Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing: A long, sometimes rough, road

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Of the 16 drivers racing Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway to earn spots in the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, one is likely to draw the most attention.

Kyle Busch. And for multiple reasons.

Saturday night’s 500-lap marathon will be Busch’s first Cup race since the Tuesday morning announcement that he will depart Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season to drive in 2023 for Richard Childress Racing.

Busch enters Saturday’s race in a bit of trouble. He is 13th in the 16-driver standings, two points below the cut line. He needs either a win Saturday or a move on the positive side of the cut line to continue pursuit of a third Cup championship in the Round of 12.

A failure to qualify for the playoff’s second round would mark the first time Busch has been eliminated in the opening round, and it would be a major black mark on what will be his final season with JGR and a rather ignominious result for a driver of his caliber.

A collapse in the playoffs would not be the darkest of times for Busch during his 15-year JGR tenure, however. The partnership between one of the sport’s most volatile drivers and the former Super Bowl-winning football coach has been one of amazing highs — dozens of victories and two Cup championships — and embarrassing lows.

That their long ride together has come to an end is a low in itself. Busch figured to close his career in the warm embrace of Toyota and Gibbs; instead, he is moving to a Chevrolet team that has promise but isn’t considered at the sport’s top level.

Instead of breezing into retirement somewhere in his 40s and possibly opening the door for major-series competition for his son, Brexton, Busch faces a bit of rebuilding at RCR, which has two drivers — Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick — in his year’s Cup playoffs but has scored only four wins since 2019 and no Cup championships since 1994.

Busch will arrive at the doorstep of the Childress shop with a history of altercations, including, ironically, a significant one with his new boss. Aggravated at how Busch was racing his Truck Series drivers in 2011, Childress punched Busch several times at Kansas Speedway in 2011, absorbing a $150,000 fine from NASCAR. That incident, quite serious at the moment, was played for laughs at Tuesday’s press conference as Childress presented Busch with a watch, a reference to Childress asking someone to “Hold my watch” before engaging in fisticuffs with Busch 11 years ago.

Even if he misses a crack at another title, however, Busch’s time with the Gibbs team is one of the most remarkable driver-owner success stories in stock car racing history.

He has scored 56 of JGR’s 198 Cup victories and won his two titles (2015 and 2019) in Gibbs cars. Since Busch joined JGR in 2008, his 56 wins top the overall winners list, with Jimmie Johnson (50) and Kevin Harvick (49) next. It is not stretching matters too far to imagine that Busch’s Cup win total with JGR could have been doubled. He has finished second 51 times for the team.

Busch has led a staggering 17,335 laps in JGR Cup cars.

In addition, Busch practically owned the Xfinity Series for a time, winning 90 times in JGR entries and finishing second 40 times.

Pockmarked in that run of success are Busch’s battles with other drivers, crew members, his own crew chiefs, media members and a significant collection of fans. Although Busch has a big fan support group that he has labeled Rowdy Nation, many fans delight in his failures, give him thumbs-down (and other fingers) at driver introductions and even boo his team hauler as it rolls by.

There is not a lot of middle ground in the Kyle Busch landscape.

In 2008 at Richmond Raceway, Busch, newly arrived at JGR after leaving Hendrick Motorsports, which replaced him with Dale Earnhardt Jr., made what Junior’s extensive fan base considered a major no-no. Fighting for position, the two cars crashed, sending Earnhardt Jr. hard into the wall.

That sparked a feud that fans of the two drivers were only too happy to pour fuel on. Earnhardt returned the favor in the next race at Richmond, spinning Busch.

Earlier that year, at Atlanta, Busch had scored a historic win, putting Toyota in a Cup victory lane for the first time.

Across the years, Busch’s ride would include more ups and downs:

  • In 2009, he and Tony Stewart tangled at Daytona.
  • At Bristol in 2010, he logged a remarkable achievement, winning the Truck, Xfinity and Cup races there on the same weekend.
  • In 2011, he crashed into Ron Hornaday’s truck at Texas Motor Speedway and was suspended for the rest of that weekend’s racing at the track. At Darlington that season, Busch and Kevin Harvick had an on-track disagreement. Harvick parked beside Busch on pit road and tried to hit him through the driver-side window. Busch moved away in his car, and Harvick’s car, minus its driver, rolled into the pit wall.
  • In 2015, Busch ultimately would win his first Cup title, but the year started under a big cloud when he crashed hard in the February Xfinity race at Daytona, breaking his leg and missing three months of racing.
  • In 2017, Busch, angered by Joey Logano‘s aggressive racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, made a beeline for Logano’s pit after the race and threw a punch at him. A collection of crew members became involved in the scuffle.
  • Busch won his second Cup championship in 2019 and now is the only active driver with more than one title.

