Friday 5: How a pit road conversation helped Ross Chastain see things differently

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Ross Chastain wasn’t sure what to expect when Kevin Harvick approached him on pit road after the June 27 Pocono Cup race.

There’s a history between the two drivers. Harvick called Chastain a “really inexperienced guy in a really fast car” after their incident thee years ago in the Xfinity race at Darlington.

Chastain is known as an aggressive driver. It helped him climb from low-budget Xfinity rides to a full-time Cup ride this past season with Chip Ganassi Racing. That aggression also has gotten Chastain in trouble on the track. Just as it did that day at Pocono.

Harvick saw it all. He offered Chastain some advice after the race.

“Hey man, you realize if you just back off one notch, you’re going to finish fifth or sixth today,” Harvick told Chastain.

Instead, Chastain placed 26th because of an aggressive move that backfired.

Chastain has tried to rein his aggression since. Harvick has noticed.

“I think Ross Chastain is a great example of learning how to race the proper way,” Harvick said during the playoffs. “He’s just done it faster than most. … I think his progression has been fun to watch just because that’s how you’re supposed to do it.”

Looking back on that day at Pocono, though, reminds Chastain of the mistake he made in that race and how far he’s come.

Chastain was racing Christopher Bell for second place with about 40 laps left when trouble occurred.

“I had position on Christopher Bell, almost cleared him off of (Turn) 2 and he comes back,” Chastain told NBC Sports. “Then down into (Turn) 3, I should have just fell in line. I would have been in third place, and I’d been fine.

“Instead, I drive into (Turn) 3 wide open, knowing that I can’t make it, but I’m going to clear him and catch it and air block it. But he did the same thing, so I was never going to make it. Kevin (running behind them) saw that.

“I hit Christopher into the wall. I cut a tire. He cuts a tire. Then you watch back on SMT on our data, you can see I drove in 100 feet deeper than I had all day with a car next to me trying to take the spot. No. That’s the kind of things I’m talking about (about being overly aggressive).”

So, how did Chastain change?

He got help from Josh Wise, a former driver who works with several competitors, including Chastain, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and Tyler Reddick. Wise taught Chastain to remove one word from his vocabulary.

That word?

Chastain, standing in his team’s hauler, turned to open a drawer and pulled out a pen. He grabbed a paper towel and wrote “take” on it. He wouldn’t say the word.

“You’re not to use that word anymore, and you’re not going to do it on the track,” Chastain said Wise told him.

While there are still times to be aggressive, there are also times to be smart. Chastain looks at his third-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington as an example of racing smart.

“I had several restarts on old tires at Darlington with high horsepower and low downforce, next to two guys running for the championship and playoff guys all around me,” Chastain said. “I didn’t hook anybody, and I didn’t run into anybody until I got into Kyle (Busch) late. I did more damage to my car than his trying to pull out and pass him.

“That was where I was very aware of what they were doing, and I had a few instances where I would have crashed in the spring Darlington race if I had been in that position. I would have crashed Denny (Hamlin) one time into (Turn) 1. I would have crashed Kyle (Busch) one time. I definitely would have. The progression there at Darlington was like ‘OK, we can do this.’”

Chastain’s lesson came in a season where he ran only 41 total NASCAR races — the fewest number of national series races he’s run since his Cup debut in 2017.

Chastain ran 77 Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races in 2019. Only Kyle Busch has run more national series races in a season than Chastain since 2006.

Chastain said he missed not having practice at most events this season over running in more Xfinity and Truck races.

“Man, I would feel so much more prepared if I had practice … even a 20-minute session, give me something,” Chastain said.

Practice and qualifying are expected to return for all Cup events next season.

That extra track time next year will be helpful as he moves to Trackhouse Racing, looking to improve upon his 20th-place finish in the points this season.

2. Staying in place

For the first time since 2017, Daniel Suarez will go into the offseason not worried about where he’ll race.

This past season marked the fourth consecutive year he had been with a different Cup team. He was with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018, moved to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019, joined Gaunt Brothers Racing in 2020, and ran for Trackhouse Racing this year.

NASCAR Cup Series Verizon 200 at the Brickyard
Daniel Suarez finished a season-best fourth on the dirt at Bristol this season. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“I don’t think people really understand the difference that makes,” Suarez said of staying in one place vs. jumping around to teams. “Every single time you have to start from zero, beginning with people, mechanics, engineers, that communication.”

