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.”

Texas Xfinity results: Noah Gragson wins playoff opener

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Noah Gragson is rolling through the NASCAR Xfinity Series like a bowling ball headed toward a strike.

Gragson won for the fourth consecutive race Saturday, taking the lead with 11 laps left and winning the 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway. The victory put Gragson in the second round of the playoffs.

Finishing behind him in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

Texas Xfinity results

The race was pockmarked by wrecks, scrambling the 12-driver playoff field.

POINTS REPORT

Noah Gragson remains the points leader after his win. He has 2,107 points. AJ Allmendinger is next, 26 points behind.

Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg hold the final two transfer spots. They are one point ahead of Riley Herbst, eight points ahead of Daniel Hemric, 13 points ahead of Brandon Jones and 29 points ahead of Jeremy Clements.

Texas Xfinity driver points

The Xfinity playoffs will continue Oct. 1 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, USA Network).

Noah Gragson wins Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway

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Noah Gragson opened the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs the same way he has run much of the season.

Gragson sidestepped a web of issues plaguing playoff drivers and won Saturday’s 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway, tying a decades-old Xfinity record by winning for the fourth consecutive race. Sam Ard, formerly a series mainstay, won four in a row in 1983.

Gragson, continuing to establish himself as the championship favorite, took the lead with 11 laps to go from Jeb Burton as most of the day’s leaders were running different tire and fuel strategies over the closing laps.

Gragson, 24 and set to jump to the Cup Series next season, led 85 laps. He won by 1.23 seconds.

“This number 9 team, man, they’re on fire,” Gragson told NBC Sports. “Luke Lambert (crew chief) and the boys executed a great race.”

MORE: Texas Xfinity results

The win was Gragson’s seventh of the year. Following in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

The victory pushed Gragson into the second round of the playoffs.

A big crash at the front of the field on lap 117 changed the face of the race. John Hunter Nemechek lost control of his car on the outside and was clipped by Justin Allgaier, starting a wreck that scrambled most of the field. Damages forced playoff drivers Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones and Allgaier from the race.

“The 7 (Allgaier) chose the top behind me, and I haven’t seen the replay of it, but the 7 chose the top behind me and started pushing,” Nemechek said. “The 21 (Hill) made it three-wide on the 9 (Gragson), and I was three-wide at the top, and I think we ended up four-wide at one point, which doesn’t really work aero-wide in the pack.”

Pole winner Jones, a playoff driver taken out in the crash, said Nemechek “was pushing a little too hard. Nothing to fault him there for, but probably a little early to be going that far. It is what it is.”

Six laps earlier, another multi-car crash scattered the field and damaged the car of playoff contender and regular season champion Allmendinger.

The wreck started when Brandon Brown slipped in front of Allmendinger and went into a slide, forcing Allmendinger to the inside apron. Several cars scattered behind them trying to avoid the accident.

Allmendinger’s crew repaired his car and he later had the race lead.

Playoff driver Jeremy Clements had a tough day. He parked with what he called mysterious mechanical issues about halfway through the race.

Below the cutline after the first race are Herbst, Hemric, Jones and Clements.

Stage 1 winner: Daniel Hemric

Stage 2 winner: AJ Allmendinger

Who had a good race: Noah Gragson is threatening to turn the final weeks of the Xfinity season into a cakewalk. He clearly had the day’s dominant car Saturday in winning for the fourth race in a row. … AJ Allmendinger’s car was damaged in a wreck in heavy traffic, but his crew taped parts of the car and gave him an opening to finish fourth.

Who had a bad race: Jeremy Clements, in the playoff field, finished 36th after parking with mechanical trouble near the race’s halfway point. … Jeffrey Earnhardt crashed only 17 laps into the race and finished last.

Next: The second race in the first round of the Xfinity playoffs is scheduled Oct. 1 at 4 p.m. ET (USA Network) at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

Cup drivers are for changing Texas but leery about making it another Atlanta

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Some Cup drivers are concerned that a reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway could create racing similar to Atlanta, adding another type of superspeedway race to the NASCAR calendar.

