Dale Jr: Buckle up! Here’s what to look for in the Daytona 500

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EDITOR’S NOTE: NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr., a two-time Daytona 500 champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer, drove the Next Gen car during a two-day test at Daytona in January. He shares his thoughts about the challenges drivers could face in Sunday’s Daytona 500 with the new car.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Think about this. You’ve been a brain surgeon for years, and right before surgery, somebody walks in and hands you new instruments that you’ve never used and you must use them in the next operation. That would be a little unsettling. 

That, in a way, is what NASCAR Cup drivers face in racing the Next Gen car in Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Drivers are in a completely different car that reacts differently in the draft than what they’ve run for years. They have to be willing to go to class and take notes as they run. Some drivers will be real stubborn and try to keep forcing the same sort of effects and techniques that don’t really apply anymore. 

The way I would handle this and figure out the side draft would be like putting your foot in the water. You go a little in and then a little more. Just like the draft. You try a little of the side draft. As it works, you try a little more to understand what the car and the air will do. You are going to be learning about this car all the way through the 500, into the Talladega race in the spring, and Daytona later in the year. You’re going to be learning all year.

One thing that has stood out so far is that it looks like the Fords tandem draft very well. They can push in the corners. They can push in the straightaways. I don’t know that the Toyota or the Chevrolet drivers are that comfortable with the way their bumpers work to do that.

You don’t want to go into this race feeling like you have a handicap. The tandem for the Chevrolets, when we were trying to do it at the January test at Daytona, was quite uncomfortable. The lead car was getting steered around very easily like a forklift. The bumpers just don’t match and tries to turn and tries to upset the car in front while the Ford nose is very flat. The tail pieces are very flat, and they can actually push in the corner.

If you are a Ford guy, you’ve got to be happy about that advantage. Those are the type of things that will give you some heartache and cause you to lose a little sleep at night if you are in a different car.

NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duel #2 at Daytona
Fords have been strong this week at Daytona. Joey Logano (22) led Chris Buescher (17), Michael McDowell (34) and Harrison Burton (21) late in their qualifying race Thursday. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Another thing to watch is how much drag these cars have. I noticed that in the test. I came off the gas pedal just a little bit to wait on what was happening around me and almost nearly lost the draft. With that much drag, it is like you are fighting a headwind all the time.

For the guy at the very tail end of the line, they are almost in panic mode for fear of losing the draft. It seems like, especially when the Fords are in front, they can push in tandem. They can drop these guys off the back of the draft, and they see that. They got out of their cars after the Duels and said to each other: “Hey did you see that happening? Let’s try to do that in the race. Let’s try to make that a race amongst ourselves.”

What we’re seeing reminds me kind of the package we ran in 2004, ’05 and ’06 when you could have separation. You can have guys that are lost off the back of the draft. In ’04 when I won it, Tony Stewart and I were by ourselves for a good chunk of the end of the race. Those guys never got a chance to get back to us under caution or anything, so they never got a chance to race us for the win. That’s a real possibility this year.

With that possible, getting on and off pit road is going to be critical because of how draggy the car is. If you get off pit road and you give up 50 yards or 100 yards to a pack of cars, you most likely aren’t going to be with those cars anymore. Getting on to pit road, getting off pit road, the pit stop itself under green flag conditions are probably more critical than it has been in the past. 

Something else I would do before Sunday’s 500 would be to talk to my spotter after seeing Joey Logano’s crash in the Duels and hearing Logano say that the run behind him was quicker than he thought. I’d talk to my spotter about the air bubble between cars. Previously, the air bubble slowed your progress before you burst through to get the car’s rear bumper while running nose-to-tail. Now, it’s easier to get through the air bubble and that makes the runs quicker.

I would tell my spotter: “Hey, it’s a new ballgame. We’ve got to be on our toes. The runs are coming out of thin air, and that bubble that I depended on to sort of give me a little time to process the runs coming is no longer there.”

NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duel #2 at Daytona
What the spotter sees and how quickly they convey that to drivers will be a key in Sunday’s Daytona 500. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Another thing to watch is the rack-and-pinion steering, which is new with this car. Now, you don’t turn the wheel much at all in the corners. 

I was talking to William Byron at the Daytona test in January, and I asked William: “When you get into situations in that race and you’ve got to make a move on the steering wheel, how are you going to learn that you need almost half as much?”

With your muscle memory and years of experience, your instant reaction is going to be to turn the wheel way more. That’s going to get you in big trouble because you’re going to do too much with the steering wheel and run into another car or spin yourself out. 

He said he felt that same concern and anxiety, but he’s tested the car enough and he’s got himself in enough situations where he’s starting to develop muscle memory and how to use the rack-and-pinion steering in bad situations. 

Look at a lot of these other guys that have not been in a bad situation yet. There’s a couple of guys that haven’t tested this car much. They haven’t gotten sideways. They haven’t  been in a situation with this car and this steering rack. They’re going to be in that situation for the very first time at some point this weekend, and I think that’s when we’re going to see big problems and that would keep me up at night on Saturday.

So what will the race be like? 

If you’ve ever been to a haunted house or haunted trail with your friends, when you all start out everybody is like, “You go first. I ain’t going.” Everybody is taking baby steps waiting on something to jump out and scare the hell out of you. As you go through the house or the trail, your pace picks up a little bit. You start to enjoy it even as you’re getting the hell scared out of you. 

I think that’s the way the drivers will be in the race. As the race goes on, the comfort level rises, their confidence rises and this car, which feels foreign to them, it is all going to start making sense. Then the driver and the car kind of become one.

So buckle up and enjoy what these drivers are about to do in Sunday’s race. 

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrated his second Daytona 500 win in 2014. Who will be celebrating after this year’s Daytona 500? (Photo by Jim Fluharty/NASCAR Illustrated/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

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.”