Suarez said he feels comfortable at Trackhouse Racing, which completed its first season in Cup last weekend at Phoenix. Suarez finished 25th in the points. He ended the season with four top-15 finishes in the last seven races.

“I feel what gets me more excited is how the team is growing with me, and I’ve been able to influence how I can make the team better for me,” Suarez said. “I’ve never had that before.

“Pretty much in the past, (it was) ‘This is what you got and good luck.’ That was it. If it was good, great. If it was not so good, then too bad. That was it. My voice wasn’t loud enough to make adjustments.

“I feel with Trackhouse, they listen to me. We are making a few adjustments here and there, and we’ve been growing together. I like that a lot. I feel the future of Trackhouse Racing is very bright.

The organization will expand to a two-car operation with the addition of Ross Chastain.

“I think he’s a very talented driver,” Suarez said. “I also think he’s hungry, and he’s willing to work hard, and l like that.”

3. Looking ahead

This season wasn’t going to be easy. Matt Tifft and BJ McLeod knew that as owners of Live Fast Motorsports, which made its Cup debut this season.

With one year before the Next Gen debuted, the team was careful with its money and how much it invested in the current car, knowing that the car would be obsolete after this season.

The result was the team placed 32nd in the owners standings. Tifft and McLeod have higher goals with the Next Gen car and what it can do for smaller teams.

“I definitely am pleased with the fact that we met our goals, but we are very hungry to be better than we are right now,” McLeod told NBC Sports.

NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders
Live Fast Motorsports was one of three Cup teams to debut this season. BJ McLeod drove the car to a season-high ninth-place finish in the regular-season finale at Daytona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

They lasted longer than some might have thought. McLeod said they got their first call in March asking if they were interested in selling their charter.

“Matt and I, we didn’t buy this to make money, especially short term,” McLeod said. “We do hope to have it profitable and make a living doing this for the next two decades. We bought this because we want to groom ourselves into being the next Penske, RCR, Hendrick, Haas, Gibbs, whoever you want to say. That’s what we want to do.”

McLeod said there was “never a temptation” to sell the charter the team got for the 2021 season. He said the first offer was for “$10 million plus … and it kept going up from there.”

After getting through this season, what’s next for Live Fast Motorsports?

“For Matt and I both, it’s keep building our advertising partners and get our budget to where we can afford engine leases,” McLeod said. “We’re still going to own our own engines next year, and we don’t want to do that in ’23.”

4. Big bet

After Daniel Hemric won the Xfinity championship last weekend at Phoenix Raceway, he shared just how much of a bet he took on himself this season.

“I took a ride this year to not take a dime, to not get paid, to have to perform to be able to put food on the table,” he said of his ride with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series.

He later said: “I knew that was the only chance for me to rebuild my career.”

Hemric was the 2019 Cup Rookie of the Year, but that wasn’t enough to keep him in his ride at Richard Childress Racing. He ran 21 of the 33 Xfinity races in 2020 for JR Motorsports, sitting out the rest of the races. He moved to Gibbs for this season.

“This sport, you live in from the time you’re five years old, you reached the peak, now you’re on the decline,” Hemric said. “ That was an experience I never wanted to experience, hope nobody else ever has to experience.”

Hemric will look to defend his Xfinity title next year at Kaulig Racing.

“Any parent will tell you that when it’s you and your wife, it’s one thing, you think you’ll figure it out,” he said. “When you bring another person in this world, like our little girl Rhen, that’s a different perspective.

“To bet on yourself, the livelihood of your family, your daughter eating, putting food on the table, that changes it.  Knowing the decisions I had to make last week to give our family the shot we did tonight, there’s no more motivation needed than that.”

5. Familiar scene

Cup champion Kyle Larson led 2,581 laps this season. That is more than what the next two drivers in laps led combined to lead this season.

Denny Hamlin led 1,502 laps. Chase Elliott led 952 laps. They combined to lead 2,454 laps.

Larson led 127 more laps than Hamlin and Elliott combined.

Larson’s total is the most laps led by a driver in a season since Jeff Gordon led 2,610 laps in his 1995 championship season.

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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)