Dr. Diandra: Next Gen tech vs. Martinsville

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Martinsville Speedway is the platonic ideal of short-track racing.

We expect — we look forward to — banging, bumping and short tempers. Add in high-profile drivers yet to win a race and the result is likely to be accidents and spins.

Will the Next Gen car’s composites, brakes and suspension stand up to the task?

Last year’s two Martinsville races tied for the most cautions (15). The spring Martinsville race featured seven spins and five accidents, while the fall race had only one spin, but 11 accidents. The track’s closest competitors (Nashville, fall Darlington and fall Texas) each had 11 cautions.

Thirty-one cars spun or were involved in accidents at 2021 Martinsville races.

Cautions by race and type for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series

Saturday night’s race will be 400 laps instead of the traditional 500. We’ll have to scale down our expectations — and the numbers of cautions, but we still have three stages. Last spring, nine of the 13 spins/accidents came in the third stage.

Next Gen car at Martinsville

Two Next Gen design changes could enhance the propensity for bumping and banging: Brakes and body.

Enlarging the wheels from 15 inches to 18 inches means more room for brakes. A driver can brake later going into a corner and thus go deeper into the corner. With more ability to dissipate heat, wearing out the brakes won’t be as much of a problem as in past Martinsville races.

“We have more braking power than we have grip,” Alex Bowman said.

“Before,” Dale Jarrett said on the NASCAR on NBC podcast, “if you took it in a little too deep, not only did you drive it further into the corner, you started wheel hopping.”

Driving the car further into the corner increases the the potential for contact.

“Not that I’m looking for wrecks,” Jarrett said. “Contact is what we look for and that’s why we love those short tracks.”

The second change – composite car bodies – first appeared in 2017 in the Xfinity Series, where they proved more resilient than steel.

Composite bodies rebound from scrapes with the wall, but their real advantage is standing up to cut tires. A tire coming apart acts like the string in a weed whacker: It can cut right through metal.

That whipsaw action can transform the minor problem of a blown tire into the major problem of a shredded quarter panel.

“The car from a door-banging side of things, rubbing, not cutting tires down, we haven’t really seen that happen yet,” Joey Logano told Dustin Long.

And that’s thanks to composites.

What is a composite?

Composite is short for composition material. Two dissimilar materials combine to make a material with properties better than either material individually.

Remember that Reese’s ad starring Kevin Harvick and IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan? They’re selling a taste composite. Peanut butter cups are good. Caramel is good. When you put them together, it tastes better – and different – than either one separately.

Structural composites, like those in the Next Gen car body, are strong but lightweight. These materials originally developed in the aerospace industry, where every pound increases the fuel bill, or even the ability to get off the ground in the first place.

Composites follow a simple formula. A matrix – a fiber or particle – combines with a binder like an epoxy or a cement.

You are more familiar with composites than you might think. Wood is a composite. Cellulose is a strong, fibrous material. Soft, gluey lignin holds the cellulose fibers together.

Your bones are also composites. Hydroxyapetite — a strong-but-brittle mineral — embeds in collagen, which is soft and cushiony.

Paper mache, concrete, asphalt, adobe, mother of pearl and plywood are all composites. Although composites are new to bodies, NASCAR already uses them in seats, dashboards and even NACA ducts.

Five Star Race Car Bodies in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin makes the Next Gen body. Although the specific materials in the Next Gen body are proprietary, the matrix includes carbon fiber and Kevlar.

The fibers are woven into fabric. Sheets of fabric are stacked, with the fiber direction varied so that the composite is equally strong in all directions.

A drawing showing a fiber for a composite, the fiber woven into cloth and the process of stacking the cloth prior to molding

There’s one more component to the composite body. It takes a lot to break carbon fiber composites, but they can break. Because they are brittle, they fracture and leave shards of material everywhere – about the last thing you want on a racetrack.

So there’s one more element to counteract the brittleness: Layers of a proprietary material sandwich the carbon fiber and help hold it together in case of accidents.

A graphic showing how fiberglass bookends the carbon fiber-Kevlar composite fabric

After loading the fabric layers into a mold, they are saturated with an epoxy-type resin. Suction pulls the fabric tightly against the mold while the composite cures.

Once cured, any holes or tabs necessary for fitting the body onto the chassis and other body pieces are drilled. Even the nuts used in flange fitting the body together are glued into place.

And there’s only one way the parts fit together, so unlike my experiences with flat-pack furniture, it’s pretty much impossible to do it wrong.

Why carbon-fiber composites instead of steel?

Carbon fiber composite is five times stronger than steel by weight. Neither chemicals nor heat damage it.

“The superior flame resistance is one of the things we’re really proud of achieving,” said Corey Schultz, vice president of sales and marketing at Five Star Race Car Bodies.

It’s also twice as stiff as steel, which means that carbon-fiber composite parts don’t deflect when a car is going 200 mph. NASCAR had to add rules for the Gen-6 car to prevent teams from making hoods and decklids that changed shape at speed and provided an aerodynamic advantage.

Another feature of the Next Gen composite is that it is repairable – but not by teams. Pieces in need of attention must be returned to Five Star for repairs.

So more bumping and banging at Martinsville?

Given bigger brakes and stronger bodies, you might expect drivers to turn the aggression knob all the way up to eleven at Martinsville.

But maybe not.

Suspension issues arose at the Clash at the L.A. Coliseum, which is the track most similar to Martinsville that’s hosted the Next Gen car. Those failures may have been due to the lack of run-off space, or just unfamiliarity with the new car. But drivers took note.

“Before, we didn’t want to hit the wall because of aero,” Chase Elliott said at Richmond last week. “Now, it’s the suspension.”

In particular, the rear toe link appears to be the weakest part of the Next Gen suspension. Toe is the angle the wheels make with the car’s centerline.A graphic explaining toe as it refers to wheelsThe toe link is the part that moves one side of the wheel in or out. It’s really nothing more than a rod with connectors at either end.

“It’s crazy,” Logano said. “You look at these cars that get out of the race because something broke on their car after a wreck and the body looks fine. … Even Daytona, we saw cars crash really hard and it’s kind of like the body pops back and it doesn’t look bad, but everything behind it is crushed.”

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.”