Friday 5: What’s next in these changing times for NASCAR?

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Midweek races. Inverted fields. No practice. NASCAR’s return after a 10-week suspension because of the COVID-19 pandemic comes with a much different look out of necessity.

But could some of the changes taking place become more permanent?

The sport is taking a close look at how it does things, what it can do without and what it can do more of.

At this point, no idea seems too far-fetched. Provided it doesn’t disrupt the competitive balance.

Whether it be the iRacing that kind of held the fans over a couple months, to coming back in this form it’s been a home run in my opinion for everyone at NASCAR’s management to make this happen,” Denny Hamlin said of NASCAR’s return.

“I like how nimble they are being. Just because we have done this for ‘X’ amount of years — we’ve always had practice and qualifying, but we never did an invert – they are willing to make changes and do it quickly. That’s something I haven’t seen in our sport in a very long time, or probably ever. It’s the most nimble as I’ve ever seen.”

While it seems unlikely NASCAR will do away with practice for every race, the question remains: Does the Cup Series need to be at some tracks for three days if they’re racing only once? Maybe it makes sense to run more doubleheaders. And midweek races.

Wednesday’s race at Darlington was delayed by rain but it gave a hint of what a midweek race could be like. Fans will get another chance to see a midweek Cup race Wednesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway and June 10 at Martinsville Speedway.

“We can make it work,” Kevin Harvick said of midweek races. “From a team standpoint and from competitors, it’s great if we can shorten the schedule, do all those things.

“In the end, the telltale sign is going to be when those TV numbers come out. If they’re good, that’s what drives everything. That’s what everybody sells their sponsorship on. That’s what we all want to see, is great TV numbers. We’d love the fans at the racetrack, but in the end the biggest stick comes from how many people turn on the TV.”

If such races draw enough people, Hamlin notes “there’s an opportunity for us to own the summer where there’s less sports going on.”

On the track, ideas such as inverting the field instead of qualifying proved enticing to some.

“I thought it was okay,” Martin Truex Jr. “The good cars still worked their way to the front.”

But could there be other ideas? Austin Dillon suggested on social media after Wednesday’s race that drivers should be able to select what lane they want to restart in as is done at short tracks across the country.

“It brings another strategy to the table, it’s definitely something to talk about,” Joey Logano said. “You don’t have luck coming involved. You see guys hit their brakes at the end of pit road, number one that’s not real safe, but, two, you try to line yourself up sixth and then the car in front of you gets a speeding penalty and you’re like, ‘I gave up a spot and now I’m on the bottom, too. I really blew it.’

“That happens out there so many times that everybody is trying to play the game, so just put a cone out there and say, ‘Go left or right.’  Where you go is where you are. If you change after that, you go to the end of the line and you’re out. It’s an easy thing to do. I think right now it might be tough because we have plenty of changes right now with everything we’re doing, so I think we need to give a little bit of grace here, but I do think in the future I would love to try.”

Maybe it will be tried at some point. NASCAR seems open to many ideas. What could be next?

2. Three down, four to go

Kyle Busch’s quest to run seven NASCAR races in 11 days moves to Charlotte for the final four races in the stretch. When he’s finished, he will have run four Cup, two Xfinity and one Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race in that span.

Rain has messed up his schedule a bit. Tuesday’s Xfinity race at Darlington was moved to Thursday, shortening his preparation time for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 and the start of four races in four days.

I probably missed a day of working out overall and rehydrating,” said Busch, who finished second in both Wednesday’s Cup race and Thursday’s Xfinity race at Darlington. “Obviously, I’m a day later on getting my hydration ready for the 600 miles, but it shouldn’t be that big of a deal.”

After running three races since the season resumed, Busch said he feels good in the car.

“We had the race on Sunday and it was a little warmer out,” he said. “I saw a couple guys get out of the car and kind of sit next to their car and they were pretty wet and kind of hot and overheated maybe a little bit,” he said. “I felt fine. Then (Wednesday) night I had no issues and then (Thursday) again I had no issues. I’ve got enough cooling and things like that where I feel pretty good and ready to go.”

3. Blessings from afar

Maybe there was only time for a nod or a thumbs up but even those moments provided a sense of reassurance when there wasn’t time for prayer.

With NASCAR’s return to racing during the COVID-19 pandemic — and limits on who can be in the infield — such moments were gone at Darlington. For a sport that embraces prayer, that was significant.

“It was definitely different,” John Hunter Nemechek said.

