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.”

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

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“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Fire at Reaume Brothers Racing shop injures three

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A Thursday fire at the Reaume Brothers Racing shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, injured three individuals, according to Mooresville (North Carolina) Fire-Rescue.

Firefighters were dispatched to the shop, which is scheduled to field entries for driver Mason Massey in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this season, at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

The fire department extinguished the blaze quickly. The department stated on its Facebook page that one individual was transported to Lake Norman Regional hospital for smoke inhalation, and another was transported to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. with burn injuries. A third was treated and released.

The Mooresville Fire Marshall’s office is investigating the cause of the fire. The fire department said the shop sustained “significant fire damage.”

In a tweet, the team said it is determining the extent of damage to the building. “More importantly,” it said, “a few of our team members did sustain injuries during the fire and are being transported for medical treatment.”

Trackhouse, RFK Racing, Front Row Motorsports sign sponsorship deals

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Trackhouse Racing, RFK Racing and Front Row Motorsports announced sponsorship deals Thursday morning.

Trackhouse said WWEX, a Dallas-based global logistics group, will increase its sponsorship presence with the team this year, serving as the primary sponsor in 21 races for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez.

WWEX will appear on Chastain’s Chevrolets in 19 races and will sponsor Suarez twice. The organization was a Trackhouse sponsor in 11 events in 2022, which was a breakout season for both Chastain and Suarez.

RFK announced that Solomon Plumbing, which joined the team last season, will expand its presence this season and in future years. The Michigan-based company will serve as the primary sponsor for several races on driver Brad Keselowski‘s No. 6 Ford.

MORE: Chase Briscoe signs contract extension with Stewart-Haas

Solomon specializes in plumbing and fire services for new development and construction. It initially sponsored Keselowski last season in the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Front Row Motorsports has signed Quincy Compressor, a Bay Minette, Ala.-based compressor manufacturer, as a sponsor for four races.

Quincy will sponsor Todd Gilliland‘s No. 38 team in three events and Michael McDowell‘s No. 34 team in one race.

 

 

Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to contract extension

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Chase Briscoe has signed a multiyear contract extension to remain at Stewart-Haas Racing, the team announced Thursday.

The length of the deal was not announced.

MORE: A better way to determine the Cup champion?

Briscoe is entering his third Cup season with the team. He won his first series race last year, taking the checkered flag at Phoenix last March. That victory put him in the playoffs. He finished the season ninth in the standings. 

“It’s huge to have stability, with my team and my partner,” Briscoe said in a statement from the team. “It just gives you more confidence. Stewart-Haas Racing is where I want to be for a long time. It’s the place I’ve known longer than anywhere else in my NASCAR career.

“I remember getting signed by Ford in 2017 and I told people, ‘You know, if I could pick one place to be, it would be Stewart- Haas Racing. And if I could drive one car, it would be the 14 car. That would be the ultimate dream.’ And now, here I am.

“SHR has such a great group of people, from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series, and they’ve all just guided me in the right direction. From drivers to crew chiefs to crew members, they’ve always had my back, and that’s been a huge help – just having people believe in you.”

The 28-year-old Briscoe has been with SHR since 2018. He split a limited Xfinity schedule that season between what is now RFK Racing and SHR. He ran full time with SHR in the Xfinity Series in 2019 and ’20 before moving to Cup in 2021.

“Chase has made the most of every opportunity and the proof is in the results. Keeping him at SHR was a priority and we’re proud to have him in our racecars for many more years to come,” said Tony Stewart, who co-owns SHR with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, in a statement from the team. 

Briscoe’s signing comes two weeks after teammate Kevin Harvick announced that this will be his final season in Cup. 

The Cup season begins Feb. 5 with the Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before going to Daytona for the Feb. 19 Daytona 500.