Ryan: The hit parade for Danica Patrick understandably can take its toll

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After all the hard shots Danica Patrick has weathered in her NASCAR career, the hits came as fast and furious for her passionate reaction to a fiery impact Saturday.

A Cup driver was being cut out of his car because of an injury concern (for the first time in more than a decade), and engines were silent at Kansas Speedway. A solemn interview on FS1 by Joey Logano indicated a pall had fallen over the track as safety workers carefully extricated Aric Almirola.

And then Patrick gave an interview that seemed borderline flippant in contrast to the preceding somberness.

Was it fair to criticize it as tone deaf, as many did the next few days on satellite radio and social media?

Let’s put aside the mood, the timing, the setting and just re-examine some of Patrick’s words while standing outside the care center on national TV for the second consecutive week.

“I hope Aric’s OK,” she said “He definitely is feeling the worst of everybody. NASCAR has done everything they can to make our cars as safe as possible, but things happen. And his car looked the least damaged of all of ours.

“That’s what I said before I walked out, one of these times these accidents aren’t going to go good for me. They are all big. I’ve been very fortunate so far, but one of these times it’s not going to go well.”

If it sounded like someone who was feeling the strain of being in too many crashes – particularly the sort of jarring impacts that naturally leave drivers questioning their vocations – that would be a reasonable conclusion.

Kansas marked the third crash in four weeks for Patrick, who has endured collisions in five of the first 11 races this season – the highest rate of a career already marked by its share of wrecks.

In 165 starts in NASCAR’s premier series, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has been listed on the crash report in 51 races – 20 resulting in DNFs.

According to David Smith’s Motorsports Analytics website, Patrick was among the top 15 in crash rates from 2013-15 (last year, she was at 0.31 crashes per race, 19th highest in the series and the lowest of her career). Over the past three seasons, she has the third-most crashes (40).

This year’s crash rate of 0.45 is among the top 10, but it shouldn’t be viewed as an indictment of her ability.

She crashes slightly more than a typical Cup driver but not so much that it begs questions about her qualifications. The fiery wreck at Kansas (where she ran in the top 10) was because of a broken part on Joey Logano’s Ford, and Patrick had no say in the contact between A.J. Allmendinger and Chase Elliott that collected her car at Talladega Superspeedway.

What is troubling about Patrick’s crashes isn’t the frequency — it’s how heavy they frequently are.

A day after the Kansas wreck, a YouTube user assembled a dozen of Danica’s most jarring impacts, and the compilation easily filled nearly 10 minutes.

This isn’t an unfamiliar narrative for Patrick, whose cars have found walls at high rates of speed since even before the first race of her Cup career. This 2012 Daytona 500 qualifier now seems a harbinger of sorts:

A week before Kansas, there was this impact with a barrier jutting out at Talladega (around the 1:40 mark):

A year earlier at Talladega was a crash that left her shaken and with a foot injury:

There was a hard turn into the wall at Auto Club Speedway in 2016:

A wreck at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in September 2015 knocked the wind out of her:

There was a heavy right-front impact in the 2014 Daytona 500:

Even practice sessions have included some heavy licks, such as this during Speedweeks 2015 at Daytona:

When the crashes in her career are watched in succession, Patrick’s assertion three months ago that she has had at least a dozen concussions seems less like hyperbole and more just a fact.

If she could re-do Saturday’s interview, Patrick might choose her words differently. She admittedly is known for getting angry in the wake of crashes throughout her career in IndyCar and NASCAR. Adrenaline is pumping in the wake of traumatic moments such as slamming a wall at 200 mph, and drivers shouldn’t be asked to apologize if it occasionally results in histrionic reactions.

But beyond just being in the heat of the moment, consider what else Patrick might have been thinking about Saturday night as she attempted to process another high-speed collision that wasn’t her fault.

The primary sponsor of her No. 10 Ford has left and no replacement has been named for next year. She has a bevy of off-track, fitness-oriented pursuits (clothing lines, a book, maybe a cooking show?) with lucrative potential for long-term commercial viability independent of racing.

Patrick, who turned 35 two months ago, has raced for more than a decade on the national stage and has built a brand and reputation that will carry for decades if she left NASCAR tomorrow.

It might be fair to ask whether she reacted well Saturday night after she was involved in another wicked crash.

But it also seems fair to ask if that reaction should be taken in the context of someone who clearly and understandably has had enough of being involved in violent impacts.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. reignited a debate over whether it was “in poor taste” for media outlets to use photos of Almirola clearly in pain while being attended to by safety workers. It already had been a flashpoint Saturday night when a similar photo was deleted by a prominent writer after much negative (and some high-profile) blowback.

The usage of photos with graphic or possibly sensitive content has been a topic in journalism ethics classes for decades. There is no necessarily right or wrong answer.

The reactions are reasonable from Earnhardt and others who know Almirola personally and view publication as tantamount to an invasion of privacy.

But images help tell a story, and along with accepting the risks to their health, race car drivers also enter into a covenant as public figures.

Some of the most famous events in sports history have featured athletes in various degrees of pain and sometimes with bloodshed. Those stories remain vivid in large part because the images associated with them provide compelling and unvarnished veracity.

