Analysis: Blocking is commonality between Daytona victory, defeat

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Brad Keselowski’s seething, on simmer for a few months, was brought to a boil on an early July afternoon two years ago in Daytona. He’d finally taken a stance on blocking and his adrenaline was churning, so much so that he was oblivious to the traffic flow in the Cup garage during practice for the Coke Zero 400. NBC Sports’ Marty Snider had to usher Keselowski out of the way of moving cars.

And then, camera on, microphone hot, Keselowski let fire.

I’m trying to send a message. I’m not lifting,” he told Snider. “We’ve been wrecked in four of the last five plate races, quite honestly because I let people pull moves like that on me.”

The incident began when William Byron attempted a block. It wasn’t just any block, though; it was a last-minute block in practice. Keselowski’s refusal to lift out of the throttle was too complex to be considered a party foul.

Given the basic physics behind drafting — when the lead car (in this case, Byron) blocks the air, reducing the wind resistance for the second car (Keselowski), the second car travels faster, sometimes without its driver standing wide-open on the gas pedal — the only surefire way Keselowski would’ve avoided collision was to smash the brake pedal. That’s an action with different, potentially bigger ramifications.

Keselowski, never one to keep quiet on slights, was sloughed off by fans used to his antics. A few drivers disagreed with his stance.

I don’t think he ‘sent a message’ to anybody. I think it was kind of careless,” said Jimmie Johnson, Byron’s then-fellow Hendrick Motorsports driver. “He feels pretty good about what he did. We’ll see how it all unfolds for him.”

It unfolded that night in Daytona’s driver motorcoach lot, when Byron confronted Keselowski. While the talk wasn’t totally amicable, it also wasn’t unproductive. Interestingly, Keselowski’s message resonated with its victim; Byron listened, learned, and quietly vowed to sharpen his blocking ability.

“I just kind of wanted to learn some things from him,” Byron told NBC Sports. “He was adamant that you’ve got to make those moves quickly and aggressively and not delay the reaction.”

“A lot of guys do it too slow.”

Hendrick’s drafting program is perennially speedy, but the incident with Keselowski and subsequent conversation prompted Byron to request more nimbleness in his car’s handling — a rapid response from the moment the steering wheel feels his input — in an effort to perfect this particular move on the racetrack.

“We worked a lot on my car to make sure I can do those moves quickly, with less effort,” he said, pointing out his desired goal. “As soon my eyes go there (to the spot in front of the car he wants to block), we’ve been trying to get the car to go there, too.”

His technique evolved: Gone were the sharp diagonals, in were the rounded edges. He also improved his timing, learning to respect the opposing driver’s run — aside from side-drafting, which scrubs his opponent’s speed but removes his own chance at a block, there’s not much he can actually do to thwart it — by reacting a few beats sooner than necessary to allow for wiggle room. For Byron, a block is a commitment. Haphazard efforts no longer suffice.

It’s fitting his first Cup Series win of any kind came in last year’s Duel qualifier at Daytona, following a successful defense of his lead with a well-executed, lane-changing block on Johnson:

Byron left plenty of breathing room for Johnson, whose inability to answer for the young driver’s tactics was misconstrued by some, including Byron, as playing nice with his corporate teammate, seeming content with the role of pusher while approaching the finish line.

“We talked briefly in victory lane and he said, ‘Thanks for pushing me,’” recalled Johnson. “I said I wasn’t trying to push him – ‘I was trying to pass your ass.’”


Blocking is equal parts necessity and skill.

The necessity, for Daytona and Talladega, stems from recent shifts within the rules packages, including the move to the current 9-inch spoiler height. Now, it’s a chore, as the leader, to keep the field at bay. Opposing runs are faster and too often inevitable.

“After the rules change … the race at Daytona, specifically the 500, turned into a crash-fest,” said Keselowski. “You had little to no ability to kind of control the race as the leader.”

Some of those leaders and frontrunners did what anyone would do in their situations: Block. But blocking is a skill requiring mastery, which too few drivers have achieved. Sloppy or bad blocks have not only defined recent Daytona races, but also transformed the front of the pack, once a safe haven, into a minefield.

“To me, definitely it used to be if you’re in the top 10, you felt safe,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a Daytona winner in 2017. “Nowadays, that’s kind of where the wrecks start happening, that fifth-to-10th range, versus I felt like back in the day, it was 15th-to-20th place where the chaos started.”

Stenhouse is spot-on with his estimation. A study of the Daytona accidents over the last eight years — 45 crashes involving four or more cars — confirms the danger zone’s location change:

From 2013-16, Daytona saw 19 eligible accidents. Its occupants running inside the top 10 saw, at worst, a 26% inclusion rate in crashes. That high-end number skyrocketed between 2017-20, a span including 26 similar accidents, to 54%, better than a coin flip’s chance. Third place went from Daytona’s safest spot (no inclusion in big crashes) to one of its worst (50% inclusion).

The leader’s risk for inclusion has increased from 5% to 27%, but the lead car’s movements are clearly affecting nearby positions. Sixth place has been caught in eight of the last nine multi-car crashes, dating back to the 2019 Daytona 500, while 13th place was included in each of the last five.

