Side drafting: From a specialist’s tool to racing commodity

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Martin Truex Jr. knows what lost him the Daytona 500.

It wasn’t a crash, pit stop strategy or a faulty lug nut.

It was the air.

More specifically, how the air surrounding his No. 78 Toyota reacted when it was side-by-side with another car coming to the checkered flag.

This is also known as side drafting and it kept Truex from being the “the 2016 Daytona 500 winner” for the rest of his life.

“Apparently I’m not that good at (side drafting) because I lost the Daytona 500 by about a foot,” Truex told NBC Sports in May. “Because I side drafted past the 11 car too quick.”

The driver with the title of Daytona 500 winner for the rest of time is Denny Hamlin, who won his second points race at a restrictor-plate track (in addition to 10 top 10s and four exhibition wins).

Hamlin benefited from side drafting, which serves two purposes – speeding you up, or slowing someone else down.

“It’s a momentum game,” Hamlin told NBC Sports. “Essentially, whoever’s nose is out front is at a very big disadvantage.”

Drivers describe it as getting their car close enough to a rear-quarter panel of another. That disrupts the air flowing over their competitors’ car and sends it on to the rear spoiler or into the wheel wells, slowing that car. That allows the car doing the side drafting to pull even or ahead.

With being a momentum game, drafting works both ways. While it can put one car ahead of the other, it can keep the field stagnate, creating the familiar sight of pack racing around the 2.5-mile surface at Daytona.

“So that’s why when you see cars get side by side, it’s hard for anyone to kinda break free,” Hamlin said. “Because essentially once you get the advantage, he’s dumping the air back on your spoiler.”

Though he’s won two plate races in the last three years, Hamlin believes there’s “really no one that stands out” among the rest when it comes to the ability to draft. But Jimmie Johnson, a five-time winner in points races on plate tracks, knows which name to invoke when it comes to pioneer of the draft.

“(Dale) Earnhardt Sr. had that stuff figured out before anyone was even talking about it,” said Johnson of the seven-time Sprint Cup champion.

“The Intimidator” won 10 times at Talladega and three points races at Daytona. He also claimed 10 straight wins in Daytona 500 qualifying races and won the Sprint Unlimited six times from 1980-95. Earnhardt’s final Sprint Cup win came at Talladega in 2000 when he took his No. 3 Chevrolet from 18th to first in the final five laps of the fall race.

Johnson says there’s a “fine line” between who is good at side drafting at superspeedways and the numerous 1.5-mile tracks that populate the schedule.

“Superspeedway racing, be as aggressive as you can be,” Johnson says. “Mile-and-a-half tracks, you gotta be very careful because you can cause a wreck.”

One driver everyone knows is good at side drafting is Dale Earnhardt Jr. He has ridden the draft to 10 combined points wins at restrictor-plate races, including last year’s Coke Zero 400.

“Side drafting used to be something you only saw a handful of guys take advantage of constantly in the ’80s and ’90s,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports. “The rest of the field wasn’t as aggressive. But now at the plate tracks the cars that we have today very easily stuck together.”

With its widespread use, Earnhardt says side drafting has become “a limited tool” when everyone in the field is trying to take advantage of it at the same time. The two-time Daytona 500 winner attributes the new-found aggression partly to the car configurations.

“Something about the way the air moves and the fender flares on the front and the back quarter (panels),” Earnhardt said. “Something about these cars have them drafting in such a way that it makes everyone have to be incredibly aggressive with side drafting lap after lap.”

There is such a thing as being too aggressive. Just ask Truex, who has to call someone else the winner of the 2016 Daytona 500.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Charlotte Roval

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Sunday provides a final chance for drivers to advance to the Round of 8 and keep their Cup championship hopes alive.

Talladega winner Chase Elliott is the only driver who has advanced to the next round. That leaves seven spots available going into Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe holds the final transfer spot by a tiebreaker over Austin Cindric. At least for now.

William Byron is 11 points behind both drivers, but Hendrick Motorsports will appeal Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas on Thursday. Should Hendrick win and Byron get those points back, he would move into a transfer spot.

There’s just part of what to watch for in Sunday’s race.

Favorites to be No. 20

This season remains tied for the most different winners in series history at 19, but there are a few candidates who could become the 20th different winner this year on Sunday.

Among the favorites to do so:

Ryan Blaney, who came close to winning last week at Talladega, won the inaugural Cup race at the Roval in 2018.

Martin Truex Jr., who has four career Cup wins on road courses, still seeks his first victory of the season.

Michael McDowell, who is coming off a third-place finish at Talladega, has had a career-high 12 top-10 finishes this season, including top 10s in each of the last four road course events this year.

Will history repeat?

Last year, the four drivers eliminated after the Roval were Kevin Harvick, Alex Bowman, Christopher Bell and William Byron.

Harvick was eliminated in the first round this year, but Byron (-11 to the cutline) and Bell (-33) are in jeopardy of being eliminated in this round again. Bowman stated Tuesday that he will miss his second consecutive race because of continued concussion symptoms. He will be among the four eliminated from title contention.

Bowman missed last weekend’s race because of concussion-like symptoms suffered at Texas. A decision on if he’ll be able to race at the Roval will come later this week.

Will chaos continue?

Consider what some of the former Roval winners have endured on their way to the checkered flag:

In 2019, Chase Elliott drove into the Turn 1 wall on a restart while the leader. He recovered to win.

In 2020, Elliott overcame a loose wheel to win for the second year in a row.

In 2021, Kyle Larson won after his team changed batteries and put the alternator belt back on.

Could a similar fate be in store for this year’s winner? Or will they have a cleaner day?

Entry lists

Thirty-nine drivers are entered including IndyCar driver Conor Daly, former Formula 1 driver Daniil Kvyat, former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and former 24 Hours of Daytona winner Joey Hand. JJ Yeley will drive the No. 51 for Cody Ware, who stated that he would skip this event because of his ankle injury at Texas the footwork needed on a road course.

Charlotte Roval Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are IndyCar driver Marco Andretti and former F1 driver Daniil Kvyat.

Charlotte Roval Xfinity entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Saturday, Oct. 8

Forecast: Partly cloudy with a high of 66 degrees. No chance of rain during the Xfinity race.

  • 10 – 10:30 a.m. — Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)
  • 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying (NBC Sports App)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Cup practice (NBC Sports App, USA Network coverage begins at 12:30 p.m.)
  • 1 – 2 p.m. — Cup qualifying (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 3 p.m. — Xfinity race (67 laps, 155.44 miles; NBC, Peacock, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 9

Forecast: Sunny with a high of 64 degrees. No chance of rain during the race.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup race (109 laps, 252.88 miles; NBC, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).