Friday 5: Could the pandemic impact future crew chief hires?

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Among the lasting impacts the coronavirus will have on NASCAR is showing the sport it can be nimble with schedules, formats and races in ways few thought possible.

Just as impactful, though, could be who will be Cup crew chiefs in the future. How those positions are filled could be changing as a result of these times.

Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing are among organizations that have promoted an engineer with no significant crew chief experience to lead Cup teams in recent years.

But with many Cup teams no longer sending engineers to races in this era of crew limits, will that trend continue? Two of this year’s new Cup crew chiefs came from the Camping World Truck Series and one moved up from the Xfinity Series.

MORE: Ben Beshore charting Kyle Busch’s course correction

Engineers have been among those squeezed by NASCAR’s crew limits. In 2019, Cup teams were limited to 12 road crew members, not including the pit crew, at the track. That number dropped to 10 road crew members for the start of the 2020 season and dipped to six because of COVID-19 protocols after the season resumed. Teams are allowed a road crew of eight at most events this year. 

With fewer crew members allowed at the track, many teams bring those who are more hands-on with the car.

Two years ago, 29 of the 38 Cup teams (76.3%) competing in the spring Las Vegas race had two engineers at the track. No Cup team will have two engineers at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Cup race (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox).

The number of engineers at the Las Vegas spring race has declined 75% since 2019, going from 64 to 16 for Sunday’s race. None of Joe Gibbs Racing’s four Cup teams will have an engineer at the track this weekend. Two of Team Penske’s three Cup teams also will not have an engineer at Las Vegas.  

“The pandemic number allows for nothing,” NBC Sports analyst Steve Letarte said during this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast with Nate Ryan. “It doesn’t allow for growth. It doesn’t allow for training. It allows enough people to put a car on the racetrack, which by the way I’m not knocking, as it should.”

Letarte notes the effect crew limits could have for engineers hoping to move into a Cup crew chief role. 

“I think what you’re going to see is a wave of guys that are on the (pit) box in Xfinity and Trucks kind of popping into Cup over the next two or three years, just because there is going to be this 18-month gap of opportunity for that engineer,” Letarte said.

Even though most engineers work remotely on race weekends, they do many of the same roles as when they were at the track. The challenge for Cup engineers aspiring to move up to a crew chief position is that when they are not at the track, they lose out on the rhythms of the weekend, going through inspection, and helping manage the race and team from the pit box.

Letarte noted the education he received before he became Jeff Gordon’s crew chief in 2005.

“For two years before I became Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, I sat on the box next to Robbie (Loomis),” Letarte said of the former crew chief for Gordon.

“(Loomis) taught me how to see a race. That’s hard to do from home. These engineers that perhaps would be the next step up without the real in-the-battle experience, they might be passed over.”

Another option would be to send them to the Truck or Xfinity Series to be a crew chief and gain the experience they’ve lost out on by not being on the pit box for Cup events.

Miami Cup takeaways
William Byron and his team celebrate their Miami win. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“There’s a lot of little things that you don’t get to do as a race engineer that has to do with not just making the car fast, but managing the whole weekend,” crew chief Rudy Fugle said.

Fugle was among those who moved from the Truck Series to Cup after last season. The former Truck champion crew chief joined Hendrick Motorsports to be William Byron’s crew chief this season. The pairing is a reunion. Fugle, who has an engineering background, and Byron worked together at KBM in 2016. 

“It’s a big jump, for sure,” Fugle said of going from the Truck Series to Cup. “It’s hard. It’s definitely not easy. I’m not trying to underplay that. … I didn’t build a team. I came into a team. So, I’m pretty lucky.”

In their third race back, Fugle helped guide Byron to a win last weekend at Miami.

Also moving up from the Truck Series this year is Kevin Bellicourt. He was the crew chief for Derek Kraus last year at Bill McAnally Racing.

Joe Gibbs Racing promoted Ben Beshore, a former engineer, from his role as a crew chief in the Xfinity Series to be Kyle Busch’s crew chief this season. The two were paired because they had worked together for four years when Beshore was a Cup engineer on the No. 18 team. They also worked together for seven Xfinity races when Beshore was a crew chief in the Xfinity Series.

