Ryan: In the NASCAR lug nut debate, honor can be realized by making things tight

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TALLADEGA, Ala. – In a sport known for pits of cheating vipers and dens of conniving thieves, here is a quaint way of solving the latest controversy engulfing NASCAR.

Use the honor system.

Ask teams merely to do their best to try to fasten five lug nuts.

The language of the new rule leaves little wiggle room: A car with fewer than five lug nuts on any wheel in postrace will equal a $20,000 fine and a one-race crew chief suspension. All cars will be checked after Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. There seems little chance for dispensation of any sort.

NASCAR would be served best by mostly enforcing the spirit rather than the letter of the law.

If you cheat and deliberately hit four lug nuts or fewer, we’ll catch you. And if we don’t, karma will.

But if you attempted to tighten five lug nuts and didn’t succeed — if somehow your car still finished a race with fewer than the required 20 — we’ll cut you a break if you can make a legitimate case that you tried.

So just try.

From drivers to fans to multinational insurance companies whose actuaries’ palms get much sweatier at the specter of wheels pinwheeling into the grandstands, that effort is truly what matters.

Fastening fewer than five lug nuts on a wheel can have disastrous consequences.

Why is Dale Earnhardt Jr. understandably spooked about the possibility of a loose wheel resulting from fewer lug nuts?

Watch the video of his vicious crash in October 2007 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Why did the discussion ratchet up in intensity as soon as fan injuries were implied?

Because when tires have bounced into the grandstands (granted, in other series), people have died – three at a time, in two cases.

These scenarios have been forgotten as the conversations around lug nuts consistently have devolved into a series of predictable arguments that are as substantive as arguing with a 5-year-old.

Moreover, they miss the most important point:

Without a rule governing lug nuts, it had become a competitive disadvantage to choose the safest and sanest path to ensuring the well-being of a driver – and possibly fans.

For much of its 68 years of existence, NASCAR said having fewer than five lug nuts on a wheel was a situation so untenable, you had to return to the pits immediately to fix it if it was spotted.

When officials were downsized in the pits last year in favor of a high-tech monitoring system relying on HD cameras, there was a tacit acknowledgment that teams might push the envelope. But the degree to which it brazenly was tested this year couldn’t have been anticipated.

As the trend spiraled into a procession of countless green-flag pit stops for loose wheels at Texas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway, it had become untenable – the latest of many major decisions that were paved with good intentions but littered with unintended consequences.

Tony Stewart, whose voice of reason lobbying for change earned him an inexplicably misguided $35,000 fine, was absolutely right. If someone got hurt because of the rash of loose wheels caused by intentionally skipping lug nuts, NASCAR would struggle to explain how it allowed a competitor – or much worse, a fan – to be injured in a situation that was eminently predictable and utterly avoidable.

The detractors have said none of this is on NASCAR. “It’s up to the teams. No one is forcing them to do four lug nuts or three. If they want to be safer, do five.”

It’s as if this were comparable to employing a setup that might gain a few tenths of a second over the course of a green-flag run at the risk of minimally increasing the chances of a spin.

But it’s not that simple. This isn’t the same as making a qualifying lap and hoping the wheels stick at breakneck speeds entering Turn 1, knowing the odds are good they will.

Yes, NASCAR is an inherently dangerous endeavor requiring incessant choices of variable risks that are necessary to perform well. Every flick of the wheel could be construed as fraught with peril.

Lug nuts don’t fall in that category, though. You can’t put the onus on teams to decide whether it’s wise to do something that knowingly puts drivers — and possibly fans – at greater risk while improving their competitive fortunes.

Teams always will make the wrong choice in that case. They are hard-wired to scour rulebooks and sponsor contracts in pursuit of any and every possible advantage, operating in the ethically gray areas demanded by a sport borne from bootleggers outrunning the law. Whether bending the rules or poaching sponsors, caginess and cunning often are celebrated and encouraged.

That’s intrinsic to the nature of competition.

Skipping lug nuts, however, isn’t.

It’s intentionally doing a less than perfect job on safety and praying that fate will handle the rest.

Stewart is a prime example in this regard. When NASCAR mandated head and neck restraint systems in 2001, who was among the last to comply with the edict?

Stewart. Why? Because he didn’t like how it restricted his line of sight and impeded his ability to drive. He couldn’t be left to make that decision on his own. NASCAR had to make it for him.

The same holds true with lug nuts. Teams can’t be trusted with knowing whether three or four lug nuts are worth having a wheel come off at 200 mph and putting drivers — and possibly fans — in jeopardy.

That’s a NASCAR call. And that was Smoke’s point when he correctly said “this is not a game you play with safety, and that’s exactly the way I feel like NASCAR is treating this.”

In fastening fewer than five lug nuts, teams were allowed to determine – and increase – the likelihood of a wheel falling off a car at speed.

Teams don’t get to set the limits on safety standards. The sanctioning body always should.