Saturday night he continues along the road toward another. And toward the end of the biggest part of his racing journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cup championship: Where are the repeaters?

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When the NASCAR Cup playoffs open Sunday with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, Kyle Busch will be the only driver in the 16-man playoff field with more than one Cup championship.

In fact, Busch, the champion in 2015 and 2019, is the only Cup Series regular – including all playoff and non-playoff drivers – with more than one title.

Additionally, the Cup series has not crowned a back-to-back champion since Jimmie Johnson put together a streak of five straight titles from 2006-10.

MORE: Kyle Busch nearing a decision on his future 

Stacking multiple championships used to be a thing. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Johnson famously totaled seven each, Jeff Gordon got four and Tony Stewart, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson and Lee Petty scored three each.

Yet accomplished current drivers Brad Keselowski (35 race wins), Kevin Harvick (60), Martin Truex Jr. (31) and Joey Logano (29) have not been able to repeat championships.

After winning his championship in 2012, Keselowski immediately put another title on his target list, saying that two-time champions seemed destined for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He’s still waiting, and it won’t happen this year because he missed the playoffs in his first year as an owner-driver.

Hard times for those driving toward top-of-the-mountain streaks and/or multiples.

The championship landscape changed dramatically in 2004 when the Chase format was introduced, limiting the number of drivers eligible to win the title over the final weeks and bringing in the 10-race run to glory. An even bigger change arrived in 2014 with the introduction of round-by-round eliminations and a “final four” group of drivers racing for the title in a top-finisher-takes-all format in the season finale.

The elimination rounds have modified the approach of drivers in the season’s final weeks. It’s not always about winning, although a win automatically means advancing to the next round. Riding a less-than-perfect car to a decent finish and avoiding finishes in the 30s also are big goals.

“You don’t have to win,” said Chase Briscoe, one of four drivers (also Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez and Austin Cindric) participating in the playoffs for the first time. “You can ‘point’ your way there, and that’s something that is hard for me – to realize that you don’t always have to win the race or try to take a 12th-place car and win with it. You have to be able to take a 12th-place car and run ninth with it.”

The bumpy ride through the playoffs has made advancing to the final four and the last race – scheduled again this year at Phoenix Raceway – one of the spotlighted goals for Cup drivers. Much like reaching the Final Four in college basketball, the College Football Playoff or the College World Series, claiming one of the four Championship 4 spots in the Cup Series has become a badge of honor in its own right.

Since 2014, only three drivers – Kyle Busch, Harvick and Truex – have been in the Championship Four five times. Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano have reached the last rung on the ladder four times.

“The format is significantly more challenging,” Cindric said. “It’s how it is. From year to year, you see teams and drivers who are capable of winning a race change. You see that changing throughout the season.”

Since 2004, when Kurt Busch won the first title in the revised version of determining the champion, Hamlin and Harvick own the record for most playoff appearances with 16. Hamlin’s best finish has been second – in 2010.

Ryan Blaney (six), Alex Bowman (five), Austin Dillon (five) and William Byron (four) have been frequent visitors to the playoffs but haven’t won the championship. Of that group, only Blaney and Bowman have reached the round of eight.

On Sunday, the journey to a first championship — or a repeat — begins again.

 

 

 

 

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Darlington Raceway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin this weekend at one of stock car racing’s oldest and toughest tracks — Darlington Raceway.

Originally a 1.25-mile track but later reconfigured to 1.366 miles, Darlington has been a part of the Cup schedule since the 1950 season and typically is ranked by drivers as one of the hardest places to win.

Chase Elliott leads 15 other drivers into the first race of the playoffs — Sunday’s Southern 500.

Austin Dillon won last Sunday’s race at Daytona International Speedway to join the playoff field, and Ryan Blaney took the final playoff spot on points.

