Keeping score: Competitors learning the value of playoff points grows with each race

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With each race Kyle Busch fails to win, his chances of capturing a second Cup championship becomes more challenging.

Busch has led more laps than every driver this season except Martin Truex Jr., but is winless, costing him valuable playoff points and possibly a title.

When NASCAR introduced its new playoff format in January, Denny Hamlin noted that “every single race matters.’’

The new format rewards those who excel throughout a race and punishes those who don’t or encounter trouble at key times.

That’s a painful reality for Busch, who has lost the lead four times in the final 15 laps this season.

But that’s just some of Busch’s heartbreaks.

He lost a top-five finish at Las Vegas after contact with Joey Logano on the last lap, finished 22nd and suffered a cut forehead in a scuffle on pit road afterward. A commitment line violation with less than 25 laps left cost Busch a chance to win at Richmond, relegating him to 16th. Austin Dillon beat Busch on a fuel-mileage gamble to win the Coca-Coal 600.

It’s easy to see that Busch could have at least three to five wins this season, likely giving him more playoff points than any other driver.

Instead he has scored four playoff points — one point each for his four stage wins.

Truex has two race wins and 11 stage victories for 21 playoff points.

If the regular season ended today, Truex would be second in the season standings and gain 10 bonus playoff points, giving him 31 playoff points.

If the season ended today, Busch would have 11 total playoff points, including seven bonus points for finishing fourth in the standings. Under this scenario, Busch would start the playoffs 20 points behind Truex.

That difference could be critical with playoff points staying with the driver until they are eliminated or reach the season finale in Miami. Playoff points don’t carry over for the final four teams vying for the title there in November.

Busch might need to win in the playoffs, automatically advancing to the next round, to keep his title hopes alive if he continues to lose bonus points to his competitors

While Busch seeks his first victory this weekend at Daytona International Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC), there’s a furious battle for the points lead.

In previous years that wouldn’t matter, but those bonus points change things.

The top 10 in the standings after the regular season ends — the September Richmond race — will receive bonus playoff points. The regular-season champion receives 15 playoff points, the runner-up gets 10 playoff points. Third place earns eight playoff points and the points drop by one to 10th, which earns one bonus playoff point.

Kyle Larson has a 13-point lead on Truex in the season standings going to Daytona and admits he’s keeping a close eye on Truex.

BKyle Larson celebrates after winning at Michigan International Speedway last month (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

The regular season points have been a big priority of mine because it pays 15 points to be the leader at the end of Richmond,’’ said Larson, who has victories at Auto Club Speedway and Michigan International Speedway and five runner-up finishes this season. “(That) is a big deal, it’s like winning three races. (I’m) trying to stay as consistent as I can and race hard every race.

“I think in the previous points format if you get a win early on you can kind of cruise a little bit and lose your drive on wanting to win as much. Now, with the bonus points on the line every week, it is a big deal to run up front all throughout the races.”

There is just as intense a battle for the final playoff spots.

Ten drivers — Larson, Truex, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon have secured playoff spots via a win. Joey Logano also has a win but it doesn’t count toward playoff eligibility because his car failed inspection after his Richmond victory in April.

With 10 spots filled, six spots are left for the playoffs. If the playoffs started today, those six spots would be filled (based on points) by Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Hamlin, Jamie McMurray, Logano and Clint Bowyer.

That means missing the playoffs would be former champion Matt Kenseth, who is four points behind Bowyer for the final spot. Also missing the playoffs would be Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is in his final season driving full-time in Cup. Others who would miss out would include Kasey Kahne, rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez and 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne.

When the playoff format and stage points were announced before the season, Bayne knew his Roush Fenway Racing team would face quite a challenge.

“When they laid out the stage points, I said, ‘Man, this is really going to hurt us particularly when we run 15th because we’re not accumulating points,’” said Bayne, whose team has improved its average finish 2.6 spots to 17.3 this season. “We don’t have the ability right now to run top five.’’

Unable to finish stages in the top 10 has impacted his team. Bayne has 15 stage points. Kenseth, the first driver outside the playoffs, has 82 stage points. That difference has helped Kenseth build an 86-point lead on Bayne in the season standings. 

“We know we have to win to get into the (playoffs) at this point,’’ Bayne said. “I can go out there and lay it on the line like I could do in the 21 car when we ran a part-time schedule. I maybe got a reputation for being a little erratic and wild but that’s because I had no points on the line. You go out there to win. If you wreck, you wreck. If you win, you win. That’s the situation we’re in now.’’

Logano also feels the pressure. He leads Kenseth by 11 points.

“It is on my mind,” Logano said of having a encumbered win that doesn’t qualify him for the playoffs. “I would be lying if I said it wasn’t, but it isn’t something I am very concerned about. I feel like this team is strong enough to get through it. We just need to get through it, build momentum.

“The way these stages are, you can gain points pretty quick. We have proven we can lose them pretty quick. A couple good races of scoring stage points and a great finish will put you right back to close to where we were. We have to be able to string three or four solid races together like we know how to.’’

Season by the Numbers

1 – Laps led by Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch (he has led six laps all season)

2 – Wins by Richard Childress Racing, the most since 2013

5 – Runner-up finishes for Kyle Larson

9 – Top-five finishes, a series high, by Brad Keselowski

10 – Races left until the playoff field is set

11 – Stage wins by Martin Truex Jr.

18 – Race winless drought for Joe Gibbs Racing

32 – Race winless drought for Kyle Busch

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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.