Upon Further Review: Charlotte chaos changes Chase for title contenders

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CONCORD, N.C. — As smoke poured from his engine and the leaders sped away, Denny Hamlin lamented his fate.

“Denny Hamlin luck in the Chase,’’ he radioed his team. “That gets you every time.’’

Just when it seemed as if the top eight Chase drivers could relax after four foes suffered misfortune Sunday, Hamlin saw his comfortable points bulge waste away quicker than a before and after picture.

He was one of five Chase drivers to finish 30th or worse at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He became the oddity that could throw this Round of 12, which includes a cutoff race at Talladega Superspeedway, into chaos.

Before Hamlin’s woes, it appeared the top eight Chase drivers would hold a healthy advantage on the four — Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick — who suffered from miscalculations, miscues and mischievous machinery.

Just before Hamlin’s engine blew while running second, he had a 31-point lead on those outside a transfer spot.

At that point, it appeared as if Dillon and Elliott would be 19 points out of the cutoff spot. In the two previous years of the elimination format, only one driver more than 15 points out of the final transfer spot after the opening race in the second round advanced. That was Brad Keselowski. He did so by winning at Talladega in 2014. No one so far back made it on points.

After Hamlin’s woes put him in the final transfer spot in the standings, Dillon and Elliott found themselves only three points behind him.

Now, there are two Chases. Those in the top seven can take fewer risks because the penalty of losing points could be critical with Talladega looming in two weeks. The bottom five, including Hamlin, are in a race among themselves for the final transfer spot if they can’t win this weekend at Kansas or the following week at Talladega.

“All I can do is try to run as fast as I can,’’ Hamlin said. “I won’t be able to control what any of my competitors do. All I can do is try to go to Kansas and try to win, go to Talladega and try to win.’’

Last year, Hamlin’s luck saw him fail to advance from the second round. He entered the cutoff race at Talladega second in the standings, 18 points ahead of the cutoff. He failed to make transfer after an issue with the roof hatch and then was collected in a last-lap crash.

Teammate Kyle Busch had it worse in 2014. Busch was second in the standings, 26 points ahead of the ninth place, the first driver outside a cutoff spot entering Talladega and was eliminated after a crash when hit from behind by Dillon.

Logano, who finished 80 laps behind the leaders Sunday after suffering two tire issues and slamming the wall twice, joked that if he had finished only two laps down, “I could have had a good points day.’’

Had he done so, he would have finished 23rd instead of 36th and those extra 13 points would have put him in the final transfer spot instead of Hamlin.

That’s how volatile Sunday was for some Chase contenders. Now, it impacts decision drivers and crew chiefs will make the next two weeks.

“We’re not in must-win, but we’re in can’t-screw-up mode,’’ Logano said.

HAIRY SITUATION

Blake Koch thought he’d have some fun after making the inaugural Xfinity Chase.

He decided to mimic hockey players who grow beards during the playoffs and do it for NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.

Truth be told, Koch, figured he’d have the beard for only the first three races and then could shave, but he’ll keep it going after advancing to the Round of 8 after Sunday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I’m a pretty optimistic person, but I expected us to make the Chase, not to really transfer to the next group of eight,’’ he said. “That’s really tough to do. If I would have known that, I wouldn’t have set to growing this Chase beard because it’s going to get long now.

“I thought it was going to be a three-week beard. It’s going to be an eight-week beard, at least, maybe nine weeks.’’

Koch advanced with a team that has 16 employees and moved shops during the season. They prepared cars for Dover in May with flashlights because their new shop didn’t have power yet.

“I think that’s definitely the biggest story of the first round, Blake and his guys making the second round,’’ said Elliott Sadler, who advanced to the Round of 8 via his win at Kentucky Speedway. “The start-up team and where Blake came from last year to this year, congratulations, that to me is a job well done.’’

PIT STOPS

Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski are tied with the best average finish in the eight races on 1.5-mile tracks. Both have a 7.0 average. Keselowski finished seventh on Sunday; Busch eighth. Three of the last six races, including the season finale at Homestead, are on 1.5-mile tracks.