Sunday’s race (6 p.m. ET) will be televised by the USA Network.

15 Drivers Chasing Chase

Chase Elliott is one of only five drivers in the playoff field with a championship pedigree. Others are Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson.

Elliott won the title two years ago and, based on seasonal performance, will be the championship favorite rolling into Darlington. He leads the playoff standings with 2,040 points, followed by Logano with 2,025 and Ross Chastain with 2,020.

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. set to race at North Wilkesboro

MORE: NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

The playoff driver with the best victory shot at Darlington, however, is a veteran with zero championships — Denny Hamlin. Sixth-seeded in the playoffs, Hamlin has won four times at Darlington, has finished in the top five in 55% of his Darlington starts and has an impressive average finish of 7.8 at the track, one where a slight misstep can lead to an early exit.

Harvick also has an excellent record at Darlington, having won there three times. He has finished in the top 10 in the past 13 races at the track.

Chevrolet drivers fill eight — half — of the positions on the playoff grid. Ford drivers have five spots and Toyota three.

Larson Has Playoff Punch

Some oddsmakers rate Kyle Larson second only to Chase Elliott in this year’s playoff race, and there’s strong history behind that.

On the way to last year’s championship, Larson won five of the 10 playoff races. Of the past five playoff events, Larson has won four, Alex Bowman being the only driver to break Larson’s run by winning last October at Martinsville.

In last year’s playoffs, Larson won at Bristol, the Charlotte Roval, Texas, Kansas and Phoenix.

Larson is tied Tony Stewart (2011) for the most playoff wins in a season with five.

Hendrick Has Darlington Drought

Although Hendrick Motorsports enters the playoff with four drivers (Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and William Byron), the Chevrolet team has a rough recent history at Darlington Raceway.

Hendrick has a record 14 Cup victories at the 1.366-mile track, but the team hasn’t won there since seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson scored in May 2012.

Hendrick has won 89 Cup races on 26 different tracks since Johnson’s victory.

Chevrolet shares Hendrick’s Darlington frustration. Chevy drivers have not won in the past 11 Darlington races.

Entry lists

The Cup entry list for Darlington contains 36 drivers, including Daniel Hemric, Landon Cassill and JJ Yeley.

Darlington Cup entry list

Thirty-eight drivers are entered for Saturday’s Xfinity race. Cup regulars on the list are Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Ty Dillon and Ross Chastain.

Darlington Xfinity entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Saturday, Sept. 3

Forecast: A few showers early with mostly cloudy conditions later in the day. High of 88. Chance of rain 40%.

  • 10:05 – 10:35 a.m. — Xfinity Series practice (NBC Sports app)
  • 10:35 – 11:30 a.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (NBC Sports app)
  • 12:05 – 12:50 p.m. — Cup Series practice (NBC Sports app)
  • 12:50 – 2 p.m. — Cup Series qualifying (USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports app)
  • 3 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (147 laps, 200 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports app)

Sunday, Sept. 4

Forecast: Partly to mostly cloudy. A stray shower or thunderstorm is possible. High of 89.

  • 6 p.m. — Cup Series race (367 laps, 501 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports app)

Friday 5: Aggressive driving making more of an impact in Cup

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While some might suggest Ross Chastain has hurt his chances of winning the Cup championship because of his aggressive driving this season, maybe the question should be is if that aggressive driving will help Chastain (or any other driver) win the title?

Signs point to a more volatile stretch of racing this season that could make the bumper-car action at Indianapolis seem tame. Consider:

  • Four races remain in the Cup regular season. The only way drivers outside a playoff spot can make it is to win. That can lead to aggression. 
  • The playoffs appear to be as wide open as ever. Making bold moves could be what helps competitors avoid elimination in the early rounds.
  • The durability of the Next Gen car and the challenge of passing make restarts more critical and drivers more open to aggressive behavior. 
  • NASCAR’s mixed message on retaliation leaves the door open for interpretation by each driver. 

Last weekend’s event on the Indianapolis road course proved chaotic because of the track’s setup with a long straightaway preceding a narrow, sharp right-hand turn. 

