Ryan: More rules changes needed for NASCAR’s next Talladega race?

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It’s a fine line – usually a split-second bobble or a mistimed flick of a steering wheel between breathtaking exhilaration and bone-chilling dread at Talladega Superspeedway.

Sunday might have confirmed the margin is just as narrow with rules changes at the 2.66-mile oval.

The well-intended removal of ride-height restrictions (to help reduce the likelihood of cars getting airborne) might have seemed benign on its face, but it produced the most ill-handling pack of 200-mph missiles at Talladega in years.

From the moment Cup drivers took the wheel (and surely from the moment Jamie McMurray’s No. 1 Chevrolet barrel-rolled down the backstretch seven and a half times early in Friday practice), there was a general unease about the dearth of drivability in the pack.

Confidence helps in the literal death-defying environs of a restrictor-plate race, and when things get extremely skittish, a single line usually forms – a quasi-sit down strike in which drivers effectively log laps with the tacit understanding that everyone plays nice until the final 100 miles.

But the difference Sunday was that even when drivers wanted to force the action, they couldn’t. With cars low to the ground and lacking downforce and stability, scooting to the front was as tough as it’s ever been at the track where Dale Earnhardt famously charged from 18th to first in the final five laps of his last win.

The 25 lead changes were the fewest at Talladega since 20 in the Oct. 11, 1998 race, but it wasn’t an anomaly – the total lead changes in each of the past seven races were 30, 26, 31, 37, 30, 27 and 38 after a stretch in which 13 of 18 races from 2005-14 featured at least 50 lead changes. (Per an astute number-crunching fan, quality passes also hit a record low for the spring race at Talladega.)

Racing at Talladega has been creeping this way as increased emphasis on handling has lessened the free-for-all nature that normally has defined NASCAR’s biggest and fastest track.

As Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long postrace Sunday, handling has become so important to performance, winning teams bring cars better suited for downforce than raw speed (a concept that once would have been unheard of at Talladega).

And approaching a plate race as if it were an event at Kansas, Charlotte or Chicagoland seems to produce a different brand of racing.

Rather than form the massive packs with rows three wide and 10 deep, drivers for at least one championship-contending team were instructed before Sunday’s race to avoid heavy traffic (and the pileups that invariably occur with it).

There still were two multicar crashes, one triggered by a seven-time champion losing control.

Has NASCAR made the cars too difficult to drive at Talladega?

NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell indicated Monday that there would be no changes for the July 7 plate race at Daytona International Speedway, which is understandable given that the 2018 Daytona 500 produced a highly entertaining spectacle with the same rules.

But on the next trip to Talladega in five months, it might be wise to restore drafting confidence via stability. When the Drivers Council meets with NASCAR this week, the feedback might be “if you give us a larger spoiler or a minimum rear ride height, we will race better.”

Yes, the tradeoff might be higher speeds (presuming last Friday’s plate change is reversed) along with the increased likelihood of cars lifting off the pavement and going airborne – the preventive reason that restrictor plates were introduced 30 years ago to choke down horsepower (after Bobby Allison’s car sailed into the Talladega catchfence in the May 3, 1987 race).

But if the fan reviews were as mixed as social media indicated, it could be a move that NASCAR is forced to make, just as it was in the elimination of tandem drafting because of vehemently negative feedback.

Unfortunately, a cardinal rule of restrictor-plate racing is that safer isn’t always better for the show.

Sunday’s most intriguing storyline easily was Chase Elliott taking umbrage at receiving no drafting help from Ford drivers, and he didn’t mince many words about it.

In the absence of any visits to victory lane by the “New Kids On the Track” (with apologies to the moniker coined by Eddie Gossage, most boy bands would be playing shopping malls if they took this long to score a No. 1 single), the shade thrown by Elliott toward veterans Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch made for a delicious reminder of a potentially simmering narrative. (Especially given Harvick’s recent digs at the youth brigade’s lack of success.)

It also was a welcome departure from a typical Elliott interview, which is always polished and professional but sometimes can feel slightly rote.

It’s good for NASCAR if the driver most likely to be named most popular in December is comfortable and confident with speaking his mind so bluntly (and consistently in multiple postrace interviews).

The first clue this wasn’t the most eventful Talladega race ever?

Maybe it was that the race’s buzziest social media item was an enormously large power saw.

NASCAR could use a decent feud right now.

