Friday 5: Clash at the Coliseum raises stakes for another NASCAR gamble

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The Clash at the Coliseum’s success raises the stakes on another gamble by NASCAR.

The Cup race on dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway.

While the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum went off with few, if any glitches, last year’s dirt race at Bristol didn’t go as smoothly. Rain muddied the track and postponed the highly anticipated Cup race to a Monday. Series officials had to have a caution every 50 laps because of excessive tire wear. 

The event did not resonate in the way that last weekend’s Clash at the Coliseum has. 

This season, the dirt race at Bristol moves to Easter, a holiday NASCAR traditionally avoided racing on. The April 17 event also will be at night to limit the track drying out as quickly as it did during last year’s race during the day.

How fans respond to this year’s event will play a key role in determining if the dirt race returns to Bristol in 2023.

As NASCAR tries different types of races, not every event will work as expected. David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, says that series officials should continue to try new things.

“The reality is we’ve got to set aside what happened last year with Bristol dirt because this year we’re taking a completely different car,” Wilson said. “I’m not saying it’s definitely going to be better. We don’t know. There is some angst with the new car on dirt, but I do think the experiment is worth revisiting because it’s a different experiment. 

“I do think there is some attraction to dirt and how we can race on it and what tracks might lend themselves to dirt vs. other tracks. I was talking to a couple of drivers, just shooting the breeze (last weekend) and they would have loved to have seen, instead of asphalt at the Coliseum, dirt. If you think asphalt was good, let’s really bring traction into it. 

“Maybe we go back next year and it’s dirt instead of asphalt. Why not give it a try?”

A tremendous amount of hype and interest preceded the inaugural Camping World Truck Series race on dirt in 2013 at Eldora (Ohio) Speedway. That race marked the first time since 1970 that any of NASCAR’s three major national series had run on a dirt track.

As the Eldora race continued each year, the novelty waned. It went from a must-see event to another race for many fans. NASCAR last raced there in 2019. 

The series went back to dirt last year at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway. That race was mired by 14 cautions that led to 44.6% of the race (80 of 179 laps) being run under caution. Knoxville is back on the Truck schedule this year, just as Bristol gets another chance with its dirt race.

After winning last year’s inaugural Cup dirt race at Bristol, Joey Logano was looking forward to this year’s event.

“When they announced this race, I thought it was going to be a sellout,” Logano said of last year’s race, which had a limited crowd due to the pandemic. “I do think it will be a sellout once we’re able to have full capacity back at these racetracks. This is a crazy show.”

Wilson said that the dirt race at Bristol, the Clash at the Coliseum and other events can prove key in growing NASCAR.

“The beauty about the Clash and All-Star Race is if we’re not getting out there and taking experiments, we’re just wasting opportunities – because there’s virtually nothing to lose,” Wilson said. “… I do think we need to give Bristol dirt another chance.

“There’s no question in my mind that dirt has a place in our sport.”

That will be for NASCAR’s leadership to determine.

“I think when we announced the 2021 schedule, we were really bold,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president of strategy and innovation. “We were bold with the new markets we went to. We were bold with Bristol dirt. We were bold with the Indy road course and a handful of other changes we had within the schedule. 

“In 2022, we had some additional changes. We didn’t have as many changes as we had in 2021. I think looking toward 2023 and beyond, we want to continue to have changes. We want to be really thoughtful and measured on those changes. With that said, I don’t know that we’ll see the same level of changes in ’23 and beyond as we saw in ’21 and ’22.”

2. Learning the car

As with any new car, some drivers will adapt quicker than others. 

Kyle Busch, who finished second in last weekend’s Clash at the Coliseum, was asked this week if he had a sense yet of how the car would fit his skill set.

“I think it’s too early,” Busch said. “I don’t know if I can necessarily pick through whether or not it is going to fit my skill set. I feel like there’s a lot of things that we’ve been working on trying to get it to where I feel comfortable in it. 

“I don’t think I necessarily understand everything about it yet. Why did we have so much left front lockup this weekend at the short track like that? We had a little bit of that at Phoenix (in testing), actually, too. That’s something as a company we’re focusing on, trying to figure out what we can do to help and also getting this thing ready to go … It’s not as simple or as easy as we’re accustomed to because there’s so many rules. 