Ryan Blaney contended for second on the final restart when he was in the middle of a three-wide pack of cars entering Turn 1. Blaney was spun in the entry to Turn 2 on the road course and finished 26th.

“It’s a case of just getting wrecked,” he said after the event. “That’s all people do at the end of these things, just dive in there and wreck you. I don’t know who shoved who and I don’t care, but tires didn’t matter at the end. We restarted top three both times and tires don’t really matter.  

“It’s just a matter of getting through on the restart, but, apparently, that’s a hard thing to ask. People just run over each other … I didn’t have a shot to get to (Tyler Reddick) to try to put the bumper to him or anything like that, just get wiped out. I don’t know. I’m pissed off about it, and I have every damn right to be.”

Blaney’s frustration is understandable. He would have clinched a playoff spot with a victory. Instead, he could still miss the playoffs even though he is second in points going into Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway (3 p.m. ET on USA Network).

Drivers can be more aggressive because of the new car. With the previous version, it wasn’t uncommon for contact to lead to a cut tire. With the Next Gen car, the vehicle is more durable. Cut tires are not as common.

Blaney’s teammate, Austin Cindric, benefitted from that final restart to finish second and noted how the new car allows drivers to charge more. 

“All I can say is wow,” Cindric said after his best finish since winning this year’s Daytona 500. “There’s no other form of racing that you can do that and … get away with it (without significant damage).

“Pretty wild, pretty crazy. … These (cars) are tanks. Absolutely, they are tanks. Yeah, you’ll get the toe bent and it affects the bumps and makes it hard to drive, but as long as I don’t get a flat tire, I’m still digging.”

That’s the mindset throughout the field. 

“Right, wrong or indifferent, you either get or you get got right now in the NASCAR Cup Series,” Corey LaJoie said on Wednesday’s MotorMouths on Peacock. 

Joey Logano said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that drivers essentially have no choice but to be aggressive. 

“These cars all run almost the same speed,” he said. “We all have the same parts and pieces now. There’s only limited things we’re changing to make them faster than the other car, so that just makes it harder to pass. 

“You send it down into the corner and you get out of control, you just go too fast. That’s what you saw in Turn 1 (at Indy) not just on restarts but other times, too. That was the big passing zone. If I don’t pass them here, then I’m stuck behind them for Lord knows how long, so I’ve got to go. That’s what those mistakes are. 

“Is it disrespect? I don’t know if it’s disrespect as much as it is just guys driving over their head to make a pass because that’s the only way to do it.”

Another factor is how NASCAR responds to such driving — and retaliation. 

After Noah Gragson tired of Sage Karam’s contact, he turned Karam on a straightaway during the Xfinity race at Road America. Eleven other cars were collected in the incident. It wasn’t until four days later that NASCAR penalized Gragson for the action. NASCAR fined Gragson $35,000 and docked him 30 points. 

Last Friday in the Camping World Truck Series race, Carson Hocevar retaliated against Colby Howard for contact. Hocevar turned Howard on the straightaway at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, sending Howard into the wall. No other vehicles were collected. NASCAR did not penalize Hocevar.

While NASCAR has previously stated it judges each incident on its own, nothing happens in a vacuum in the sport. Drivers watch how NASCAR reacts. 

Unless something is done in the near future, aggressive driving may become worse.

“Somewhere there’s been that disconnect to young drivers, to really, really young drivers … I’m talking about 7-8-9-10-11-year olds,” Kyle Petty said on MotorMouths on Wednesday. “They think that’s how you race. They think you go and run over each other. 

“Then, it’s just magnified when you get to (the Cup) level because  they’ve already got that set in their head that that’s OK.”

2. Sign of the times?

Kyle Busch’s contract status isn’t the first time a former Cup champion has faced challenges recently with a contract extension.

Brad Keselowski signed a one-year contract extension with Team Penske in August 2020 that carried him through the 2021 season. Part of the challenge then was that it came during the pandemic, which impacted companies and marketing budgets. 

By the time the contract extension was announced, Keselowski had scored three or more Cup wins for a fifth consecutive season. With his contact up after last season, Keselowski agreed to a deal to become driver and be a part owner for what is now Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing.

Joe Gibbs Racing had a potential sponsor in place for Busch’s team this year before that deal went away. With about six months left until the 2023 season begins, JGR has not announced a new sponsor for the No. 18 car or a contract extension for Busch. 

