Should NASCAR call cautions before it rains to avoid potential incidents?

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — With some drivers suggesting so, is it time for NASCAR officials to call cautions before it rains at oval tracks?

Daniel Suarez said that NASCAR should have thrown a caution for rain before at least 15 cars crashed in Turn 1 because of a wet track at Daytona International Speedway. Denny Hamlin cited the need for “better officiating” after being involved in that accident.

Sunday’s race marked the third time since October 2020 that rain contributed to an incident on an oval while a Cup race was under green flag conditions. 

In October 2020, Kevin Harvick hit the wall while leading at Texas in the mist. Hamlin’s car lost traction and went up the track without hitting the wall the lap before Harvick’s incident. Cole Custer slid up the track and nearly hit the wall a few laps after Harvick’s accident. The race continued for a few more laps before rain stopped the event.

In July 2021, Kyle Busch, who was leading, and Martin Truex Jr., who was second, both slid in Turn 1 in the rain at New Hampshire on the sixth lap. Hamlin’s car also spun. Busch told NBC Sports after the incident that the race started in a mist and “never should have went green to begin with.” 

Sunday at Daytona, storm clouds could be seen near the track and radar showed rain nearby. 

“We knew the rain was coming,” Suarez said. “It was raining next door. It’s just a matter of time. Why wait for it? I don’t know.”

Hamlin said: “We’ll learn from this, I’m sure.”

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told NBC Sports: “We were on top of the weather, monitoring with all of our turn spotters, in touch with the spotters up top, the pace car. We had all the information that we thought. We had been dodging a little bit of weather, obviously, for a little while. Nothing had hit. All of a sudden there was that shower.

“The pace car, sitting down there on the inside, it was still dry when they wrecked. If you watch the in-car (camera), you can see that some rain definitely started right before they wrecked. We really couldn’t do anything about that, and it was not something that you can predict when it is going to start raining.

“Just a super-bad situation for everybody.”

That three such incidents happened within two years raises questions about how lenient NASCAR should be to allow racing in any wet conditions, especially with how NASCAR has reacted to rain at road courses. 

Series officials were criticized by drivers last year at Circuit of the Americas when rain and the spray from the cars blinded drivers and created multiple accidents. Harvick called it “the most unsafe thing I’ve ever done in a race car by a lot.”

At Watkins Glen earlier this month, cars were on track preparing to start the race despite puddles. While some drivers said they were for starting the race, officials sent the cars back to pit road to allow for more work on the wet track. Engines were re-fired about 25 minutes after cars were brought to pit road.

“Had we gone green while it was raining, probably would have been difficult like it was at COTA,” said Watkins Glen winner Kyle Larson. “It was nice they brought us down pit road and kind of waited for the rain to stop and blew that layer of thick wetness off the track.”

Lesson learned from COTA. Is there a lesson to be learned after Texas, New Hampshire and Daytona? That rain impacted races on a 1.5-mile, 1-mile and a 2.5-mile speedway shows the need for vigilance at every style track. 

It would be no fun for fans to see a race under caution if there had yet to be any rain on the track or merely raindrops, but NASCAR’s No. 1 responsibility is to the safety of the drivers.

Every driver in the incident caused by the rain at Daytona was cleared from the infield care center, but that didn’t mean the impacts were light. 

Already this season, drivers have talked about how they are feeling the impacts more the new car even as data shows the hits aren’t any harder than with last year’s car. That suggests drivers are feeling more of the hits and that can cause injuries. Kurt Busch will miss his seventh consecutive Cup race this weekend at Darlington because of concussion-like symptoms suffered in a July 23 accident at Pocono Raceway.

Hamlin said his impact in Sunday’s crash hurt.

“My whole body, literally my jaw hurts,” Hamlin said. “I feel like my jaw was one of those boxers who gets his whole face demolished. That was certainly the first real big one I’ve had in this car. Everything they’ve been telling us (about the impacts), all the other drivers, it’s true.”

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Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks tweeted that Sunday’s race “cost teams collectively about $4 (million).”

It’s easy to see how a few seconds or decisions changed the financial status for some teams by potentially millions.

Had NASCAR called the caution for rain before the field entered Turn 1, then maybe the top 15 cars don’t crash. If so, Austin Dillon doesn’t go from 16th to the lead. 

Dillon went on to win and earn a spot in the playoffs, guaranteeing that he’ll finish no worse than 16th in the points. 

With the charter system, teams earn money based on multiple categories: Entering a race, historical performance over the past three seasons, the traditional points fund and race results.

Dillon’s win means he’ll make the playoffs for the second time in three years. His team will be entitled to more money in upcoming years the further he goes in this year’s playoffs. 

“It can be, for sure, a $1 million day,” car owner Richard Childress said after Dillon’s win.

Just as Richard Childress Racing celebrated a win and a financial boost, Martin Truex Jr.’s Joe Gibbs Racing team will feel the pain of missing the playoffs for the next three seasons.

Truex had finished second, seventh and second in points the past three years, making the historical payments to the No. 19 team among the best in the sport, raising the value of the team’s charter. 

With 14 cars eliminated by the accident caused by the rain, that allowed Ryan Blaney to move ahead of those cars despite being laps down after his car was damaged in an earlier incident. Truex also had damage from a separate incident. Truex started the final stage 10 points behind Blaney for what would be the final playoff spot. 

With so few cars on track, it made it harder for Truex to be 11 positions ahead of Blaney to earn the playoff spot. He fell three points short and now cannot finishes better than 17th in the points. That will impact the historical payment to the team starting next season. 

