Las Vegas Cup takeaways: Erik Jones, Petty team take step in right direction

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One of the better drives in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway came from Erik Jones, who started 29th and finished 10th for Richard Petty Motorsports.

It was Jones’ first top 10 with his new team. But just as important, it was the organization’s first top 10 since Bubba Wallace (now with 23XI Racing) finished fifth in last August’s regular-season finale on the oval at Daytona International Speedway.

Jones’ crew chief, Jerry Baxter, told NBC Sports on Monday that the result has lifted the team’s morale after an up-and-down start to the season.

“I think they were just a little let down that they weren’t able to get a top 10 at (the Daytona 500),” Baxter said. “We finished eighth in the Clash and then Daytona, getting wiped out on Lap 13, was very disheartening because we were really fast.

“We thought we’d have a couple (top 10s) by now. But right now, everybody’s pretty excited about it. They’re happy. I’m happy. Erik’s happy. He just wants to get better.”

Jones quickly moved forward from the green flag on Sunday. He drove into the top 15 during Stage 1 before finishing the stage in 17th.

Early in Stage 2, Jones avoided disaster on Lap 94. Running 16th, he got loose off Turn 2 in front of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but maintained the slide and continued on with just a light graze off the outside wall. He went on to finish the stage in 18th.

Following a pit stop during the stage break, Jones was among those who stayed out on track during the Lap 180 caution for Aric Almirola‘s crash.

With the older tires, Jones kept the No. 43 within reach of the top 10 leading into the final stops of the day with over 40 laps to go. Then, with under 20 laps to go, Jones made his move back into the top 10 for good.

“I think our car was pretty dang fast from the get-go,” Baxter said about the race. “It was a challenge during the event to try and get any kind of track position, and with the tire fall-off that we had, it was not a deal where I could gamble and take two tires or something and be successful at it.

“That was the challenge and it did take us the whole race to get up to there. I believe if we had started up there, we would’ve been much better than we actually ended up, for sure. But overall, we just had a good car.”

Jones joined RPM after spending the past four seasons under the Joe Gibbs Racing umbrella (now-defunct Furniture Row Racing in 2017; JGR from 2018-2020). When JGR informed him last August that he would not return to the organization, he admitted to being “blindsided a little bit” by the decision.

But while Jones was motivated to make a fresh start with RPM, something else about the 24-year-old has jumped out to Baxter through four races together.

“His maturity, for his age, is really surprising to me,” Baxter said. “But then I look at it the other way. He’s got a ton of laps under his belt, a lot of years. You think about his age and, most of the time, drivers (that age) react to the moment like it’s the end of the world. He doesn’t. He’s calm, thinks about things, and that’s what makes you go.

“That’s what makes you successful. The ones that lose their mind are in trouble.”

Daniels, No. 5 team seize new opportunity

Hendrick Motorsports’ second consecutive win also meant another crew chief for the organization earned his first Cup victory.

Last week in Miami, it was Rudy Fugle with William Byron and the No. 24 team. Sunday in Las Vegas, it was Cliff Daniels, who guided Kyle Larson to the win.

Daniels had been crew chief for the No. 48 team and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (who has since moved to IndyCar) since July 2019. The No. 48 team became the current No. 5 team over this offseason to coincide with Larson’s arrival.

Following Sunday’s race, Daniels admitted to being “maybe a little” surprised that the No. 5 is in Victory Lane so soon. But after he and his crewmates’ hard-fought efforts to give Johnson one final NASCAR win fell short, Larson has provided an opportunity to turn the page.

“We knew when Kyle and I first connected over the winter, we knew there was going to be a path to get us here,” Daniels said. “We knew we had to make sure our cars were well-prepared. Just with the schedule, race format, there’s no practice, there’s no qualifying. We don’t have a big opportunity to go build our notebook together. You have to be right when you unload for the race.

“We knew it was going to take a lot of prep work to get here. We’ve done that every week. Kyle is in the shop three days a week just poring through notes with us, looking at video, looking at data. Our guys have done a nice job to help get him prepared, and likewise, he’s done a nice job of just giving us sensations he needs to feel, things he’s felt in the past and how he would like to car to respond in certain situations.”