The best hope for a compelling 2018 rivalry remains the much ballyhooed generation gap, and it’ll take some results to stoke those flames (Talladega winner Joey Logano, who turns 28 this month, actually is young enough to be in the youth movement, but his 10 seasons of experience disqualifies him).

Bubba Wallace led five laps Sunday in finishing 16th (his fourth top 20 in six races), and an eighth last month at Texas Motor Speedway (where he kept Harvick behind him for three dozen laps) also was a “huge confidence-booster,” as were some words of encouragement from crew chief Drew Blickensderfer.

“The young guys, we’re coming about, we’re getting there,” Wallace told NBC Sports.com after a Tuesday morning sponsor announcement. “You look at what (Ryan) Blaney is doing, I put him at the top of all of us right now. Him and Larson. It’s cool to see what we’re all doing in trying to get there. For us, it’s going to take a little bit more. We’re a smaller team on a smaller budget.

“I was devastated about the finish at Bristol (where he led six laps but finished 16th), but Drew says we’re the smallest team taking like 25 percent of the big team’s budget and outrunning them with it, and that’s what you have to look at it.”

Logano led the final 42 laps at Talladega, a track that once produced a minimum of 87 lead changes in three straight Cup races.

During the Talladega plate era, that’s the third-most consecutive laps led to the checkered flag by a winner, and Logano also holds the second-highest total (45 in his Oct. 23, 2016 win).

The record for most consecutive laps led to end a Talladega plate race? Davey Allison led the final 71 on May 3, 1992.

A humble request: Can we stop referring to accidents involving several cars as “The Big One” (ack)?

It’s a crash. It’s a pileup. It’s a wreck.

And there’s a certain level of gravitas that should be employed with describing the violence of a 200-mph collision.

It demands a label more befitting and less flippant than something that possibly could be confused with the title of an Aerosmith album.

Rick Hendrick hopes rough racing settles down after Chase Elliott suspension


LE MANS, France (AP) — Rick Hendrick fully supports Chase Elliott as he returns from a one-race suspension for deliberately wrecking Denny Hamlin, but the team owner believes on-track aggression has gotten out of control this season and NASCAR sent a message by parking the superstar.

“Until something was done, I think that kind of rough racing was going to continue,” Hendrick told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Elliott missed last week’s race outside St. Louis as the five-time fan-voted most popular driver served a one-race suspension for retaliating against Hamlin in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The two had made contact several times, with Elliott hitting the wall before he deliberately turned left into Hamlin to wreck him.

Hamlin immediately called on NASCAR to suspend Elliott, which the sanctioning body did despite his star power and the effect his absence from races has on TV ratings. Elliott missed six races earlier this season with a broken leg suffered in a snowboarding crash and NASCAR lost roughly 500,000 viewers during his absence.

Hendrick, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with NASCAR’s special Garage 56 project, told the AP he understood the suspension. NASCAR last year suspended Bubba Wallace one race for intentionally wrecking Kyle Larson, another Hendrick driver.

“Pushing and shoving, it’s a fine line, and when someone puts you out of the race, you get roughed up, emotions take over and you react,” Hendrick said. “I think maybe guys will run each other a little bit cleaner moving forward. “We understand the suspension, and nobody really likes to have to go through that, but you just do it and move on.”

Hendrick said he believes drivers have gotten far too aggressive with the second-year Next Gen car, which has not only tightened the field but is a durable vehicle that can withstand bumping and banging. Contact that used to end a driver’s day now barely leaves a dent.

It’s led to drivers being more forceful and, in Hendrick’s opinion, too many incidents of drivers losing their cool.

“There’s rubbing. But if you just harass people by running them up into the wall, every time you get to them, you get tired of it,” Hendrick said. “And that’s what so many of them do to cause accidents, but then they don’t get in the accident themselves.

“I think everybody understands the rules. But you’ve got an awful lot of tension and when you’re out their racing like that, and you are almost to the finish, and somebody just runs over you for no reason, I think the cars are so close and it’s so hard to pass, they get frustrated.”

Elliott, with seven missed races this season, is ranked 27th in the standings heading into Sunday’s road course race in Sonoma, California. He’s been granted two waivers by NASCAR to remain eligible for the playoffs, but the 2020 champion needs to either win a race or crack the top 16 in standings to make the field.

