NASCAR America: Breaking down championship chances for remaining Cup contenders

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With four races left, eight drivers remain with a shot at the Cup championship.

On Tuesday’s NASCAR America, analysts Parker Kligerman, Nate Ryan and Steve Letarte gave their take on the eight still in contention.

Each driver was given a tag line that best describes their championship bid.

Check out some of what our analysts had to say, the tag line for all eight drivers.

Martin Truex Jr. – “Domination on track … adversity off track”

Letarte: “They dominate every category, but I want to know with that huge lead and the Round of 8 almost secure, the question for me is will the pressure build, knowing that Miami is four weeks away. That can be great for preparation but can also just break your nerves down.”

Ryan: “It’s just been a very tumultuous year. But I think what gets forgotten sometimes is Martin Truex Jr. is no stranger to adversity. This is a guy who, in 2013 with Michael Waltrip Racing, had his ride taken away by one of the biggest scandals in NASCAR history. He weathered that with so much class, very admirably, that I think he emerged a changed man after that … and we’ve seen that this year.”

Kyle Busch – “If you ain’t first, you’re last”

Kligerman: “This driver cares only about one thing, and that is winning. He wants to win every time he steps in a race car, whether it’s a Super Late Model, an Xfinity car or a Cup car. If he wants to go on to win his second championship, it’s about winning. … He can most definitely win at Martinsville. He told Marty Snider after Kansas, ‘I want to win Martinsville, so I don’t have to worry’ (about earning berth into the Championship 4 at Miami).”

Letarte: “For the 18 to be good in the next round, it’s very important for them to look back. They should feel reborn coming out of the Round of 12 because it was a disaster and started with the driver making a mistake from Charlotte and it just tumbled from there.”

Brad Keselowski – “Legacy”

Ryan: “He feels as if he needs a second championship to validate the first one (2012). He’s heard whispers around the Cup garage that people think his 2012 title was a fluke. Until he wins another one, he feels like he’s not going to put his doubters to rest.”

Letarte: “That’s how Brad is. If you look at him, we’re going to know very quickly. His best shot to advance to Miami starts at Martinsville this weekend. He said Talladega was a must-win and he did it. I wouldn’t say Martinsville is a must-win … but he must run well. He has to be in the top two or three at Martinsville to feel good about Miami.”

Kevin Harvick – “Relentless”

Ryan: “I think (that tag line) is very fitting. His and crew chief Rodney Childers’ goal is to win everything, and not just races, but qualifying, practice sessions, it’s lead every lap. They want to be completely dominant. If that sounds like an unrealistic goal for a team that likes challenges, that IS Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers.”

Letarte: “He has the nickname of ‘The Closer’ because he does a great job of fighting through the races and being there at the end. … I expect Kevin Harvick to be his normal self, to be relentless. He will be there inside the top two or top three. If he doesn’t have a good enough car to take the lead, he’s going to put the pressure on the leader to make sure they execute correctly.”

Jimmie Johnson – “#Chasing8”

Kligerman: “He’s chasing that record eighth championship. They need to find speed. He’s confident they can find that speed and go to Miami and compete. Remember, they went into last year’s Championship 4 and not a lot of people had them going on to win it, but they found a way to win it. They’re a clutch team and that’s what it’s going to take.”

Letarte: “Waiting for Miami or needing it to happen at Miami, the odds go against them, the probability goes down. Somehow, they have to find a moment in the next three races to give themselves a little momentum and put themselves on the radar to make other competitors concerned.”

Denny Hamlin – “Redemption”

Letarte: “He’s been waiting for that chance to kind of emerge and get back on that stage. All year long, we’ve been talking about the 78 and 18 … while Denny Hamlin has been very quietly putting together what I consider a very good season. When you look at the tracks coming up, there’s no reason why he can’t win and that’s what it will take. Denny’s my sleeper. You get him into Miami, he has a lot to prove. Thirty-one wins without a championship. This is a Hall of Fame career. The only way to silence the critics is to win the championship.”

Ryan: “A driver like him is like what it was like for NBA stars competing against Michael Jordan. Clyde Drexler, who never won an NBA championship because he faced off against Michael Jordan. Denny Hamlin doesn’t want to be that person in NASCAR. Having raced in the Jimmie Johnson era, he needs to seize the opportunity to get that first title.”

Ryan Blaney – “Win it for the Wood Brothers”

Letarte: “It’s all about the race team he drives for, win it for the Wood Brothers. They believed him, gave him the opportunity, he got them win No. 99. … He’d love to win a championship for the Wood Brothers.”

Ryan: “He has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. He’s listening to what people said about him advancing out of the Round of 12 … that he wasn’t going to make the Round of 8, which makes it all the more special (that Blaney did).”

Chase Elliott – “Youngest ever”

Kligerman: “He has been great through the playoffs here. If he were to win a championship at 21 years old, he’d be the youngest Cup series champion ever, which would be incredible. But there is an elephant in the room with the 24 team, and that is they’ve not won a race. … I look at Texas for the 24 team. This could be the best chance for them to get that elusive first victory and then propel themselves to fight for a championship.”

Letarte: “Could you think of a bigger win? What would be a bigger first career win then to do a walk-off at Miami for the first championship. … When the playoffs started, this team has risen up and have raised to the level of a championship-style race team.”

And don’t forget, on Wednesday’s NASCAR America on NBCSN, we’ll have special guest Joe Gibbs join us for a full hour from the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The show airs from 5-6 p.m. ET.

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.