Phoenix takeaways: New Cup teams trying to find footing

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When he was just a driver, Denny Hamlin could count on having a few days off during the week before heading to the track.

But after teaming with Michael Jordan to form 23XI Racing – one of three new teams in the NASCAR Cup Series garage – those off days are now focused on talking with 23XI personnel and figuring out how to make Bubba Wallace‘s No. 23 Toyota faster.

There’s also the matter of Wallace himself.

The 27-year-old may not have race-winning equipment yet, but he does have the best equipment of his career.

“This is such a growing process for everyone,” Hamlin said Sunday after his third-place finish at Phoenix Raceway. “Everyone is working together for the first time. This is a new team. This is not an inherited team. This is a team built from scratch.

“It’s a building process. They’re trying not to overload Bubba with too much information, because he’s got already so much he has to learn on a weekly basis. I try to do everything I can to help curb that learning curve. If I can help him out, give him some advice on a track that’s coming up, some notes out of the book that I keep, maybe it’s a help to him.”

MORE: Bubba Wallace next up for Next Gen testing at Richmond

On Sunday, Wallace was in position to claim his first top-10 finish with his new team when a crash involving Tyler Reddick brought out the caution with 50 laps to go.

Having pitted 10 laps earlier, Wallace was told to stay out by crew chief Mike Wheeler and inherit the lead as those ahead of him pitted. On the subsequent restart with 44 laps to go, Wallace appeared to spin his tires.

After initially recovering to hang on to third place, Wallace quickly faded and fell out of the top 10. He finished 16th.

Wheeler later explained why he kept Wallace on track during the Reddick caution.

Through five races, Wallace sits 19th in the Cup driver standings, top-ranked among the new teams. He has not scored any stage points since the season-opening Daytona 500.

But Sunday was still something to build on for himself and 23XI.

As for the other new teams, Trackhouse Racing – led by co-owners Justin Marks and Pitbull and driver Daniel Suarez – continues to try and unlock its own potential.

Suarez, a past winner at Phoenix in the Camping World Truck Series and Mexico Series, finished 21st Sunday. In post-race inspection, the car was found with two lug nuts not secure.

That spells a one-race suspension and $20,000 fine for crew chief Travis Mack. He will be one of two crew chiefs suspended for next week’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“I felt like the car was decent the majority of the race,” Suarez said of his day. “The car was driving pretty good. I was pretty happy with the balance of the car on the long run. The short run wasn’t that great. We made some adjustments in the last 80 laps, and I wasn’t very happy with it. But, all-in-all, (I’m) really proud of my guys and we have to keep getting better.”

Suarez is 24th in the Cup standings. His 15th-place finish at Miami is the best among the new teams through five races.

Live Fast Motorsports, co-owned by BJ McLeod and Matt Tifft, also is trying to make gains week to week. Their No. 78 Ford, which has been driven by McLeod in four of the first five races, is 34th in the Cup owners standings.

McLeod finished 30th in Sunday’s race. His 23rd-place finish in the Daytona 500 is the team’s best result so far.

JTG Daugherty progress

Phoenix NASCAR takeaways
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and JTG Daugherty Racing have made solid improvements through the season’s first five races. (Photo credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

JTG Daugherty Racing has become a fixture in the upper mid-pack through the first five races. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s 12th-place finish on Sunday was the team’s sixth top-15 result this season. Last year, the team had one such finish in the first five races.

“It would take a few laps for our car to come in, and with the couple of cautions we had in the middle of the race, it made it tough to get that longer run where we had really strong speed,” Stenhouse said. “Once that came in, we were able to keep pushing forward to gain and keep our track position.

“Being consistent has been really key early in the season as we have a variety of racetracks and that was definitely the best run at Phoenix Raceway than I’ve had in several years. I’m looking forward to keeping the momentum going next weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.”

Both Stenhouse and teammate Ryan Preece have earned three top 15s apiece, with Stenhouse’s top 15s coming in consecutive weeks.

Stenhouse and Preece also sit inside the top 15 in average finish, with Stenhouse at 14.4 and Preece at 15.4. At this time last year, those marks were 21st for Stenhouse (DNF – Darlington) and 26.8 for Preece (two DNFs – Daytona 500, Las Vegas).

Finally, Stenhouse and Preece are more familiar sights in the top 15 on the track.

Stenhouse has spent 57.1% of his laps in the top 15. At this time last year, he had only spent 22.7% of his laps there.

Preece has also made gains. He’s spent 29.2% of his laps in the top 15, up from 13.9% at this time last year.

A father’s (tough) love

Phoenix takeaways
Ty Gibbs has finished first and second in his first two career Xfinity starts. (Photo credit: Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As his son, Ty Gibbs, began focusing on racing in his early teens, Coy Gibbs focused on instilling the discipline he knew Ty would need down the road.

“I’d say my work was done between (when Ty was) the age of 12 and 14, probably 12 and 15,” the vice chairman and COO of Joe Gibbs Racing recalled on Sunday.

“I was really hard on him, as hard as you possibly could be. My approach is you’re going to have to face the pressure sooner or later, so I might as well apply it as hard as I possibly can.

“Then at 14, 14-and-a-half, I completely backed off and left him on his own so he could kind of go through it … I don’t want to sit there and handhold the kid. He doesn’t need it.”

Ty Gibbs certainly hasn’t in his first two Xfinity Series starts.

After winning in his inaugural Xfinity start last month at the Daytona road course, the 18-year-old was in contention for another victory Saturday at Phoenix before finishing second to Austin Cindric.

He still left the Valley of the Sun with a trophy, however. He won Friday night’s race in the ARCA Menards Series, where he runs full-time. Last year, he led that series with six wins.

“Watching him grow as a driver … You think he’s pretty good, but you don’t really know,” Coy Gibbs said. “Then you start throwing him in these divisions, and he’s performing.

“It’s exciting to watch. It’s exciting as a father.”

Ty Gibbs has already reached a level that neither his father or Coy’s brother, the late J.D. Gibbs, could in their own driving careers. Both Coy and J.D. Gibbs competed in the Xfinity and Truck Series, but neither won.

While J.D. only made limited appearances, Coy ran full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing in the 2001 and 2002 Truck seasons before moving to Xfinity for what would be his sole season there in 2003.

Along with the discipline he taught Ty growing up, Coy Gibbs believes that he’s also benefited from learning from his and J.D.’s travails.

“I think it helps watching my brother go through it, screw it all up, watching myself go through it, screw it all up,” Coy said.

“I feel like I can at least help guide his path a little bit. Hopefully, he can be successful at it.”

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)