Las Vegas storylines: Time to hit it big

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People from all over the world visit Las Vegas to take a chance.

But as the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the 12 remaining playoff drivers don’t want to leave anything to … well, you know.

A good start to the round Sunday night (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN) is paramount. That’s because back-to-back wild cards come next: Talladega Superspeedway next weekend and an elimination race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval on Oct. 10.

The opening round saw Joe Gibbs Racing re-emerge as a championship threat with wins from Denny Hamlin (Darlington) and Martin Truex Jr. (Richmond). That was followed by the season’s most dominant driver and team, Kyle Larson and Hendrick Motorsports, responding in kind at Bristol.

So where does that leave the Blue Oval’s brigade?

NASCAR CUP SERIES

Ford’s big test

Entering the playoffs, Brad Keselowski said he didn’t believe the Fords could legitimately contend for wins with the 550-horsepower package during the playoffs.

“The combination of offseason rules enforcement changes and the parts freeze just kind of completely neutered us as a group and we just haven’t shown that speed all year long,” he said Aug. 31.

Keselowski’s Team Penske survived the first round with all three of its drivers still in the hunt. Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing followed suit.

Now, the remaining Ford playoff drivers must start the second round with the 550 package at Las Vegas. But that doesn’t necessarily spell doom.

Las Vegas has been a strong track for Penske. Keselowski and Joey Logano have combined to win five of the past 11 Cup races at Las Vegas dating back to 2014.

This past March, Keselowski (second), Ryan Blaney (fifth) and Logano (ninth) all finished inside the top 10 there behind winner Kyle Larson.

The biggest question mark may be Harvick, the lone SHR driver in the playoffs after Aric Almirola‘s first-round cut.

Harvick and the No. 4 team will look to shake off an abysmal March performance at Las Vegas. Harvick started on pole, but struggled badly – as did his teammates – and finished 20th.

The entire first round was held on 750-package tracks, which suited the group nicely. Harvick responded with finishes of fifth, eighth and second. But will his momentum come to a halt Sunday?

Home cooking

Kurt Busch scored an upset win at Las Vegas in last year’s playoffs. But after his first-round elimination last weekend at Bristol, it’s up to younger brother Kyle Busch to carry hometown honors.

Following a rough opening round, Kyle Busch can re-assert himself as a proper contender for what would be his third Cup title.

That job starts at Las Vegas, where he got his hometown win back in 2009 and has been relatively solid in recent years. Since 2013, he’s finished seventh or better in seven of his last 11 Cup races there (including a third-place finish in March).

But perhaps even more important to consider is his season-long work with the 550 package.

Per Racing Insights, Kyle Busch has the best average finish of all drivers across the nine 550 races run so far. His mark of 3.78 tops Kyle Larson’s 6.56 and William Byron‘s 7.44.

Back to where it began

Speaking of Larson, he’s back at the place where his comeback truly began.

Larson rejoined the Cup Series this year after being indefinitely suspended for most of 2020 after using a racial slur while competing in an e-sports event. In March at Las Vegas, he led 103 laps to claim his first Cup win since his return.

That began what’s been an amazing year for Larson, both in NASCAR and in his beloved dirt racing. Along the way, he’s continued his true redemption arc – working to mature as a human being and making amends for the pain he caused.

Winning his first Cup title would be quite a denouement to that story. But Larson still has to take care of business in this second round, starting at Las Vegas.

The good news for Larson is that the 1.5-mile oval was already one of his better tracks before he joined Hendrick Motorsports this offseason.

Larson’s career average finish of 9.8 at Las Vegas is third-best among active drivers, only behind Joey Logano (8.4) and Ryan Blaney (9.2). Additionally, Larson’s win this March continued a run of six top-10 finishes in his last seven races there.

XFINITY SERIES

Eyes on the prize

Las Vegas also hosts Saturday’s playoff opener for the Xfinity Series (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Twelve drivers will start out in the opening round, including reigning series champion Austin Cindric, who enters as the No. 2 seed.

Following these playoffs, Cindric will make the full-time jump to the Cup Series as Brad Keselowski’s replacement in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford. In turn, Keselowski will go to Roush Fenway Racing and become a driver/owner.

The future, however, is not on Cindric’s mind right now.

“I haven’t even honestly thought about 2022 with the exception of kind of some Next Gen tests that are coming up, but, otherwise I’m pretty focused on this, whether it’s for me and myself and my own personal reasons … or for my team as well,” Cindric said Tuesday.

“I’ve been with the same group of guys throughout the majority of my Xfinity career and I wouldn’t be the driver I am without them, so I’m excited to try and finish this off on the highest note possible.”

The task begins at Las Vegas, where Cindric finished fourth in March behind winner AJ Allmendinger. It was Allmendinger who tracked down Cindric in late summer and beat him last week at Bristol to claim the regular season championship.

In that March Xfinity race at Las Vegas, the top-five finishers and eight of the top 10 were 2021 Xfinity playoff drivers. The top five included Allmendinger, Daniel Hemric in second, Brandon Jones in third, Cindric, and Las Vegas native Noah Gragson in fifth.

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Now it gets real

The Camping World Truck Series playoffs also continue Friday night at Las Vegas with the Round of 8 opener (9 p.m. ET, FS1).

For the eight remaining drivers, it’s their first opportunity to secure a spot in the Nov. 5 Championship race at Phoenix Raceway with a win.

Chandler Smith is among them thanks to his heroics last Thursday at Bristol, where he had to win the Round of 10 elimination race in order to advance and did.

One of two Kyle Busch Motorsports drivers in the Truck playoffs, Chandler Smith starts the next round three points below the cutline to advance to Phoenix.

The other KBM driver, John Hunter Nemechek, is at the top of the leaderboard with 50 playoff points and a 44-point cushion above the cutline.

In March at Las Vegas, Nemechek narrowly held off his new boss, Kyle Busch, to score his first win since returning to Trucks after running his rookie Cup season in 2020.

Two remaining Truck playoff drivers also finished inside the top five in that March race. Stewart Friesen and Matt Crafton finished fourth and fifth, respectively.

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)