting to get involved in that, but that’s not a good answer. Call ’em. Whether it’s me or anybody else. And if you do that once, I won’t do it again.”

Brad Keselowski: “I have said it before but I still view restarts as rock-paper-scissors, and you have to counter the moves of the person next to you. It starts with the leader in the zone, not being allowed to get there first. If the guy in second place is lagging back, the only defense is to go early, both of which are illegal by definition, and neither of which have been consistently called as an infraction. If one guy lags back and beats you, when you do everything legal, then you have to defend it. That’s your job. I felt like as the leader at Darlington, I probably had half a dozen or more attempts at controlling the restart, and I kept the lead the majority but not 100 percent of the time. The few times where I lost the lead it was very obvious that the car next to me had lagged back significantly and there was no call made. That forces your hand the next time you have the lead to do something to react to it. In a sense it is kind of vigilante justice. That is just how you have to play it.”

Joey Logano: “I just say we need to be consistent with the calls. If the call is that you can jump the start that is OK, just let us know. If the call is you can’t jump the restarts, let us know. Obviously there is talk about opening the box and all these other things. It is a tough position for them and I understand where NASCAR is with it. It is a ball and strike call. But baseball does that every week with every pitch. They make a ball and strike call. A lot of times someone isn’t happy about it, but if it is something blatantly obvious, you have to make the call. You have to do it. It is a tough position for them when you look at angles and when there is a race win or possibly a championship on the line, it could be a lot larger than what happened last weekend. Really all we need to know is what can and can’t we do and be consistent with that.”

Carl Edwards: “There’s still a lot of gray area there that I don’t think everyone in the garage understands exactly what is allowable and what’s not. There’s a lot of people that hang back pretty far and get runs. When you’re on the front row – let me put it simply as I think that the leader now he’s in a little bit worse of a position than he’s ever been probably on the restarts just because everyone is getting so good at hanging back or pushing the envelope. It’s tough to decide what to do as the leader.

“The restart is neat because it gives you an opportunity to get an advantage. It is tough and it’s a dynamic part of the race. It’s just where do you draw the line? Can I go 50 feet early or 100 feet early? If the leader doesn’t go, can I just go and beat him into Turn 1? I don’t know exactly what’s allowable and, yes, you don’t want to have the start happen and have no penalty thrown and have given up an advantage. Let me put it simply: If you do the restarts by the book – the way they say to go at it – you’ll get passed by about four guys every restart, so nobody really knows what to do.”

Kenseth:I think that they need to probably make some calls, and then we’ll get everybody more honest. When the second-place guy jumps the first-place car and it’s obvious, I think they need to make that call and then it won’t happen anymore. It’s just, I think, you’ve got to make that call. I think when the third-place guy lays back too far and gets a run and passes the whole front row before they get to Turn 1, I think they need to make that call. I think you make that call one time, two times, three times – whatever it may be – and it will stop.”

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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)

 

Rodney Childers fined $100,000, suspended for four races

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NASCAR has suspended Rodney Childers, Kevin Harvick‘s crew chief, for four races and fined him $100,000 for what the sanctioning body called modification of a part supplied by a vendor.

Harvick, who is out of the Cup Series playoffs, and the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 team were docked 100 points.

Harvick’s car and that of Martin Truex Jr. were taken to NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C. after last Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway. There were no penalties assessed to the Truex team.

Harvick has been particularly critical of the Next Gen car in recent months, once referring to the “crappy-ass parts” provided by suppliers.

Harvick’s car erupted in flames during the Southern 500 Sept. 4 at Darlington Raceway. After he climbed from the smoking car, Harvick blamed the fire on “just crappy parts on the race car like we’ve seen so many times. They haven’t fixed anything. It’s kind of like the safety stuff. We just let it keep going and keep going.

“The car started burning and as it burned the flames started coming through the dash. I ran a couple laps and then as the flame got bigger it started burning stuff up and I think right there you see all the brake fluid that was probably coming out the brakes and part of the brake line, but the fire was coming through the dash.

“What a disaster for no reason. We didn’t touch the wall. We didn’t touch a car, and here we are in the pits with a burned-up car, and we can’t finish the race during the playoffs because of crappy-ass parts.”

MORE: AJ Allmendinger to return to Cup Series in 2023

Unless the team appeals, Childers would miss races at Charlotte, Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville and would return for the season finale at Phoenix.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps told the Associated Press that officials have not targeted Harvick. “I would say that’s ridiculous,” he said. “No one has a vendetta against Kevin Harvick or Rodney or anyone at Stewart-Haas Racing.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Harvick tweeted, “Seems strange…” A Childers tweet called the penalty “Shocker…..”.

NASCAR also announced Wednesday it has suspended Young’s Motorsports crew chief Andrew Abbott indefinitely for a behavioral violation during pre-race inspection. He must undergo anger-management training to be reinstated. The team races in the Camping World Truck Series.

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup Series race at Charlotte Roval

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The lineup for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs Round of 8 will be decided in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

Entering the race, the final event in the Round of 12, Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman are below the cutline. Bowman will miss the race — and thus the cutoff — as he continues to battle concussion-like symptoms. Noah Gragson is scheduled to drive the No. 48 Chevrolet Sunday.

Cindric is tied with Chase Briscoe for the eighth playoff spot, but Briscoe would claim it on the tiebreaker. Byron is 11 points back, and Bell is 33. Hendrick Motorsports has appealed the penalty to Byron that dropped him below the cutline. That appeal is scheduled to be heard Thursday.

MORE: Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

Any playoff driver who wins Sunday’s race and isn’t already qualified — Chase Elliott qualified for the Round of 8 by winning last week at Talladega Superspeedway — automatically advances to the Round of 8.

Drivers to watch Sunday at the Roval (2 p.m., ET, NBC), the final road-course race of the season:

FRONTRUNNERS

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 1st
  • Last three races: Won at Talladega, 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2019 and 2020

Elliott is the clear favorite to win a second championship. He won Sunday at Talladega to advance to the Round of 8 and can relax Sunday at Charlotte having punched his ticket. Relaxing isn’t likely, however, as Elliott will be among the favorites to win.

Ryan Blaney

  • Points position: 2nd
  • Last three races: 2nd at Talladega, 4th at Texas, 30th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2018.

Blaney continues along a path that could result in him winning the Cup championship without winning a race. He came within an eyelash of winning Sunday at Talladega but fell victim to Chase Elliott’s last-lap charge. He should be a threat Sunday at the Roval, where he has four straight top 10s.

Kyle Larson

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 18th at Talladega, 9th at Texas, 5th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2021

Larson’s last win — and his last top-four finish — came at Watkins Glen seven races ago. He is 18 points over the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Austin Cindric

  • Points position: 9th
  • Last three races: 9th at Talladega, 15th at Texas, 20th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Sunday will mark his first Cup race. Has three top threes in four Xfinity starts.

Cindric hasn’t won since the season-opening Daytona 500 and is one of five drivers still in the playoffs who own only one victory this year. His ninth-place run at Talladega ended a streak of four straight finishes of 12th or worse.

MORE: NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

Daniel Suarez

  • Points position: 7th
  • Last three races: 8th at Talladega, 12th at Texas, 19th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Best finish in four starts is 13th

Suarez is 12 points above the cutline entering Sunday’s race. He has never led a lap at the Roval and has never finished in the top 10.

Chase Briscoe

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 10th at Talladega, 5th at Texas, 14th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Finished 22nd last year in his only Cup start

Briscoe is teetering on top of the cutline in search of a spot in the Round of 8. He hasn’t won since the fourth race of the year at Phoenix and had a poor performance at the Roval last year.