Billy Mauldin, president and senior chaplain for Motor Racing Outreach, said that last weekend’s Cup race at Darlington marked the first time in decades that MRO did not have someone at the track offering a prayer to competitors before they climbed into their cars.

“I won’t lie to you,” Mauldin told NBC Sports. “It was hard to watch from home. … Our whole team misses not being able to do that. But we understand. We totally get it. We want things to be successful and to keep moving forward and however we can be a part of that. That has always been MRO’s attitude for 30-plus years: What we can we do? How we can we be a part of making things work for everybody?”

The ministry organization doesn’t attend to only drivers. Mauldin says he or someone else from MRO will offer prayers to pit crew members, Goodyear employees and others before each race.

Pit crews huddle in prayer before last year’s season finale in Miami. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

They still do now. Just digitally. MRO offers a virtual service each race day and specialized prayers for pit crew members and Goodyear employees that are sent so they can watch the brief video when they have time.

Mauldin understands that health guidelines may prevent MRO from being on pit road anytime soon.

“Under the best of times, when we go out on the line before the race to pray for the drivers, it’s not just a functional thing,” he said. “We know everybody, the drivers and their families.

“It’s really all different types of things going on at every car. Some it’s just a moment of prayer. Sometimes it’s just a thumbs up. Sometimes it’s just making eye contact through the windshield because they’re already pulling their helmets on.

“It’s very similar to the relationship a military chaplain shares with troops, particularly when they go downrange. You can’t always communicate but it’s the presence thing.”

Even in these times, Mauldin and MRO maintain a presence.

“We pray for them at the end of the drivers meeting,” he said. “We pray for them in the invocation. We’re still doing all of that right now. To the degree that our faith is the importance of pray and asking God to watch over them and keep them safe, that’s being done whether we get by the car or not.”

4. Quiet track

Chris Graythen, manager of motorsports for Getty Images, estimates he and fellow photographer Jared Tilton walked more than 40,000 steps and posted more 1,000 photos from Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway.

They were among three photographers on site at Darlington as all facets of the event were trimmed to only essential personnel. Teams were limited in how many crew members they could have and media also were limited (there were no more than four writers per event at Darlington and they were confined to the press box).

The three photographers (Note: NBC Sports uses Getty Images) had access throughout the track. They were in the garage with crews, on pit road with drivers and throughout the facility, giving them a rare insight to what it was like this past week at Darlington.

Kevin Harvick in Victory Lane after winning the Cup race last Sunday at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“What’s really interesting is the silence that is there,” Graythen told NBC Sports. “It’s just so quiet. When the national anthem ends, usually there is the flyover and the fans are cheering and the crews are getting ready and they crank up the engines. (At the Sunday and Wednesday Cup races,) the anthem ends and it’s just quiet. That’s kind of strange.”

Also what’s different is Victory Lane. Normally, cluttered with crew members, VIPs and others crowding around the driver and team as several photographers capture the scene, Victory Lane is practically barren.

“There’s no shouting, there’s no screaming,” Graythen. said. “It’s, hey Kevin (Harvick), look right here.”

Of the thousands of photos he took at Darlington, what is the image that stands out to Graythen?

“I think the weekend boils down to the picture of Kevin Harvick in Victory Lane, just him with the car and the trophy and the black mask over his face and nobody around,” Graythen said. “I’m sure he’s smiling under there.

“To me, that kind of boiled everything down into one picture because it shows, yeah, it’s good and it’s great, NASCAR is back, we have a winner, Harvick has got his 50th win, this is all very exciting for the industry. But it also has that mask, that starkness, that quietness that shows the time that we’re in.”

5. Experience a key factor?

The Truck Series returns to action Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, marking the first time the series has run since Feb. 21 at Las Vegas — a race won by Kyle Busch.

Just as the Cup and Xfinity Series have done in most events since returning, the Truck race at Charlotte will have no practice or qualifying. The first lap at speed will be when the green flag waves.

Former Truck series champ Johnny Sauter finished second to Busch at Las Vegas. As Sauter prepares to resume the season, what stands out to the ThorSport Racing driver?

“I feel great that I have the experience that I have at a lot of these race tracks,” he said. “The only thing that I look at is that some of these younger guys going to these racetracks having never even raced or turned a lap there getting in trouble. What I mean by that is that you just hope you’re not a victim of a mistake.”

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Dr. Diandra: Is Talladega really the biggest, fastest, fiercest track?

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Talladega Superspeedway has a reputation as one of the wildest tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

Is it hype? Or do the numbers prove the point?