— For the first time in this Chase, there were multi-car accidents. In the first three Chase races, there were seven cautions for spins or accidents. All had been single-car incidents. Sunday, two of the five cautions for accidents featured multiple cars, including the 12-car incident off a restart.

— Last year, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick were 1-2 in the points after the opening race in the second round. This year, they are 11th and 12th.

Kasey Kahne’s third-place finish was his best result since his win at Atlanta in Sept. 2014 — a span of 77 races.

Danica Patrick’s 11th-place finish Sunday was her best result of the year. Her previous best was 13th at Dover in May.

— Five of the top-10 finishers Sunday were drivers not eligible for the title. They were Kasey Kahne (finished third), Ryan Newman (fourth), Kyle Larson (fifth), Tony Stewart (ninth) and Jamie McMurray (10th).

— Tony Stewart’s ninth-place finish snapped a streak of seven consecutive finishes of 13th or worse.

Michael McDowell’s 14th-place finish was his second top-15 result in his last four starts.

Drivers for Drive for Diversity combine revealed

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The 13 drivers who will participate in the Advance Auto Part Drive for Diversity Combine were revealed Thursday and range in age from 13-19.

The NASCAR Drive for Diversity Development Program was created in 2004 to develop and train ethnically diverse and female drivers both on and off the track. Cup drivers Bubba Wallace, Daniel Suarez and Kyle Larson came through the program.

The 2020 and 2021 combines were canceled due to the impact of COVID-19.

“We are thrilled that we are in a position to return to an in-person evaluation for this year’s Advance Auto Parts Drive for Diversity Combine,” Rev Racing CEO Max Seigel said in a statement. “We are energized by the high-level of participating athletes and look forward to building the best driver class for 2023. As an organization, we have never been more positioned for success and future growth.”

The youngest drivers are Quinn Davis and Nathan Lyons, who are both 13 years old.

The group includes 17-year-old Andrés Pérez de Lara, who finished seventh in his ARCA Menards Series debut in the Sept. 15 race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Also among those invited to the combine is 15-year old Katie Hettinger, who will make her ARCA Menards Series West debut Oct.. 14 at the Las Vegas Bullring. She’s also scheduled to compete in the ARCA West season finale Nov. 4 at Phoenix Raceway.

 

 

Name

Age Hometown
Justin Campbell 17 Griffin, Georgia
Quinn Davis 13 Sparta, Tennessee
Eloy Sebastián

López Falcón

17 Mexico City, Mexico
Katie Hettinger 15 Dryden, MI
Caleb Johnson 15 Denver, CO
Nathan Lyons 13 Concord, NC
Andrés Pérez de Lara 17 Mexico City, Mexico
Jaiden Reyna 16 Cornelius, NC
Jordon Riddick 17 Sellersburg, IN
Paige Rogers 19 New Haven, IN
Lavar Scott 19 Carney’s Point, NJ
Regina Sirvent 19 Mexico City, Mexico
Lucas Vera 15 Charlotte, NC

 

Dr. Diandra: Crashes: Causes and complications

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Two drivers have missed races this year after hard rear-end crashes. Kurt Busch has been out since an incident in qualifying at Pocono in July. Alex Bowman backed hard into a wall at Texas and will miss Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Other drivers have noted that the hits they’ve taken in the Next Gen car are among the hardest they’ve felt in a Cup car.

“When I crashed it (at Auto Club Speedway in practice), I thought the car was destroyed, and it barely backed the bumper off. It just felt like somebody hit you with a hammer,” Kevin Harvick told NBC Sports.

The three most crucial parameters in determining the severity of a crash are:

  • How much kinetic energy the car carries
  • How long the collision takes
  • The angle at which the car hits

Angle

The last of these factors requires trigonometry to explain properly. You can probably intuit, however, that a shallower hit is preferable to a head-on — or rear-on — hit.