Instead, this was the message being sent in leaving a hole in the rulebook on lug nuts:

We want you to knowingly put drivers in a hazardous situation. Not because it’ll make for a thrilling pass, or because you’ll outwit the competition with an intriguing fuel-mileage gambit. We want you to do it because you’ll gain a half-second in the pits, which will be indiscernible to the naked eye and thus offer zero entertainment value.

In fact, it’ll come with a double-heaping of dread for the driver and team as you sweat through the waning laps not knowing if a broken collarbone or worse lurks around the next turn.

That message has changed this weekend at Talladega, and thankfully, there already have been signs it’s taking root.

There were five lug nuts on every car checked after Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega

Were the pit crews just trying harder to be more attuned to safety?

There’s honor in that.

Jesse Iwuji Motorsports seeks $4.125 million in lawsuit against sponsor

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Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team, has filed a $4.125-million lawsuit against Equity Prime Mortgage, one of the team’s sponsors.

In the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the team alleges that EPM committed a breach of contract. JIM alleges that EPM agreed to pay the team $2.25 million for sponsorship in the 2022 season and $3.75 million for 2023.

The lawsuit attempts to recoup what Jesse Iwuji Motorsports calls two missed payments totaling $375,000 from 2022 and the $3.75 million for 2023. The filing of the lawsuit was first reported by TobyChristie.com.

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The team scored one top-10 finish in 30 Xfinity starts in 2022. The team’s cars were driven by Kyle Weatherman and Iwuji. Weatherman had a best finish of eighth; Iwuji’s best run was an 11th.

The team was founded by Iwuji, former National Football League player Emmitt Smith and a group of investors.

The lawsuit claims that an EPM executive informed the team in September 2022 that EPM had been “margin called” and was dealing with problems because of rising mortgage rates and that EPM could not make any more payments to Jesse Iwuji Motorsports .

According to the lawsuit, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports sent EPM a Notice of Intent to terminate the sponsorship agreement after the payment due Oct. 1 was missed. The suit claims EPM “took no action” after EPM offered 30 days to remedy the situation.

The suit also claims EPM “allegedly continued to take advantage of their status as a sponsor of the NASCAR Xfinity Series team, as EPM continued to make promotional posts on social media, which featured the company’s logo on the JIM race car.”

EPM is based in Atlanta.

Dr Diandra: The best driver of 2022

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NASCAR’s elimination playoff format means that the driver with the best statistics — arguably the “best driver of 2022” — doesn’t always win the championship.

Races unfinished

Drivers involved in a lot of crashes also failed to finish a lot of races. But not all accidents end drivers’ races. Comparing accidents and spins to DNF (did not finish) totals helps gauge how serious those incidents were.

Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were involved in the most accidents for a single driver with 15 caution-causing crashes each. The difference is that Chastain had only five DNFs (33.3%), while Stenhouse had nine (60.0%).

Ty Dillion tied Stenhouse for the most DNFs in the series with nine DNFs and 10 accidents.

Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Corey LaJoie tied for third place with eight DNFs each. Reddick had 10 accidents, while Dillon and LaJoie were each involved in 11 crashes.

No driver avoided DNFs entirely. Among full-timers, Michael McDowell had the fewest DNFs in 2022 with two. Justin Haley and Ryan Blaney tied for second with three DNFs each.

In 2021, only Denny Hamlin finished every race running. This year he had five DNFs, with four in the first nine races.

This year’s 225 DNFs are up significantly from 179 in 2021. and the most DNFs since 2017. I’ll be watching in 2023 to see if the rise in DNFs continues, or if this was a one-time phenomenon due to the first year with a new car.

Wins

“Best driver” doesn’t necessarily mean most wins.

This year’s champion, Joey Logano, didn’t have the most wins. That’s not at all uncommon in NASCAR. With 19 different winners in 2022, no driver dominated the season the way Kyle Larson did in 2021 with 10 wins.

The winningest drivers in 2022 were: Chase Elliott (five wins) and Logano (four wins). Christopher Bell, Larson and Reddick tied for third with three wins each.

Top-five and top-10 finishes

While wins matter more than good finishes, the number of top-five and top-10 finishes show how close a driver got to taking home the checkered flag. Running up front means being there to take advantage of other drivers’ mistakes and misfortune.

In 2021, Larson had the most top-five finishes (20) and the most top-10 finishes (26). This year, good finishes were much more spread out.2022's best drivers in terms of top-five and top-ten finishes

Chastain deserves a special shoutout for having 13 more top-10 finishes than he earned in 2021.

Also deserving of a shoutout, but for different reasons: Hamlin had the same number of wins this year as last, but nine fewer top-five finishes. William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. also had nine fewer finishes in the top five.

Logging laps

While Truex didn’t make the championship race, he did tie Elliott for the most lead-lap finishes in the season with 29, or 80.6% of starts. Blaney, Byron and Kevin Harvick each had 28 lead-lap finishes.

