Drivers raise safety concerns after Kurt Busch accident

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INDIANAPOLIS — Kevin Harvick questions how much NASCAR is prioritizing safety in light of driver complaints about feeling harder impacts this year and Kurt Busch missing his second consecutive race due to concussion-like symptoms.

But the lead safety official for NASCAR says “we’re always looking at ways to make things better.”

Some drivers told NBC Sports last month that they felt harder impacts this year with the Next Gen car than with the previous car. More drivers spoke up about the matter Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“The concerns that the drivers have just haven’t seemed to resonate into a really, really quick response into trying to make  that better,” Harvick said. “That’s concerning. I know that everybody will tell you that they’re working on it. 

“I don’t think they understand the extent of it and actually the extent of how bad it is when you hit stuff. … I don’t think anybody really understands, except for the drivers that have crashed into something, the violence that comes in the car. It doesn’t seem to be a high enough priority to me.”

NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton told NBC Sports on Sunday morning: “We’re going to make a safe race car. We’re going to make a car that puts on a good race. A lot of people were involved with us on this Next Gen car. We’re halfway or better through the season. We’ve had some accidents with it.

“We’ve done a lot of testing with it. I don’t know if I agree with some of the evaluations of it from the drivers’ perspective. There’s a lot of newness with this car that takes some getting used to, but we’ve not going to have an unsafe car on the race track.”

John Patalak, managing director of safety engineering for NASCAR, told NBC Sports earlier this month that crash data this year looks similar to past years. Drivers acknowledge that but say they are feeling the impacts more.

A particular concern is when a car backs into the wall. Changes to the rear have stiffened some areas compared to the previous car. 

“From the get-go, everybody could see that this car was way too stiff,” Harvick said. “When I crashed it (at Auto Club Speedway in practice), I thought the car was destroyed and it barely backed the bumper off. It just felt like somebody hit you with a hammer.”

Christopher Bell said he had a headache after he backed into the wall in the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway in May. Busch also backed into the wall at Pocono before his car snapped and made a second impact on the right side. 

“The car is not off-limits,” Patalak told NBC Sports about possible safety improvements. “We are actively looking at ways, we’re always looking at ways to make things better. We just shared with the drivers some simulation work we’ve done for rear impacts, looking at car structure. … We’re always investigating (the car), looking at how it performs on the racetrack and see what we can do better.” 

Drivers became more vocal this weekend about safety after Busch’s accident at Pocono. There is a belief in the garage that a series of impacts this year for Busch contributed to his injury. Denny Hamlin, co-owner of Busch’s car, said that Busch “has taken a lot of hits over 25 Gs. The body can only take so much.”

“Just unfortunate for Kurt,” 23XI Racing teammate Bubba Wallace said. “You never know which hit can trigger it, right? That happened to be the one. I look back at my hit at Atlanta, and numbers-wise that was the hardest hit of my career and I was ready to climb back the next day. Crazy how it works out.”

Daniel Suarez remains confident that NASCAR will find solutions for the drivers.

“It is a bit concerning that the impact that our friend Kurt Busch had in Pocono had this kind of results,” Suarez said. “The impact didn’t look that hard, but NASCAR has a very big group of smart people working on that, and I’m sure they’re going to find answers to the questions we have.”

Corey LaJoie is on the Drivers Advisory Council that is led by NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton. LaJoie and Joey Logano, a fellow board member of the council, are spearheading the council’s safety efforts.

LaJoie told NBC Sports that among additional areas that are being examined are the SAFER barrier, helmets and mouthguard accelerometers. 

LaJoie said NASCAR may remove some pieces of foam behind the SAFER barrier at some tracks to allow the barrier to give more and potentially absorb more of an impact. NASCAR also is looking at some different padding in helmets, similar to some changes made to football helmets. LaJoie was among four drivers who raced last week with a mouthguard accelerometer, which is used to gather data on how a crash impacts a driver. 

“It’s easy to point at the car, the car, the car, but the car is built for the outlier crashes, the T-bone wreck where it’s considerably safer,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “In pretty much every area it is safer.

“But the problem is when you back one like Kurt did at Pocono, the rear, the transaxle, the way it is, and the reinforced fuel cell the way it is now in this car and how the rear clip is constructed, the previous car you back into the fence and whole rear clip would buckle underneath the rear end housing. … You had a foot and a half of crush, and now you get eight inches of crush and that’s a big difference on dispersing the energy.”

