‘Good things will happen’: Ben Beshore charting Kyle Busch’s course correction

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Ben Beshore did not take the bait. The opportunity to acknowledge the shortcomings of predecessor Adam Stevens presented itself, but Kyle Busch’s new crew chief opted for the high road.

“I worked for Adam for four years,” Beshore said last month in Daytona. “We had a lot of great success on that team. I’m not going to say anything bad about him, by any means. But from my standpoint, I’m just going to do it my way, I guess.”

Beshore seemed jittery. Perhaps it was the adrenaline — he’d just won the Busch Clash — or maybe it was his first time on the microphone in front of this many people, but the rookie Cup Series team leader was delicately laying out his game plan for course-correcting a conspicuously wayward ship, careful in choosing his words.

Busch, inching towards his statistical prime, won just twice in a 58-race stretch, an aberration in a career that’s seen the 35-year-old racer average one Cup Series win in every 10 starts. It was a wasted 2020 season for a driver who likely costs Joe Gibbs Racing north of $10 million per year, and the organization’s answer was to shuffle its crew chiefs for 2021.

Stevens was moved out of the pressure-cooker that’s the two-time title-winning No. 18 team, onto Christopher Bell’s No. 20 team. Beshore, fresh off of a four-win Xfinity Series season with a driver who had never previously achieved victory at the NASCAR national level, earned the promotion, bestowed leadership of one of the most distinguished teams in recent series history.

His plan to right this massive ship is a back-to-basics approach, one involving a lot of personal touch.

“Try to get the most out of my guys,” he said, when asked about his personal imprint on the storied team. “Try to push the engineers to keep striving, to make faster setups, keep on my guys about detail, detail, detail on our cars and just put good stuff underneath Kyle every week.

“I think good things will happen.”

So bad, so fast

From the outside looking in, the perception of how things got so bad, so fast with the No. 18 team hovers around the lack of practice during the 2020 season. It’s a valid reason: Busch is known for having an impressive recall of successful setups, honed predominately from track time and the kind of A-to-B trials most teams work through during practice sessions.

Relative to others, Busch previously put in little time at the Toyota Racing Development simulator, hesitant to present his driving style for study by other Toyota drivers, but his visits have increased over the last year as a makeweight in lieu of traditional on-track shakedowns no longer available under the COVID-19 protocol.

But more realistically, this was only part of the problem, not the problem itself. The downward spiral began in the second half of 2019, when Busch and Stevens — with plenty of practice time — were losing speed relative to the field as races progressed from green to checkers.

The dynamic was imbalanced: Leading into the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, their car ranked as the second fastest in the series, but the sixth fastest in the playoffs specifically, where he also ranked 11th in speed during the fourth quarters of races. The win at Homestead masked any deficiencies and the need for radical change, impacts felt in 2020 and compounded by a pandemic-sized curveball.

Stevens planted himself further in the weeds when he failed to recognize or replicate the way races were being won in 2020. Whereas Rodney Childers and Chris Gabehart were leaping Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin towards race-winning track position, Stevens’ strategy proved problematic. Busch’s running spot was retained on 54.8% of green-flag pit cycles, nearly 10 percentage points off of the series average, resulting in 95 spots lost on the racetrack. Most of the loss can be attributed to mistimed calls.

Pit strategy is just one way to win races, of course. Alan Gustafson (149 positions lost on behalf of Chase Elliott) and James Small (with a 52.3% retention rate for Martin Truex Jr.) weren’t productive strategists last year; however, their respective teams ranked first and second in speed across the whole of the season, keeping them competitive deep into the playoffs.

Stevens’ car ranked eighth, not ideal when trying to overcome deficits created by poor strategy output. His team was summarily bounced from the playoffs following the race on the Charlotte Roval, a day in which his strategy resulted in a 22-position loss.

The year wasn’t without good moments — Busch and Stevens secured a late-season win in Texas — but too frequently, their good days tended to not matter for the result. Busch earned finishes of sixth or better in the Coca-Cola 600, the summer race in Texas and the playoff race in Las Vegas, all races where he scored high in most statistical categories. In each of them he was defeated, in part due to strategy, by cars ranked slower than him in those events, signifying losses that were tactical, not mechanical.

