Analyzing Sprint Cup’s top 10 after the first five races of 2016 season

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While NASCAR enjoys its first off-weekend of the season, we here at NASCAR Talk thought it would be a good time to analyze how the top 30 drivers have fared in the first five races.

Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Austin Dillon make up the top 10 drivers we’ll feature today.

We’ll feature drivers ranked 11th through 20th on Saturday and wrap things up on Sunday with drivers ranked 21st through 30th.

Here’s how the top 10 have fared thus far in 2016:

 

Auto Club Speedway - Auto Club 400 practice

Kevin Harvick

Points position: 1

Best finish: 1st (Phoenix)

Worst finish: 7th (Las Vegas)

Laps led: 413

Nate Ryan’s analysis: Just as good as he has been since joining Stewart-Haas Racing, but the inability to close dominant performances is becoming a headache. That will loom larger the longer Harvick’s contract future remains cloudy.

Dustin Long’s analysis: Can he beat Jimmie Johnson head-to-head? In the last nine times they’ve finished first and second, Johnson won. Good news is this team has plenty of time to work toward rectifying that.

 

FONTANA, CA - MARCH 20: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's / Superman Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 20, 2016 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson

Points position: 2nd (-11 points behind Harvick)

Best finish: 1st (Atlanta, Auto Club)

Worst finish: 16th (Daytona)

Laps led: 171

Nate Ryan’s analysis: This is the best the No. 48 Chevrolet has performed since its sixth championship. The downforce reduction suits Johnson, and crew chief Chad Knaus seems more comfortable with strategy than in years.

Dustin Long’s analysis: That Chad Knaus said last weekend he doesn’t feel the team is running as strong as what they need and already has two wins could be a scary proposition for foes. This is the fourth time Johnson has had two wins in the first five races. He won the title the other three times.

 

Auto Club Speedway - Auto Club 400 practice

Carl Edwards

Points position: 3rd (-24 points)

Best finish: 2nd (Phoenix)

Worst finish: 18th (Las Vegas)

Laps led: 75 

Nate Ryan’s analysis: He has improved with new crew chief Dave Rogers, but the sting from the runner-up finish at Phoenix will linger. Edwards still seems to be trying too hard in his second season with Joe Gibbs Racing, causing unforced errors.

Dustin Long’s analysis: Just missed making the final round last year in Miami, but is showing signs that the belongs there this year and doing it with a new crew chief.

 

Las Vegas Motor Speedway - Kobalt 400 Practice

Denny Hamlin

Points position: 4th (-25 points)

Best finish: 1st (Daytona 500)

Worst finish: 19th (Las Vegas)

Laps led: 107 

Nate Ryan’s analysis: He seems back on his game after a two-race blip following his Daytona 500 breakthrough victory. New crew chief Mike Wheeler, whom Hamlin immensely reveres, has a six-month jump on the playoffs.

Dustin Long’s analysis: Scored back-to-back third-place finishes heading into next weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway, one of his best tracks. Could be the start of something big.

 

Auto Club Speedway - Auto Club 400 practice

Kyle Busch

Points position: 5th (-25 points)

Best finish: 3rd (Daytona, Atlanta)

Worst finish: 25th (Auto Club)

Laps led: 134 

Nate Ryan’s analysis: Aside from finding victory lane, the defending series champion hasn’t lost a beat from last season. He actually seems faster, and he will enter Martinsville Speedway overdue for a win on a short track where he excels.

Dustin Long’s analysis: Which Kyle is this, I forget? New Kyle? Old Kyle? New old Kyle? Old old Kyle? However you define him, he’s fast. Just like last year.

 

Auto Club Speedway - Auto Club 400 practice

Joey Logano

Points position: 6th (-30 points)

Best finish: 2nd (Las Vegas)

Worst finish: 18th (Phoenix)

Laps led: 77 

Nate Ryan’s analysis: All he needs is a win to start looking ahead to the playoffs with crew chief Todd Gordon. The speed of the No. 22 Ford is there, and Logano remains at the top of his game, even if he is angering his rivals.

Dustin Long’s analysis: Teammate Brad Keselowski showed one doesn’t have to have many friends to win a championship. Maybe this is the year for Logano to follow that.

 

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Good Sam 500 - Qualifying

Kurt Busch

Points position: 7th (-47 points)

Best finish: 4th (Atlanta)

Worst finish: 30th (Auto Club)

Laps led: 93 

Nate Ryan’s analysis: The 30th at Fontana was unusually disappointing (just ask Dustin, who boldly predicted the No. 41 to win). Is it a portentous sign … or just a slight stumble after opening 2016 with two poles and four consecutive top 10s?

Dustin Long’s analysis: Yes, was shocked at his Fontana flameout. Have liked the speed of this car – at least until Fontana.

