Dr. Diandra: Avoiding accidents at superspeedways is more art than science

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Avoiding accidents is a top priority for every driver in Saturday’s regular-season-ending race (7 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock) at Daytona International Speedway.

But there’s no scientific way to do it.

Superspeedway statistics

In 2021, 136 caution-causing accidents and spins involved 263 cars in the Cup Series. The four superspeedway races accounted for 17 accidents, which is 12.5% of the season total.

Accidents at those four races, however, involved 96 cars. That’s 36.5% of the total number of cars involved in accidents, even though superspeedways made up only 11.1% of the schedule.

When it comes to multi-car accidents, Daytona and Talladega are overachievers.

Between 2001 and 2021, 86 superspeedway races produced 416 accidents involving 1,986 cars. Only 2 of those 86 races went accident-free. Both were at Talladega: the 2001 spring race and the 2002 fall race.

Daytona is slightly more conducive to crashes and spins than Talladega. Daytona averaged 4.93 accidents per race from 2001-2021, while Talladega averaged 3.65.

The most accidents in a single superspeedway race is 12, at the 2011 Daytona 500. Forty-one cars were involved in accidents. That includes cars involved in more than one accident.

The ‘Big One’ isn’t the biggest threat to playoff hopes

While the “Big One” gets the most attention, most superspeedway incidents involve only a few cars.

  • 31.0% of Daytona and Talladega incidents between 2001 and 2021 involved only one car.
  • 16.5% of the accidents and spins involved two cars.
  • That means almost half the accidents involved no more than two cars.
  • 56.8% of accidents at superspeedways involved three or fewer cars.
  • About 20% of superspeedway crashes involved seven or more cars.
  • Only 4.9% of accidents involved 15 or more cars.

Of course, it doesn’t matter whether a driver is involved in a huge accident or a small one. There’s no correlation between number of cars involved and damage to the cars.

The most cars involved in a single accident is 26. It’s happened three times: twice at summer Daytona races (in 2014 and 2018), and at the 2005 spring Talladega race.

So far this year, Daytona and Talladega have had nine accidents involving a total of 35 cars. The largest accident collected nine cars, but 55.5% of the accidents involved three cars or less.

Finding a safe place

Predicting which running positions are safest is a stout order. A meaningful statistical analysis might be possible if one had access to NASCAR’s raw SMT data, which tracks cars via GPS. Loop data isn’t sufficient because drivers can gain or lose a half-dozen positions in a matter of seconds.

Even with multiple camera angles, using video to determine where cars were running when an accident starts is difficult. It’s also tremendously time-consuming, especially pinning down the positions of cars at the rear of the field.

But even with that data, no strategy guarantees a driver can avoid accidents. The system — thirty-some-odd cars, their drivers and their spotters — is complex enough to make modeling impossible.

Here’s exhibit one for why you can’t predict which cars will be impacted by an accident. The incident is from last year’s summer Daytona race.

A video showing part of an accident at the summer 2021 Daytona race

I slowed the video to highlight how Martin Truex Jr. missed at least four cars on his way to hitting William Byron. Kyle Busch, running immediately ahead of Truex, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., running right behind him, both escaped damage. The cars immediately in front of and behind Byron avoided accidents, as well.

Truex came back down the track — again, missing a number of cars on the way — and clipped Tyler Reddick. Reddick had been running P24.

A video showing the second part of a crash at Daytona in 2021

The driver in P13 took out the driver in P16, yet everyone two rows ahead and two rows behind them avoided contact.

The ‘Big One’ is usually several ‘Little Ones’

Cars brake or scatter to avoid accidents, but some of these cars spin and/or get hit by other cars that are also trying to avoid contact.

In the Daytona incident, a cluster of drivers running in P25-P27 dodged the initial accident — only to be hit by the P22 car after it spun and hit the wall.

A video showing the secondary accidents at the summer 2021 Daytona race

The upper-right corner at the end of the video shows the P36 car, which spun trying to avoid the accident.

An accident starting at P13 affected eight cars between P16 and P36 — but not in any logical or predictable order. A moment’s hesitation, or a choice to go high instead of low, could easily have changed which cars were damaged and which weren’t.

Front-of-field crashes

Increased blocking by leaders produces more accidents at the front of the field, potentially exposing more cars to damage.

Exhibit two is a 12-car accident from this spring’s Atlanta race. I chose it over Talladega or Daytona because the incident happened only a lap after a restart. The cars were pretty well ordered, making it easier to figure out who was where when the accident started.

An annotated video showing a crash from the first Atlanta race in 2022

The still below shows the order of the first few rows of cars before the accident. Red indicates the car that initiated the incident. Orange circles show cars that were damaged, while cars with green circles avoided damage.

An annotated still from the 2022 spring Atlanta race showing which cars made it through a front-of-the-field accident

There’s no rhyme or reason as to which cars make it through and which don’t. The crash kinetics depend on how quickly spotters and drivers react.

Just being in proximity to an accident doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be part of it.

Because the bulk of the Atlanta accident happened on the frontstretch, cars running the lower lane had a slight advantage. They had more space to get away from each other. Cars running against the wall didn’t have that option. But, as the video shows, the lower lane wasn’t entirely immune.

Staying ahead of accidents

Staying ahead of the instigators should, in principle, ensure a driver avoids accidents. But sometimes even that doesn’t work.

In the 2022 Daytona 500, the car running P39 lost a wheel. Twenty positions ahead, the P19 and P20 cars collided. One apparently anticipated the caution coming out faster than the other.

And there’s no staying in front of the accident when the leader causes it. Given the stakes for tonight’s race, expect plenty of blocking, especially at stage ends. Those battling for the remaining playoff positions might consider forgoing stage points so they survive to the end of the race.

There are no safe places on superspeedways.

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.