The way back

In a vacuum, the mild-mannered Beshore might not be a better, more assertive crew chief than Stevens, a two-time series champion. But that’s not what’s being asked of Beshore. He needs to be a better crew chief to Kyle Busch at this point in his career than Stevens. That’s a much different task, and the schedule skewing towards 750-horsepower tracks should make for a comfortable landing in his first season in charge.

In his 2019 championship run-up, Busch was vocal about the difficulty in passing on short tracks with high downforce at 750 horsepower. What came off to the public as whining was more altruistic than it seemed: He led the Cup Series in surplus passing value — the difference in a driver’s adjusted pass efficiency and the expected adjusted pass efficiency of a driver with the same average running position, based on a field-wide slope — on the very tracks featuring a rules package he was criticizing. His passing on the short tracks and 1-mile tracks provided him a sizable advantage, so much so that a change to a low-downforce package risked a quantifiable strength.

Instead of shutting up, he put up: In 2020, with a tweaked rules package on 750-horsepower tracks, he topped all drivers in surplus passing value (+5.64%, leading to a pass differential 87 positions better than his statistical expectation). The closest he came to winning on these tracks was a second-place run at Bristol, in which he led a race-high 159 laps. With 750-horsepower tracks now making up 56% of the schedule including the championship race, it appears the 36-race slate suits his biggest driving strengths while also mitigating some of the strategy element that thwarted the No. 18 team last season.

It’s a reason why Beshore’s goal for Year 1 doesn’t seem so lofty.

“For me, it’s getting to Phoenix in the final four,” Beshore said, when asked of his expectations. “You’re not going to get there without winning races, so we’re going to have to win enough races. We’re going to have to run up front. We’re going to have to build stage points and have a very successful year to carry us through to the playoffs.”

Playoff points, a product of regular-season stage victories, were sparse in 2020. Busch secured his first of two stage victories last year in Kansas, the 19th race of the season. His other stage victory, in the playoff race at Texas, came after he was eliminated from championship contention.

“And then (we want to) really start ramping it up once playoff time starts and be a factor there for the championship,” Beshore continued.

A championship, or at the very least a legitimate contention, would represent a return to the normal expectation for Busch, in rare air given his propensity for winning Cup Series races from a relatively young age.

If 39 represents the age of peak statistical powers for modern-day NASCAR drivers, he’s in the middle of a three-year crescendo likely culminating in a form more dominant than we’ve seen from him. It’s a scary proposition for competing teams, one Beshore can be an integral part of if he hits the ground running this season.

Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

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Harrison Burton made the first start of his NASCAR Cup Series partnership with the Wood Brothers in the bright lights of Los Angeles.

Burton and the Woods teamed last season as Burton jumped into full-time Cup racing after two full seasons (and four wins) in the Xfinity Series. Their first race was the Clash at the Coliseum, and it was a good start — Burton qualified for the feature and finished 12th on the lead lap.

Then things headed downhill. Crashes at Daytona and Auto Club Speedway left Burton with finishes of 39th and 33rd, respectively. After the first five races of the year, he had four finishes of 25th or worse.

Now, Season Two, and there are higher expectations. Much higher.

MORE: Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

“The start of last year was really, really rough,” Burton told NBC Sports. “It kind of put us in a hole. We got into the wreck in the 500 and crashed at Fontana. Things kind of stack up on you, and all of a sudden you’re buried in points and it’s hard to make it back up.

“But, at the end of the year, three of the last four weekends were big for us (three consecutive top-20 finishes). We need to build off that and try to get out of the West Coast swing and have a clean group of those races. That’s really important. We need to get our average finish up in the first four to five races and not put ourselves in a hole we can’t get out of, and then go from there.”

The Wood Brothers team typically brings strong cars to the Daytona 500, the season’s first point race. Trevor Bayne scored the team’s latest win in stock car racing’s biggest event in 2011.

“We ran well in the 500 last year until I was upside down,” Burton said. “We had a fast car and qualified well and finished third in our duel. Then in the second Daytona race we put ourselves in good position late, so we were in contention in both Daytona races. The speed was there, and the cars drove well.”

The team’s primary goal is to make the playoffs, Burton said. “And we want to be a contender,” he said. “Cup races are so hard. First, you have to contend. Having a good average finish is really important. If you average around 17th or 18th all year, you can kind of point your way into the playoffs, and doing that is on our minds for sure.”

MORE: Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

Burton looks for a strong start in Sunday’s Clash, which will present teams with a mix of the old and the new. Drivers got the experience of racing inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last year, and notes from that race will be useful, but the racing surface will be all new again.

