Doubts erased, Kyle Larson seeks Cup title in season of momentous wins

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For all his talent, doubt seeped into Kyle Larson’s mind.

The hype for the dirt racing wunderkind churned when he came to NASCAR. In his fourth career Xfinity start, Larson dueled Kyle Busch for the win at Bristol before finishing second. It was the first of four runner-up finishes in 2013 for Larson.

Such flashes showed what could be. He moved to Cup full-time in 2014 for Chip Ganassi Racing, but it wasn’t until 2016 that Larson won his first series race. It came in his 99th career start.

“I feel like for a long time I could have been viewed as the most overly hyped driver in the Cup Series … because I think everybody saw the potential,” he said.

As the wins didn’t come, the questions continued for Larson.

“You just don’t know if you’re lacking on equipment and stuff like that, or if it’s just you,” he said. “So, yes, I think back then, it’s like, ‘Man, maybe I’m not as good in a stock car as some people think that I might be or as good as I want to be.’”

After the season Larson has had and the chance to win his first Cup championship Sunday at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock), it seems hard to believe that he could have had such doubts.

“Light bulb”

Losing the 2019 Chili Bowl Nationals on the last lap devastated Larson. This was the event he wanted the most at that point in his career. He led the 2018 race only to have engine issues with less than 15 laps left. To lose the prestigious midget car race so close to reaching his goal hurt.

“I remember the … Monday after the last Chili Bowl he lost three years ago,” said Josh Wise, a former racer who works with Larson and other drivers to optimize their performance.

“I remember seeing a light bulb go off that day as we talked through that experience.”

The details remain private, but Wise said they discussed mindset and the power of thought. It proved to be one of the keys for Larson to reach his high goals.

A year later, Larson won the Chili Bowl Nationals. He called it, at the time, “the biggest … race I’ve ever won.” It was a breakthrough in many ways.

“I think (it) helped put me in a better mentally strong place as a race car driver and not talking myself into losing races anymore in the future,” he said of that win.

How does a driver who had so much success on dirt even let such thoughts enter their mind?

“I think you just think bad thoughts because I had so many things go wrong there (at the Chili Bowl),” Larson said. “You just talk yourself into it and something goes wrong. I don’t know how to explain it. If you can think positive thoughts, usually positive things happen.”

His NASCAR career paused in April 2020 after he uttered a racial slur during an online race, costing him his job and the chance to race stock cars the rest of the year. He returned to sprint car racing and continued winning.

Larson started this year by repeating as the Chili Bowl Nationals winner before running his first NASCAR race for Hendrick Motorsports.

His Chili Bowl victory in January began what is arguably the greatest season in U.S. motorsports in his generation. He’s won nine Cup races, the All-Star Race and the King’s Royal and Knoxville Nationals in sprint cars. His Coca-Cola 600 win made Hendrick Motorsports the winningest team in Cup history.

Larson’s season of big race wins gained the attention of Mario Andretti, the only driver to win an Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and Formula One championship in a career.

“He’s not the only one that interests me,” Andretti told NBC Sports about Larson, “but he just captured me in a very special way because I see a lot of myself there.”

Clear vision 

It’s easy to see the success and acknowledge that Larson has reached an elite level with his Hendrick team, but what is it about Larson that truly makes him so good?

Brad Sweet is Larson’s brother-in-law and a racer. Sweet will clinch his third consecutive World of Outlaws championship Thursday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, so he knows about winning. Sweet sees things about Larson that most sitting in the stands don’t.

“I guarantee you,” Sweet told NBC Sports, “if you asked every driver who the best driver that they’ve raced against in this generation, that 99% of the people that have raced against Kyle would say Kyle Larson because you just see things that he does on the racetrack, whether it be in a dirt car, whether it be in a go-kart playing in the backyard, whether it be in a stock car. You just see a natural talent that is just able to elevate anything he drives to another level.”

Sweet notes the one ability Larson has that few can match is “his eyes and his hand-eye coordination, how he sees things.”

Sweet said the way Larson processes what is happening as he’s in the car separates him from other drivers. It’s as if things are going much slower, allowing Larson the time to react that others don’t grasp. That ability can lead to subtle moves before others can counter or drastic moves that others don’t see until it’s too late.

“When he talks about a race, he’ll tell you something about how he saw you move your line, or he saw a piece of mud that moved a little, or he saw the scoreboard on the backstretch and knew there were this many laps to go. … He doesn’t realize, for other drivers, it’s not happening that slow for them,” Sweet said.