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There also was some outrage over NASCAR’s decision to add a fourth stage to the Coca-Cola 600.

It seems misplaced for several reasons. One is that NASCAR officials have been fairly transparent about the fact that they would be tweaking stages as they were evaluated in their debut season (which has been mostly positive).

The longest race of the year by 100 miles virtually mandated a different approach because of the pit strategies in play over 400 laps. Though you might find it curious why the race was broken into 100-lap stages (some might have expected the last segment to be longer), it’s hard to argue with the logic.

There is some merit to the point that it lessens NASCAR’s major-league credibility to announce this two weeks out (of course, that also begs the question of why weren’t more apoplectic when the All-Star Race format was announced two weeks ahead of last year’s event?)

It would seem prudent for NASCAR just to “own” this by saying, “Yes, we concede it would have been better to announce this in January. But we also think stages are working, and we want to keep improving it during the season.”

By the way, expect more changes for stages in 2018, starting at Daytona.

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After track promoters initially were told the 2018 schedule would be released Monday, it now seems likely it will be out next week.

Though still much earlier than in previous years (thanks to five-year sanction agreements in place since 2016), the timing will be roughly two weeks behind when the 2017 schedule was unveiled last year.

One of the major keys to finalizing next year’s slate apparently is Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Brickyard 400 has been held on either the last week of July or the first week of August since its 1994 inception, but there has been discussion of shifting the date both forward and backward on the calendar.

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Martin Truex Jr.’s victory at Kansas reaffirmed many things about the Furniture Row Racing driver – chiefly, that he is learning to win the races he once struggled to close. But it also underscored something about his team and manufacturer.

The Joe Gibbs Racing drought to start the 2017 season isn’t solely because of Toyota. For the second time in three weeks, Truex was asked twice in the last three weeks about the Camrys of FRR outpacing those of JGR.

“They’ve had speed at times,” Truex said. “They’ve been a little bit inconsistent, but it’s there, and they’ll figure it out quickly.”

Based on the way Toyota Racing Development does business, all the information and tools are available for JGR to run as well as Truex. But the trick is getting the data correctly applied.

Truex has attributed his speed to a perfect blend of competition minds in crew chief Cole Pearn, engineer Jeff Curtis and competition director Pete Rondeau.

“We all get the same information,” he said. “Our guys in general are just clicking. We have a lot of confidence.  My guys are doing an amazing job of filtering through all that information and making sure the right things are going into the car.

“I think that the good part for (JGR) is that they see what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and they know it’s possible as well.”

With two weeks to regroup around the Charlotte Motor Speedway homestand, the guess here is that TRD finds a way to put JGR back on track by pointing them in Truex’s direction.

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Colleague Dustin Long got a good nugget Tuesday from team owner Rick Hendrick, who seems optimistic about re-signing Lowe’s and Nationwide beyond 2017.

Team sponsorship concerns have been an underlying story of the 2017 Cup season. Amidst some ominous business indicators for Lowe’s and the impending retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., whether Hendrick Motorsports could retain two of its flagship primary sponsors was viewed as an important barometer by the NASCAR industry.

If both return as Hendrick expects, that will bring some sighs of relief well beyond the walls of a NASCAR powerhouse.

Alex Bowman to miss Talladega due to concussion-like symptoms

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Alex Bowman will miss Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway after experiencing concussion-like symptoms following his accident last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports stated Thursday afternoon.

Bowman is the second Cup driver to miss a race because of concussion-like symptoms after a crash. Kurt Busch has not returned to racing since he crashed July 23 at Pocono. Busch said this week that he remains “hopeful” he can return this season. Six races remain in the season, including Sunday’s race at Talladega.

Noah Gragson will fill in for Bowman.

Hendrick Motorsports stated that Bowman, who is last in the playoff standings, was evaluated by physicians Thursday in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Provided Bowman returns, he likely will need to win the Oct. 9 race at the Charlotte Roval to avoid playoff elimination.

Bowman brought out the caution on Lap 98 of the 334-lap race at Texas when a tire blew and backed into the wall in Turn 4. The car then hit the SAFER barrier with the right side. Bowman continued, finishing the race 29th, five laps behind winner Tyler Reddick.

Drivers have stated that rear impacts have felt worse than they looked with the new car.

From the get-go, everybody could see that this car was way too stiff,” Kevin Harvick said earlier this summer. “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.”

Christopher Bell said in June that he had a headache after he backed into the wall in the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway in May.

Denny Hamlin said earlier this month he feels better about what NASCAR is looking to do with the car after conversations with series officials.

“I certainly feel that they’re working to help us with the hits on the chassis,” Hamlin aid. “All that stuff does take time. They can’t just knee-jerk reaction and start cutting bars out of the chassis, that’s very irresponsible.

“I think they’re doing things methodically to make sure that the next revision of car that comes out is one that is improved in the areas that we need improving on, but that does take time through design and testing.”

Gragson was to have driven the No. 62 car for Beard Motorsports in Sunday’s Cup race. The team has not announced its plans with Gragson moving to the No. 48 car.

