NASCAR says Austin Dillon’s frightening crash launched a dozen safety projects

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Austin Dillon’s airborne crash that left a gaping 60-foot hole in the catchfence at Daytona International Speedway last July spawned a dozen safety projects at NASCAR’s R&D Center.

“Some of those worked, some of those haven’t,” NASCAR Chief Racing Development Officer and executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said in a recent interview with NBC Sports. “But it’s led us to some initiatives with the race teams, through the floorboards, through different protection areas, through some anti-intrusion in the car. We’re working with the teams now to implement as early as 2017, if not earlier, depending on as they develop new cars.”

Two of the most significant wrecks in NASCAR since last year occurred at Daytona: Dillon’s wreck on the last lap in the rain-delayed Coke Zero 400 resulted in five fans being treated for injuries caused by debris from his No. 3 Chevrolet, but the Richard Childress Racing driver walked away.

In the Xfinity Series opener on Feb. 21, 2015, Kyle Busch slammed into an unprotected interior wall in Turn 1 after skidding through fronstretch grass that since has been paved over. Busch missed nearly three months with a broken right leg and fractured left foot.

Last weekend at Sonoma Raceway, Busch was critical of NASCAR for keeping the rules static for Daytona after three cars got airborne May 1 at Talladega Superspeedway. Danica Patrick also was involved in a heavy wreck similar to Busch’s at Daytona.

“As far as rule changes in Daytona, I was certainly hoping that we would see something coming off the race that we saw at Talladega,” Busch said. “No rule changes is not a welcoming sight for me, but it is what it is. We’ll go and crash some more.”

O’Donnell defended NASCAR’s deliberate approach to safety advances, noting that a 2015 initiative in which safety harnesses/belts were mounted to seats instead of the chassis “certainly allowed (Dillon) to walk away” from the Daytona crash.

“If we can see something, we’re going to implement it as quickly as we can, but you’ve got to make sure it works,” O’Donnell said. “To do that, you’ve got to study it, test it and validate it. You’ve got to make sure you get the correct results, and it’ll hold up at high speeds at the track. That’s not just something we can say we think it works. It has to work when we put it in place.

“That’s one of the things that you look at with Austin prior to the crash. The belts adjustment worked. And we’re proud of the fact that worked, and he was able to get up and walk away.”

O’Donnell said NASCAR always was evaluating liftoff speeds but also was focused on the incident involving Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota, which got airborne during a spin at Talladega.

In the case of the other airborne wrecks at Talladega, and Dillon’s crash at Daytona, the cars took flight after contact with another vehicle.

“Where we’re most concerned is where a car gets airborne on its own,” O’Donnell said. “That’s very rare. If you look at Talladega and the 20 car, that happened. The others are really a result of what we call “ramping up” in terms of Austin Dillon getting into another car and getting airborne, which happened twice at Talladega as well.

“It’s inherent in racing, and it can happen really at any racetrack we’re at, it’s not something we like to see, but where we’re really focused is a car on its own getting sideways, getting up in the air. Still a rare occurrence, but any occurrence is more than we’d like to see, so we’re constantly focused on that.”

Another focus is catchfence technology. O’Donnell hinted in the wake of Dillon’s crash last year that a future iteration “may not be a fence.”

O’Donnell said last week there “still is a lot of ongoing studying with the fencing” but indicated there weren’t any imminent changes. As part of the Daytona Rising overhaul that made its debut in February, Daytona removed the first few rows of grandstands and prevented fans from the “rim road” encircling the track (changes that were planned before Dillon’s crash after airborne wrecks that injured fans in 2012 and ’13).

“First and foremost, the fence did its job” in Dillon’s crash, O’Donnell said. “Its job is to keep that vehicle back on the racetrack side, which it did. Certainly the seating area was adjusted in Daytona, we learned to keep some of the fans off the rim road. As we go forward, we’ll be studying some more aspects with our track safety experts to look at what if anything we can do in addition to the fencing and cabling.”

NASCAR conducts exhaustive internal studies after major crashes similar to Busch’s and Dillon’s. An incident data recorder provides information on rates of acceleration and deceleration, as well as the G forces sustained by a driver at impact. NASCAR also consults with the driver, team members who built the car and sometimes outside experts to consider potential improvements.

After Dillon’s crash, his No. 3 Chevrolet was brought to the R&D Center for a complete teardown (before being returned to the team), and photos and videos gathered at the track also were studied.