It comes in a season where Joe Gibbs Racing has yet to announce a sponsor for the No. 18 car for next year. Mars Inc., which reportedly pays $20 million or more to fund the car, is not returning after this season. That leaves Kyle Busch’s future with the team in doubt.

Had NASCAR decided to call the race after that accident, instead of waiting 3 hours, 19 minutes to resume the event, Truex would have been in the playoffs and Blaney out. Truex was fourth at the time, while Blaney was 18th. 

By running the final 21 laps, Blaney — despite being six laps down — passed those cars that could not continue and finished 15th, while Truex fell to eighth with his damaged car.

Dr. Diandra: How much does Talladega shake up the playoffs?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for shaking up the playoffs. But how well deserved is that reputation?

Playoff drivers usually view the first race in the second round of the playoffs as the best chance to earn points, earn stage points and maybe even a win given that Talladega is the second race. Now that Texas is in the rear-view mirror, let’s turn our data analysis tools to Talladega.

The shake-up index

Determining how much one race shuffles the playoffs standings requires a simple metric that is applicable to all the years NASCAR has had stages and playoffs. In a rare point of consistency, Talladega has remained the 31st race of the season since 2017, when stage racing started.

After trying a couple different approaches, I finally settled on playoff rankings. These rankings are a zero-sum game. For each driver who moves up a position, another driver must move down.

The first graph is playoff ranking as a function of race for the second playoff segment of 2021. It’s a bit of a mess, but stay with me.

A scatter graph of rank changes to help determine how much shaking-up Talladega actually does

Playoff rank runs along the left side of the graph. The highest ranked driver is at the top and the 12th ranked at the bottom.

The leftmost set of dots shows the rankings coming out of Bristol, after eliminating the lowest four drivers and re-seeding the rest. The second column of dots show the rankings after Las Vegas, which was the first race in the second round in 2021.

Each driver is represented in a different color, with lines connecting his rankings. For example, the dark purple lines show Denny Hamlin rising from third to first over these three races. The light blue lines at the bottom show Alex Bowman plummeting from seventh to 12th.

The messier the lines between two races, the more the playoffs were shaken up. Because it’s hard to quantify “messiness,” I counted each time one driver’s line crossed another driver’s line.

Each crossing indicates two drivers changed places in the rankings. The number of intersections between Bristol and Las Vegas, for example, tells you how much Las Vegas shook up the standings.

Three intersecting lines count as three shake-ups because there are three pairs of drivers crossing.

In 2021, Las Vegas had nine intersections, Talladega 13 and the Roval only five. This seems consistent with our hypothesis that Talladega is the biggest shaker-upper in the second round.

Talladega Timeline

In addition to being only one point, the 2021 Talladega contest poses another problem. Bubba Wallace won the rain-shortened race, which went 311 miles instead of the scheduled 500 miles.

That raises the possibility that 2021 might not be the most representative year for Talladega races. I therefore repeated the analysis going back to 2017. Since we didn’t have stage racing — and thus stage points — before 2017, it doesn’t make sense to compare previous years.

The table below shows the shake-up index from 2017-2021. Note that the first and third races changed from year to year.

A table summarizing the shake-up index for Talladega and other races in the second playoff round from 2017-2021

This five years of data show that Talladega wasn’t always the race that most shook-up this round of playoffs. From 2017-19, Dover and Charlotte held that honor. That’s surprising, especially in 2017. That’s the year 26 of 40 cars failed to finish the Talladega race and NASCAR parked Jimmie Johnson and Matt DiBenedetto.

In 2020, the three races had just about equal shake-up indices.

The Roval has been the third playoff race for only two years. It was equally chaotic with Talladega in terms of affecting the standings in 2020, but less so in 2021. Kansas beat the Roval for switching up the playoff standings twice.

 A caveat for the first race

If you’re surprised to see a larger shake-up for the first race in the second round of the playoffs, you’re not alone.

The 2021 fall Las Vegas race was remarkably uneventful. There were only two DNFs, both non-playoff cars. And one single-car accident that, again, didn’t involve a playoff car. Yet it had a shake-up index of nine.

It turns out that this is a side-effect of the re-seeding protocol.

The graph below shows the same time period as the rankings graph, but reports total points for the top-12 drivers.

A scatter plot showing how points changed for the top-12 playoff drivers in 2021 in the second round of the playoffs

Immediately after re-seeding, the drivers are separated by 57 points from first to 12th. If you omit Kyle Larson’s 30-point lead, the bottom 11 drivers are separated by only 27 points.

Since a driver can earn a maximum of 60 points in a single race, the first race in a round has a lot more impact in changing the standings. In effect, the first race decompresses the re-seeding compression.

After Las Vegas, the 12 playoff drivers were separated by 78 points. After Talladega, the margin grew to 98 points.

The larger numbers for the first races in any round are more due to the re-seeding-induced points compression than to the nature of the track.

Applied to 2022

Drivers don’t have to win at Talladega. They just have to finish ahead of the other playoff drivers. In fact, if a given driver can’t win, the next best case for him is if none of the other playoff drivers win, either.

The largest drop in positions a driver has seen from Talladega is five — and that’s from the rain-shortened 2021 race. On the other hand, drivers have also seen as much as an eight-position gain in the standings following Talladega. That gain was after the 2017 race where more than half the field failed to finish, but at least one driver has come out of the fall Talladega race each of the last four years up at least three positions.

As far as the stats for this year’s second round playoffs so far: Last week’s Texas race had a shake-up index of 14. That’s higher than all but the first year of the stage-racing playoff era.

And the William Byron penalty (which Hendrick Motorsports is contesting) has a shake-up index of seven.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.