Kyle Larson wins at Phoenix, earns NASCAR Cup Series title

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Kyle Larson completed one of the best seasons in NASCAR history by winning Sunday’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway to claim the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship.

An 11.8-second pit stop under caution from Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team gave him the lead entering the race’s final restart with 24 laps to go.

Larson did the rest, holding off fellow Championship 4 drivers Martin Truex Jr. (finished second), Denny Hamlin (finished third), and Chase Elliott (finished fifth).

Larson, who closes the season with 10 wins, becomes the 35th driver to win a title in NASCAR’s premier series.

He does so after spending much of the 2020 season indefinitely suspended by NASCAR following his use of a racial slur during an April 2020 e-sports event.

During that period, Larson spent time working to make amends and to mature personally. He also received a second chance to restart his NASCAR career when HMS signed him to be their driver of the revived No. 5 car.

Now, Larson has given the powerhouse organization its 14th Cup crown.

“I cannot believe it,” Larson told NBC Sports after the race. “I didn’t think I’d be racing a Cup car a year and a half ago, and to win the championship is crazy. … There were so many points of this race where I did not think that we were going to win.

“And without my pit crew on that last stop, we would not be standing right here. They’re the true winners of this race. They’re the true champions. I’m just blessed to be a part of this group. Every single person at Hendrick Motorsports – this win is for all of us and every one of you.

“This is unbelievable, I’m speechless.”

After winning the Cup title in 2017, Truex has now finished second in points for the third time in the last four seasons.

“’18, ’19, ’21 – three years, we were right there and had a car capable of winning, and just for whatever reason, it didn’t go the way we needed it to,” Truex told NBC Sports. “And at the end there, not quite enough speed to get to (Larson) and around him.

“I thought if he’d stay on the bottom a little bit longer, I’d have a shot. But he moved up and I couldn’t do anything on the bottom. It is what it is. They did a great job, they had a great season. Congrats to them. We’ll come back and try again next year.”

Stage 1 began with the Championship 4 drivers taking different strategies off early cautions. Larson pitted for tires on the day’s first yellow at Lap 8, but cycled back toward the front when Elliott, Hamlin, and Truex made their own first stops during a yellow at Lap 16.

Ryan Blaney stayed out under the latter caution and kept the lead for the next 30 or so laps. But on Lap 51, Truex passed him for the race lead. While Blaney faded out of the top five, Truex pulled away to the stage win ahead of Kevin Harvick, Elliott, Hamlin and Larson.

During the stage break, Elliott jumped two spots to take the race lead off pit road from Truex, whose jack man slipped on his stop but did well to recover.

As Stage 2 progressed, Truex’s long-run speed helped him reel Elliott in. Over 35 laps into the run, he reclaimed the race lead from Elliott at Lap 120. A Quin Houff crash brought out the yellow at Lap 130 and brought the leaders to the pits. Elliott again was first off to take the race lead, while Truex fell to fourth and Hamlin fell to ninth with slow stops.

Two more cautions for incidents led to another round of pit stops under a yellow at Lap 156. There, Larson came out first ahead of Elliott. Several cars stayed on the track, but during the ensuing restart, the entire Championship 4 were able to pass that group unscathed. Larson went on to win Stage 2 ahead of Elliott, Hamlin, Truex Jr. and Blaney.

Larson, Elliott, Hamlin and Truex Jr. kept their positions through pit stops during the stage break and the restart to begin the final stage. Elliott took the race lead back from Larson at Lap 236, as Hamlin in third began to close in with long-run speed of his own.

On Lap 245, Hamlin passed Larson for second and began working to catch Elliott. Three laps later, Truex was the first of the Championship 4 to visit pit road. As his car was serviced, Anthony Alfredo slammed the Turn 2 wall to bring out the yellow at Lap 249.

However, due to the timing of the yellow, Truex was able to stay on the lead lap. And with the other Championship 4 drivers pitting, Truex stayed out to cycle into the lead while Hamlin was first off pit road ahead of Elliott.

Truex and Ryan Blaney (who was also pitting when Alfredo crashed) led the field to green with 58 laps to go. When the field shook out, Truex and Hamlin were first and second, while Elliott and Larson were in third and fourth.

As the run went on, JGR’s long-run speed – now bolstered by track position – allowed Truex and Hamlin to pull away.

But with 30 laps to go, debris from the car of David Starr brought out the caution to set up the money stop for Larson’s No. 5 team – which in turn set up Larson for the exclamation point on a stellar season.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Martin Truex Jr.

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Larson

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ryan Blaney finished fourth to lead the non-Championship drivers … Fellow Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski finished 10th in his final start for the team before moving to Roush Fenway Racing.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Bubba Wallace was first out after contact from Corey LaJoie sent him into the Turn 3 wall on Lap 7. After climbing out of his car, Wallace sarcastically clapped for LaJoie as he drove by. … Flat tires led to crashes for Quin Houff (Lap 129), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Lap 140), Chase Briscoe (Lap 155) and Anthony Alfredo (Lap 248). Houff’s team, Starcom Racing, announced this week that its charter will have a new owner in 2022.

NOTABLE: Larson is the third driver in the modern era to win the Cup title in his first season with a new team.

NEXT: The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season begins in earnest Feb. 6 with the exhibition Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The first points-paying race of the season is the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20.

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)