“Everyone has seen the leaders playing the lines, going back and forth, trying to block this line, that line,” three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin said. “Those (movements) end up having a chain reaction that starts right around that three-four-five-six spot.”

There are two preferred pathways to avoiding these large crashes. One involves riding near the rear of the field, as Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing did for large stretches of last year’s season opener. The other is to get out front and throw blocks — dangerous with redundancy, but perhaps the only way to play defense.

“You have to block, man,” T.J. Majors, spotter for Joey Logano, told NBC Sports. “How else do you keep the lead?”

Logano and Majors hunker down for video sessions before every race on drafting tracks, figuring they’ll have to adjust for any quirks within the rules that alter the timing needed to guarantee such dicey moves.

“The draft never stays the same. It evolves,” said Logano, who focused recent game-planning with Majors on the prospect of blocking in the era of bigger spoilers. “We used to have more of a bubble behind us where you can block cars and be able to block them without checking up the whole line or getting hit from behind.”

“Every time they make a package change, people don’t ever really think about it,” Majors said. “Maybe a lot of spotters don’t think about it. It changes your runs, it changes your closing rates. It changes everything, man. So, when they make the spoiler bigger, you gotta learn it again.”

“Now, shoot, two cars get linked up together and you’re two or three car lengths out? They’re coming. It didn’t used to be that bad, you know?”

Whereas spotters like Majors once were able to command lane changes and see immediate effect, the current closing rate has made the call-and-response dynamic between drivers and spotters difficult, bordering on impossible. Byron, for one, utilizes spotter Tab Boyd for getting through the field, but once he’s in the lead, it’s all mirror-driving and reaction time.

“Well, now the closing rates are so big,” said Byron. “Tab can’t do much other than suggest, ‘Hey, take that lane away’ or ‘That run is the biggest.’”

This leaves drivers to their own devices, a concern for competitors like Hamlin who typically find themselves questioning the decisions of those with mediocre blocking skills.

“Everyone thinks they know how to block and they have enough time to do it,” Hamlin said. “Sometimes, you’ve got to live to race another lap. I’ve seen guys do late blocks at the halfway point. It’s like, there’s no guarantee the guy’s even going to clear you. Just let him get beside you and y’all figure it out.”


It’s not difficult to identify a bad block. Timing is the tell, as is the ensuing response from trailing cars:

Ryan Blaney’s sharp motion in last year’s Daytona 500 caused him to lose the lead and momentum, forcing those behind him to check up or scramble, but it didn’t wipe out the field. He cut it close, sure, but there were no wrecked race cars, and ultimately, this fact is what places his maneuvering above the fine line between right and wrong.

“At the end of the day, you block because it works,” said Clint Bowyer, now with Fox Sports. “And it works until it doesn’t. The only unfortunate difference between one that works and one that doesn’t is a crash. It’s successful until it’s not, and then you’re the bad guy. You wrecked the whole field because it’s an untimely block and you wrecked everybody. But, if you didn’t (block), you should’ve, and you’re going to lose the race.”

Tyler Reddick’s attempt at a block in last summer’s Coke Zero 400 was a desperation heave, one he later lamented despite not wrecking himself. He had no support from a trailing car and didn’t properly account for the closing rate when making the lane change. The chain reaction arrived on cue:

The pileup was indeed Reddick’s fault, but a bid to maintain his position — a playoff spot was on the line with a win, after all — was the move expected of him. It’s a delicate situation for drivers balancing what they have to do with what their efforts could do.

It’s something Byron reckoned with, realizing he needed to get better at the only definitive method for retaining leads on NASCAR’s biggest tracks.

“When it comes time to go at the end, I mean, you’ve got to make those big blocks and the big lane changes to have success.”

Appeal panel gives William Byron his 25 points back

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William Byron is back in a transfer spot after the National Motorsports Appeals Panel rescinded his 25-point penalty Thursday for spinning Denny Hamlin at Texas.

By getting those 25 points back, Byron enters Sunday’s elimination playoff race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC) 14 points above the cutline.

Daniel Suarez is now in the final transfer spot to the Round of 8. He is 12 points ahead of Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric. Christopher Bell is 45 points behind Suarez. Alex Bowman will not race this week as he continues to recover from concussion symptoms and has been eliminated from Cup title contention.

NASCAR did not penalize Byron after his incident with Hamlin because series officials did not see the contact. Two days later, NASCAR penalized Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for intentionally wrecking Hamlin.

The National Motorsports Appeals Panel stated that Byron violated the rule but amended the penalty to no loss of driver and owner points while increasing the fine to $100,000.

The panel did not give a reason for its decision. NASCAR cannot appeal the panel’s decision.

The panel consisted of Hunter Nickell, a former TV executive, Dale Pinilis, track operator of Bowman Gray Stadium and Kevin Whitaker, owner of Greenville-Pickens Speedway.

Here is the updated standings heading into Sunday’s race at the Roval:

Byron’s actions took place after the caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race that the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

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)