Mike Hembree contributed to this story

Jesse Iwuji Motorsports seeks $4.125 million in lawsuit against sponsor

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Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team, has filed a $4.125-million lawsuit against Equity Prime Mortgage, one of the team’s sponsors.

In the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the team alleges that EPM committed a breach of contract. JIM alleges that EPM agreed to pay the team $2.25 million for sponsorship in the 2022 season and $3.75 million for 2023.

The lawsuit attempts to recoup what Jesse Iwuji Motorsports calls two missed payments totaling $375,000 from 2022 and the $3.75 million for 2023. The filing of the lawsuit was first reported by TobyChristie.com.

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The team scored one top-10 finish in 30 Xfinity starts in 2022. The team’s cars were driven by Kyle Weatherman and Iwuji. Weatherman had a best finish of eighth; Iwuji’s best run was an 11th.

The team was founded by Iwuji, former National Football League player Emmitt Smith and a group of investors.

The lawsuit claims that an EPM executive informed the team in September 2022 that EPM had been “margin called” and was dealing with problems because of rising mortgage rates and that EPM could not make any more payments to Jesse Iwuji Motorsports .

According to the lawsuit, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports sent EPM a Notice of Intent to terminate the sponsorship agreement after the payment due Oct. 1 was missed. The suit claims EPM “took no action” after EPM offered 30 days to remedy the situation.

The suit also claims EPM “allegedly continued to take advantage of their status as a sponsor of the NASCAR Xfinity Series team, as EPM continued to make promotional posts on social media, which featured the company’s logo on the JIM race car.”

EPM is based in Atlanta.

Dr Diandra: The best driver of 2022

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NASCAR’s elimination playoff format means that the driver with the best statistics — arguably the “best driver of 2022” — doesn’t always win the championship.

Races unfinished

Drivers involved in a lot of crashes also failed to finish a lot of races. But not all accidents end drivers’ races. Comparing accidents and spins to DNF (did not finish) totals helps gauge how serious those incidents were.

Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were involved in the most accidents for a single driver with 15 caution-causing crashes each. The difference is that Chastain had only five DNFs (33.3%), while Stenhouse had nine (60.0%).

Ty Dillion tied Stenhouse for the most DNFs in the series with nine DNFs and 10 accidents.

Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Corey LaJoie tied for third place with eight DNFs each. Reddick had 10 accidents, while Dillon and LaJoie were each involved in 11 crashes.

No driver avoided DNFs entirely. Among full-timers, Michael McDowell had the fewest DNFs in 2022 with two. Justin Haley and Ryan Blaney tied for second with three DNFs each.

In 2021, only Denny Hamlin finished every race running. This year he had five DNFs, with four in the first nine races.

This year’s 225 DNFs are up significantly from 179 in 2021. and the most DNFs since 2017. I’ll be watching in 2023 to see if the rise in DNFs continues, or if this was a one-time phenomenon due to the first year with a new car.

Wins

“Best driver” doesn’t necessarily mean most wins.

This year’s champion, Joey Logano, didn’t have the most wins. That’s not at all uncommon in NASCAR. With 19 different winners in 2022, no driver dominated the season the way Kyle Larson did in 2021 with 10 wins.

The winningest drivers in 2022 were: Chase Elliott (five wins) and Logano (four wins). Christopher Bell, Larson and Reddick tied for third with three wins each.

Top-five and top-10 finishes

While wins matter more than good finishes, the number of top-five and top-10 finishes show how close a driver got to taking home the checkered flag. Running up front means being there to take advantage of other drivers’ mistakes and misfortune.

In 2021, Larson had the most top-five finishes (20) and the most top-10 finishes (26). This year, good finishes were much more spread out.2022's best drivers in terms of top-five and top-ten finishes

Chastain deserves a special shoutout for having 13 more top-10 finishes than he earned in 2021.

Also deserving of a shoutout, but for different reasons: Hamlin had the same number of wins this year as last, but nine fewer top-five finishes. William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. also had nine fewer finishes in the top five.

Logging laps

While Truex didn’t make the championship race, he did tie Elliott for the most lead-lap finishes in the season with 29, or 80.6% of starts. Blaney, Byron and Kevin Harvick each had 28 lead-lap finishes.

Elliott led the most laps in 2022 with 857. He’s followed by Logano (784), Byron (746), Chastain (692) and Blaney (636).

I remain slightly wary of metrics that purport to measure quickness because so much of a car’s speed depends on where in the field it’s running. Lap traffic, or even being far back in the field, can slow fast cars. That’s especially true at short tracks.