Now that he’s a Cup crew chief, Beshore’s job is simple.

“There’s pressure for sure,” he said after Busch won last month’s Busch Clash on the Daytona International Speedway road course. “That’s the fun of it, is going out there and performing and trying to steal some wins.”

2. What to expect for Front Row Motorsports?

Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 win and top-10 finishes in the first three races of the season has been among the early highlights. His sixth-place finish last weekend at Miami was Front Row Motorsports’ first top 10 at a 1.5-mile track in team history. 

McDowell says the success isn’t from any new equipment.

“We’ve made our cars a little bit lighter, a little bit more downforce and we’ve made some small gains, but I don’t feel like we’ve done anything different or special as far as engines and chassis and all those things,” McDowell said. “We’re still getting the same equipment that we got last year.”

Last year, McDowell finished 23rd in points and had four top-10 finishes.

Can this run continue Sunday at Las Vegas for McDowell and Front Row Motorsports?

“I don’t know how we’ll be at Vegas, and I don’t know how we’ll be at Phoenix,” McDowell said of the next two Cup races. “I would love to be the guy that comes on here that I think sort of everybody wants to be like, ‘Yeah, we’re legit. We’re gonna win five races this year and we’re gonna contend for the championship.’ 

“I don’t know that to be true, but I do know we’re gonna fight our guts out and we’ll see where we end up.”

3.  Noah Gragson true to himself

Noah Gragson says he wouldn’t change how he drove in the final laps of last weekend’s Xfinity race before he ran into the back of David Starr’s car after it blew a tire. Gragson also says he wouldn’t change what he said about Starr afterward.

“I think the most important thing for me is to stay true to myself, to not really change because I went through a little process last year where I wasn’t really myself,” he said. “People tried to slow me down, and it didn’t really work for me. So, I think for myself, personally, it’s about staying true to myself.”

As to what he meant by last year — a season that saw the JR Motorsports driver in encounters on and off the track with competitors — he explained:

“They told me that I need to be a lot less aggressive and need to be more patient. They said, Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) specifically, I sat down with him and he was probably the most key guy. He’s like ‘I don’t want you to lose any speed over it, but you need to be less aggressive and more patient.’

“We had a good conversation, and I tried to do what he said, but I just slowed down. I didn’t have the speed. And I finally got into the playoffs and I’m like, ‘Screw that, I’m going out there and race as hard as I can and be comfortable with myself and race the way I know how to,’ and we had really good results. It’s just one of those deals where there’s a lot of opinions, but if I can be comfortable myself, it’s the best way possible for me.”

4. Familiar look

Nearly a dozen trucks in tonight’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (9 p.m. ET on FS1) will have sponsorship from series sponsor Camping World. This came after Marcus Lemonis, chairman and CEO of Camping World, stated on Twitter this week that he would sponsor any truck that needed it for the race.

Among those who will have the blue and yellow for Camping World on their trucks are reigning series champion Sheldon Creed, Grant Enfinger, Parker Kligerman and Jordan Anderson.

Lemonis said he would pay $15,000 to sponsor a truck. That would go up to $25,000 if the team scored a top 10, $35,000 if they finished in the top five, and go up to $50,000 if the team won.

“It’s huge,” Creed said of Lemonis’ offer to teams. “I race for a bigger Truck team (GMS Racing), so maybe we’re not in need of it, say as much as Jordan Anderson and a team like that. Anything helps. We’re at a level now where it just takes everything you have to compete and win every week. If it can start something now and make it grow into a bigger relationship and possibly a sponsor to get me into an Xfinity or Cup car next year, that would be awesome.”

5. Most stage points

Each week, drivers talk about the importance of scoring stage points in races. Here’s a look at who has scored the most stage points this season:

47 — Denny Hamlin

36 — Joey Logano

31 — Chase Elliott

30 — Kyle Larson

28 — Austin Dillon

27 — Kurt Busch

25 — Martin Truex Jr.

23 — Kevin Harvick

21 — Christopher Bell

21 — Bubba Wallace

21 — William Byron

On the other side, here are some of the drivers who have yet to score any stage points this season: Tyler Reddick, Chase Briscoe, Matt DiBenedetto, Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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)