Along with diligent study, Daniels noted Larson’s “demeanor,” which has led him and spotter Tyler Monn to focus on relaying gaps to his competitors instead of pumping him up.

“Kyle is so good and so confident in himself that he doesn’t need a lot of cheerleading,” Daniels said. “We’re just trying to make sure we have all the pieces around him set up the right way so he can go get the job done.”

Setting up the pieces included making a contingency plan in case Larson’s march was interrupted by a late-race caution. Daniels said that came from a valuable lesson learned during his No. 48 days: Always think ahead.

“We know with this 550 (horsepower) package, the late-race restarts can get crazy,” Daniels said. “You’re going to have mixed strategies, guys that are going to throw a Hail Mary, stay out on old tires, some guys will take two, some four. We worked up two different contingency plans if we needed them.

“If the caution came out at any point, we already knew what our call was going to be, we knew which way we were going to go. That may sound a little bit idealistic, but we had to be thinking ahead in case we had been in that situation.”

“Kyle had been doing a good job on restarts all day when we were on offense. We wanted to make sure to put him in that situation if we needed it.”

Gibbs gang getting closer

Echoing Kyle Busch’s thoughts with the No. 18 team, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. noted after Sunday’s race that there’s still some speed for the organization to find on 1.5-mile tracks.

“These tracks are really tough – it’s a real big guessing game on what cars to bring and what kind of approach to take,” Truex said after his sixth-place finish. “You kind of get guessing on a lot of different things – the weather, the wind and all this kind of stuff.

“Overall, I think our cars were decent. … I would say for (the No. 19 team), we were probably a little bit off from where we were last weekend. Definitely some stuff to build on for all of us across the board. We’ll obviously talk about it all and figure out what we need to do to be better.”

But unlike last week at Miami, where Truex was the only JGR driver in the mix for a win, the organization was stronger as a whole at Las Vegas.

Busch’s third-place finish was his first top five of the year. Denny Hamlin‘s fourth-place finish gave him consecutive top fives at Las Vegas for the first time in his career. Truex claimed his sixth consecutive top 10 on a 1.5-mile track, which is the longest active streak in Cup. Christopher Bell, already in the playoffs with his Daytona road course win, was seventh.

“I’m really happy with the turnaround from last week at Homestead,” Bell said. “… We were significantly better this time. It’s something to build on for sure. I felt like my Craftsman Camry drove really well. We just need to dial a little bit of speed in it.”

Rabbit’s foot, anyone?

While Matt DiBenedetto‘s 16th-place finish on Sunday was a season-best, it also represents the latest stroke of bad luck to befall him and Wood Brothers Racing.

Entering his final pit stop with a little over 40 laps to go, DiBenedetto was running ninth. He had come from 30th on the starting grid to finish eighth in Stage 1 (earning his first stage points of the season), then rose into the top five in Stage 2 prior to a green-flag stop. After finishing Stage 2 in 12th, DiBenedetto moved back into the top 10 and looked to stay there.

But on his last stop, an air gun failed as his crew was about to change the left-front tire. Instead of losing time replacing the air gun, crew chief Greg Erwin sent DiBenedetto back out on three new tires and one with 50 laps of wear to finish the race.

Coming off his first playoff berth in 2020 and now in his final year with the Wood Brothers, DiBenedetto has been hindered repeatedly in the opening races of 2021.

He finished 33rd in the season-opening Daytona 500, where he was eliminated following a major crash early in the race. The next week on the Daytona road course, a cut right-front tire and a brake line failure relegated him to 37th. Things weren’t much better last week at Miami. He finished 28th due to handling problems and a lack of long-run speed.

Sunday’s air gun failure at Las Vegas adds to the list of setbacks. But team co-owner Eddie Wood was still optimistic, thanks to the team’s overall pace.

“I’ll take it,” Wood said in a team release. “I think we’ll be all right going forward. If we can run that good at Vegas, we can run good at places like Texas and other intermediate tracks too.

“And I want to hand it to Goodyear. That was a job well done to build a tire that would run 90 laps and still be running respectable lap times in the last few laps.”

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)