Friday 5: Dale Jr. breaks down playoff field heading into Martinsville

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Sunday’s Round of 8 finale at Martinsville Speedway has the potential to be remembered along with such Cup playoff moments there as Jeff Gordon’s 2015 win, Denny Hamlin’s contact with Chase Elliott in 2017 and Joey Logano’s 2018 victory via bump-and-run on Martin Truex Jr.

Seven drivers remain in contention for the final three spots in the Cup championship race entering Sunday’s elimination race (2 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock Premium). Only Kyle Larson has secured a spot in the Nov. 7 title race at Phoenix Raceway.

The drivers below the cutline have combined to win five of the last six Martinsville races.

“When you look at the guys … they all could run in the top five, top three,” NBC Sports analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “Somebody is going to get moved. They’re going to have to move each other if they are all expected to run in the top three. There’s not enough room for all of them in there.

“I expect there to be some hurt feelings after this one.”

Earnhardt shared his views on what those seven drivers seeking a spot in the title event face at Martinsville.

Here’s what he said on each:

1. Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin

The situation: Elliott enters 34 points above the cutline. Hamlin is 32 points above the cutline.

What it will take to clinch (beyond a win): Elliott clinches a spot in the championship race by scoring 20 points if there is a repeat winner or a win by a driver who cannot advance. Otherwise, he’ll need 22 points to clinch.

Hamlin clinches a spot by scoring 23 points if there is a repeat winner or a win by a driver who cannot advance. He would need 24 points if Kyle Busch wins. In any other scenario, Hamlin needs 25 points to advance if there is a new winner from Ryan Blaney or another playoff driver lower in the standings. 

Track record: Elliott entered last year’s playoff race 25 points below the cutline and won to advance to the title race. He went on to claim his first series championship. Elliott finished second at Martinsville in the spring.

Hamlin is a five-time Martinsville winner, but his last victory there was in March 2015. He has four top-five finishes in his last six starts there.

Dale Jr. says: “I think they both go into a racetrack that they know they’re really good and they just have to hope that their worlds don’t collide like they have there in the past. They’re, obviously, both probably going to be running up toward the front in the top five most of the day.

“I think it would be important for both of them to always be on top of where they are in terms of points, so they know what risks not to take. … They might need a little more information this weekend from the crew chief, spotter, so that they’re always understanding where they are and what their situation is and do they need to press, do they need to not press.

“If there’s five laps left in a stage and you can’t get by this guy, let them know. … Don’t wreck yourself trying to catch this guy or burn your car up trying to get there. Things like that. The guy can dial it back a little bit. You save a little brake, be easy on the car. Just things like that would be helpful for them. … Otherwise, their cars should have plenty of pace.”

2. Kyle Busch

The situation: He is one point above the cutline.

What it will take to clinch (beyond a win): Advances if he scores 54 points in a situation where there is a repeat winner or a win by a driver who cannot advance. If there is a new winner from Ryan Blaney or another playoff driver lower in the standings, Busch could clinch only with help.

Track record: He has two Martinsville wins. The most recent was in the 2017 playoffs. Busch has 10 top-10 finishes in the last 12 races at the track.

Dale Jr. says: “I think his situation is similar to Denny and Chase, where you’ve just got to give him information all race long as to who he’s racing, who he needs to worry about, and he can adjust how hard he’s pushing. It’s all going to come down the last 100 laps and who has the track position and who can protect that track position.

“You’ve got to run hard all race. You’ve got to try your hardest to get into that top three and stay there. If your car won’t do it, in his case, if he’s concerned about his car’s performance and doesn’t think he can run as well as some of these guys he’s got to beat, he’s going to have to make some things happen at the end of that race.”

3. Ryan Blaney

The situation: Enters one point below the cutline.

What it will take to clinch (beyond a win): Would clinch with 55 points (out of a maximum 60) if there is a repeat winner or a win by a driver who cannot advance to the next round. If Kyle Busch or another driver lower in the playoff standings wins, Blaney would need help to advance.

Track record: Blaney, who is winless at Martinsville, says he felt he had the best car in each of the last three races there. He finished second in both races last year and was 11th in the spring (he won both stages). In each of those three races, he had a pit road penalty (speeding, running over equipment and crew member over the wall too soon).

Dale Jr. says: “I think that he was in a great mental state, at least going into Kansas, and he was doing everything right in that race. It was showing me that maybe he’s in a good place mentally.

“I guess the one thing I would be worried about is, is he going into this race in panic mode when it’s not necessarily time to panic? Will he possibly get himself in trouble when he really doesn’t need to get himself in trouble because he thinks it’s time to panic, he thinks he’s got to do too much? That would be my concern with him.

“Did that issue at the end of Kansas mess with his psyche, his mental toughness and his ability to regroup, refocus, go into this race and know he can just go in there and check this box, this box, this box and be good? Not go in there and feel like he’s got to set the world on fire, and that he has the world on his shoulders because he’s young.

“He’s a guy that we’ve never really seen in this position before, and will he carry that weight? He’s done it so far. He’s kind of been under the radar. He was in a great position up until he gets hit at Kansas.

“He was doing all the things right like a veteran. He does have a tendency to lose his temper and get angry and snap, but he seems to have a better control of that. I will be curious to see if he’s driving over his head out of the gate or does he have his head on straight.”

4. Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski

The situation: Truex is three points below the cutline. Keselowski is six points below the cutline.

What it will take to clinch (beyond a win): Truex can clinch with 55 if there is a repeat winner or a win by a driver who cannot advance to the next round. If Kyle Busch or another driver lower in the playoff standings wins, Truex would need help to advance. Keselowski can only clinch with help beyond a win.

Track record: Truex has won three of the last four Martinsville races. He won in April, taking the lead from Denny Hamlin with 16 laps to go.

Keselowski has two Martinsville wins. His most recent victory there came in March 2019. He has finished in the top five in nine of the last 11 races at the short track.

Dale Jr. says on Truex: “I think they’ll be just as strong. … I don’t think I would be too quick to judging off the rest of the year and say that he’s going to go in there and not perform the way he’s performed in the past. I expect him to be top three, if not winning the race.

Dale Jr. says on Keselowski: “I don’t think about this when I think about Blaney, but when I think about Brad, I think about their brake problems. I think Brad is going to have to push harder, and he probably will. Will their car be able to do what Brad needs it to do all day? I just don’t know if it will.

“He’s been executing and getting these good top-10 finishes and good stage points, but that’s not going to be enough this weekend. He’s got to do more, and I don’t know if the car has the pace, and I don’t know if it has the durability to do what he’s going to have to do with it.

“Blaney might have enough pace to where he doesn’t have to beat the car up. Brad might have to run a little harder, brake a little harder, beat on that car and test the car throughout the event a little more. That could mean that it doesn’t have the braking performance at the end of the race and things like that that he needs.”

5. Joey Logano

The situation: He is 26 points below the cutline.

What it will take to clinch (beyond a win): Logano can clinch only with help beyond a win.

Track record: He has one Martinsville win, which came in the 2018 playoffs. Logano has six top 10s in the last seven races at the short track.

Dale Jr. says: “He’s one of the guys that I think is most prepared mentally for these type of things. He handles the pressure of the playoffs differently and better than 95% of the drivers in the series would.

“These types of situations – where your back is against the wall and there’s only one option – he excels. Somehow. I don’t know what it is about his personality. Great guy off the racetrack, but he’s a bulldog on the racetrack when he has to be and he needs to be, and he doesn’t apologize.”

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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)