“I ask questions about it. Can we do this? Can we do this? Can we do this? They’re like no you can’t. No you can’t. No you can’t because there are rules that limit the things that we’re all used to in being able to fix the cars the way they drive, the way they react. You’re just limited in what you’re allowed to do with them.”

3. Learning on the fly

Among the many questions for this season is how will crew chiefs handle the potential strategy options with the faster pit stops.

With the benefit of the single lug nut, tire changers will complete their work faster than the fuel man can fill the car’s tank. Do crew chiefs send their cars out of the pit stall as soon as the tire changers are done even though the fuel tank isn’t full? Do crew chiefs wait on the fueler to complete their work before sending the car out?

“There’s a ton of new possibilities and potential land mines to step on, both from just the stop itself being new and working with new parts and pieces,” said Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Denny Hamlin.

“Depending on what track, some tracks you’re going to need tires more than others. … On top of that, we don’t know tire fall off from track to track because this car is totally different and the tires will be different. 

“There’s going to be a ton to learn. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for you guys watching us learn throughout Stage 1 of each race. Stage 1 for each race in the first quarter of the season, we’re all going to be learning on the fly, rapidly and adjusting strategy on what we’ve learned mid-race. It will be difficult to do a lot of pre-planning where strategy is concerned. I certainly think all of that stuff is going to be very, very dynamic to start the year.”

4. Bonus for Daytona 500 winner

In years past, the Daytona 500 winning car remained in Daytona to be displayed for a year before being returned to the team. 

This season, with supply issues making some parts hard to come by, organizations will not start the season with their full complement of seven cars per team. 

Some organizations are not expected to have a backup car for every team next week at Daytona International Speedway. Instead, a four-car team could have two backups available for its organization.

Teams are nervous about crashing cars at Daytona and then going on the West Coast swing to Auto Club Speedway, Las Vegas and Phoenix. 

With that in mind, the winning team will get its car back after the Daytona 500. The car will remain overnight in Daytona for the traditional winner’s breakfast Monday before returning to the race shop. 

NASCAR will run a scan of the car and create a wrap of the winning team’s paint scheme, along with the Victory Lane confetti , and place it on the the body of one of the Next Gen prototype cars that were used in testing. That car will be on display in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America at Daytona International Speedway the rest of the year.

In 2023, the winning car will stay in Daytona for a year before being returned to the team.

5. Big day in L.A.

The lines were long for the merchandise haulers before last weekend’s Clash at the Coliseum. At the event merchandise hauler near the main entrance to the Coliseum, one line had 70 people in it and the other five lines had nearly as many. That was about 30 minutes before the start of the first heat race (more than  3 1/2 hours before the main event).

Steve Lauletta, president of 23XI Racing, said the team sold more merchandise at the hauler it shares with Joe Gibbs Racing last weekend than for any Cup event last year except the Daytona 500.

“I was really pleased, also knowing that the inventory is still fairly limited,” said Lauletta, who did not provide details of the team’s sales for Bubba Wallace and Kurt Busch items. “It was what everybody says, the indicators of merchandise sales and the interest in the market was real.”

Dr. Diandra: Is Talladega really the biggest, fastest, fiercest track?

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Talladega Superspeedway has a reputation as one of the wildest tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

Is it hype? Or do the numbers prove the point?

The biggest

Talladega is the longest oval track in the NASCAR circuit. At 2.66 miles (14,045 feet), one Talladega lap is the length of about 468 football fields. Talladega is longer than Mauna Kea is tall.

If we measure lengths in terms of Talladega:

  • The distance from Charlotte to Nashville (the location of the NASCAR awards ceremony) is 339 Talladegas.
  • If you flew direct from Los Angeles to New York City, you would cover 2500 Talladegas.
  • Martinsville is just 0.20 Talladegas.

Talladega also holds the record for banking in current Cup Series tracks with 33 degrees. Talladega’s banking is so high that the outside lane of the 48-foot wide racing surface is 26.1 feet higher than the inside lane. That difference is about the height of a two-story house.