 

Dr. Diandra: How much does Talladega shake up the playoffs?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for shaking up the playoffs. But how well deserved is that reputation?

Playoff drivers usually view the first race in the second round of the playoffs as the best chance to earn points, earn stage points and maybe even a win given that Talladega is the second race. Now that Texas is in the rear-view mirror, let’s turn our data analysis tools to Talladega.

The shake-up index

Determining how much one race shuffles the playoffs standings requires a simple metric that is applicable to all the years NASCAR has had stages and playoffs. In a rare point of consistency, Talladega has remained the 31st race of the season since 2017, when stage racing started.

After trying a couple different approaches, I finally settled on playoff rankings. These rankings are a zero-sum game. For each driver who moves up a position, another driver must move down.

The first graph is playoff ranking as a function of race for the second playoff segment of 2021. It’s a bit of a mess, but stay with me.

A scatter graph of rank changes to help determine how much shaking-up Talladega actually does

Playoff rank runs along the left side of the graph. The highest ranked driver is at the top and the 12th ranked at the bottom.

The leftmost set of dots shows the rankings coming out of Bristol, after eliminating the lowest four drivers and re-seeding the rest. The second column of dots show the rankings after Las Vegas, which was the first race in the second round in 2021.

Each driver is represented in a different color, with lines connecting his rankings. For example, the dark purple lines show Denny Hamlin rising from third to first over these three races. The light blue lines at the bottom show Alex Bowman plummeting from seventh to 12th.

The messier the lines between two races, the more the playoffs were shaken up. Because it’s hard to quantify “messiness,” I counted each time one driver’s line crossed another driver’s line.

Each crossing indicates two drivers changed places in the rankings. The number of intersections between Bristol and Las Vegas, for example, tells you how much Las Vegas shook up the standings.

Three intersecting lines count as three shake-ups because there are three pairs of drivers crossing.

In 2021, Las Vegas had nine intersections, Talladega 13 and the Roval only five. This seems consistent with our hypothesis that Talladega is the biggest shaker-upper in the second round.

Talladega Timeline

In addition to being only one point, the 2021 Talladega contest poses another problem. Bubba Wallace won the rain-shortened race, which went 311 miles instead of the scheduled 500 miles.

That raises the possibility that 2021 might not be the most representative year for Talladega races. I therefore repeated the analysis going back to 2017. Since we didn’t have stage racing — and thus stage points — before 2017, it doesn’t make sense to compare previous years.

The table below shows the shake-up index from 2017-2021. Note that the first and third races changed from year to year.

A table summarizing the shake-up index for Talladega and other races in the second playoff round from 2017-2021

This five years of data show that Talladega wasn’t always the race that most shook-up this round of playoffs. From 2017-19, Dover and Charlotte held that honor. That’s surprising, especially in 2017. That’s the year 26 of 40 cars failed to finish the Talladega race and NASCAR parked Jimmie Johnson and Matt DiBenedetto.

In 2020, the three races had just about equal shake-up indices.

The Roval has been the third playoff race for only two years. It was equally chaotic with Talladega in terms of affecting the standings in 2020, but less so in 2021. Kansas beat the Roval for switching up the playoff standings twice.

 A caveat for the first race

If you’re surprised to see a larger shake-up for the first race in the second round of the playoffs, you’re not alone.

The 2021 fall Las Vegas race was remarkably uneventful. There were only two DNFs, both non-playoff cars. And one single-car accident that, again, didn’t involve a playoff car. Yet it had a shake-up index of nine.

It turns out that this is a side-effect of the re-seeding protocol.

The graph below shows the same time period as the rankings graph, but reports total points for the top-12 drivers.

A scatter plot showing how points changed for the top-12 playoff drivers in 2021 in the second round of the playoffs

Immediately after re-seeding, the drivers are separated by 57 points from first to 12th. If you omit Kyle Larson’s 30-point lead, the bottom 11 drivers are separated by only 27 points.

Since a driver can earn a maximum of 60 points in a single race, the first race in a round has a lot more impact in changing the standings. In effect, the first race decompresses the re-seeding compression.

After Las Vegas, the 12 playoff drivers were separated by 78 points. After Talladega, the margin grew to 98 points.

The larger numbers for the first races in any round are more due to the re-seeding-induced points compression than to the nature of the track.

Applied to 2022

Drivers don’t have to win at Talladega. They just have to finish ahead of the other playoff drivers. In fact, if a given driver can’t win, the next best case for him is if none of the other playoff drivers win, either.

The largest drop in positions a driver has seen from Talladega is five — and that’s from the rain-shortened 2021 race. On the other hand, drivers have also seen as much as an eight-position gain in the standings following Talladega. That gain was after the 2017 race where more than half the field failed to finish, but at least one driver has come out of the fall Talladega race each of the last four years up at least three positions.

As far as the stats for this year’s second round playoffs so far: Last week’s Texas race had a shake-up index of 14. That’s higher than all but the first year of the stage-racing playoff era.

And the William Byron penalty (which Hendrick Motorsports is contesting) has a shake-up index of seven.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.