This season’s debut of NBC Sports’ NASCAR Power Rankings was similar to the Daytona 500: a wild affair.
Our NASCAR writers chose 16 different drivers after the opening weekend of racing across all three of NASCAR’s top series. There were several surprises, for sure.
Not surprisingly, though, was Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin as the unanimous choice for the top spot in the rankings.
Here’s how we called ‘em:
1. Denny Hamlin (40 points): While the prevailing thought is that luck plays a key role in how a driver finishes in the Daytona 500, consider what Hamlin has done — three wins in the last five races and six top-five finishes in the last seven 500s. That ain’t luck.
2. Ryan Newman (30): Was only seconds away from his second Daytona 500 win before his horrific crash. Finished third in his qualifying race and was fifth in the Busch Clash. He and Kyle Larson were the only drivers to score a top 10 in all three events during Speedweeks.
3. Ryan Blaney (26 points): Was in position to win the Daytona 500. Would have given him back-to-back wins at speedway tracks after his victory at Talladega in last year’s playoffs.
4. Kyle Larson (24): Came close to winning his first career Daytona 500. Joined Ryan Newman as the only driver to score top 10s in the Clash, their qualifying race and the Daytona 500.
5. Chris Buescher (22): Had a strong showing and career-best Daytona finish in his return to Roush Fenway Racing. His third-place finish marked his second top five in the 500 in the last three years.
(tie) 6. David Ragan (15): What a way to go into retirement from the Cup Series. In his last Cup start, Ragan finished fourth, his best showing in the 500 (he won the 2011 summer Daytona race). Happy trails to the Georgia native in retirement.
(tie) 6. Kevin Harvick (15): If there had been another lap or two left and had it not been for Ryan Newman’s frightening wreck, the man known as “the closer” may very well have stolen the win away from Hamlin.
8. Clint Bowyer (13): Placed third in the Clash and sixth in the 500, not a bad way to start the season.
9. Chase Elliott (10): Even though he finished 17th, Elliott had some strong segments during the race, including leading 23 laps. Trailed off in the closing laps; otherwise he may have wound up with a top 10.
10: Brad Keselowski (7): Led 30 laps and had one of the fastest cars in the field but was collected in the big wreck on Lap 183. Still, a strong start for Keselowski and his new crew chief, Jeremy Bullins.
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.
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
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.
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 fourtimes 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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’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.”
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.