The biggest

Talladega is the longest oval track in the NASCAR circuit. At 2.66 miles (14,045 feet), one Talladega lap is the length of about 468 football fields. Talladega is longer than Mauna Kea is tall.

If we measure lengths in terms of Talladega:

  • The distance from Charlotte to Nashville (the location of the NASCAR awards ceremony) is 339 Talladegas.
  • If you flew direct from Los Angeles to New York City, you would cover 2500 Talladegas.
  • Martinsville is just 0.20 Talladegas.

Talladega also holds the record for banking in current Cup Series tracks with 33 degrees. Talladega’s banking is so high that the outside lane of the 48-foot wide racing surface is 26.1 feet higher than the inside lane. That difference is about the height of a two-story house.

Talladega is a tri-oval. Think of it as three straight lines connected by three curves.

A graphic showing the tri-oval shape and how it got its name

 

While tri-oval describes the track shape, it is also used to refer to the frontstretch — the most triangular part of the track.

And Talladega’s frontstretch is formidable. The 4,300-foot segment is banked at 16.5 degrees. Talladega’s frontstretch has more banking than all three of Pocono’s turns.

The backstretch, known as the Alabama Gang Superstretch, isn’t too shabby, either. It’s 1,000 feet longer than Daytona’s backstretch. If you were to unroll Richmond, its entire 0.75-mile length would just cover Talladega’s backstretch.

Talladega’s infield is so large that it could hold the L.A. Coliseum, Martinsville, Bristol, Dover, Richmond and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A graphic showing that it's possible to pack five smaller tracks, plus the NASCAR Hall of Fame into Talladega's infield

The Fastest

Bill France Sr. originally envisioned Talladega as Indianapolis Motor Speedway with higher banking. At a time when raw speed was the big attraction, higher banking would allow Talladega to wrest away the closed-track speed record from Indy.

In 1970, just six months after Talladega hosted its first race, Buddy Baker became the first driver to break the 200 mph mark on a closed course.

Baker’s breakthrough happened at a testing session. It wasn’t until 1982 that Benny Parsons became the first Cup Series driver to qualify over 200 mph. Just four years later, all but one of the 42 drivers starting the spring race qualified over 200 mph.

In May 1987, Bill Elliott set the all-time Cup Series qualifying record at 212.809 mph. That record will likely never be broken. During the race, Bobby Allison got airborne and crashed into the catchfence. NASCAR subsequently mandated restrictor plates (and now tapered spacers) to keep speeds down and cars on the ground.

Restricting airflow to the engine makes drafting even more important. That, in turn, leads to large packs of cars racing within inches of each other. That’s why four of the top-10 closest finishes in the Cup Series happened at Talladega.

In the spring 2011 race, Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer by just two-thousandths (0.002) of a second. That ties the famous 2003 Ricky Craven/Kurt Busch Darlington finish for the smallest margin of victory in Cup Series history.

Of all Talladega races run after NASCAR introduced electronic scoring in May 1993, 44 ended under a green flag. Of those races:

  • Seven (15.9%) were won by less than 25 thousandths of a second.
  • Fifteen (34.1%) were won by less than one-tenth of a second.
  • Thirty-nine (88.6%) were won by less than two-tenths of a second.
  • The largest margin of victory was 0.388 seconds.

The Fiercest

Pack racing leads to more contact. Out of 35 Talladega races run under the current green-white-checkered rule, 14 (40%) ended under caution. Rain caused one of those yellow/checkered finishes. The rest were due to accidents.

In 64 races since 1990, Talladega has seen 228 caution-causing spins or accidents, which involved 1,120 cars.

Almost half (49.2%) of these incidents involved only one or two cars. A one- or two-car accident is no less problematic for the drivers involved than a larger crash. But the more cars involved in accidents, the more likely a driver is to be knocked out of the race.

  • 3.5% of all accidents since 1990 involved 20 or more cars.
  • 5.7% of accidents collected 15 or more cars.
  • 16.7% were 10-car or larger crashes.
  • 38.2% involved five or more cars.

While probable, the Big One is by no means inevitable.

Neither are accidents in general. Three races since 1990 finished with no cautions, but all three of these races took place before 2003. The lowest number of cautions in a Talladega race since 2003 is three. That happened at the fall races in 2013 and 2015.

The average number of caution-causing accidents and spins in a Talladega race is 3.5.

  • Seven races (10.9%) had a single caution-causing accident or spin.
  • 14 out of 64 races (21.9%) had four caution-causing accidents or spins
  • 13 of 64 races (20.3%) had three caution-causing incidents.

