Analysis: Intriguing fits for five open Cup Series seats prior to 2022

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Top Cup Series rides at Team Penske, Wood Brothers Racing and Roush Fenway Racing are now accounted for, but there are still rides available for the 2022 season. With a slew of interesting free agent options on the open market, let’s take a look at the most likely choices to fill vacant seats and, in a bit of matchmaking, identify intriguing fits between drivers and organizations with a Cup Series presence this season.

Stewart-Haas Racing (No. 10 car)

Organizational Profile: Speed skewing towards 750-horsepower tracks; no emphasis between short runs and long runs; conventional pit strategy with good positional output

Most Likely Choice: Aric Almirola — It’d be surprising if the New Hampshire winner (and sponsor Smithfield Foods) didn’t return to SHR at this juncture. The No. 10 car has qualified for the playoffs in each of the four seasons since Almirola replaced Danica Patrick in 2018. Still, Almirola’s ceiling is limited per his statistical profile and SHR is a perennial contender with deep resources, in need of blue-sky talent to optimize equipment.

The Intriguing Fit: Ryan Preece

The 30-year-old Preece supplemented his full Cup Series slate with races elsewhere, helping enhance the perception of his driving ability in a contract year. He triumphed in the Truck Series race at Nashville and claimed three wins this season on various modified tours, including a victory last week in New Hampshire.

While we haven’t seen that winning output from him in Cup for JTG Daugherty Racing — his No. 37 car ranks 25th in average median lap time and his pit crew ranked as the second slowest among top 30 teams in median four-tire box time through the first half of 2021 — he’s acquitted himself well within his running whereabouts, turning in positive surplus pass differentials across all track types, ranked sixth overall. This surprisingly includes road courses, on which he ranks as the second-most efficient passer among series regulars, trailing only Martin Truex Jr.

SHR’s recent pivot to 750-horsepower tracks, visible in recent races at Nashville and New Hampshire, suits Preece, who ranked 15th in Production in Equal Equipment Rating last season on tracks utilizing the rules package, ahead of Almirola, who ranked 20th.

23XI Racing (Second car, yet to be announced)

Organizational Profile: Technically aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing; speed skewing towards 550-horsepower tracks; no emphasis between short runs and long runs; unconventional pit strategy with adequate positional output

Most Likely Choice: Kurt Busch — 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin indicated he wants someone with experience as his next driver, and Busch, a 22-year Cup Series veteran and 2004 champion, has it in spades. Furthermore, he brings sponsor Monster Energy with him, which would help the young organization stretch its dollars further in NASCAR’s Next Gen era.

The Intriguing Fit: Busch

Despite going into his age-43 season, there’s still enough reason to buy into the idea of Busch moving to an upstart JGR-affiliated program, just as long as it’s on a short-term deal.

He turned in a winning performance two weeks ago at Atlanta, a 550-horsepower track, for an organization in Chip Ganassi Racing that’s best suited for tracks utilizing this rules package. A shift to 23XI, which ranks faster with Bubba Wallace on 550-horsepower tracks, would represent more of the same for Busch.

But Busch’s more herculean efforts in totality this year have come on 750-horsepower ovals, the only track type on which he has a positive surplus pass differential, and in road races, where he scored finishes of fourth (on the Daytona road course), fourth (at Road America) and sixth (at Sonoma). His knack for individual performance on the smaller tracks and road courses with heavier horsepower would give 23XI a hedge on its current 550-horsepower bet and diminish its need for what is often unconventional pit strategy.

Trackhouse Racing (Second car)

Organizational Profile: Technically aligned with Richard Childress Racing; speed skewing towards 550-horsepower tracks; slight emphasis on short runs; unconventional pit strategy with adequate positional output

Most Likely Choice: Ross ChastainHe’s established himself as one of the most efficient passers in the series, a constant for a team with disjointed speed across the entire season. His experience in coaxing speed out of back-marker or merely average equipment — like Premium Motorsports in Cup, JD Motorsports in Xfinity and Niece Motorsports in Trucks — prepared him for doing the same at the Cup Series level. With Trackhouse ranked outside the top 20 in average median lap time, it’s a skill of his that could translate.

