Analysis: With speed surge, Chip Ganassi Racing has last chance at best impression

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Eight weekends remain in the lifespan of Chip Ganassi Racing’s NASCAR program. Sold to Trackhouse Racing, at least 55 employees have been earmarked for layoffs, making the organization’s run through the playoffs a bitter pill to swallow.

But some unexpected sweetener — a surge in raw speed for both the cars of Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain — has made the bitterness more palatable.

Busch, through two playoff races with varying results, has displayed top-four speed, while Chastain has tallied a pair of top-seven finishes. In a 2021 season that contains unique restrictions on parts development, wind tunnel testing and simulation, CGR’s improvement is a rarity, standing out against those standing pat:

The program’s collective low point, in regards to its rolling median lap rank, was after the first Darlington race on May 9, also a time when neither Busch (ranked 20th) nor Chastain (ranked 22nd) were in serious playoff contention based on points. This was a rough patch that hit rock bottom at the end of the month when both Ganassi cars suffered oil pump failures in the Coca-Cola 600.

Given CGR’s apparent lack of speed on tracks with playoff representation, it seemed if one of them did manage to qualify for the playoffs, it’d lead to an early exit. There was a bit of speed, predominately on the 550-horsepower tracks. Busch turned the fastest median lap at Homestead and the second fastest in the spring race at Atlanta. His win — which locked him into a playoff spot — took place in the second Atlanta visit, in which his car registered as the fastest of the race.

But both Ganassi teams were comparatively poor on the shorter 750-horsepower ovals. Before the start of the playoffs, Busch ranked 17th in average median lap time, while Chastain ranked 18th. A first round consisting of Darlington, Richmond and Bristol shouldn’t have favored either of them, but yearlong strides included at least two of those venues, where both drivers showcased competitive and perhaps winning speed but failed to secure results in line with their cars’ capabilities.

“I can go fast, I just can’t quite race with them,” Chastain told NBC Sports in his post-race interview after a third-place Darlington finish. “It starts with my restarts. I’ve got some work to do there, so I gave up the outside to be safe and then Kyle (Larson) rolls by me.”

Chastain correctly pointed out his most overwhelming foible — his overall position retention rate on restarts is 44%, a frequency ranked 23rd among full-time Cup drivers — and even alluded to the idea of his team needing “a better driver,” but it was a self-evaluation that may have been too harsh, even in the moment.

Track position has provided so much of a challenge the last few weeks that Larson, one of the sport’s most precise passers, threw out a desperation single-corner bomb on the final lap at Darlington, a knowingly flimsy attempt that he smirked about afterwards. Richmond, too, forced good teams into areas of strategic discomfort, with some long-pitting on a track with high tire wear in hopes they’d have rubber left to burn in the closing laps. There, Chastain finished 10th in a car that turned the seventh-fastest median lap.

Chastain isn’t in the playoffs, but has become a deserving storyline. He’s a threat to play spoiler, stealing wins that’d keep title-eligible teams from automatic advancement.

Busch, meanwhile, is not only in the playoffs, but also enters this weekend’s elimination race at Bristol with a spring in his step. He doesn’t lack for firepower — his average median lap rank through the playoffs’ two races is first, while his average best lap rank is tied for fourth. He’s hovering near the cutline after a blown tire ended his race prematurely last Saturday, a cruel conclusion to a contest in which he never dipped below third in the running order.

And whereas the six-time Bristol winner might not have had winning speed on 750-horsepower tracks earlier this year, he appears well suited right now to right the wrongs of Richmond. Last season, Bristol’s two races saw 22 clean restarts, falling into the wheelhouse of one of the greatest short-run drivers in the double-file restarting era.

A win is more realistic than one might imagine, but at the very least, a good outing neatly fits within what Busch has done historically well and what CGR is getting right at the current moment. It’s a tide of positivity Busch himself helped inspire.