A graphic show shallower (low-angle) hits and deeper (high-angle) hits
Click for a larger view

When the angle between the car and the wall is small, most of the driver’s momentum starts and remains in the direction parallel to the wall. The car experiences a small change in velocity.

The larger the angle, the larger the change in perpendicular speed and the more force experienced. NASCAR has noted that more crashes this season have had greater angles than in the past.

Busch and Bowman both had pretty large-angle hits, so we’ll skip the trig.

Energy — in pounds of TNT

A car’s kinetic energy depends on how much it weighs and how fast it’s going. But the relationship between kinetic energy and speed is not linear: It’s quadratic. That means going twice as fast gives you four times more kinetic energy.

The graph shows the kinetic energies of different kinds of race cars at different speeds. To give you an idea of how much energy we’re talking about, I expressed the kinetic energy in terms of equivalent pounds of TNT.

A vertical bar graph showing kinetic energies for different types of racecars and their energies

  • A Next Gen car going 180 mph has the same kinetic energy as is stored in almost three pounds of TNT.
  • Because IndyCars are about half the weight of NASCAR’s Next Gen car, an IndyCar has about half the kinetic energy of a Next Gen car when both travel at the same speed.
  • At 330 mph, Top Fuel drag racers carry the equivalent of six pounds of TNT in kinetic energy.

All of a car’s kinetic energy must be transformed to other types of energy when the car slows or stops. NASCAR states that more crashes are occurring at higher closing speeds, which means more kinetic energy.

Longer collisions > shorter collisions

That seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Who wants to be in a crash any longer than necessary?

But the longer a collision takes, the more time there is to transform kinetic energy.

A pitting car starts slowing down well below it reaches its pit box. The car’s kinetic energy is transformed into heat energy (brakes and rotors warming), light energy (glowing rotors), and even sound energy (tires squealing).

The same amount of kinetic energy must be transformed in a collision — but much faster. In addition to heat, light and sound, energy is transformed via the car spinning and parts deforming or breaking. (This video about Michael McDowell’s 2008 Texas qualifying crash goes into more detail.)

The force a collision produces depends on how long the car takes to stop. Compare the force from your seat belt when you slow down at a stop sign to what you feel if you have to suddenly slam on the brakes.

To give you an idea of how fast collisions can be, the initial wall impact in the crash that killed Dale Earnhardt Sr. lasted only eight-hundredths (0.08) of a second.

SAFER barriers use a car’s kinetic energy to move a heavy steel wall and crush pieces of energy-absorbing foam. That extracts energy from the car, plus the barrier extends the collision time.

The disadvantage is that a car with lower kinetic energy won’t move the barrier. Then it’s just like running into a solid wall.

That’s the same problem the Next Gen car seems to have.

Chassis stiffness: A Goldilocks problem

The Next Gen chassis is a five-piece, bolt-together car skeleton, as shown below.

A graphic showing the five parts of the Next Gen chassis.
Graphic courtesy of NASCAR. Click to enlarge.
The foam surrounding the outside of the rear bumper
The purple is energy-absorbing foam. Graphic courtesy of NASCAR. Click for a larger view.

That graphic doesn’t show another important safety feature: the energy absorbing foam that covers the outside of the bumpers. It’s purple in the next diagram.

All cars are designed so that the strongest part of the car surrounds the occupants. Race cars are no different.

The center section of the Next Gen chassis is made from stout steel tubing and sheet metal. Components become progressively weaker as you move away from the cockpit. The bumper, for example, is made of aluminum alloy rather than steel. The goal is transforming all the kinetic energy before it reaches the driver.

Because the Next Gen car issues are with rear impacts, I’ve expanded and highlighted the last two pieces of the chassis.

The rear clip and bumper, with the fuel cell and struts shaded

The bumper and the rear clip don’t break easily enough. The rear ends of Gen-6 cars were much more damaged than the Next Gen car after similar impacts.

If your initial thought is “Just weaken the struts,” you’ve got good instincts. However, there are two challenges.

I highlighted the first one in red: the fuel cell. About the only thing worse than a hard collision is a hard collision and a fire.