An outstanding road course racer with seven wins across several tracks, Elliott will be motivated to get his first win of the season Sunday at Sonoma, one of the few road courses on the schedule where he’s winless.

Hendrick said when he spoke to Elliott he urged him to use caution moving forward.

“I just said ‘Hey, we’ve got to be careful with that,’” Hendrick said. “But I support him, I really do support him. You get roughed up and it ruins your day, you know, you let your emotions take over.”

Concussion-like symptoms sideline Noah Gragson

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Noah Gragson will not compete in Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway because of concussion-like symptoms he experienced this week after his crash at WWT Raceway, Legacy MC announced Thursday.

Grant Enfinger will drive the No. 42 in place of Gragson.

“Noah’s health is the highest of priorities and we commend him for making the decision to sit out this weekend,” said team co-owners Maury Gallagher and Jimmie Johnson in a statement from the team. “We are appreciative that Grant was available and willing to step in since the Truck Series is off this weekend.”

The team states that Gragson was evaluated and released from the infield care center after his crash last weekend at WWT Raceway. He began to experience concussion-like symptoms mid-week and is seeking treatment.

Gragson is 32nd in the points in his rookie Cup season.

Enfinger is available with the Craftsman Truck Series off this weekend. Enfinger is coming off a victory in last weekend’s Truck race at WWT Raceway for GMS Racing, which is owned by Gallagher. That was Enfinger’s second Truck win of the season.

NASCAR implements safety changes after Talladega crash

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NASCAR is implementing changes to Cup cars that strengthen the right side door area and soften the frontal area after reviewing the crash between Kyle Larson and Ryan Preece at Talladega Superspeedway in April.

The changes are to be in place for the July 9 race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Larson and Preece were uninjured in the vicious crash late in the race at Talladega. Larson’s car was turned and slid down the track to the apron before coming back up in traffic. Preece’s car slammed into the right side door area of Larson’s car.

Dr. John Patalak, NASCAR vice president of safety engineering, said the difference in velocity of the two cars at the time of impact was 59 mph.

“It’s pretty hard to find that on the racetrack normally,” Patalak told reporters Thursday during a briefing.

The severe impact moved a right side door bar on Larson’s car. NASCAR announced last month that it was allowing teams to add six right side door bar gussets to prevent the door bars from buckling in such an impact.

Thursday, NASCAR announced additional changes to the cars. The changes come after computer simulations and crash testing.

NASCAR is mandating:

  • Steel plate welded to the right side door bars
  • Front clips will be softened
  • Front bumper strut softening
  • Front ballast softening
  • Modified cross brace

Patalak said that NASCAR had been working on changes to the car since last year and did crash testing in January at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio. NASCAR did more work after that crash test.

As for the changes to the front of the car, Patalak said: “From an engineering standpoint we’re reducing the buckling strength of those individual parts and pieces. The simplified version is we are increasing the amount of crush that the front clip will be capable of. That’s all an effort to reduce the accelerations that the center section and driver will be exposed to during these frontal crashes.”

Adding the steel plate to the door bars is meant to strengthen that area to prevent any type of intrusion or buckling of the door bars in a similar type of crash.

Patalak also said that NASCAR inspected the car of Blaine Perkins that barrel rolled during the Xfinity race at Talladega in April. Patalak said that NASCAR consulted with Dr. James Raddin, Jr., who was one of the four authors of the Earnhardt investigation report in 2001 for the sanctioning body, in that incident.

Dr. Diandra: Brad Keselowski driving RFK Racing revival


Brad Keselowski surprised many when he didn’t re-sign with Team Penske in 2021. Penske was his home since 2010, and the team who helped him to a Cup Series championship in 2012. But Jack Roush offered Keselowski something Roger Penske couldn’t — ownership stake in the team.

Keselowski knew an RFK Racing revival would be an challenge, but also that he was prepared for it.

“I’ve been studying my whole life for this moment, and I’m ready for the test,” Keselowski said during the announcement of the new partnership.

A historic team with historic ups and downs

Roush Racing entered Cup competition in 1988. It didn’t win that first year, but the company collected at least one checkered flag every year from 1989-2014 — except for 1996.

Roush was one of the first owners (along with Rick Hendrick) to appreciate the advantages of multi-car teams. By 2003, Roush Racing fielded five full-time teams. In 2005, all five Roush cars made the playoffs, accumulating 15 wins between them. Their dominance prompted NASCAR to limit teams to four cars. That limit remains today.