“Every repave has a different tendency,” Burton said. “We’ll see how close it is to last time and how different. Obviously, there is experience on that track, but still it’s a completely new surface, so it’s going to be a mixture of old and new. There’s some knowledge we can build off of, but we kind of have to go into the weekend with that knowledge as tentative because we don’t know if the track is going to be different.”

Burton heads for Los Angeles with a win already under his belt this year. He and teammate Zane Smith, last year’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, won last Friday’s International Motor Sports Association’s Michelin Pilot Challenge Series race on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

Burton drove the finishing laps in the four-hour race. He was third with about 50 minutes to go but moved in front with 22 minutes left when leader Elliott Skeer parked. Burton outran second-place Spencer Pumpelly by .688 of a second for the win.

“I thought we could run well,” Burton said. “After the test we did, we were really fast, so I was pretty excited. But apparently there is a lot of sandbagging that goes on there, so I wasn’t sure where we were. We had to have some things go right for us, and they did.”

 

 

 

 

Dr. Diandra: Muffling racecars won’t change fan experience

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Last week, NASCAR tested the muffler that will be used for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum.

“Heresy,” some fans cried. They argued that it is against the laws of man and nature to muffle racecars. That noise is an integral part of the fan experience. That you’re not supposed to be able to have conversations during races.

Relax.

The cars will be plenty loud.

Loud is fast

Engines produce power by combusting fuel and air in their cylinders. Each combustion produces high-pressure gases that push the piston up. The same gases make a loud popping sound when they escape the cylinder and finally the exhaust.

At 8,000 rpm, an eight-cylinder engine performs about 520 combustions every second. The faster an engine runs, the more combustions per second and the higher the frequency of the tailpipe noise.

That’s why NASCAR engines sound like grizzly bears and F1 engines, which run at higher speeds, sound more like angry mosquitoes.

Maximum horsepower requires getting the spent gases out of the cylinder as quickly as possible so the next combustion reaction can start. And that’s the problem with mufflers, from a racing perspective.

Mufflers on street cars bounce sound waves from the engine around a metal can. The waves interfere with each other, which decreases the overall volume coming from the exhaust.

Mufflers can also mitigate noise by directing the exhaust through a sound-absorbing material. Borla, the sole-source supplier for this weekend’s muffler, makes commercial racing mufflers that feature a robust sound-absorbing material superior to the commonly used fiberglass.

Both methods slow the exhaust gases — the first more than the second. The ideal racing muffler diminishes sound with minimal horsepower reduction.

Decibels

Sound-level measurements come in decibels (dB), a unit named after Alexander Graham, not Christopher — and apparently by someone who wasn’t the best speller.

But decibels don’t tell the whole story. Sound intensity decreases with distance, so you need to specify how far away the sound source was.

The easiest way to explain the decibel scale is to relate it to real-world noises, as I’ve done below.

A bar chart showing representative sound levels expressed in decibels.

  • Zero dB is the threshold of human hearing.
  • A whisper you can just barely make out is about 20 dB.
  • Most everyday noises are in the 60 dB to 100 dB range but are sometimes louder.
  • Exposure to 130 dBs can be painful.
  • A 150-dB sound can cause permanent hearing damage in a very short time.

Ringing in your ears the day after a rock concert was a badge of honor in high school. Older me wishes I had been a little smarter.

Hair cells — not to be confused with ear hair — facilitate hearing. Sound bends these hair-shaped cells, and the cells convert sound into electrical signals that the brain interprets. Loud sounds can bend these cells so much that they break.

Unlike animals such as sharks, zebrafish — and even the lowly chicken — humans cannot grow new hair cells. Once your hearing is damaged, you can’t get it back.

How loud are racecars?

A noise mitigation study for the proposed Nashville Fairgrounds track measured a single Next Gen car at COTA generating 112 dB on a straightaway at 100 feet.

A 2008 study measured the sound level inside a Gen-6 car to be an average of 114 dB. The study also compared sound in the stands, the infield and the pits.

Let’s add those numbers to our graph.

A bar chart showing representative sound levels expressed in decibels, including sound measurements from the Gen-6 and Next Gen cars

  • The Next Gen car at 100 feet is about the same loudness as a person screaming at top volume 1 inch from your ear.
  • The Next Gen car at 100 feet is just a bit quieter than sitting inside the Gen-6 car.
  • Bristol reached peak sound levels loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage.