“You combine that with the incident data recorder and then you’re able to, when you test and try new things, you can reenact that incident almost in its entirety, and it’s as exact as possible,” O’Donnell said. “You can reconstruct the speeds and angles to see if the new things you’ve put in place did work and are something you want to take the next step with.”

Advancements showing the most promise from the dozen projects launched by Dillon’s crash are in anti-intrusion areas, and O’Donnell said some of the developments involve plates within the cockpit that help protect drivers’ feet. NASCAR also has studied floorboard designs after Busch’s crash and has shared data with teams to develop directions on safety features.

“There are a lot of different things that we’re looking at and also studying what is unique in Austin’s crash,” O’Donnell said. “We’re looking at the floorboards and protecting the foot box area. Those are some of the things if you look specifically at Kyle’s incident that we’ve worked with the teams to try to implement going forward.”

In a buzzword that’s been sounded throughout the industry this year, the research also has become more collaborative this season with the formation of a safety council (one of several new committees introduced with the team charter system).

“I’ve said many times we have some of the smartest people in the industry working on our race teams,” O’Donnell said. “So we’ve worked hand in hand with them as well to look at different safety initiatives. It’s tough to pinpoint a number, but I’d say it’s in the hundreds of folks who are daily focused on safety. Again, it’s safer than it’s ever been, but we’re in a dangerous sport, and we’ve got to learn each and every day and apply those (lessons) as quickly as we can.”

Interstate Batteries extends sponsorship with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Interstate Batteries, which has been a Joe Gibbs Racing sponsor since the team’s first race, has expanded its involvement with the team for 2023.

Interstate, based in Dallas, will be a primary JGR sponsor for 13 races, up from six races, the number it typically sponsored each year since 2008.

Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs will run the majority of Interstate’s sponsorship races, but Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. also will carry the sponsor colors.

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

“We’re extremely proud of our partnership with our founding sponsor, Interstate Batteries,” said team owner Joe Gibbs in a statement released by the team. “They have been such an important part of our team for over three decades now, and it’s exciting to have them on board all four of our cars this season. The best part of our partnership is the relationships we’ve built with everyone there over the years.”

Interstate was a key JGR sponsor in the team’s first season in 1992.

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023 season

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR announced a series of rule changes for the 2023 season that includes outlawing the move Ross Chastain made at Martinsville and eliminating stage breaks at all six Cup road course events.

NASCAR announced the changes in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

Among new things for this season:

  • Updated penalty for a wheel coming off a car.
  • Change to the amount of time teams have to repair cars on pit road via the Damaged Vehicle Policy.
  • Change to playoff eligibility for drivers.
  • Cars could run in wet weather conditions on short ovals.
  • Expansion of the restart zone on a trial basis.
  • Choose rule will be in place for more races.

MORE: Ranking top 10 moments at the Clash

NASCAR updated its policy on a loose wheel. Previously, if a wheel came off a car during an event, it would be a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two pit crew members. That has changed this year.

If a wheel comes off a car while the vehicle is still on pit road, the vehicle restarts at the tail end of the field. If a wheel comes off a vehicle while it is on pit road under green-flag conditions, it is a pass-thru penalty.

The rule changes once a vehicle has left pit road and loses a wheel.

Any vehicle that loses a wheel on the track will be penalized two laps and have two pit crew members suspended for two races. The suspensions will go to those most responsible for the wheel coming off. This change takes away a suspension to the crew chief. The policy is the same for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

With some pit crew members working multiple series, the suspension is only for that series. So, if a pit crew member is suspended two races in the Xfinity Series for a wheel coming off, they can still work the Cup race the following day.

The Damaged Vehicle Policy clock will be 7 minutes this season. It had been six minutes last year and was increased to 10 minutes during the playoffs. After talking with teams, NASCAR has settled on seven minutes for teams to make repairs on pit road or be eliminated. Teams can replace toe links on pit road but not control arms. Teams also are not permitted to have specialized repair tools in the pits.

NASCAR will have a wet weather package for select oval tracks: the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Lucas Oil Raceway Park, Martinsville, Milwaukee, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix and Richmond.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said that teams have been told to show up at these events prepared for wet weather conditions as they would at a road course. That includes having a windshield wiper. Wet weather tires will be available. 

“Our goal here is to get back to racing as soon as possible,” Swayer said. “… If there’s an opportunity for us to get some cars or trucks on the racetrack and speed up that (track-drying) process and we can get back to racing, that’s what our goal is. We don’t want to be racing in full-blown rain (at those tracks) and we’ve got spray like we would on a road course.”

