Talladega storylines: Survival of the fittest

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The relief was evident on Denny Hamlin’s face and in his voice after winning last Sunday’s Round of 12 Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Hamlin finally earned his first Cup win at Las Vegas. More importantly, he advanced into the Round of 8 and avoided the prospect of being swept up in chaos over the next two weeks.

As for the other 11 playoff drivers, they’re now subject to having their title hopes severely damaged Sunday (2 p.m. ET, NBC) at the most unpredictable track on the circuit.

Talladega Superspeedway has been part of the Cup playoffs since its inception in 2004, and its craziness only grows during the race for the championship.

According to Racing Insights:

  • 10 of the 17 Talladega playoff races have had at least 10 DNFs
  • 10 of the 17 Talladega playoff races have ended on a last-lap pass
  • Eight of the 17 Talladega playoff races have had at least seven playoff drivers finish outside the top 15

Last year’s playoff race, won by Hamlin, may have been the craziest of them all.

It included a track record 13 cautions; multiple overtime attempts that extended the race 12 laps and nearly 32 miles; and 14 drivers failing to finish due to crashes or, in Michael McDowell‘s case, overheating.

What will Sunday bring?

Penske power

Considering Ford’s lack of performance on 550-horsepower tracks this season, last Sunday’s race at Las Vegas perhaps went as well as it could have for them.

All four Ford playoff drivers finished inside the top 11. Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney led the group with a fifth-place result. Blaney’s teammates, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, finished seventh and 11th respectively. In between them was Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick in ninth.

Ford drivers have won all three superspeedway races this season, and Penske drivers have played a role in the outcome for each of them.

Michael McDowell dodged a last-lap wreck started by contact between Logano and Keselowski to win the Daytona 500. In April, Keselowski earned his sixth career Talladega victory. Then last month, Blaney won the regular season finale at Daytona.

Entering Talladega, the Penske trio sit fifth (Blaney, +24), seventh (Logano, +6), and eighth (Keselowski, +4) in the playoff standings. They’ve combined to win five of the last seven Talladega playoff races and nine of the last 14 Talladega Cup races overall.

But while Keselowski won at Talladega in the spring and Logano is a three-time winner there, the one to look out for may be Blaney. Over the past eight Cup superspeedway races, he’s won three and finished inside the top 10 in six.

Superspeedway struggles

Others in the Cup playoff field haven’t been as successful on superspeedways.

That group includes regular season champion Kyle Larson, who is winless in 28 starts on superspeedways at the Cup level. At Talladega specifically, he’s only earned two top-10 finishes in 13 starts.

But with a 57-point cushion above the cutline, Larson doesn’t particularly have to worry about winning. He’s one of four drivers to open the playoffs with four consecutive top 10 finishes. A fifth on Sunday – even if it’s not a victory – could send him into the Round of 8 early.

Another driver has an even bigger winless drought on superspeedways. Martin Truex Jr. is 0-for-66 in his Cup career. At Talladega, he’s finished 20th or worse in his last 10 appearances dating back to the 2016 playoff race. With a 31-point cushion above the cutline, he can’t absorb a major setback like Larson can.

But it could be worse. A ill-fated strategy call and late flat tire left Alex Bowman with a 13-point deficit to the cutline coming out of Las Vegas.

Now comes Talladega. Bowman is capable of running up front there as his runner-up in the spring 2019 race can attest. But his Talladega average finish of 24.6 is the worst among all Cup playoff drivers with at least four starts (Christopher Bell has made three Talladega Cup starts and has an average finish of 28.3).

Bowman’s first four Talladega starts came with the underfunded BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing teams. But even if you take those starts out, that only raises his Talladega average finish to 21.9 through eight starts with Hendrick Motorsports. Not good.

Kaulig goes for four in a row

As the Xfinity Series playoff Round of 12 resumes Saturday at Talladega (4:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), one big question is if anyone can stop Kaulig Racing at NASCAR’s biggest track.

Kaulig drivers AJ Allmendinger, Justin Haley and Jeb Burton will look to give the organization its fourth consecutive Talladega win, as well as its seventh win in the last nine Xfinity superspeedway races.

Haley swept both Talladega races last year on his way to the Championship 4. Then, this past April, Jeb Burton earned his first career Xfinity win in a rain-shortened race there.

Could it be Allmendinger’s turn Saturday?

Allmendinger, the regular season champion, has never won a superspeedway race in his NASCAR career. He’s getting closer, though, as he’s posted top-five finishes in all three superspeedway races this season, including a runner-up to Haley last month at Daytona.

But last week in Las Vegas, JR Motorsports came out firing to start the playoffs. Non-playoff driver Josh Berry led a 1-2-3 finish for JRM, with playoff contenders Justin Allgaier and Noah Gragson behind him.

Together, JRM and Kaulig have combined to win 12 of the last 19 Xfinity superspeedway races. However, JRM has not won on a superspeedway since Gragson’s victory in the 2020 season opener at Daytona.

On to Phoenix?

The Round of 8 continues in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series playoffs Saturday at Talladega (1 p.m. ET, FS1).

The first ticket to the Nov. 5 championship race at Phoenix Raceway was up for grabs last weekend at Las Vegas. But part-time driver Christian Eckes shredded it with his first career Truck win, while multiple playoff drivers faltered.

Eckes led a 1-2-3-4 finish for ThorSport Racing. Playoff drivers Ben Rhodes and Matt Crafton finished second and third, respectively.

Rhodes currently leads the Round of 8 with a 34-point cushion above the cutline. Also above the cutline are John Hunter Nemechek (+28), Stewart Friesen (+9) and Crafton (+5).

Reigning series champion Sheldon Creed (-5) is the first driver below the cutline. He is followed by Carson Hocevar (-16), Zane Smith (-19) and Chandler Smith (-24).

Since the current playoff format debuted in the Trucks in 2016, no driver in playoff contention has won at Talladega.

Christopher Bell, now in his first Cup playoff run, was closest back in 2017. On his way to winning the Truck title that year, he finished second at Talladega behind NBC Sports’ Parker Kligerman.

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)