While Texas officials have not stated publicly any plans to make changes, some competitors feel Sunday’s playoff race (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) could be the final event on this track’s current layout. 

With the All-Star Race moving from Texas to North Wilkesboro next year, Texas Motor Speedway’s lone Cup race will take place Sept. 24, 2023. That could provide time for any alterations. Work on changing Atlanta began in July 2021 and was completed by December 2021. 

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said work needs to be done to Texas Motor Speedway.

“I would like them to demolish this place first and then start over from scratch,” Larson said Saturday. “For one, they did a very poor job with the reconfiguration, initial reconfiguration. 

“I would like to see them change it from a mile-and-a-half to something shorter. I don’t know if that means bringing the backstretch in or whatever. 

“If I could build a track, it’d be probably a three-quarter mile Bristol basically, pavement and progressive banking. But I don’t know if that’s even possible here. I’m not sure what they have in mind, but anything would be better than what they did.”

Former Cup champion Joey Logano worries about another superspeedway race with such events at Daytona, Talladega and now Atlanta. 

“Do we need more superspeedways?” Logano asked Saturday. “Is that the type of racing fans want to see? Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano said he wants to have more control in how he finishes, particularly in a playoff race. 

“I want to be at tracks where I can make a difference, where my team can make a difference, and we’re not at the mercy of a wreck that happened in front of us that we couldn’t do anything about,” he said.

Discussions of changing the track follow complaints about how tough it is to pass at this 1.5-mile speedway.

“Once you get to the top, it’s almost like the bottom (lane) is very, very weak,” Daniel Suarez said.

Suarez has mixed feelings about the idea of turning Texas into another Atlanta-style race.

“Atlanta was a very good racetrack, and then they turned it into a superspeedway and it’s a lot of fun,” Suarez said. “I see it as a hybrid. I don’t think we need another racetrack like that, but it’s not my decision to make. Whatever they throw out at us, I’m going to try to be the best I can be.”

Suarez hopes that Texas can be like what it once was.

“Maybe with some work, we can get this race track to what it used to be, a very wide race track, running the bottom, running the middle, running the top,” he said.  

“As a race car driver, that’s what you want. You want that ability to run around and to show your skills. In superspeedways … everyone is bumping, everyone is pushing, and you can not show your skills as much.”

Chase Briscoe would be OK with a change to Texas, but he wants it to be more like a track other than Atlanta.

“If we’re really going to change and completely start from scratch, I would love another Homestead-type racetrack,” Briscoe said. “The problem is any time you build a new race track, it’s not going to be slick and worn out for a while. It’s trying to figure out what’s best to maximize those first couple of years to get it good by the end. 

“I think Homestead is a great model, if we’re going to build another mile and a half. I think we’re going to have to look at what they have, the progressive banking, the shape of the race track is different. I just think it’s a really good race track, and I think it always puts on really good racing. Anything we could do to try to match that, that would be my vote.”

Denny Hamlin just hopes some sort of change is made to Texas.

“I’d rather have another Atlanta than this, honestly,” Hamlin said. “Anything will be better than kind of what we have here.”

NASCAR shares prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer

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FORT WORTH, Texas — The NASCAR garage is sharing its prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer DJ VanderLey, who was injured Thursday night in a crash during a micro sprint Outlaw race at the Texas Motor Speedway dirt track.

He suffered several fractured vertebrae and has a spinal cord injury, according to a post from his wife Jordan on her Facebook page. 

Two GoFundMe accounts have been set up to help the family with medical costs. 

VanderLey was Chase Briscoe’s engineer for four years, and they are good friends.

“I hate that it happened to anybody,” Briscoe said Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, “but for it to hit close to home has definitely been tough for me.”

Briscoe said he planned to visit VanderLey in the hospital on Saturday and that “I just hope that everybody continues to pray. That’s really all we can do at this point, trying to hope he gets better.”

Christopher Bell calls VanderLey among his best friends. VanderLey was Bell’s engineer at Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. 

Bell spent the night at the hospital and also picked up Jordan VanderLey at the airport when she arrived. 

Stewart-Haas Racing had a decal for VanderLey on Riley Herbst‘s No. 98 Xfinity car for Saturday’s race.