The Intriguing Fit: Chastain, along with current crew chief Phil Surgen

Surgen is an interesting strategist, one who’s mostly effective at retaining Chastain’s running position (currently at an above-average 75% clip), but he can also mix in some legitimate Hail-Mary shots at race wins. If the speed still isn’t there in 2022 for this young team, these kinds of calls will materialize in gambits for wins (and playoff spots), but whereas Travis Mack and Daniel Suárez make heavy use of them, Surgen’s restraint would be a welcomed sight, one necessary for padding points in the stage-racing era.

Chastain seems like someone who can evolve into a winning Cup Series driver and with Trackhouse on the same growth timeline, the two parties appear equally aligned, a shared trajectory independent of one another that, if combined, could yield a lot of success in the years to come.

JTG Daugherty Racing (No. 47 car)

Organizational Profile: Balanced speed across both rules packages; no emphasis between short runs and long runs; unconventional pit strategy with adequate positional output

Most Likely Choice: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse and crew chief Brian Pattie have a relationship pre-dating their time with JTG Daugherty and on their best day — their sixth-place finish at Nashville comes to mind — they really click. Stenhouse wants to return, and in the odd chance the organization consolidates from two teams to one, it’d benefit a driver who, despite high crash rates over the course of his career, is an efficient passer who tends to get a lot out of the speed he’s given.

The Intriguing Fit: John Hunter Nemechek

With five wins in 14 starts and a sky-high 5.750 PEER that tops all Truck Series regulars, Nemechek is doing everything he set out to do when he willingly dropped from the Cup Series to NASCAR’s third tier. The shame of it is that he’s not actively becoming a better Cup driver, mostly beating up on younger, inferior competition.

He needs a stepping-stone ride against more credible competition and this particular JTG Daugherty car provides it. In his lone Cup Series season, Nemechek was a top-10 passer with a high crash rate — the highest, in fact, among all Cup regulars dating back to David Stremme in 2009 — a younger version, you might say, of the driver presently occupying the ride. This means Nemechek brings with him more upside at age 24 than what Stenhouse offers at 33.

He’d also offer a tangible benefit to JTG Daugherty, an organization lacking straightforward, playoff-worthy speed. For Front Row Motorsports, Nemechek recorded 15 races in which he spent at least 20% of his completed laps inside the top 15 despite having the 27th-fastest car. In eight of those 15 races, he crashed at least once, removing the possibility of good finishes. If a willing team stands by him as he curbs the crash rate, Nemechek’s star would surely ascend.

Front Row Motorsports (No. 38 car)

Organizational Profile: Speed skewing towards 550-horsepower tracks; no emphasis between short runs and long runs; unconventional pit strategy with excellent positional output

Most Likely Choice: Anthony Alfredo — The 22-year-old rookie holds a negative PEER, the fulcrum of a frustrating season for the Seth Barbour-led No. 38 team. He does, however, provide a source of funding for Front Row, an organization needing every bit of it in order to compete with deeper-pocketed competition.

The Intriguing Fit: Matt DiBenedetto

If the need for a funded driver wasn’t there, DiBenedetto would make for a gettable option, someone who’d stamp an interesting new identity on top of what Front Row already does well.

He’d fit seamlessly into Front Row’s focus on 550-horsepower tracks and benefit from having a productive strategist, in Barbour (39 positions earned through green-flag pit cycles this year on behalf of Alfredo), for the first time since he was paired with Randy Cox at GoFas Racing. His short-run prowess — he’s a top-five restarter from the preferred groove and ranks fourth in PEER in races ending with at least one late restart — could help mold Front Row into a program able to make better use out of heady, potentially risky pit strategy, something it lacks in both Alfredo and Michael McDowell.

For DiBenedetto, Front Row would represent a competitive step down from Wood Brothers Racing, but it’s a potential destination that perfectly suits his strength as a driver.

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)