Friday 5: Bristol provides dirt racers a chance to shine, turnaround season

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Maybe Kyle Larson will be right. Maybe after 250 laps Sunday on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway, the results will look similar to many other Cup races.

Then again, maybe the first Cup race on dirt since 1970 will be a wildcard as some suggest, and fans will see a different winner for the seventh consecutive race.

Larson and Christopher Bell, among the favorites, already have won this season. But there are others whose dirt background could help them win and eliminate the stress of trying to make the playoffs by points. Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chase Briscoe are among those who could be contenders.

MORE: Starting lineups for Cup qualifying races at Bristol 

MORE: What drivers are saying about racing on dirt at Bristol 

Dillon, who has extensive dirt late model experience, is 11th in the season standings. Stenhouse, whose background is with sprint cars, enters the weekend 17th in the standings. He’s six points out of what would be the final playoff spot.

Briscoe, who won his first 410 sprint car race at age 13, is 27th in points. Reddick, who won a Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model race at age 15, is 28th in points.

“Obviously, we need to turn it around quick or we’re gonna be in a must-win situation fairly early,” Briscoe said. “We’re almost already to that point, so we’ll see how this weekend goes.”

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 Qualifying
Chase Briscoe has had a challenging start to his rookie Cup season but knows his dirt background could help turn things around this weekend at Bristol. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

This season already has proved challenging for Briscoe after he won a series-high nine Xfinity races last year.

Adding to the difficulty has been Stewart-Haas Racing’s struggles. Briscoe, Aric Almirola and Cole Custer each have yet to score a top-10 finish and have combined to lead one lap. Teammate Kevin Harvick has five top 10s in the first six races but has led only 17 laps.

“It’s no secret, I feel like we’re off as a company a little bit right now … it seems like our cars don’t have the raw speed of the other cars, and they just don’t drive very good right now, either,” Briscoe said. “I know there is definitely a concern. Our competition meetings have been very intense the last couple of weeks.”

Briscoe’s best finish this season is 18th at Miami. The Cup rookie has placed between 18th and 23rd in all but one race this year.

“I just try to keep in perspective that Chase Elliott is last year’s champion and it took him (99) races to get (his first Cup) win, so just trying to remember it’s not gonna come right away,” Briscoe said. “Every rookie, I feel like, struggles a little bit, and it just takes time to get your feet underneath you.”

Briscoe shared that sentiment with Austin Cindric before last weekend’s Cup race at Atlanta. Cindric was making his second series start.

“The Cup deal is just no joke,” Briscoe said. “Everybody is so good from a driving standpoint. Everybody’s car is really good, and I was telling Cindric a couple hours before the Atlanta race I said, ‘This is gonna be the most frustrating day of your life. You’re gonna race as hard as you can. You’re gonna run a great race and you’re gonna ask them at some point during this race what position you’re in and they’re gonna tell you you’re in 25th place, and you’re not gonna believe it.’ 

“And he came up to me right after the race and said, ‘Man, you weren’t kidding. I asked them about halfway through what position I was in, and I was in 25th.’ It’s just crazy how you race so hard and you’re 20-25th place. It’s just really tough in the Cup Series for sure.”

This weekend’s race offers hope for Briscoe and others with a dirt background, although no one really knows what to expect.

Some suggest that top teams will remain at the front and the track will become similar to a worn paved track. Others think the dirt experience will prove helpful in understanding how the track changes throughout the event.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Eldora Dirt Derby
Chase Briscoe winning at Eldora in 2018. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Six of the seven drivers who won the Camping World Truck Series race on the dirt at Eldora Speedway will compete in Sunday’s Cup event: Dillon (won Eldora in 2013), Bubba Wallace (2014), Bell (2015), Larson (2016), Briscoe (2018) and Stewart Friesen (2019).

Briscoe said instead of asking Harvick for advice, as he often did when in the Xfinity Series, Harvick is asking him questions.

“It’s definitely been weird for me to be the guy that Kevin is coming to,” Briscoe said. “Typically, it’s me going to Kevin. We actually talked on Monday for probably 20-30 minutes on the phone just going through the different things of what I felt like the car is gonna need to have, things that he can expect to see, feelings he can expect to feel and just kind of where he needs to try to get his car during practice. …  Hopefully, I didn’t steer him in the wrong direction, and hopefully, he can have a good run. 

“I told him that it would not surprise me at all for him to go run really, really good there, just the throttle control and all the things that it takes to go good on dirt is something that he’s really phenomenal at on pavement, so I think he’ll be just fine at it.”

2. Team Penske Future

Car owner Roger Penske says “I think we’re moving in the right direction” to sign Brad Keselowski to a contract extension.

The 37-year-old Keselowski signed a one-year extension last season. He has been at Team Penske since 2010. Keselowski won the Xfinity title in 2010 and Cup crown in 2012. He scored Team Penske’s 500th win in Sept. 2018 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“With COVID, we haven’t been able to get together, but we’ve had conversations with Brad before,” Penske said. “I think we’re moving in the right direction. There’s no reason we wouldn’t renew for sure. 

“I guess it’s just a matter of us sitting down and putting it together, but with everybody not being able to move around, you don’t do that over the phone and you don’t do it by Zoom, so we want to do that face-to-face.”

Keselowski is the most successful Cup driver whose contract expires after this season. Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. each signed contract extensions in February.

Brad Keselowski (2) and Joey Logano (22) crashed while racing for the lead on the last lap of the Daytona 500. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Penske also plans to have a face-to-face conversation with his drivers before next month’s Talladega race to discuss the end of the Daytona 500. Keselowski and Joey Logano wrecked racing for the lead on the last lap, allowing Michael McDowell to win the race.