“The stock car world is going to see. He’s going to be a force, a factor for a very long time, as long as he wants to be. We’ve known about how talented he is in the dirt world for a very long time because none of us had never seen anything like him.”

Cliff Daniels, Larson’s crew chief, marvels at what Larson can do in the car.

“Our job and my job is to make sure that he sees all the notes and all the perspective of a race just for how to manage a race. If you get behind, how do you get ahead. What different strategies can play out, things like that,” Daniels said.

Not only is he an amazing talent, he’s also very, very smart behind the wheel of understanding what is going on with other racers around him. If somebody is off sequence. If we’re off sequence. What does that look like. He does such a good job.”

Higher goals

Combine Larson’s skill with Hendrick’s resources and Daniels’ leadership, and it has led to a dominating season.

Larson leads the series in victories (nine), stage wins (17), top fives (19), top 10s (25) and laps led (2,474). He’s been as strong in the playoffs, winning four of nine races. The last driver to win four races in the playoffs was Martin Truex Jr. in 2017. He won the title that year.

Sweet marvels at what Larson has done.

“You’d have to put Kyle Busch in a category of Kyle Larson,” Sweet said, comparing Larson with the two-time Cup champion. “Obviously, there’s talents like Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen that are out of this world. I’m not going to go as far and say that Kyle (Larson) is the best racer in the world, but he’s certainly in the debate as one of the greatest talents that we’ve ever seen in our generation and one of the best overall drivers in the world.

“I’d love to see how he stacked up in an IndyCar. I’d love to see how he would stack up in a Formula One car. He’s the type of person that can actually draw all of motorsports together because he’s the only guy, I think, that is naturally talented enough that he could get in all these different cars, a late model, a sprint car, an IndyCar, a stock car and actually be up to speed very quick.

“You just plug him in the car, you give him two or three laps, a couple of runs and he’s going to be as fast or faster than his teammate or whoever is in something similar. It’s just who he is and how he is able to adapt. It’s very unbelievable. I wish I knew exactly what it was how he sees things. He can’t explain it. I’ve asked him a thousand times.”

All that is left for Larson this year is to be a Cup champion and complete his year of winning big races in stock cars and sprint cars.

“Not that I don’t want to be just referenced as the greatest NASCAR driver of all time or the greatest sprint car driver of all time,” Larson told NBC Sports before the playoffs began, “I want to be known as somebody who could climb into all different types of cars and be great at what they do.”

He’s leaving little doubt this season.

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)

 

Rodney Childers fined $100,000, suspended for four races

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NASCAR has suspended Rodney Childers, Kevin Harvick‘s crew chief, for four races and fined him $100,000 for what the sanctioning body called modification of a part supplied by a vendor.

Harvick, who is out of the Cup Series playoffs, and the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 team were docked 100 points.

Harvick’s car and that of Martin Truex Jr. were taken to NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C. after last Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway. There were no penalties assessed to the Truex team.

Harvick has been particularly critical of the Next Gen car in recent months, once referring to the “crappy-ass parts” provided by suppliers.

Harvick’s car erupted in flames during the Southern 500 Sept. 4 at Darlington Raceway. After he climbed from the smoking car, Harvick blamed the fire on “just crappy parts on the race car like we’ve seen so many times. They haven’t fixed anything. It’s kind of like the safety stuff. We just let it keep going and keep going.

“The car started burning and as it burned the flames started coming through the dash. I ran a couple laps and then as the flame got bigger it started burning stuff up and I think right there you see all the brake fluid that was probably coming out the brakes and part of the brake line, but the fire was coming through the dash.

“What a disaster for no reason. We didn’t touch the wall. We didn’t touch a car, and here we are in the pits with a burned-up car, and we can’t finish the race during the playoffs because of crappy-ass parts.”

MORE: AJ Allmendinger to return to Cup Series in 2023

Unless the team appeals, Childers would miss races at Charlotte, Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville and would return for the season finale at Phoenix.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps told the Associated Press that officials have not targeted Harvick. “I would say that’s ridiculous,” he said. “No one has a vendetta against Kevin Harvick or Rodney or anyone at Stewart-Haas Racing.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Harvick tweeted, “Seems strange…” A Childers tweet called the penalty “Shocker…..”.

NASCAR also announced Wednesday it has suspended Young’s Motorsports crew chief Andrew Abbott indefinitely for a behavioral violation during pre-race inspection. He must undergo anger-management training to be reinstated. The team races in the Camping World Truck Series.