Friday 5: Former driver could have the greatest impact on NASCAR’s title races

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It’s doubtful anyone in NASCAR had a better weekend at Martinsville last week than Josh Wise.

This weekend at Phoenix could be even better for the former racer, who trains 15 Chevrolet drivers in NASCAR’s top three series.

Martinsville marked the first time drivers in his program swept a race weekend. Alex Bowman won the Cup race. Noah Gragson won the Xfinity race. Zane Smith won the Camping World Truck Series race.

Gragson and Smith were in must-win situations to reach the Championship 4 of their series. Wise also trains Kyle Larson, who will compete for his first Cup title Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock).

This is the first time Wise has had a driver in each of the three championship races in the same season. Sheldon Creed was the first driver to win a title while in Wise’s program. Creed won the Truck Series championship last year.

“Josh definitely doesn’t get the credit maybe he deserves,” Gragson said after his Martinsville win. “I think I owe him so much for all his hard work. He really, truly cares about us, and definitely makes us a much better driver, but most importantly, I think he makes me a better person.”

Wise in his fourth season working with Gragson. Wise has worked more than five years with Larson.

“I trust him a lot, and I think that’s important to have somebody that you trust and respect,” Larson said. “He’s one of the greatest people I know. Glad that we have him in our corner. I hope he’s somebody I can be with forever.”

Wise has the respect of drivers because he raced. He was the 2005 USAC national midget champion and 2006 USAC national sprint car champion. Wise moved to NASCAR but spent much of his career driving for lower funded teams. He drove 318 races across NASCAR’s three national series, including 156 in Cup.

While he raced, Wise improved his fitness and went on to compete in the 2015 Iron Man World Championship. As Wise trained, he became more intrigued in the human body and optimizing its performance physically and mentally.

He focused on performance training after his driving career ended. Wise started working with Chip Ganassi Racing drivers and expanded his efforts to include the Drivers Edge Development Program for Chevrolet. That program features drivers from GMS Racing, JR Motorsports and other Chevy teams.

“He just says to look at the long-term goal, and what are you willing to do to be great?” Gragson said of Wise’s approach.

Work can be anything from running or riding bikes to eye training and race craft. Wise also has given books to the drivers to read for homework.

It’s all about making the driver better. 

“I want them to be so prepared, so advanced in the way that they are thinking, (and) so physically fit and equipped with strategies that are beyond what anyone else has begun to think about,” Wise said.

It’s worked this year. Wise’s drivers won 14 of 35 Cup races (40%). Larson won nine races, Bowman won four and Kurt Busch won once. In the Xfinity Series, Wise’s drivers won four times. Gragson had three victories. Josh Berry won once.

Larson credits Wise with helping him prepare for races.

”I have my set way of doing stuff, but with him and the data that he has compiled, with the other people he has working with him, you can go into races with a plan and be confident,” Larson said.

Among Wise’s team is Scott Speed, who raced in Formula 1 and NASCAR. He has been used to help train drivers for road courses with the spike in those events on the schedule. Wise also has utilized former Olympic speed skater Dan Jansen, who won a gold medal in the 1,000 meters in 1994. Jansen can aid in conditioning but also can relate his Olympic experience to the drivers.

With NASCAR determining its champion in a single race, it’s relatable to the Olympic experience. Olympic athletes train for that one moment in the Games. The buildup is immense. The pressure intense. The rewards significant.

“This sport is about peaking at the right time,” Wise said. “Understanding the cycles and the long game of how to do that both physically and psychologically is an important part of our process and has been for years. Dan understands that philosophy and can be a good part of continuing to build on that.”

Wise likens the challenges in a season that stretches from February to November to running a marathon.

“If you’re running a marathon and you take off the first mile running as fast as you can, your last mile is going to be a little slower,” he said. “We work on pacing a marathon (of the season) to finish the last mile perfectly.”

Adding other instructors and the continued evolution of optimizing performance means that Wise is always learning and sharing new methods with his drivers.

“That’s the most exciting part,” he said. “I just feel like I’m still getting started with this. We have such a good group of drivers.

“The thing that I’m learning more and building more around are the psychological side of this, and the models that we have for the entirety of what it takes to be successful at this in a lot of ways.”

2. Practice and qualifying return

For the first time since mid-August, practice and qualifying is back this weekend.

Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck teams each will have practice and qualifying. The last time NASCAR had such sessions was with Cup and Xfinity at the Indianapolis road course.

How much will practice matter for Cup playoff teams?