For completeness, however, the next two tables show the drivers’ numbers of fastest laps and those with the best rank in green-flag speed according to NASCAR’s loop data.

Two tables showing the drivers with the most fastest laps and the highest rank in green-flag speedChampion Logano ranked 11th in fastest laps with 319, and eighth in overall green-flag speed with an average ranking of 9.281.

Best Finishes

The tables below show drivers’ rankings throughout the season for average finishes and average running position.

Two tables comparing 2022's best drivers in terms of average finish and average running position

Elliott ranks first in both average finish and running position. Chastain takes second for best average finish and fourth for best average running position, while Blaney is second for running position and fourth for finishing position.

Logano finished 2022 third in both metrics.

Passing

NASCAR defines a quality pass as a pass for position inside the top 15. Interpreting the meaning of the number of passes is a little tricky. A driver who runs up front a lot doesn’t make many quality passes because he doesn’t need to.

I focus instead on the percentage of quality passes: the fraction of all green-flag passes that qualify as quality passes. A higher percentage means that the driver is efficient: The passes mean something.

Elliott scores first in percentage of quality passes with 63.4%, just edging out Bell, who has 63.3% quality passes. Larson is third with 61.2%.

Who was the best driver in 2022?

I combined the metrics I think matter most for determining the best driver in the table below. I color-coded drivers who appear in the top five in more than one metric to make it easier to see patterns.

A table showing the top five in each of the metrics discussed in the hopes of identifying 2022's best driver.

This table confirms that the NASCAR playoffs format did a good job identifying the top four drivers in the series. Elliott, Logano, Chastain and Bell are well-represented in the top five in each metric.

The table also shows that Larson and Blaney contended strongly in 2022. With a slightly different distribution of luck, one (or both) might have found their way to the Championship Four.

Logano’s consistency is also evident, even though he doesn’t rank first in any of these metrics and fails to make the table in top-five finishes or quality passes. It’s not uncommon for the driver with the most wins not to win the championship. And this year has been anything but common.

But overall, it’s hard not to argue that Elliott had the statistically best year. He led the series in wins, laps led, average finish, average running position and percent quality passes. If his playoffs had been comparable to his regular season, he would have taken the trophy.

But they weren’t and he didn’t. That may have ended the 2022 season on a down note for the No. 9 team, but they can look forward to 2023 knowing they have a strong base on which to build.

While skill is reproducible, luck isn’t.

Kaz Grala, Connor Mosack join Sam Hunt Racing for 2023

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Kaz Grala is scheduled to run the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule for Sam Hunt Racing in 2023.

Connor Mosack will drive a second Hunt car — No. 24 — in 20 races for the team. Grala will drive the No. 26 Toyota.

The new season will mark Grala’s first as a full-time Xfinity driver.

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“I’ve scratched and clawed for each opportunity over the past several seasons, and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s made me appreciate this sport and its difficulty more than I ever could if things had been easy,” Grala said in a statement released by the team. “I feel like everything has finally come together at the perfect time in my life with the right team around me to start that next chapter in my career.”

Grala, 23, has scored five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 44 Xfinity starts. He has raced in all three NASCAR national series and won a Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2017.

Allen Hart will be Grala’s crew chief.

Mosack, who will begin his schedule at Phoenix Raceway March 11, was the CARS Tour rookie of the year in 2020. He drove in two Xfinity and two Truck races in 2022.

Kris Bowen will be Mosack’s crew chief. The team said it will announce other drivers for the 24 car later.

 

Ryan Truex to drive six races for JGR Xfinity team in 2023

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Ryan Truex is scheduled to run six Xfinity Series races in the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023.

Truex ran five races for JGR in 2022, finishing in the top five three times. He ran third at Atlanta.

Truex also drove limited Xfinity schedules for JGR in 2011 and 2012.

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“We are looking forward to having Ryan back in our lineup in 2023 to run the No. 19,” said JGR vice president Steve DeSouza in a statement released by the team. “He has done well in the races he has run at JGR. His previous experience and driving ability will be assets as the No. 19 competes for an owner’s championship next year.”

JGR has not announced which races Truex will run or which drivers will be his teammates in the 19.

“I am thrilled to be behind the wheel of the No. 19 for a few races next season,” Truex said in a team statement. “It was fun to run well with this team this past year. I appreciate the opportunity to race for JGR again next year.”

Jason Ratcliff will be the team’s crew chief.

Truex, 30, has run 26 Cup, 84 Xfinity and 73 Camping World Truck Series races without a win.