 

Auto Club Speedway - Auto Club 400

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Points position: 8th (-50 points)

Best finish: 2nd (Atlanta)

Worst finish: 36th (Daytona)

Laps led: 49 

Nate Ryan’s analysis: Remove the Daytona 500 crash, and this is one of the strongest starts yet for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. He still needs another gear to reach teammate Jimmie Johnson’s level, but so do most drivers on the circuit.

Dustin Long’s analysis: Run through the field from the back at Phoenix was impressive and shows how well the car is handling. Qualifying performance is confounding. He’s failed failed to advance beyond the first round the past two events.

 

Auto Club Speedway - Auto Club 400 practice

Brad Keselowski

Points position: 9th (-53 points)

Best finish: 1st (Las Vegas)

Worst finish: 29th (Phoenix)

Laps led: 25 

Nate Ryan’s analysis: The fire is back for the 2012 champion, who is aggressive on the track and outspoken away from it. That’s good for buttoned-up Team Penske, which needs Keselowski to embrace his wild child despite the contrast.

Dustin Long’s analysis: One area this team needs to improve is qualifying. Has started 14th or better just once in the first five races.

 

Auto Club Speedway - Auto Club 400 practice

Austin Dillon

Points position: 10th (-56 points)

Best finish: 5th (Las Vegas)

Worst finish: 24th (Auto Club)

Laps led: 3 

Nate Ryan’s analysis: The pole position at Fontana validated the progress for this third-year team, which opened the season with four finishes of 11th or better. With this consistency, Dillon could qualify for championship eligibility on points.

Dustin Long’s analysis: Showing speed. Now he and team have to keep up with the car’s performance and avoid mistakes to get the results they deserve each week.

 

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Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

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Harrison Burton made the first start of his NASCAR Cup Series partnership with the Wood Brothers in the bright lights of Los Angeles.

Burton and the Woods teamed last season as Burton jumped into full-time Cup racing after two full seasons (and four wins) in the Xfinity Series. Their first race was the Clash at the Coliseum, and it was a good start — Burton qualified for the feature and finished 12th on the lead lap.

Then things headed downhill. Crashes at Daytona and Auto Club Speedway left Burton with finishes of 39th and 33rd, respectively. After the first five races of the year, he had four finishes of 25th or worse.

Now, Season Two, and there are higher expectations. Much higher.

MORE: Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

“The start of last year was really, really rough,” Burton told NBC Sports. “It kind of put us in a hole. We got into the wreck in the 500 and crashed at Fontana. Things kind of stack up on you, and all of a sudden you’re buried in points and it’s hard to make it back up.

“But, at the end of the year, three of the last four weekends were big for us (three consecutive top-20 finishes). We need to build off that and try to get out of the West Coast swing and have a clean group of those races. That’s really important. We need to get our average finish up in the first four to five races and not put ourselves in a hole we can’t get out of, and then go from there.”

The Wood Brothers team typically brings strong cars to the Daytona 500, the season’s first point race. Trevor Bayne scored the team’s latest win in stock car racing’s biggest event in 2011.

“We ran well in the 500 last year until I was upside down,” Burton said. “We had a fast car and qualified well and finished third in our duel. Then in the second Daytona race we put ourselves in good position late, so we were in contention in both Daytona races. The speed was there, and the cars drove well.”

The team’s primary goal is to make the playoffs, Burton said. “And we want to be a contender,” he said. “Cup races are so hard. First, you have to contend. Having a good average finish is really important. If you average around 17th or 18th all year, you can kind of point your way into the playoffs, and doing that is on our minds for sure.”

MORE: Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

Burton looks for a strong start in Sunday’s Clash, which will present teams with a mix of the old and the new. Drivers got the experience of racing inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last year, and notes from that race will be useful, but the racing surface will be all new again.

“Every repave has a different tendency,” Burton said. “We’ll see how close it is to last time and how different. Obviously, there is experience on that track, but still it’s a completely new surface, so it’s going to be a mixture of old and new. There’s some knowledge we can build off of, but we kind of have to go into the weekend with that knowledge as tentative because we don’t know if the track is going to be different.”

Burton heads for Los Angeles with a win already under his belt this year. He and teammate Zane Smith, last year’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, won last Friday’s International Motor Sports Association’s Michelin Pilot Challenge Series race on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

Burton drove the finishing laps in the four-hour race. He was third with about 50 minutes to go but moved in front with 22 minutes left when leader Elliott Skeer parked. Burton outran second-place Spencer Pumpelly by .688 of a second for the win.

“I thought we could run well,” Burton said. “After the test we did, we were really fast, so I was pretty excited. But apparently there is a lot of sandbagging that goes on there, so I wasn’t sure where we were. We had to have some things go right for us, and they did.”

 

 

 

 

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)