The graph data suggests that inside the Next Gen car should be around 10 times louder than inside the Gen-6. Some drivers made new earmolds to cope with the additional noise in the cockpit.

Because of the way sound works, the numbers don’t add like you’d expect them to. A Next Gen car might be 112 dB, but two Next Gen cars are more like 115 dB. A full field would be only 5-7 dB louder.

The mufflers won’t muffle much

NASCAR expects a six to 10-dB reduction in sound with mufflers. A 10-dB reduction would make the Next Gen car about as loud as the Gen-6 car was.

Another way of looking at it: Good earplugs reduce sound levels by 25 to 30 dB. Wearing earplugs just barely gets you into the range of being able to hold a conversation if you stand very close to each other and you both shout.

You won’t notice the change in sound inside the track.

You also won’t notice a change in speed this weekend, despite a drop of 30-40 horsepower. The Next Gen car takes around 14 seconds to traverse the L.A. Coliseum’s quarter-mile track. That means cars won’t be going much faster than typical expressway speeds.

If you’re headed out to the track this weekend — despite the mufflers — bring earplugs or over-the-ear headsets. This is especially important for children, as their hearing is more easily damaged.

Joe Gibbs Racing adds young racers to Xfinity program

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Connor Mosack, 23, and Joe Graf Jr., 24, each will drive select races in the No. 19 Xfinity Series car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Mosack, who has a 20-race Xfinity schedule with Sam Hunt Racing this year, will run three races for JGR: Chicago street course (July 1), Pocono (July 22) and Road America (July 29) while also competing in six ARCA Menards Series races for JGR, including Feb. 18 at Daytona.

Graf, who has a 28-race Xfinity schedule with RSS Racing this year, will run five races in the No. 19 Xfinity car for JGR: Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 25), Las Vegas (March 4), Richmond (April 1), New Hampshire (July 15) and Kansas (Sept. 9).

“I made my Xfinity Series debut with JGR last June at Portland and from the moment I made my first lap in their racecar, I realized why they’ve been so successful,” Mosack said in a statement. “Their equipment was second to none and the resources they had in terms of people and their knowledge was incredible.

“Jason Ratcliff was my crew chief at Portland and he’s got a ton of experience. I was able to learn from him before we even went to the track. Just in our time in the simulator, we made some great changes. So, to be back with him for three Xfinity races is going to be really valuable.

“And when it comes to JGR’s ARCA program, it’s the class of the field. After having to race against JGR cars, I’m really looking forward to racing with a JGR car. No matter what track they were on, they were always up front competing for wins. To have that chance in 2023 is pretty special, and I aim to make the most of it.”

Said Graf in a statement about his opportunity with JGR: “Running five races with JGR is a fantastic opportunity for myself and for my marketing partners. I think I can learn a lot from JGR and showcase my skills I’ve been growing in the series in the past three years. 2023 is shaping up to be a great year and I’m pumped to get started with the No. 19 group.”

Ryan Truex has previously been announced as the driver of the No. 19 Xfinity Series car in six races this season for JGR. The remaining drivers for the car will be announced at a later date.

Mosack didn’t start racing until he was 18 years old. He went on to win five Legends car championships before moving to Late Model stock cars in 2019. He graduated from High Point University in 2021 with a degree in business entrepreneurship. Mosack’s first Xfinity Series race with Sam Hunt Racing this season will be March 11 at Phoenix Raceway.

 

NASCAR weekend schedule for Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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NASCAR’s winter break ends this weekend as Cup Series drivers return to the track for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

The second Clash at the LA Memorial Coliseum has been expanded to 27 (from 23) drivers for the 150-lap main event. Qualifying, heat races and two “last chance” races will set the field.

MORE: Drivers to watch in the Clash

Joey Logano won last year’s Clash, the perfect start to a season that ended with him holding the Cup championship trophy.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (Cup)

Weekend weather

Saturday: Mostly sunny. High of 71.

Sunday: Partly cloudy. High of 66.

Saturday, Feb. 4

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 2 – 11:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 8 p.m. — Cup Series practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 p.m. — Cup Series qualifying (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Feb. 5

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. – 12:30 a.m. Monday — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 5 – 5:45 p.m. — Four Heat races (25 laps; Fox, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 6:10 – 6:35 p.m. — Two Last chance qualifying races (50 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8 p.m. — Feature race (150 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)