Races with four or fewer accidents make up 71.9% of all Talladega races — which means that races with five or more accidents only account for 28.1%.

The numbers definitely uphold Talladega’s reputation. Although the track itself remains the same, the racing varies. Tune in to NBC (2 p.m. ET) to see whether this fall’s bout is accident-filled or accident-free.

Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.

Safety key topic in meeting for drivers at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup drivers met Friday with Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council, and discussed safety issues ahead of this weekend’s playoff race, which will be without two drivers due to concussion-like symptoms from crashes.

Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch will not race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Busch suffered his head injury in a crash at Pocono in July. Bowman’s injury followed his crash last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Both were injured in accidents where the rear of the car hit the SAFER barrier first.

Two drivers injured in less than three months — and the series racing at a track where crashes are likely — raises tension in the Cup garage. 

Denny Hamlin blasted NASCAR on Saturday, saying it was “bad leadership” for not addressing safety concerns drivers had with the car. Hamlin also said that the Next Gen vehicle needs to be redesigned.

Burton, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, said in an exclusive interview that Friday’s meeting was lengthy because there were several topics to discuss. Burton didn’t go into details on all the topics.

Safety was a key element of that meeting. Burton, whose role with the Drivers Advisory Council is to coordinate the group and communicate with NASCAR, discussed the cooperation level with NASCAR.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” he said. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car. 

“We want to see that come to conclusion as soon as possible. They have made commitments to us and are showing us what is happening, communicating with us in regard to timing, and we want to see it come to conclusion, as they do. 

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get some changes done before last weekend. It just takes a long time to test stuff.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on a new rear clip and rear bumper. Even if the test goes well, there’s not enough time for any such changes this season with five races left.

The frustration from drivers — and voiced by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — has been that NASCAR was informed about issues with a stiffer car for more than a year. Some questions were raised after William Byron crashed in a test in March 2020 at Auto Club Speedway.

“William Byron busted his ass at (Auto Club) Speedway and that should have raised a red flag right off the bat,” Harvick said Saturday.

Hamlin said more drivers needed to speak up about concerns with the car.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said.

Byron is looking for changes to be made.

“I want to have a long career, and I don’t want to have a series of concussions that make me either have to step way from the car or have to think about long-term things,” he said.

Chase Elliott also shared his frustrations Saturday.

“You come off a week like we had in Texas and somebody getting injured and then you come into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point (Sunday) and probably not lightly at that,” Elliot said.

So what do drivers do?

“Do you just not show up?” Elliott said. “Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask. There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. 

“My frustration is … I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had a choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry. 

“That should have just never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that that we had years and time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t, and now we’re having to fix it. 

“I just hate that we did that. I think we’re smarter than that. I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Burton told NBC Sports that drivers did not discuss in Friday’s meeting running single-file in Sunday’s race as a form of protest.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to see single-file (racing Sunday) because of what happened at Texas and what could happen next week (at the Charlotte Roval),” Burton said. “Drivers need a period of calmness. 

“There was not a discussion, a collaborated effort or any sort of thing of how you race (Sunday). That conversation did not come up in that meeting.”

Harvick said Saturday that he’ll continue to be vocal about safety issues.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure these guys are in a good spot,” Harvick said. “Whatever I have to do.”

Harvick later said: “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position. We have to have the safety we deserve to go out and put on a great show and be comfortable with that. 

“Obviously, we all have taken the risks of being race car drivers, but there’s no reason we should be in a worse position than we were last year.”

Harvick said it was a matter of trust.

“The reality of the situation is much different than what they’re looking at,” Harvick said of NASCAR officials. “I think that the trust level is obviously not where it needs to be from getting it fixed. I think they’re going to have to earn the trust level back of reacting quick enough to do the things that it takes. The drivers’ opinion, especially when it comes to safety side of things, has to be more important than the data or more important than the cost. Safety can’t be a budget item.”

Corey LaJoie, who is a member of the Drivers Advisory Council board, said that while challenges remain with the car, he sees the effort being made by NASCAR.

“Nothing happens quick in this deal when you have 38 teams and you have seven cars per team,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It has to be a well-thought-out process to implement the changes.

“It’s easy to get up in arms and prickly when we have guys like Alex and Kurt out. You don’t ever want that to happen. Every conversation I’m having is what we, as the Driver Council, is trying to communicate to NASCAR and NASCAR making proactive changes and moving timelines up aggressively to try to implement these changes.”