Friday 5: Will Darlington finish change how drivers race on big tracks?

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Three times in the last seven Cup races, contact among the leaders in the final laps changed who won.

Joey Logano’s shove, which knocked William Byron out of the lead and into the wall last weekend at Darlington Raceway, was different. Previous duels at the end of races were at short tracks or a road course, not an oval more than 1 mile in length. 

With 10 winners in the first 12 races and eight of the remaining 14 regular-season races at tracks more than 1 mile in length, is the game changing? Is contact becoming acceptable on tracks more than 1 mile in length?

Typically, contact is limited at bigger tracks because of the speeds and the potential for injury. As drivers continue to emerge from cars after big hits without serious injury, their aggression escalates. Add that a victory puts a driver in a playoff position and drivers become more daring.

Eight of this season’s 12 Cup races has had an incident either coming to the white flag, on the final lap or as the field crossed the finish line. The Daytona 500, Auto Club Speedway, Atlanta, Talladega and Darlington — all tracks more than 1 mile in length — had such late-race contact.

As the series hits the halfway mark of the regular season this weekend, eight of the 16 drivers who won a race last year have yet to win, which adds to the building pressure.

“If you get a run and you can get a guy up the track, you probably do it,” said Austin Dillon, who holds what would be the final playoff spot heading into Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway, a 1.5-mile track.

“It’s much tougher at a mile and a half not to take yourself out of the race as well. I feel like there’s usually plenty of room at a mile and a half. You’ve seen some slide jobs go wrong at mile and a halves. Those type of opportunities are kind of the only way to make something happen when it comes to going for it on the last lap.

“Moving a guy for the win, I think that’s what NASCAR has put together with this playoff system — that wins mean so much. You do what it takes when it comes down to it to go Victory Lane. I think everybody’s organization would be upset if they didn’t.”

That mindset has been a part of the reoccurring storyline this season. Consider:

Logano, upset with Byron for forcing him into the wall on a restart as they raced for the lead, drove “angry” and got to the back of Byron’s car with less than two laps to go at Darlington. Logano later said that “I’m not going to be bullied” and responded by ramming the back of Byron’s car. Logano got by for the win. Byron hit the wall and finished 13th.

Chase Briscoe, who had already won this year at Phoenix, was second to Tyler Reddick on the last lap in the dirt race at Bristol when Briscoe charged into Turn 3. He wasn’t close to passing Reddick and slid, making contact with Reddick and spinning both. Kyle Busch, who was third, passed both to win. Reddick was second. Briscoe placed 22nd. 

At Circuit of the Americas, AJ Allmendinger chased down leader Ross Chastain on the last lap and bumped him to take the lead. Chastain responded by making contact with Allmendinger. That moved Allmendinger’s car up the track and into Alex Bowman. Chastain passed both to win. Bowman finished second. Allmendinger placed 33rd after spinning on the final corner from the contact.

NASCAR did not penalize any driver in those incidents.

“Based on our past history, we haven’t gotten in the middle of that,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week about how the sanctioning body officiates last-lap contact among the leaders.

“That is a very, very difficult thing to get in the middle. What’s right? What’s wrong? Where’s the line? Do you give the win to another driver? There’s just so many moving parts to that unless it’s just a guy who comes from half a straightaway back and cleans three cars out and wins the race. It’s really difficult for us to get up in the middle and draw that line.

“Really, the alternative would be become a no-contact sport. I don’t think the fans would appreciate that. I don’t really think the drivers would appreciate that, either.”

Briscoe says what happened last weekend at Darlington might not happen at all bigger tracks.

“I think on the bigger tracks, it’s harder to get to people in general,” he said. “Darlington is a unique place where when you go into (Turn) 3, you’re out of the gas and on the brake, so it makes it a lot easier to get somebody if you’re trying to get to them. 

“A place like Kansas, there’s usually not a huge loss of speed on corner entry, so it’s going to be a lot harder, I feel like, to do things on a bigger thing. At a track like Homestead, where you do have to slow down a lot more on the corner entry, I think it would be possible.

“Obviously, wins are important. A lot of guys have won already this year. I think that opportunity to point your way in is not really going to be there like it has been in the past. … I think it definitely seems like the last couple of weeks there has been added aggression in how each driver races.”

Logano didn’t express remorse last weekend at Darlington because he said Byron’s actions on the earlier restart changed how aggressive Logano raced him. 

Will there be a point where a driver doesn’t feel bad for winning by contact that wasn’t in retaliation?

“When you’re within range and you’ve got an opportunity with the way it is to pass and what wins mean, you’ve got to do it,” Dillon said of contact at the end. 

“It just sucks when it doesn’t work out. It’s part of the game and how much has been put on winning races. Some might feel bad if it comes down to that. If you can take home a trophy to your organization, all the guys that put in hours on hours and hours of time in these race cars, they’ll probably have your back in the end.”