“I feel like it really removes the opportunity for somebody to just completely step on their own toes and really make a mistake or a bad decision that hurts them,” Martin Truex Jr. said.

“I honestly think it’s a more fair competition for four guys to all have practice and go out there and lay it on the line and see who can do the best job.”

Chase Elliott says he won’t get caught up in who is fast in Friday’s practice.

“For me, I’m just going to focus on the way I want the car to drive and try to get it as close to that natural feeling that I want,” he said.

We’ll get it as close as we can, and we’ll see where we stack up on Sunday. This deal is not over until the checkered flag waves. We all know that. Getting tore up over how Friday goes is, I think, doing yourself and your team a pretty large disservice.”

Practice and qualifying have been held in only a limited number of times since the sport returned in May 2020 after being halted by the pandemic. With no practice, teams didn’t have to prepare a backup car for those events. That provided a cost savings to teams while facing financial hardships caused by the pandemic’s impact on the economy.

With the Next Gen car debuting next season, practice and qualifying are expected to return for all Cup races.

3. Working together

Car owner Rick Hendrick said he doesn’t plan to be on the pit box for either Chase Elliott’s or Kyle Larson’s team in Sunday’s championship race.

The two drivers are seeking to give Hendrick Motorsports its 14th Cup championship in the last 27 seasons. Should Elliott win the crown, it will make him the first driver to win back-to-back championships since Jimmie Johnson won five consecutive titles for Hendrick Motorsports from 2006-10.

“The guys that are working, that go to the track with the 5 car, they want to win,”  Hendrick said of Larson’s team. “The guys that are with (Elliott’s) car, they want to win. But they’re all in there together. They do have feelings that they want their car to win the race, but they’re looking for the organization to do well.

I don’t think there’s tension between our cars. There’s just tension and nerves that they know it all comes down to just one race. We worked so hard all year, won a lot of races, but it’s just going to come down to who can win this race or finish in front of the other guys. … I fully expect the guys to race hard, race clean.

“I’ve been in this situation before with Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon. I’ve been in the meetings with the teams. I say, ‘Look, guys, I’m going to tell you if the 9 car wins, I’m going to go tell the 5 guys congratulations, a great year.’ Then, I’ll go celebrate.

I worry about showing any favoritism to any one of them. I won’t be on the 9 box or the 5 box, I’ll be somewhere neutral. I do think a lot about whatever happens Sunday, I don’t want to hurt the momentum we’ve got now.

However it works out, we’ve got to come back and race in ’22, and we want to have the same success that we had this year. The reason we have is because everybody’s working together.

4. Kids and their ways

With all the races Kyle Larson has won in NASCAR and at dirt tracks this season, he was asked if 6-year-old son Owen was just getting used to going to victory lane any time he was at his dad’s race.

Larson chuckled at the question.

“Maybe a dirt race,” he said. “He hasn’t been to any of the Cup races I’ve won this year. He was able to come to Victory Lane at (the Charlotte Roval), but he had a baseball game that day. So, no.

“Actually a month, month and a half ago, he was like, ‘Dad, why don’t you ever win a NASCAR race? You always finish second when I’m there.’

Yeah, hopefully that will change this weekend with him there.”

Larson then was asked about 3-year-old daughter Audrey’s fandom of William Byron.

Loves William Byron,” Larson said of his daughter. “We had a little team outing at the shop on Tuesday. William was there. I brought my kids.

“She got to go take a picture with William. She was too shy to talk. She was embarrassed. She was, like, pushing me and hitting me. She was acting goofy, I think, because she was nervous.

Loves William Byron. Yes, she cheers for William way more than she cheers for me.”

5. Odds in his favor?

It’s pretty simple to Daniel Hemric. All he has to do is beat three drivers — reigning series champion Austin Cindric, AJ Allmendinger and Noah Gragson — to win the Xfinity Series championship Saturday at Phoenix (8:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

“For me, that’s the best odds I’ve ever had at anything,” Hemric told NBC Sports. “We compete against thousands of kids, looking for that next opportunity. You progress through the ranks. Same thing against thousands of kids trying to get the next opportunity.

“When you get to this level, you’ve already won the lottery. You’re already the luckiest guy in the world to even do this.

“To know you have a chance to be that guy, a guy that gets to hold that (championship trophy) when it’s all said and done, that’s a feeling in the pit of your stomach that you can never put words to.”

He was asked where he plans to put the championship trophy after he wins it.

“The trophy will go in the man cave, a place that I can go to with my buddies,” Hemric said. “A place that you don’t have to say anything, it sits there for itself. It being there does the talking for you.”

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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)