The thing of the team being sold and different members being caught off guard, all of that kind of calmed down when we won Atlanta,” Busch told NBC Sports. “That was the perfect antidote. When I went into the race shop the next Tuesday, Chip Ganassi flew in from Pittsburgh and we gave the best motivational speech that we could from the ownership side and then from the driver side.

“My focus was to tell everybody we’ve got these 10 weeks in the playoffs that I need everybody to focus on the hood ornament of their car — just stay focused on what’s right in front of you and then things will unfold for the future.”

Since Chip Ganassi became the company’s majority owner in 2001, it has won 20 times in over 20 years of Cup competition. The distribution of those wins is top-heavy — 11 of them took place in 2002, 2010 and 2017. In each ensuing season — 2003, 2011 and 2018 — the company went winless. Dating back to the inception of the playoff format in 2014, six different organizations have qualified for the Championship 4; CGR isn’t one of them. Its most indelible memory might be Juan Pablo Montoya’s crash into a jet dryer during the 2012 Daytona 500.

But there’s one more chance for leaving a best impression, and it appears both of Ganassi’s teams are crescendoing towards some grand culmination, a final flurry of successes. Perhaps that’s the silver lining in not having to fret about a Next Gen car or program-building beyond what’s important in this very moment.

There is no tomorrow for those employed by Ganassi, only the challenge of here and now. For that, for the first time all season, both teams appear up to the task.

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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

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The 2023 NASCAR season will begin with Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the second race on a purpose-built track inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Although a non-points race, last year’s Clash generated intense interest as NASCAR moved the event from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to Los Angeles. The race was rated a success and opened doors for the possibility of future races in stadium environments.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

MORE: Toyota looking to expand NASCAR presence

Year Two will find drivers competing on a familiar landscape but still with a track freshly paved. Last year’s racing surface was removed after the Clash.

Drivers to watch Sunday at Los Angeles:

FRONTRUNNERS

Joey Logano

  • Points position: Finished 2022 as Cup champion
  • Last three races: Won at Phoenix, 6th at Martinsville, 18th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Won in 2022

Logano put bookends on 2022 by winning the first Clash at the Coliseum and the season’s final race at Phoenix to win the Cup championship. He’ll be among the favorites Sunday.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 2nd in 2022
  • Last three races: 3rd at Phoenix, 4th at Martinsville, 2nd at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Did not qualify last year

Chastain was the breakout star of 2022, winning a pair of races and generally putting himself front and center across much of the year. Can he start 2023 on a big note? If so, he will have to do so without replicating his Hail Melon move at Martinsville after NASCAR outlawed the move Tuesday.

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 15th in 2022
  • Last three races: 5th at Phoenix, 16th at Martinsville, 8th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 10th in 2022

Sunday will begin the final roundup for Harvick, who has said this season will be his last as a full-time Cup driver. He is likely to come out of the gate with fire in his eyes.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 13th in 2022
  • Last three races: 7th at Phoenix, 29th at Martinsville, 9th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 2nd in 2022

Welcome to Kyle Busch’s Brave New World. After 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he begins a new segment of his career with Richard Childress Racing. He led 64 laps at last year’s Clash but couldn’t catch Joey Logano at the end.

Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 14th in 2022
  • Last three races: 23rd at Phoenix, 35th at Martinsville, 35th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 21st in 2022

Reddick ran surprisingly strong in last year’s Clash, leading 51 laps before parking with drivetrain issues. He starts the new year with a new ride — at 23XI Racing.

Ty Gibbs

  • Points position: Won Xfinity Series championship in 2022
  • Last three (Cup) races: 19th at Martinsville, 22nd at Homestead, 22nd at Las Vegas
  • Past at Clash: Did not compete in 2022

After a successful — and controversial — Xfinity season, Gibbs moves up to Cup full-time with his grandfather’s team. Will he be the brash young kid of 2022 or a steadier driver in Season One in Cup?