The other challenge is that a chassis is a holistic structure: It’s not like each piece does one thing independent of all the other pieces. Changing one element to help soften rear collisions might make other types of collisions harder.

Chassis are so complex that engineers must use finite-element-analysis computer programs to predict their behavior. These programs are analogous to (and just as complicated as) the computational fluid dynamics programs aerodynamicists use.

Progress takes time

An under-discussed complication was noted by John Patalak, managing director of safety engineering for NASCAR. He told NBC Sports’ Dustin Long in July that he was surprised by the rear-end crash stiffness.

The Next Gen car’s crash data looked similar to that from the Gen-6 car, but the data didn’t match the drivers’ experiences. Before addressing the car, his team had to understand the disparity in the two sets of data.

They performed a real-world crash test on a new configuration Wednesday. These tests are complex and expensive: You don’t do them until you’re pretty confident what you’ve changed will make a significant difference.

But even if the test goes exactly as predicted, they aren’t done.

Safety is a moving target.

And always will be.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval

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NASCAR Cup Series drivers race on the road for the final time this season Sunday, as the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval course ends the playoffs’ Round of 12.

The 17-turn, 2.28-mile course incorporating the CMS oval and infield will determine the eight drivers who will advance to the next round of the playoffs. Chase Elliott won last Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway and is the only driver who has qualified for a spot in the Round of 8.

Entering Sunday’s race, Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman are below the playoff cutline. Bowman will not qualify for the next round because he is sidelined by concussion-like symptoms.

The race (2 p.m ET) will be broadcast by NBC.

Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Cup and Xfinity)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 81 with a 6% chance of rain.

Saturday: Mixed clouds and sun. High of 67 with a 3% chance of rain.

Sunday: Sunny. High of 68 with a 3% chance of rain.

Friday, Oct. 7

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 12 – 5 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Saturday, Oct. 8

Garage open

  • 7 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 8:30 a.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 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

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

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

 

Rodney Childers fined $100,000, suspended for four races

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NASCAR has suspended Rodney Childers, Kevin Harvick‘s crew chief, for four races and fined him $100,000 for what the sanctioning body called modification of a part supplied by a vendor.

The team was penalized for a modification to the deck lid.

Harvick, who is out of the Cup Series playoffs, and the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 team were docked 100 points.

Harvick’s car and that of Martin Truex Jr. were taken to NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C. after last Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway. There were no penalties assessed to the Truex team.

Harvick has been particularly critical of the Next Gen car in recent months, once referring to the “crappy-ass parts” provided by suppliers.

Harvick’s car erupted in flames during the Southern 500 Sept. 4 at Darlington Raceway. After he climbed from the smoking car, Harvick blamed the fire on “just crappy parts on the race car like we’ve seen so many times. They haven’t fixed anything. It’s kind of like the safety stuff. We just let it keep going and keep going.

“The car started burning and as it burned the flames started coming through the dash. I ran a couple laps and then as the flame got bigger it started burning stuff up and I think right there you see all the brake fluid that was probably coming out the brakes and part of the brake line, but the fire was coming through the dash.

“What a disaster for no reason. We didn’t touch the wall. We didn’t touch a car, and here we are in the pits with a burned-up car, and we can’t finish the race during the playoffs because of crappy-ass parts.”

MORE: AJ Allmendinger to return to Cup Series in 2023

Unless the team appeals, Childers would miss races at Charlotte, Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville and would return for the season finale at Phoenix.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps told the Associated Press that officials have not targeted Harvick. “I would say that’s ridiculous,” he said. “No one has a vendetta against Kevin Harvick or Rodney or anyone at Stewart-Haas Racing.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Harvick tweeted, “Seems strange…” A Childers tweet called the penalty “Shocker…..”.

NASCAR also announced Wednesday it has suspended Young’s Motorsports crew chief Andrew Abbott indefinitely for a behavioral violation during pre-race inspection. He must undergo anger-management training to be reinstated. The team races in the Camping World Truck Series.