Ryan: How New Hampshire highlighted good side of 2018

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Do you like the 2018 season in NASCAR’s premier series?

The answer is subjective, but its parameters are essentially objective.

Every response will involve some combination of the dominance of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., the failures of other contenders trying to match The Big Three and the struggles of everyone else in making hardly any gains.

There have been more than a few suggestions on satellite radio and social media that this has made for a predictable or maybe even tedious refrain.

So let’s try rephrasing the question with entirely new wording.

Did you like Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway?

All of the recurring themes that have formed the overarching narratives of 2018 were encapsulated in just under three hours on the 1.058-mile oval, and it crystallized into a highly entertaining show at a track that has fallen short on drama a few times in recent Cup races.

New Hampshire wasn’t the best race of the season – we’ll let the slobberknocker finishes of the Daytona 500 and Chicagoland Speedway duke it out for that title — but it certainly is in the conversation for the top five (at least, according to one popular unscientific sampling of several thousand loyal Twitter followers).

Regardless of where you stand on the merits of a season built upon a trio of drivers winning 75 percent of the first 20 races, Sunday proved there is promise when the limited cast of leading roles and their supporting players work in concert to paint a 301-lap mosaic punctuated by plot twists and caution flags that were perfectly timed.

The perfectly executed bump and run by Harvick on Busch was merely the exclamation point on a race with familiar storylines but yet still an unpredictable bent.

We’ve seen Aric Almirola’s team squander race-winning cars before, but not in two major mistakes (first by the pit crew, then by the driver) – the culmination of a daisy-chain series of events touched off by teammate Clint Bowyer’s mechanical problems.

The struggles of Hendrick Motorsports’ Chevrolets have been well documented, but New Hampshire brought the team’s first stage win and the solidification of three Camaros in provisional playoff spots on points.

Yes, it helps when Harvick, Busch and Truex are battling to stay at the front instead of steamrolling the field. But even when they are excelling, the races still can be compelling.

Consider how many times The Big Three (who, by the way, still haven’t finished 1-2-3 in a race) have finished in the top five together this season. Of those eight races, two are among the year’s best (Chicagoland and New Hampshire) and two were at least in the top half (Martinsville and Phoenix). A case can be made that Sonoma, which featured some a memorable strategy duel between Harvick and Truex, was underrated. Pocono could be labeled as average.

There is no defending Las Vegas and Kentucky. Throw in Busch’s rout at Charlotte and possibly Truex’s thumping at Fontana as being less than engrossing.

That’s four races in which The Big Three’s victory dominance might have had an adverse effect on delivering a captivating race… but at least four more (and possibly five) in which their excellence might have been a major enhancement.

That was especially true at New Hampshire, where Harvick, Busch and Truex always seemed to be forcing the action without always being at the center of it.

So do you like the 2018 season in NASCAR’s premier series?

Objectively, it seems fair to at least let the rest of the season unfold before subjectively judging its worth.


Some of the pushback on bringing an Xfinity or Cup race to Eldora Speedway seems to be rooted in the optics of a return to dirt racing being equated with regression. That seems to be the case for Richard Petty, who watched NASCAR’s premier series evolve into exclusively pavement mostly in the name of progress roughly four decades ago.

It’s understandable that dirt would be synonymous with substandard for Petty, who raced far too many dusty ovals with rundown facilities than he probably cares to remember.

But it’s a deeply flawed perception to simply dismiss Eldora as bush league because of its surface. Though built in 1954, it’s a retrofitted 21st-century jewel that sprouts from the farmlands of Darke County in western Ohio.

Since buying the half-mile oval nearly 14 years ago, owner Tony Stewart has plowed millions into renovations on par with many speedways on the Cup circuit. In the last few years, it’s added a new infield care center with state-of-the-art equipment that would match track hospitals at Daytona or Indianapolis (and with a dedicated helipad for medical transport), a new HD video screen, a first-class media center and a three-story building with 16 suites.

Its races are available via live streaming, and its PA, lighting, drainage and well systems have been significantly upgraded. There are more improvements planned, and Stewart surely would ramp those up if granted another national series race by NASCAR.

Beyond just meeting the standards of a regulation-issue sanction agreement, dirt tracks such as Eldora also should be given credence because there also is a healthy appetite for well-produced throwback racing. Petty’s comments Tuesday came at a NASCAR Hall of Fame unveiling of his team’s retro 1972 paint scheme on the No. 43 that Bubba Wallace will drive in the Southern 500.

Darlington Raceway’s nostalgia-driven renaissance on Labor Day should be all the proof needed that there’s no shame in going back to the future for NASCAR.


The caution that effectively determined Sunday’s race at New Hampshire came 30 laps after the yellow flag remained holstered for a similar incident but with an important difference.

When Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hit the Turn 4 wall on Lap 225, it was in the midst of a green-flag pit cycle that was completed when Clint Bowyer scraped the wall between turns 3 and 4 on Lap 256 to set up the final shootout.

While NASCAR said it was the debris field caused by Bowyer’s incident that triggered the yellow, teams surely took notice of how the race was called during what could have been the race’s last round of pit stops.

Given that a yellow flag caused by a brush with the wall at Richmond last September cost Martin Truex Jr. a victory, teams undoubtedly are recording each NASCAR officiating decision as a data point for determining how to handle strategy for the playoffs.


Parker Kligerman said on NASCAR America last week that Roush Fenway Racing had shifted into using the No. 6 Ford as its test bed as the team tries to qualify Stenhouse for the playoffs.

That makes Kenseth’s drive to 15th after qualifying 31st at New Hampshire intriguing. While he still ran behind Stenhouse for much of the race until his teammate hit the wall, the result and the car’s reliability had to be encouraging for Roush.

If he is to succeed in making the playoffs on points over the final six races of the regular season, Stenhouse needs more speed and no failures. If the experimental parts that went the distance on Kenseth’s car Sunday are a durable new option, anything might help for Stenhouse at this point.


It falls in the category of “good problems to have,” but Christopher Bell’s ongoing success in the Xfinity Series eventually could lead to some difficult decisions for Joe Gibbs Racing and Bell’s hearty supporters at Toyota Racing Development.

Bell almost certainly will spend the 2019 season in the Xfinity Series, but if he has another year like 2018 (particularly if he captures the championship), it’ll virtually demand a promotion to the Cup Series in 2020.

It’s hard to envision how JGR opens a spot in its driver lineup by then, but if Bell truly appears to be the next Kyle Larson, these things do have a way of getting sorted.

At the beginning of 2016, it also would have been hard to envision Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones in Cup rides at JGR two years later.

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.

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.

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup Series race at Charlotte Roval

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The lineup for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs Round of 8 will be decided in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

Entering the race, the final event in the Round of 12, Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman are below the cutline. Bowman will miss the race — and thus the cutoff — as he continues to battle concussion-like symptoms. Noah Gragson is scheduled to drive the No. 48 Chevrolet Sunday.

Cindric is tied with Chase Briscoe for the eighth playoff spot, but Briscoe would claim it on the tiebreaker. Byron is 11 points back, and Bell is 33. Hendrick Motorsports has appealed the penalty to Byron that dropped him below the cutline. That appeal is scheduled to be heard Thursday.

MORE: Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

Any playoff driver who wins Sunday’s race and isn’t already qualified — Chase Elliott qualified for the Round of 8 by winning last week at Talladega Superspeedway — automatically advances to the Round of 8.

Drivers to watch Sunday at the Roval (2 p.m., ET, NBC), the final road-course race of the season:

FRONTRUNNERS

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 1st
  • Last three races: Won at Talladega, 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2019 and 2020

Elliott is the clear favorite to win a second championship. He won Sunday at Talladega to advance to the Round of 8 and can relax Sunday at Charlotte having punched his ticket. Relaxing isn’t likely, however, as Elliott will be among the favorites to win.

Ryan Blaney

  • Points position: 2nd
  • Last three races: 2nd at Talladega, 4th at Texas, 30th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2018.

Blaney continues along a path that could result in him winning the Cup championship without winning a race. He came within an eyelash of winning Sunday at Talladega but fell victim to Chase Elliott’s last-lap charge. He should be a threat Sunday at the Roval, where he has four straight top 10s.

Kyle Larson

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 18th at Talladega, 9th at Texas, 5th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2021

Larson’s last win — and his last top-four finish — came at Watkins Glen seven races ago. He is 18 points over the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Austin Cindric

  • Points position: 9th
  • Last three races: 9th at Talladega, 15th at Texas, 20th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Sunday will mark his first Cup race. Has three top threes in four Xfinity starts.

Cindric hasn’t won since the season-opening Daytona 500 and is one of five drivers still in the playoffs who own only one victory this year. His ninth-place run at Talladega ended a streak of four straight finishes of 12th or worse.

MORE: NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

Daniel Suarez

  • Points position: 7th
  • Last three races: 8th at Talladega, 12th at Texas, 19th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Best finish in four starts is 13th

Suarez is 12 points above the cutline entering Sunday’s race. He has never led a lap at the Roval and has never finished in the top 10.

Chase Briscoe

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 10th at Talladega, 5th at Texas, 14th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Finished 22nd last year in his only Cup start

Briscoe is teetering on top of the cutline in search of a spot in the Round of 8. He hasn’t won since the fourth race of the year at Phoenix and had a poor performance at the Roval last year.