Long: Kyle Larson’s Cup title caps one of greatest seasons in U.S. racing history

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — Kyle Larson exudes cool and calm, but that’s not how he felt when he met with car owner Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon last year about joining Hendrick Motorsports.

After Hendrick said he wanted to have Larson drive one of his cars in 2021, the Hall of Fame team owner asked Larson what he wanted out of the potential deal.

A nervous Larson pondered how to make his request without agitating Hendrick.

“I know how Rick Hendrick feels about dirt racing,” Larson recalled thinking at the time.

Larson’s inner dialogue continued, as he tried to decide how to make his request.

“I hoping I’m not going to shoot myself in the foot right now,” Larson thought at the time.

He told Hendrick: “I’d like to race some dirt races.”

Hendrick didn’t rebuff Larson, but he needed some time.

After consulting with team executives and crew chief Cliff Daniels, Hendrick approved Larson’s request as part of their deal to put Larson in the team’s No. 5 Chevrolet this year.

And so began what has become one of the greatest seasons in U.S. motorsports history by any driver.

“I never thought racing for Hendrick Motorsports that I would get to race a single dirt race in a year, let alone as many as I have this year,” Larson said. “It’s definitely an unbelievable season on so many different levels.”

Larson’s season of major wins across multiple disciplines added the NASCAR Cup championship Sunday night at Phoenix Raceway.

He claimed the title with his 10th victory of the season (11th counting the NASCAR All-Star Race). He’s the first driver to reach double digits in Cup wins in a season since Jimmie Johnson won 10 times during his 2007 championship season. Larson’s five wins in the playoffs match Tony Stewart’s record when he won the 2011 crown.

But that’s only part of what Larson did in a year that evokes the achievements of racing icons Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt.

Larson won the Chili Bowl Nationals, the most prestigious midget car race in the country. He won the Knoxville Nationals, the premier sprint car race in the country and also won the Kings Royal, another elite event. He won the Prairie Dirt Classic dirt late model race, among the country’s top events for that series.

“In this day and age, I didn’t think it was possible … to win at the highest level against the absolute best in the World of Outlaws, midgets, late models and Cup,” Gordon told NBC Sports in Victory Lane.

For emphasis, Gordon repeated himself.

“I didn’t think that was possible for anybody to do, and he’s proven me wrong,” Gordon said.

Maybe there’s more Larson can do.

“I hope he gets the opportunity to feel what a Formula 1 car is like,” Gordon said. “I think he can get in anything.”

Larson will attend the F1 race Abu Dhabi in December, but he has a few other dirt races to run before then.

Larson’s cross-country trips with his family to dirt tracks this year often featured victory lane celebrations and endeared him to fans. When Larson climbed from his Cup car Sunday night near the start/finish line, the sellout crowd at Phoenix Raceway roared.

Kyle obviously is an incredible and special talent,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps told NBC Sports in Victory Lane. “We really haven’t seen anyone like him in decades, maybe ever, if you consider what he did here and what he’s done in dirt and other forms of motorsports all year long. He’s a wheelman.

“I think the opportunity for us to bridge the dirt community and other grassroots racing is really, really important for us. He’s going to be phenomenal champion for us.”

Among Larson’s legion of fans are Stewart and Andretti.

Stewart tweeted his congratulations Sunday night, calling Larson the “best race car driver I’ve ever seen.”

Andretti, the only driver to win an Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and Formula 1 championship, told NBC Sports before the playoffs started that Larson “just captured me in a very special way because I see a lot of myself there.”

In a video played for Larson on NBC before the race, Andretti praised Larson’s versatility in winning on a variety of different NASCAR tracks and noted that “on the way to the (NASCAR) track on Saturday night, he’ll win on some dirt track somewhere.

“He’s amazing, and let’s see if he can finish it off with a championship.”

Larson was in position to do so until his car’s handling started to fade. With 50 laps to go, he was last among the four championship drivers.

His race changed when a caution on Lap 283 for debris brought the leaders to pit road. Larson entered fourth and exited in the lead.

But this wasn’t a position many thought he would be in leading up to this race.

NBC Sports analyst Dale Jarrett, a former champion, noted that despite Larson’s success this season, he wasn’t the overwhelming favorite to win the title.

“A lot of people didn’t choose him (to win) this weekend because they said he had never been in this position before,” Jarrett said, noting Larson’s first time in the Cup title race. “He might not have the mindset. There was never a doubt in my mind. If he didn’t win it, it wasn’t because he didn’t have that ability to get it done in the biggest moment.”

Some chose Martin Truex Jr. to win because he won at Phoenix earlier this year. Others saw Chase Elliott repeating. And there were those who thought this was the year Denny Hamlin would win his first championship.

That’s who Larson faced when the green waved for the final time. He had Hamlin on his inside, Truex behind him and Elliott on the inside of the second row.

“The greats – and when I say it, I think, that’s a very small percentage – they know how, in the toughest moments, when the heat is on, how to rise up and pull something off that others aren’t capable,” Gordon said.

“You have the guys that are in the position, but they make a mistake. I feel like he actually gets better in those moments. You saw him in those closing moments. Truex put so much pressure on him and he never cracked.”

While the pit crew’s work was key to give Larson the lead, the adjustments Daniels orchestrated helped keep the No. 5 in front. Daniels credited all the dirt racing Larson did this season.

“I know Mr. (Hendrick) talked about earlier that having him not race (as many dirt events) during the playoffs was a little bit of a safety factor for us, but honestly I was kind of worried for the opposite, because he raced all season long during the week,” Daniels said.

“We were Turn 3 at Pocono away from winning five weekends in row, it would have been the fourth points race but five weekends in a row  and he was racing two or three nights a week then.I was getting so much information from him about himself, like he was up front every night, and if he got beat by somebody on a restart, he would tell me what he did wrong.

And it would help me learn what he needed to look for out of himself and out of the car, whether dirt or pavement or any series moving forward. So that information to me was really invaluable because I don’t know how else I would have gotten it.”

All that information went into Daniels’ final pit call of the season.

Then it was up to Larson.

For now, he’ll enjoy what he’s accomplished this year with his NASCAR title and wins across various disciplines.

“I understand the season that we’ve had,” Larson said, ”but I don’t think you really can appreciate it until you hear of other generations talking — that are younger than me talking about a season like I’ve had.

I think I’m just a very lucky guy who gets to race in the best race cars of all the series that I get to run in. I’m in the best seat in the Cup Series. I’m in the best seat in a sprint car. I’m in the best seat in a late model. I’m in the best seat in a midget, whether it be with Chad Boat or my old car.

I think it takes a lot of hard work to get those opportunities and a lot of hard work to take advantage of it. But without good people around you and being able to be in good race cars, I would never get to have a season like I’ve had.”

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)