Talladega is a tri-oval. Think of it as three straight lines connected by three curves.

A graphic showing the tri-oval shape and how it got its name

 

While tri-oval describes the track shape, it is also used to refer to the frontstretch — the most triangular part of the track.

And Talladega’s frontstretch is formidable. The 4,300-foot segment is banked at 16.5 degrees. Talladega’s frontstretch has more banking than all three of Pocono’s turns.

The backstretch, known as the Alabama Gang Superstretch, isn’t too shabby, either. It’s 1,000 feet longer than Daytona’s backstretch. If you were to unroll Richmond, its entire 0.75-mile length would just cover Talladega’s backstretch.

Talladega’s infield is so large that it could hold the L.A. Coliseum, Martinsville, Bristol, Dover, Richmond and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A graphic showing that it's possible to pack five smaller tracks, plus the NASCAR Hall of Fame into Talladega's infield

The Fastest

Bill France Sr. originally envisioned Talladega as Indianapolis Motor Speedway with higher banking. At a time when raw speed was the big attraction, higher banking would allow Talladega to wrest away the closed-track speed record from Indy.

In 1970, just six months after Talladega hosted its first race, Buddy Baker became the first driver to break the 200 mph mark on a closed course.

Baker’s breakthrough happened at a testing session. It wasn’t until 1982 that Benny Parsons became the first Cup Series driver to qualify over 200 mph. Just four years later, all but one of the 42 drivers starting the spring race qualified over 200 mph.

In May 1987, Bill Elliott set the all-time Cup Series qualifying record at 212.809 mph. That record will likely never be broken. During the race, Bobby Allison got airborne and crashed into the catchfence. NASCAR subsequently mandated restrictor plates (and now tapered spacers) to keep speeds down and cars on the ground.

Restricting airflow to the engine makes drafting even more important. That, in turn, leads to large packs of cars racing within inches of each other. That’s why four of the top-10 closest finishes in the Cup Series happened at Talladega.

In the spring 2011 race, Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer by just two-thousandths (0.002) of a second. That ties the famous 2003 Ricky Craven/Kurt Busch Darlington finish for the smallest margin of victory in Cup Series history.

Of all Talladega races run after NASCAR introduced electronic scoring in May 1993, 44 ended under a green flag. Of those races:

  • Seven (15.9%) were won by less than 25 thousandths of a second.
  • Fifteen (34.1%) were won by less than one-tenth of a second.
  • Thirty-nine (88.6%) were won by less than two-tenths of a second.
  • The largest margin of victory was 0.388 seconds.

The Fiercest

Pack racing leads to more contact. Out of 35 Talladega races run under the current green-white-checkered rule, 14 (40%) ended under caution. Rain caused one of those yellow/checkered finishes. The rest were due to accidents.

In 64 races since 1990, Talladega has seen 228 caution-causing spins or accidents, which involved 1,120 cars.

Almost half (49.2%) of these incidents involved only one or two cars. A one- or two-car accident is no less problematic for the drivers involved than a larger crash. But the more cars involved in accidents, the more likely a driver is to be knocked out of the race.

  • 3.5% of all accidents since 1990 involved 20 or more cars.
  • 5.7% of accidents collected 15 or more cars.
  • 16.7% were 10-car or larger crashes.
  • 38.2% involved five or more cars.

While probable, the Big One is by no means inevitable.

Neither are accidents in general. Three races since 1990 finished with no cautions, but all three of these races took place before 2003. The lowest number of cautions in a Talladega race since 2003 is three. That happened at the fall races in 2013 and 2015.

The average number of caution-causing accidents and spins in a Talladega race is 3.5.

  • Seven races (10.9%) had a single caution-causing accident or spin.
  • 14 out of 64 races (21.9%) had four caution-causing accidents or spins
  • 13 of 64 races (20.3%) had three caution-causing incidents.

Races with four or fewer accidents make up 71.9% of all Talladega races — which means that races with five or more accidents only account for 28.1%.

The numbers definitely uphold Talladega’s reputation. Although the track itself remains the same, the racing varies. Tune in to NBC (2 p.m. ET) to see whether this fall’s bout is accident-filled or accident-free.

Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.

Safety key topic in meeting for drivers at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup drivers met Friday with Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council, and discussed safety issues ahead of this weekend’s playoff race, which will be without two drivers due to concussion-like symptoms from crashes.

Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch will not race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Busch suffered his head injury in a crash at Pocono in July. Bowman’s injury followed his crash last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Both were injured in accidents where the rear of the car hit the SAFER barrier first.

Two drivers injured in less than three months — and the series racing at a track where crashes are likely — raises tension in the Cup garage. 

Denny Hamlin blasted NASCAR on Saturday, saying it was “bad leadership” for not addressing safety concerns drivers had with the car. Hamlin also said that the Next Gen vehicle needs to be redesigned.

Burton, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, said in an exclusive interview that Friday’s meeting was lengthy because there were several topics to discuss. Burton didn’t go into details on all the topics.

Safety was a key element of that meeting. Burton, whose role with the Drivers Advisory Council is to coordinate the group and communicate with NASCAR, discussed the cooperation level with NASCAR.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” he said. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car. 

“We want to see that come to conclusion as soon as possible. They have made commitments to us and are showing us what is happening, communicating with us in regard to timing, and we want to see it come to conclusion, as they do. 

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get some changes done before last weekend. It just takes a long time to test stuff.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on a new rear clip and rear bumper. Even if the test goes well, there’s not enough time for any such changes this season with five races left.

The frustration from drivers — and voiced by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — has been that NASCAR was informed about issues with a stiffer car for more than a year. Some questions were raised after William Byron crashed in a test in March 2020 at Auto Club Speedway.

“William Byron busted his ass at (Auto Club) Speedway and that should have raised a red flag right off the bat,” Harvick said Saturday.

Hamlin said more drivers needed to speak up about concerns with the car.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said.

Byron is looking for changes to be made.

“I want to have a long career, and I don’t want to have a series of concussions that make me either have to step way from the car or have to think about long-term things,” he said.

Chase Elliott also shared his frustrations Saturday.

“You come off a week like we had in Texas and somebody getting injured and then you come into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point (Sunday) and probably not lightly at that,” Elliot said.

So what do drivers do?

“Do you just not show up?” Elliott said. “Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask. There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. 

“My frustration is … I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had a choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry. 

“That should have just never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that that we had years and time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t, and now we’re having to fix it. 

“I just hate that we did that. I think we’re smarter than that. I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Burton told NBC Sports that drivers did not discuss in Friday’s meeting running single-file in Sunday’s race as a form of protest.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to see single-file (racing Sunday) because of what happened at Texas and what could happen next week (at the Charlotte Roval),” Burton said. “Drivers need a period of calmness. 

“There was not a discussion, a collaborated effort or any sort of thing of how you race (Sunday). That conversation did not come up in that meeting.”

Harvick said Saturday that he’ll continue to be vocal about safety issues.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure these guys are in a good spot,” Harvick said. “Whatever I have to do.”

Harvick later said: “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position. We have to have the safety we deserve to go out and put on a great show and be comfortable with that. 

“Obviously, we all have taken the risks of being race car drivers, but there’s no reason we should be in a worse position than we were last year.”

Harvick said it was a matter of trust.

“The reality of the situation is much different than what they’re looking at,” Harvick said of NASCAR officials. “I think that the trust level is obviously not where it needs to be from getting it fixed. I think they’re going to have to earn the trust level back of reacting quick enough to do the things that it takes. The drivers’ opinion, especially when it comes to safety side of things, has to be more important than the data or more important than the cost. Safety can’t be a budget item.”

Corey LaJoie, who is a member of the Drivers Advisory Council board, said that while challenges remain with the car, he sees the effort being made by NASCAR.

“Nothing happens quick in this deal when you have 38 teams and you have seven cars per team,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It has to be a well-thought-out process to implement the changes.

“It’s easy to get up in arms and prickly when we have guys like Alex and Kurt out. You don’t ever want that to happen. Every conversation I’m having is what we, as the Driver Council, is trying to communicate to NASCAR and NASCAR making proactive changes and moving timelines up aggressively to try to implement these changes.”