Roush sold half the team to Fenway Sports Group in 2007. The renamed Roush Fenway Racing team, however, never reached the highs of 2005 as the graph below shows.

A vertical bar chart showing the challenges Brad Keselowski has in driving RFK's revival

The 2015 season was Jack Roush’s first winless season since 1996. By the time Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won two races in 2017, RFR was down to two cars. The company had four consecutive winless seasons before Keselowski came on board.

Keselowski is a perfect choice to drive the RFK revival. After all, how many other NASCAR drivers run a 3D-printing business? Or worry about having enough properly educated workers for 21st century manufacturing jobs?

“I feel like I’m buying into a stock that is about to go up,” Keselowski said.

Keselowski’s record

The new RFK Racing team started off strong at Daytona, with Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher each winning their Duels. During that week, NASCAR confiscated wheels from both drivers’ cars. Despite concerns about the team’s modifications, NASCAR ultimately levied no penalty. But after the fifth race of the year at Atlanta, NASCAR docked Keselowski 100 points for modifying single-source parts. Keselowski needed to win to make the playoffs.

It wasn’t Keselowski, but Buescher who won the first race under the new name. Unfortunately, Buescher’s Bristol win came too late to make the playoffs.

Keselowski finished 2022 ranked 24th, the worst finish since his first full-time season in 2010 when he finished 25th.

In the table below, I compare Keselowski’s finishes for his last two years at Team Penske to his finishes with RFK Racing in 2022 and the first 15 races of 2023.

Comparing Brad Keselowski's finishes for his last two years with Penske and his first two years (so far) with RFK RacingKeselowski’s lack of wins since switching teams is the most obvious difference; however, the falloff in top-five and top-10 finishes is even more significant. Keselowski was not only not winning races, he often wasn’t even in contention. In 2020, Keselowski finished 91.7% of all races on the lead lap. In his first year with RFK, that metric dropped to 61.1%.

On the positive side, his numbers this year look far better than his 2022 statistics. Keselowski finishes on the lead lap 86.7% of the time and already has as many top-10 finishes in 15 races as he had in all 36 races last year.

Keselowski’s top-five finish rate improved from 2.8% in 2022 to 20.0% this year. That’s still off his 2021 top-five-finish rate of 36.1%, but it’s a step forward.

I summarize the last four years of some of Keselowski’s loop data metrics in the table below.

A table comparing Brad Keselowski's attempt to drive RKF's revival with his last two years of loop data at Penske

In 2022, Keselowski was down between six to seven-and-a-half points in starting, finishing and average running positions relative to 2021. This year, he’s improved so that the difference is only in the 2.6 to 3.6-position range.

Two keys for continued improvement

Ford is playing catch-up this year, having won only two of 15 points-paying races. Ryan Blaney, who won one of those two races, has the highest average finishing position (11.3) among drivers with at least eight starts. Keselowski is 14th overall with a 15.7 average finishing position, and fourth best among Ford drivers. Buescher is finishing an average of 1.2 positions better than his teammate.

Kevin Harvick is the top-ranked Ford driver in average running position, coming in sixth overall. Keselowski is 13th overall in average running position and the fourth-best among the Ford drivers.

Average green-flag speed rank is the average of a driver’s rank in green-flag speed over all the races for which he was ranked. Harvick is the fastest Ford as measured by this metric, ranking eighth among all drivers who have completed at least eight races. Keselowski is the fifth-fastest Ford, but the 20th-ranked driver in average green-flag speed rank.

The other issue, however, is particular to Keselowski: He is involved in a lot of accidents. That’s not new with Keselowski’s move to RFK Racing. Since 2016, Keselowski has been involved in at least eight caution-causing incidents every year.

What may be new is that he has a harder time recovering from non-race-ending incidents now than he did at Penske.

In 2021, Keselowski was involved in 12 caution-causing accidents. Last year, it was 10 (nine accidents and a spin). He’s already been involved in 12 incidents this year, the most of any full-time driver.

Keselowski isn’t too concerned about accidents. He views them as a consequence of pushing a car to its limits. His competitors, however, have called him out for for his aggressive driving style.

Neither accidents nor Keselowski’s attitude toward them changed with his transition from Team Penske to RFK Racing.

Except now he’s the one paying for those wrecked cars.