Elliott led the most laps in 2022 with 857. He’s followed by Logano (784), Byron (746), Chastain (692) and Blaney (636).

I remain slightly wary of metrics that purport to measure quickness because so much of a car’s speed depends on where in the field it’s running. Lap traffic, or even being far back in the field, can slow fast cars. That’s especially true at short tracks.

For completeness, however, the next two tables show the drivers’ numbers of fastest laps and those with the best rank in green-flag speed according to NASCAR’s loop data.

Two tables showing the drivers with the most fastest laps and the highest rank in green-flag speedChampion Logano ranked 11th in fastest laps with 319, and eighth in overall green-flag speed with an average ranking of 9.281.

Best Finishes

The tables below show drivers’ rankings throughout the season for average finishes and average running position.

Two tables comparing 2022's best drivers in terms of average finish and average running position

Elliott ranks first in both average finish and running position. Chastain takes second for best average finish and fourth for best average running position, while Blaney is second for running position and fourth for finishing position.

Logano finished 2022 third in both metrics.

Passing

NASCAR defines a quality pass as a pass for position inside the top 15. Interpreting the meaning of the number of passes is a little tricky. A driver who runs up front a lot doesn’t make many quality passes because he doesn’t need to.

I focus instead on the percentage of quality passes: the fraction of all green-flag passes that qualify as quality passes. A higher percentage means that the driver is efficient: The passes mean something.

Elliott scores first in percentage of quality passes with 63.4%, just edging out Bell, who has 63.3% quality passes. Larson is third with 61.2%.

Who was the best driver in 2022?

I combined the metrics I think matter most for determining the best driver in the table below. I color-coded drivers who appear in the top five in more than one metric to make it easier to see patterns.

A table showing the top five in each of the metrics discussed in the hopes of identifying 2022's best driver.

This table confirms that the NASCAR playoffs format did a good job identifying the top four drivers in the series. Elliott, Logano, Chastain and Bell are well-represented in the top five in each metric.

The table also shows that Larson and Blaney contended strongly in 2022. With a slightly different distribution of luck, one (or both) might have found their way to the Championship Four.

Logano’s consistency is also evident, even though he doesn’t rank first in any of these metrics and fails to make the table in top-five finishes or quality passes. It’s not uncommon for the driver with the most wins not to win the championship. And this year has been anything but common.

But overall, it’s hard not to argue that Elliott had the statistically best year. He led the series in wins, laps led, average finish, average running position and percent quality passes. If his playoffs had been comparable to his regular season, he would have taken the trophy.

But they weren’t and he didn’t. That may have ended the 2022 season on a down note for the No. 9 team, but they can look forward to 2023 knowing they have a strong base on which to build.

While skill is reproducible, luck isn’t.

Kaz Grala, Connor Mosack join Sam Hunt Racing for 2023

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Kaz Grala is scheduled to run the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule for Sam Hunt Racing in 2023.

Connor Mosack will drive a second Hunt car — No. 24 — in 20 races for the team. Grala will drive the No. 26 Toyota.

The new season will mark Grala’s first as a full-time Xfinity driver.

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“I’ve scratched and clawed for each opportunity over the past several seasons, and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s made me appreciate this sport and its difficulty more than I ever could if things had been easy,” Grala said in a statement released by the team. “I feel like everything has finally come together at the perfect time in my life with the right team around me to start that next chapter in my career.”

Grala, 23, has scored five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 44 Xfinity starts. He has raced in all three NASCAR national series and won a Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2017.

Allen Hart will be Grala’s crew chief.

Mosack, who will begin his schedule at Phoenix Raceway March 11, was the CARS Tour rookie of the year in 2020. He drove in two Xfinity and two Truck races in 2022.

Kris Bowen will be Mosack’s crew chief. The team said it will announce other drivers for the 24 car later.

 

Ryan Truex to drive six races for JGR Xfinity team in 2023

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Ryan Truex is scheduled to run six Xfinity Series races in the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023.

Truex ran five races for JGR in 2022, finishing in the top five three times. He ran third at Atlanta.

Truex also drove limited Xfinity schedules for JGR in 2011 and 2012.

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“We are looking forward to having Ryan back in our lineup in 2023 to run the No. 19,” said JGR vice president Steve DeSouza in a statement released by the team. “He has done well in the races he has run at JGR. His previous experience and driving ability will be assets as the No. 19 competes for an owner’s championship next year.”

JGR has not announced which races Truex will run or which drivers will be his teammates in the 19.

“I am thrilled to be behind the wheel of the No. 19 for a few races next season,” Truex said in a team statement. “It was fun to run well with this team this past year. I appreciate the opportunity to race for JGR again next year.”

Jason Ratcliff will be the team’s crew chief.

Truex, 30, has run 26 Cup, 84 Xfinity and 73 Camping World Truck Series races without a win.