Dr Diandra: Does limited practice limit NASCAR Cup drivers?

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The Next Gen era is perhaps the biggest paradigm shift in NASCAR history: A confluence of owners struggling with rising competition costs, a complete re-imagining of the race car, and COVID putting everything from pit stops to practice back on the drawing board.

Eight races into the 2022 season, the car — and the era — remain works in progress. With minimal practice, the “run what you brung” approach means that Denny Hamlin wins at Richmond one week, and then struggles to finish on the lead lap the next week at Martinsville.

The Next Gen car was supposed to put racing back in the drivers’ hands. But is making a driver’s race so highly dependent on arriving at the track with an as-close-to-perfect set-up as possible really doing that?

NASCAR expands as it contracts

NASCAR, like many companies, has consolidated over the years. That’s more than just going from 43 cars per race to 40.

In 2000, 43 different owners ran at least one Cup-level race. By 2021, that number had dropped to 20, with each owner running more cars. Computer simulations of tires, suspensions and aerodynamics became a pre-requisite for winning, and teams hired engineers. When NASCAR started sharing huge amounts of in-car data, race teams hired data scientists.

Manufacturers were in position to see redundant effort within their teams and find ways to centralize their support. Today, manufacturers play a much more pronounced role in NASCAR.

Nowhere is that role more important than in preparing to race without much practice.

Limiting practice

COVID proved that NASCAR could get by with less practice — but not zero practice. Teams need at least a brief run on the track to eliminate any obvious problems.

Cutting practice sessions makes sense. Shortening race weekends cuts costs for everyone, including fans. Less practice time reduces the likelihood a team needs a backup car, thus saving owners money.

But I always enjoyed following a team’s radio during practices. It’s watching a science experiment in real time. The driver explains how the car feels and the crew chief translates that into a softer spring, a higher tire pressure, or more shock rebound.

That’s gone now. At most tracks, teams get around 15-20 minutes of practice. Qualifying follows without so much as a trip to the garage in-between.

“It’s really not a practice session,” Andy Graves, executive competition engineering, technical director for Toyota Racing Development said. “It’s simply a warm-up. It does give you a little bit of an idea and you’re able to walk away from that and do some work overnight.”

But, he explained, even if you can glean information from a short time on track, there isn’t much teams can do with it. Most of the set-up is locked-in at the shop. Make too many changes and you start the race from the back.

“You certainly don’t have as many tuning knobs as you did when we had two and three practice sessions,” Richard Johns, performance engineer at Ford Performance, said.

Not everyone misses those extended practice sessions.

“I love it,” Eric Warren, Chevrolet director of NASCAR programs, said. “I see it as a challenge. It puts a premium on getting your performance right from the start.”

Of course, Chevrolet has won five of the eight races thus far in 2022. They won 19 of 36 races in 2021, when there was even less practice. Chevrolet’s changes, including Warren’s hiring in 2019, were propelled by owners and team members who had developed personal relationships despite being fierce competitors.

A stacked vertical bar graph showing the number of manufacturer wins by year from 2001-2022

The rising role of manufacturers

With Ford and Chevy each running 15 full-time cars, you would expect them to have a huge advantage in figuring out the Next Gen. But more isn’t always better.

“There’s a point where there’s too many teams and you’re dividing attention and resources,” Warren said. On the other hand, “Different people look at data from different angles. We need those other viewpoints.”

The Next Gen car’s sole-source parts facilitate cooperation among teams with the same manufacturer.

“There’s a lot less secretive stuff in the chassis and the body,” Johns said. “The communication is far more open.”

Toyota’s support model has always focused on fewer teams and more concentrated attention. But having only six cars and two teams in Cup means that Toyota faces the same challenge as their competitors, but with one-third the data from each race.

“I think with the old car,” Graves said, “it was more of a benefit for us to have fewer teams. But right now, everyone’s drinking out of a firehose and you’re so desperate for every piece of data you can get.”

“The first half of the year has been character building,” Graves said. “But I don’t really feel like I need any more character.”

Simulated practice

The manufacturers’ most significant contributions to their teams are in areas that are simply too large and expensive for a single team to pursue on their own. First on that list are driver simulators. And that returns us to the question of putting racing back in the drivers’ hands.

Simulators attempt to replicate the feel and response of a specific car set-up at a particular track. A manufacturer’s driver simulator is to a video game as the Mona Lisa is to a stick figure.

Building the physical simulator isn’t that hard. The real power is the ones and zeros driving the machinery.

“It’s gone from a lot less working on hardware,” Graves said, “and it’s become software warfare.”

That ‘warfare’ extends to engineers creating computer models of their ‘soldiers’. Most develop a generic driver model that can be specialized to incorporate each driver’s specific preferences. The data for those virtual drivers comes from the real drivers behind the simulator wheel.

Drivers use the simulator before and after a race. The sessions before prepare the driver to race and help engineers determine optimal setups. The after-race sessions tell the engineers what did and didn’t work so they can modify the simulation software.

“They (the drivers) understand that the more that they can dedicate their time to help us, it will pay off in the long run,” Graves said.

And that is where drivers play an even bigger role than they played back when they were dialing in cars during multiple practice sessions at the track.

“I think that it does put it back in the hands of the drivers,” Johns argues. “It’s just in a little bit different manner.”

Drivers can be even more integral contributors to determining that initial setup. Their work just happens on a simulator instead of at the track.

“Our guys are buying into it as we make our tools better,” Johns said. “The driver really needs to be on top of what they’re feeling and what they need.”

Johns suspects the reason so many younger drivers have won early in the season is that they’re more experienced translating what they feel in the simulator to the real car.

Toyota’s Graves agrees. But he expects the veteran drivers to catch up.

“Maybe some of the younger guys have adapted a little bit faster or quicker,” he said. “I think the second half of the year, you’re gonna see a combination of youth and experience that’s gonna make up the top pack of drivers that start moving away.”

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.