Analysis: Handling, risk mitigation key to winning Daytona 500

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What matters in today’s race? Let’s dive into the analytics, trends and strategy that will shape the 63rd running of the Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on Fox):

Not so fast: Elite speed means little without proper handling

Finishing positions for the 2020 Daytona 500 and individual rankings for Central Speed — the latter a compilation of speed-per-quarter averages while omitting crash damage and other aberrations — saw a rank correlation of -1, symbolizing no correlation whatsoever. But this hardly means quantifiable speed is an anathema to competitors.

The fastest car on drafting tracks for all of last season, the JTG Daugherty Racing No. 47 of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., went winless in all four events, as did the four cars ranked second through fifth. Stenhouse, whose 2020 Daytona 500 pole-winning car was observed by Joey Logano as the only machine capable of passing without pack assistance, sees the merits of speed but demands more from his car’s handling capability.

“Obviously, being fast is key, but specifically for Daytona, I feel like you’ve got to have a car that turns off of Turn 4 better than others,” Stenhouse said. “There’s a lot (of drivers) who get tight off Turn 4 and lift (out) of the throttle.”

His workaround is a free-wheeling setup engineered to allow him to stay on the gas through the exit of the track’s final corner precisely as others may be forced to lift.

“It’s tough to beat people back to the start-finish line when you don’t have a car capable of doing that,” he said.

William Byron, with the sixth-fastest Central Speed ranking in 2020 drafting races, won last August in Daytona.

“You can’t win with a turd. You’ve got to have a fast car,” Byron told NBC Sports. “Do you have to have the fastest car? No … I think the third or fourth-fastest car with the best handling is who’s going to win. Handling trumps anything, because you can make those moves and put yourself in position.”

Three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin admitted the creature comforts from his machine may hinder speed — his 2020 car ranked 19th in Central Speed on drafting tracks — but allow enough handling flexibility for late-race heroics.

“Over time I’ve learned I need my car to do certain things to be able to make the moves I need to make at the end of the race to win,” Hamlin said. “I think it’s a little bit off the beaten path of (when) a simulation says, ‘Oh, this will be the fastest.’ I think that I typically just say, ‘I need the car to do this. I don’t care if it’s slower.’ Like if it does this, then I can make the moves I need to, and I can manipulate the air and the situation I’m around enough to make the difference.”

Run out front at your own risk

Whereas there was no correlation between Central Speed and race finish in last year’s Daytona 500, the link between Central Speed and average running position saw a correlation of +0.8, signaling a strong relationship. Eventually, the fastest cars make their way to the front; however, leading the field in Daytona comes with significant risk.

Poorly timed blocks, frequent with the fast closing rates that are a byproduct of the current rules package, have transformed the front of Daytona’s field into a danger zone. Within the top 10, three positions — third, sixth and ninth — were each included in 50% of the multi-car accidents since 2017. The lead car was included in 27% of those crashes, up from 5% in 2013-16.

Teams from Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing positioned themselves near the rear of the field — the safest space across the last 26 Daytona accidents — for large stretches of last year’s event. Their decision to punt on chasing mid-race stage points prompted confusion among observers on social media, enticing championship-winning crew chief Cole Pearn, recently retired, to chime in on Twitter:

While it’s logical for top-tier teams to pick their spots, not every juggernaut is a stage-point pacifist. To wit, Team Penske drivers Logano (9.0), Brad Keselowski (10.6) and Ryan Blaney (12.2) ranked first, second and fifth in average running position in last year’s Daytona 500. Logano is aware of the heightened exposure to risk, but doesn’t plan on deviating from what he believes is his best chance at winning.

“I’d rather be up there racing than riding around all day and still crash,” Logano said. “At least I can say I did something and learned a little bit and had a little fun while I was doing it.”

Track position gains through green-flag pit cycles

Rumors of team or manufacturer orders in NASCAR are typically denied, but on drafting tracks like Daytona, orders are widely accepted and tend to work most effectively in just one respect: Pit stops under green-flag conditions.

Whereas the final laps can devolve into a free-for-all among drivers, synchronizing these vulnerable stops ensures better positioning within the race’s wider peloton without the risk associated with driving through heavy traffic. Pitting quickly as a group allows stragglers to draft unabated among corporate teammates, leapfrogging positions or cutting into on-track deltas.

Unsurprisingly, JGR and SHR, the two organizations that notably eschewed early-stage activity in last year’s Daytona 500, excel in creating positions through a pinpoint timing of stops. Across the four races last year on drafting tracks, SHR crew chief Johnny Klausmeier, now paired with rookie Chase Briscoe, earned a series-best 58 positions on behalf of Clint Bowyer. JGR’s James Small (for Martin Truex Jr.) and Chris Gabehart (for Hamlin) ranked second and third with 41 and 34 positions gained specifically in these scenarios.

A bevy of Chevrolet teams routinely lost positions in drafting-track races without ever being passed. Richard Childress Racing’s Randall Burnett, on behalf of Tyler Reddick, lost 28 spots, while Hendrick Motorsports crew chiefs Greg Ives (for Alex Bowman) and Alan Gustafson (for Chase Elliott) oversaw teams dropping 27 and 25 positions, respectively.

Restarters to watch

Thursday night’s first Duel qualifier was a green-flag affair from beginning to end, robbing us of a late-race showdown between two of the best drafting-track restarters in 2020.

Aric Almirola (75.00%) and Logano (70.83%) ranked first and second in position retention on drafting-track restarts among drivers with 10 or more attempts from inside the top 14; Logano’s 22-position net within the two laps following each restart served as last year’s biggest cumulative gain in Daytona and Talladega.

Kyle Busch (62.50%), Truex (62.50%) and Elliott (61.90%) ranked within the top five for retention — measuring whether a restart spot was successfully defended — while Elliott netted 21 total spots. Ryan Preece, with only eight attempts from inside the top 14, registered a 75.00% retention rate and a 16-position net gain.

If recent Daytona history is any indication, restarting acumen will play a crucial role in deciding the day’s victor. The last six Daytona oval races saw 13 restarts fall within the final one-tenth of the contests.

The choose rule that debuted during the second half of the 2020 season is not in effect for today’s race; however, it’d make for a compelling wrinkle. In last year’s Daytona 500, occupants in the inside groove saw markedly better retention (68.25%) than those restarting from the outside (38.10%). During last August’s 400-mile race, the outside proved stronger (65.31%) compared to the efforts from those originating from the inside lane (44.90%). Given the one-sided nature of double-file restarts that necessitated the choose rule isn’t pronounced here, talent and resourcefulness should win out on the majority of today’s short runs.

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)