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.

Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to track

MORE: Dr. Diandra: 600 tests man more than machine

And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”







Dr. Diandra: Charlotte’s 600 miles test man more than machine


This weekend’s 600-mile outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s longest race. It’s the ultimate stock car challenge: not just making a car fast but making it fast for a long time.

Although 600 miles is nowhere near the 3,300-plus miles in the 24 Hours of LeMans, the pace is similar. Most of NASCAR’s 600-mile races run between four and five hours.

The 1960 World 600 set the record for this race, requiring five hours, 34 minutes, and six seconds to complete — and it had only eight cautions. The second longest race, the very next year, ran 12 minutes shorter than the previous year’s outing.

The longest race in the modern era (1972 to present) happened in 2005. That race took five hours, 13 minutes, and 52 seconds to complete and set a record for cautions with 22.

Last year’s event was the second-longest modern-era race. With four fewer cautions than 2005, the 2022 race took just 44 seconds less to complete.

The field for the 1960 race included 60 cars. Only 18 of those cars (30%) crossed the finish line.

NASCAR disqualified six drivers for making illegal entrances to pit road. The reasons for the remaining 36 DNFs reads like an inventory of car parts, from “A-frame” to “valve.”

The number of cars failing to finish the race decreased significantly over the years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not uncommon for 50-70% of the field to drop out of the race before its end. As the graph below shows, the DNF rate is now in the range of 10-30%.

A bar chart shows how DNFs have decreased over time and turned the the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

Last year — the first year of the Next Gen car — had an abnormally high 46% DNF rate. That doesn’t signify a problem with car reliability.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Increased car reliability makes people more important

Racecar evolution has changed the nature of NASCAR’s longest race. The car have become so reliable that Charlotte’s 600-mile race is now more a test of drivers than their cars.

“All of the components in the car are pretty standard,” Chase Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “So you just want to make sure you have it all in good condition and dot all your I’s and cross your T’s.”

That wasn’t how it used to be. Kevin Harvick remembers that drivers used to be warned to take care of their equipment early so it would last until the end.

“The engine guys freak out because you have to go an extra 100 miles, but the parts and stuff on the car are a lot more durable than they used to be,” Harvick said. “Back in the day, it was ‘take care of the motor.’ ”

Drivers worry much less about their car’s engine today. The graph below shows how DNFs due to engine failure have decreased since NASCAR started running 600-mile races.

A bar chart shows that engine failures have gone from 50-70% to 10-30%, turning the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

In 1966, more than half the field lost an engine during the race. Only six cars have retired due to engine failure in the last five years.

While cars are more reliable, their drivers are still human. Crash-related DNFs (crashes, failure to beat the DVP clock and inability to meet maximum speed) show no clear trend over time.

A bar chart shows how the number of DNFs due to crashes doesn't show any overall trend with time

Typically, between five to 10% of the cars starting a race will fail to finish due to an accident rather than a mechanical failure. Last year’s race was an exception, setting a record for the largest fraction of the field taken out by crashes since the 600-miler began.

It’s only one data point as far as 600-mile races are concerned. It is, however, indicative of a trend observed since the Next Gen car debuted. The car is so sturdy that contact is no longer the deterrent it used to be.

Man versus machine

NASCAR’s only 600-mile outing has become an endurance race for humans. Drivers draw upon research in hydration, nutrition and fitness, hoping to create an advantage by preparation and conditioning.

“As a driver,” Daniel Suárez said, “your goal is to be as fresh at the end of the race as you are at the beginning. It isn’t about making it to the end of the race. It’s about being at your best at the end and taking advantage of other drivers who are tired.”

Harrison Burton, who ran his first 600-mile race last year, was surprised by how taxing that extra stage was.

“I figured it’s only 100 more miles than 500 and we do that fairly frequently and didn’t think it would be that different,” Burton said, “but for whatever reason when that fourth stage starts it’s definitely daunting.

Burton also noted that last year’s Coca-Cola 600 was the first time he got hungry during a race.

“It’s actually a really important race to have something to snack on in the car during the race,” Ross Chastain said. “I typically have some sort of protein bar that I can eat during a stage break just to try and keep my stamina up.”

The driver isn’t the only one whose mental acumen gets tested during the Coca-Cola 600. Crew chiefs and pit crews must work at peak form for a longer time.

“There’s more pit stops, there’s more restarts, there’s more strategy calls and there’s more laps,” Gustafson said. “There’s more everything.”

That means more opportunities to make mistakes or lose focus — or to take advantage of other drivers who do.

Alex Bowman confident as he returns to racing from back injury


CONCORD, N.C. — Alex Bowman watched the rain-filled skies over Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday with more than a touch of disappointment.

As weather threatened to cancel Saturday night’s scheduled NASCAR Cup Series practice at the speedway, Bowman saw his chances to testing his car — and his body — dissolving in the raindrops. NASCAR ultimately cancelled practice and qualifying because of rain.

MORE: Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup practice, qualifying

Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car accident last month and has missed three Cup races while he recovers. Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the season’s longest race, is scheduled to mark his return to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It would have been really nice to kickstart that with practice today,” Bowman said. “I haven’t raced or competitively driven a race car in a month. I’m trying to understand where my rusty areas are going to be and where I’m still good.”

Bowman ran 200 laps in a test season at North Wilkesboro Speedway this week, but, of course, that doesn’t compare with the faster speeds and tougher G-forces he’ll experience over 400 laps Sunday at CMS.

Bowman admitted that he is still experiencing pain from the back injury — his car flipped several times — and that he expects some pain during the race. But he said he is confident he’ll be OK and that the longer race distance won’t be an issue.

“I broke my back a month ago, and there’s definitely things that come along with that for a long time,” he said. “I have some discomfort here and there and there are things I do that don’t feel good. That’s just part of it. It’s stuff I’ll have to deal with. But, for the most part, I’m back to normal.

“I’m easing back into being in the gym. I’m trying to be smart with things. If I twist the wrong way, sometimes it hurts. In the race car at the end of a six-hour race, I’m probably not going to be the best.”

The sprint car crash interrupted what had been a fine seasonal start for Bowman. Although winless, he had three top fives and six top 10s in the first 10 races.

“I’m excited to be back,” Bowman said. “Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off and be strong right out of the gate.”

He said he hopes to return to short-track racing but not in the near future.

“Someday I want to get back in a sprint car or midget,” he said. “I felt like we were just getting rolling in a sprint car. That night we were pretty fast. Definitely a bummer there. That’s something I really want to conquer and be competitive at in the World of Outlaws or High Limits races. Somebody I’ll get back to that. It’s probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time for a bit.”




Charlotte NASCAR Cup Series starting lineup: Rain cancels qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — William Byron and Kevin Harvick will start Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the front row after wet weather cancelled Saturday night qualifying.

Rain pelted the CMS area much of the day Saturday, and NASCAR announced at 3:45 p.m. that Cup practice and qualifying, scheduled for Saturday night, had been cancelled.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to cockpit

The starting field was set by the NASCAR rulebook.

Following Byron and Harvick in the starting top 10 will be Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The elimination of the practice session was particularly problematic for Alex Bowman, scheduled to return to racing Sunday after missing three weeks with a back injury, and Jimmie Johnson, who will be starting only his third race this year. Johnson will start 37th — last in the field.

Charlotte Cup starting lineup