NASCAR stated that it is removing the requirement that a winning driver be in the top 30 in points in Cup or top 20 in Xfinity or Trucks to become eligible for the playoffs. As long as a driver is competing full-time — or has a waiver for the races they missed, a win will make them playoff eligible.

With the consultation of drivers, NASCAR is expanding the restart zone to give the leader more room to take off. NASCAR said it will evaluate if to keep this in place after the Atlanta race in March.

NASCAR stated the choose rule will be in effect for superspeedways and dirt races.

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR will do away with stage breaks in all six Cup road course races and select Xfinity and Truck races this season, but teams will continue to score stage points. 

NASCAR announced the change Tuesday in a session with reporters at the NASCAR R&D Center. 

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR stated there will be no stage breaks in the Cup road course events at Circuit of the Americas (March 26), Sonoma (June 11), Chicago street course (July 2), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13), Watkins Glen (Aug. 20) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8).

There will be no stage breaks for Xfinity races at Circuit of the Americas (March 25), Sonoma (June 10), Chicago street course (July 1), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 12), Watkins Glen (Aug. 19) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7).

There will be no stage breaks for the Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas (March 25).

In those races, stage points will be awarded on a designated lap, but there will be no green-and-checkered flag and the racing will continue.

The only road course events that will have stage breaks will be Xfinity standalone races at Portland (June 3) and Road America (July 29) and the Truck standalone race at Mid-Ohio (July 8). Those events will keep stage breaks because they have non-live pit stops — where the field comes down pit road together and positions cannot be gained or lost provided the stop is completed in the prescribed time by NASCAR.

NASCAR has faced questions from fans and competitors about stage breaks during road course races because those breaks alter strategy in a more defined manner than on most ovals.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said the move away from stage breaks at road courses was made in collaboration with teams and response from fans.

“When we introduced stage racing … we took an element of strategy away from the event,” Sawyer. “Felt this (change) would bring some new storylines (in an event).”

NASCAR instituted stage breaks and stage points for the 2017 season and has kept the system in place since. NASCAR awards a playoff point to the stage winner along with 10 points. The top 10 at the end of a stage score points.

It wasn’t uncommon for many teams to elect to pit before the first stage in a road course race and eschew points to put themselves in better track position for the final two stages. By pitting early, they would be behind those who stayed out to collect the stage points. At the stage break, those who had yet to pit would do so, allowing those who stopped before the break to leapfrog back to the front.

NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

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CONCORD, N.C. —  NASCAR announced Tuesday that it will not permit drivers to run against the wall to gain speed as Ross Chastain did in last year’s Martinsville Cup playoff race.

NASCAR made the announcement in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

MORE: NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events 

MORE: NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023

Chastain drove into the Turn 3 wall and rode it around the track at higher speed than the rest of the field, passing five cars in the final two turns to gain enough spots to make the championship race. NASCAR allowed the move to stand even though some competitors had asked for a rule change leading into the season finale at Phoenix last year.

NASCAR is not adding a rule but stressed that Rule 10.5.2.6.A covers such situations.

That rule states: “Safety is a top priority for NASCAR and NEM. Therefore, any violations deemed to compromise the safety of an Event or otherwise pose a dangerous risk to the safety of Competitors, Officials, spectators, or others are treated with the highest degree of seriousness. Safety violations will be handled on a case-by-case basis.”

NASCAR stated that the penalty for such a maneuver would be a lap or time penalty.

Chastain said he’s fine with being known for that move, which will never be repeated in NASCAR history.

“I’m proud that I’ve been able to make a wave that will continue beyond just 2022 or just beyond me,” Chastain told NBC Sports earlier this month about the move’s legacy. “There will be probably a day that people will learn about me because of that, and I’m good with that. I’m proud of it.

“I don’t think it will ever happen again. I don’t think it will ever pay the reward that it paid off for us that it did that day. I hope I’m around in 35 years to answer someone’s question about it. And I probably still won’t have a good answer on why it worked.”

The video of Chastain’s wall-hugging maneuver had 12.5 million views on the NBC Sports TikTok account within a week of it happening. Excluding the Olympics, the only other video that had had more views on the NBC Sports TikTok account to that point in 2022 was Rich Strike’s historic Kentucky Derby win. 

Formula 1 drivers Fernando Alonso, Pierre Gasly and Daniel Ricciardo all praised Chastain’s move at the time, joining a chorus of competitors throughout social media.