“I think we’ll talk about a number of subject matters,” Penske said. “What’s the right thing, because at the end of the day if you have three or four cars in the race, only one is gonna win. But if one wins, the whole team wins, so we cannot forget that. 

“These guys are contracted with us. They’re part of the success we’ve had, and I think after the situation at Daytona, we’re gonna have some good, solid conversations, and I think we’ll hopefully come up with something that will be meaningful. 

“I can’t talk about what the other teams do. The Fords want to help Fords. The Chevys want to help Chevys, so there’s a lot of give-and-take in parts of that race. I’ve always said in the past, ‘Let’s go for it in the last 10 laps, but let’s take care of ourselves until we get there.’ Now, I might have to change my tune based on what I saw at Daytona.”

3. Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing making progress

Back-to-back 16th-place finishes are a sign of progression for Bubba Wallace and 23XI Racing. Just as meaningful could be the next four races.

While expectations have been high for the new team because of its alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota, it’s easy to overlook that this is a new operation. The team didn’t receive its first car until early January.

“From the beginning, (co-owner Denny Hamlin) was big on progression, just getting everything underneath us,” Wallace said. “We’ve had some things not go our way but been quick to capitalize on that and make sure that doesn’t happen again. We’ll just continue to go on.”

NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
Bubba Wallace says of his 23XI Racing team: “We’ve been … steadily improving and showing progress.” (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

One area of progression has been in the communication between Wallace and crew chief Mike Wheeler.

“We had a really strong debrief (after Atlanta),” Wallace said. “Just communication is the biggest thing. What I’m feeling, what I need, the number scales, everybody is different. Making sure I provide the right feedback is crucial for making our program progress.”

The next few weeks could see Wallace and his team top their best finish of 16th.

While not necessarily viewed as a favorite for Sunday’s race at Bristol, Wallace won a dirt race at Eldora Speedway in the Camping World Truck Series in 2014.

After Bristol, the series takes the Easter weekend off. The season resumes April 10 at Martinsville, April 18 at Richmond and April 25 at Talladega.

Wallace won Truck races in 2013 and ’14 at Martinsville. He’s finished in the top 15 in two of the last three Cup races there. He placed 12th at Richmond in 2019 fall race.

Talladega will be the first Superspeedway race since Daytona. He finished second in his qualifying race at Daytona in February. Wallace ran toward the front in the Daytona 500 before a loose wheel after what was to have been his final pit stop. That forced him to make a green-flag stop and he fell off the lead lap and eventually finished 17th.

4. Family affair

Stewart Friesen racing against his wife, Jessica, is no big deal. They’ve done it often in dirt late modifieds and finished first and second last August.

But they’ve never raced against each other in the Camping World Truck Series. That could happen Saturday night at Bristol if Jessica Friesen finishes well enough in her qualifying race.

She’ll get this chance after some encouragement from the team.

“There has been a truck that (Halmar Friesen Racing) acquired when they went on their own,” Jessica Friesen said. “It was an older speedway truck that has been sitting in the corner of the shop for quite some time collecting dust. They talked about the best option for that truck was to turn it into a dirt truck (because) it was too much work to try to turn it into anything else.”

Soon the team began to call that second Truck her ride.

“I’m up for it and would love to do it,” she told the team. She gathered some sponsors and the ride was her’s.

Today’s practice sessions will be Jessica Friesen’s first time in a Truck. She spent last weekend racing a dirt late modified and finished fourth, placing a spot behind Stewart at Port Royal (Pennsylvania) Speedway.

She’ll face a challenging field in her qualifying race Saturday at Bristol. Jessica Friesen will start eighth. Her 11-truck race will feature former series champions Johnny Sauter and Matt Crafton and former Cup champion Martin Truex Jr.

“It’s just amazing to have this opportunity at all and race as a family with Stewart and (son) Parker,” Jessica Friesen said. “This will be our story for our grandkids someday.”

5. Driver Academy Debuts

The Bill McAnally Racing Drivers Academy debuts this weekend at All American Speedway in Roseville, California.

The acadmey is scheduled to have 40 races at five California tracks. Drivers will compete in full-sized stock cars utilizing a 625-horsepower NASCAR Yates Spec Engine and the same chassis components as ARCA and the NASCAR Truck Series. Speed Sport TV will stream the events.

Along with seat time is the chance to race in other series. Each time a driver wins, they are entered in a drawing to drive the No. 19 McAnally-Higemann Racing Truck at Phoenix in November.

The points leader after race Nos. 14, 24 and 32 will be awarded the opportunity to drive a Bill McAnally Racing car in an ARCA event.

The program provides equipment, crew and training. McAnally says it costs $800,000 to run a full ARCA season but to run the academy’s full 40 races, a driver needs $268,000.

“The idea of this came knowing that we need to find a way to get drivers moving forward in the bigger heavier race cars,” McAnally said. “There are just so of them many that want to, but there is not an affordable way.”

Amber Balcaen is among the drivers set to run the full season with the academy. She says the costs, offset by sponsorship she secured, is worth all the racing.

“This is the absolute perfect opportunity for me to get seat time,” Balcaen said. “That’s something I’ve really lacked in the last few years. Forty races, I haven’t raced 40 races in the last five years combined. To be able to run 40 races this year and get what it feels like to be in that ARCA car with a good crew, with Bill, I don’t think there can be anything better that can set me up for success in the future.”

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)