2. Better days

Austin Dillon was higher in points and had a better average finish after 12 races last year than this year, but he says he’s having a better year this season.

Dillon was 12th in the points at this time last year with 316 points and had an average finish of 13.6. He goes into Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas 14th in the points with 287 points and an average finish of 15.2.

What makes Dillon feel this year is better?  

“We were pretty strong last year, and we kind of got overlooked because we didn’t make the playoffs,” he said. “We were a consistent team all of last year.

“This year, I do feel like we’ve had way more opportunities to win races. I think the disappointing part is that we’ve had more bigger catastrophes at the race track, like getting wrecked at Phoenix and finishing 21st in that race; getting wrecked at Atlanta coming to a stage end for a possibility of top-three points there and blowing up at Daytona and Bristol.

We didn’t have those types of bad days at this point last year. We had a couple more average days, but we’ve also had some bigger days with two second-place finishes (Auto Club Speedway, Talladega) and a third (Martinsville). We’ve definitely had more opportunities to win than last year. 

“My teammate (Tyler Reddick) has two … second-place finishes, as well. If you look at the total of it, we’ve done a good job and should be in victory lane at this point. That’s the disappointing part – I feel like we’ve had some really close calls and not been able to capitalize. That’s why you see us where we’re at in points. I feel confident that we can go to victory lane this year and I think it will happen.”

Between Dillon and Reddick, Richard Childress Racing has more top-five finishes (six) this year than it did  last season. Also, RCR has led nearly three times as many laps this year than last year. 

Dillon and Reddick have combined to finish second in four races. Reddick’s runner-ups came at the dirt race at Bristol and last weekend at Darlington. 

3. Highs and lows 

Just how difficult has it been for teams to get a handle on the new car?

No driver has scored more than five consecutive top-10 finishes in the first 12 races of the season. Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch each have streaks of five top 10s in a row this season.

Compare that to previous years:

  • William Byron had 10 consecutive top 10s in the first 12 races of 2021. Denny Hamlin was next with six top 10s in a row.
  • Kevin Harvick had eight top 10s in a row through the first 12 races of 2020. Brad Keselowski had a streak of seven consecutive top 10s in that span.
  • Busch scored 11 top 10s in a row through the first 12 races of 2019. Hamlin was next with a stretch of seven top 10s in a row.
  • Busch had eight consecutive top 10s through the first 12 races of 2018. Harvick was next with seven top 10s in a row in that span. 

No team has shown how things can change from one week to the next this season than Joey Logano’s team. 

He finished 29th, four laps off the leaders, at Dover. The team responded at Darlington by winning the pole, leading a race-high 107 of 293 laps and winning the race.

“That opportunity was there to get a win, and you have to grab it any chance you can because you just don’t know with this new car,” Logano said at Darlington. 

4. Work to do

JR Motorsports has won the past three Xfinity races. Joe Gibbs Racing won the two before that JRM’s recent streak. The last time a team other than JR Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing won in the Xfinity Series was AJ Allmendinger’s win in late March at Circuit of the Americas for Kaulig Racing.

That’s the only win this year for Kaulig Racing. A year ago, the organization had seven wins, the same number of races JR Motorsports won. JRM has four wins this year.

What’s changed for Kaulig Racing this year?

“I think some of the rule changes that was implemented in the offseason … we just haven’t caught back up,” Chris Rice, president of Kaulig Racing, told NBC Sports. 

“We’re not laying down. … We’re going to work hard to get it fixed before we go to the playoffs. It’s just bad because we only go to Texas (on May 21) and then we hit a stretch of road courses and different style of racetracks. 

“Hopefully, by the time we get back to the mile and a halves after Texas that you’ll see a difference in our cars because we’re really going to put a big push on trying to get better on these style (of tracks).”

Even so, AJ Allmendinger leads the points. He has 464 points. JR Motorsports’ Noah Gragson is next at 439 points. But Allmendinger is the only Kaulig Racing driver in the top 10 in points. Landon Cassill is 11th with 299 points, and reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is 12th with 286 points. 

5. Late moves 

Nine of the first 12 Cup races have been won with a pass for the lead in the final 10 laps. That’s the most ever through 12 Cup races.

Races this season with the final lead change in the last 10 laps:

Daytona 500 — Austin Cindric led the final eight laps

Auto Club — Kyle Larson led the final seven laps

Las Vegas — Alex Bowman led the final three laps

Atlanta — William Byron led the final 10 laps

Circuit of the Americas — Ross Chastain led the final two laps

Richmond — Denny Hamlin led the final five laps

Bristol dirt — Kyle Busch led the final lap

Talladega — Ross Chastain led the final lap

Darlington — Joey Logano led the final two laps

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.”