Last month, David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports that JGR and Toyota were working on contingency plans while still seeking to sign Busch. The two-time Cup champion said last weekend at Indianapolis that he was willing to make concessions “to race for under my market value” to remain at JGR.

On the other side, Hendrick Motorsports announced in February that it had signed Chase Elliott to a five-year contract extension that will take him through the 2027 season.

Still, Keselowski noted the challenges for drivers at this point.

“The sport is going through a dramatic reset,” he said. “The tides have changed pretty dramatically over the last decade, maybe even two decades. We went from a point in time where the drivers made an incredible amount of money. … and the team owners had no value at all.

“I look at Robert Yates, who had been a staple of the sport for 30-some years and had to sell his race team for effectively liquidated value when he was ready to retire. Think of what an absolute travesty that was, an investment he put in it. At the same time, there were drivers making as much and arguably more a year than what he was able to liquidate all his assets for, and that seems really wrong.

“We’re seeing a flip of that now, where now the team owner assets are worth considerably more money and the driver pay is declining very rapidly. It’s a flip for sure. You can argue which one is better for the sport, but definitely a dynamic shift for sure.”

Keselowski cites the charter system and media rights deal, which go through the 2024 season, as making teams more valuable.

“I feel like I got into the team ownership piece at exactly the right time and kind of saw this coming,” he said.

3. Ford and Kyle Busch?

When Kyle Busch made his NASCAR debut, it was in a Ford for Roush Fenway Racing in the Truck Series in 2001. 

One of the interesting elements about Busch’s future is what could happen to Kyle Busch Motorsports if Busch does not sign a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing and moves to a manufacturer other than Toyota.

Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports, was asked this week about how might KBM be incorporated if a Ford team was interested in signing Busch.

“Any time we have an opportunity to improve our program, whether it is with drivers at a certain level in NASCAR or teams at all the levels in NASCAR, then that’s certainly something that is our responsibility to consider and make decisions on how it makes our program better or doesn’t,” he said. “So, certainly we would consider all options.”

Asked if he would personally want Busch in a Ford, Rushbrook said: “That’s not for me to answer, not from a personal perspective.”

Stewart-Haas Racing has not announced who will drive the No. 10 Ford next season. Aric Almirola announced before the season that this would be his final full-time Cup effort. That might change. 

Almirola said last month that he had been asked by “decision makers” about next season, leading to the possibility of a part-time or full-time return with Smithfield back as sponsor. Co-owner Tony Stewart declined comment to NBC Sports last weekend at Indianapolis on what the team’s plans are for next year.

If Almirola returns in a full-time role and SHR keeps its lineup intact, that would leave Team Penske and RFK Racing as the main Ford teams for Busch to consider.

Asked about Busch last week, team owner Roger Penske said: “We’ve really got four cars that we’re involved in today. We support the Wood Brothers and obviously Harrison (Burton). We’re full of drivers, and we’re happy with the guys we have there. They’re young and ready to go, and I think our sponsors are fully aligned with us.

“It’s interesting that Kyle hasn’t gotten a spot yet. Look … he’s one of the best out there. I think his expectations, along with what the sponsors and the team want to step up with, sometimes that doesn’t align. So at the moment I think we’ll wait and see.”

As for RFK Racing, Keselowski said this week: “We’re in a really good spot with Chris Buescher. I think he’s an excellent driver. I see him being a long-term driver with us here at RFK. ”

Keselowski suggested that with only two charters, there’s no room for Busch at RFK.

4. 4 is not enough

As the Cup series prepares for its 23rd race of the season, Ford has four victories this year, last among the manufacturers. Chevrolet has 13 wins. Toyota has five.

“Four wins is not enough,” Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports, said this week. “It’s not acceptable. We need to get more wins. We need to have drivers further up the standings and hopefully at least four, if not more drivers, into the playoffs.  

“It’s certainly going to be hard with where we are with only four regular season races left, so it’s been a struggle with the new car, the new package with getting our head around it and how to set it up properly going to the track and optimizing it.  

“We’ve seen a lot of success with speed at different tracks where we have understood it, but we still didn’t bring the win home. So, there’s a lot of work to do, but that’s racing. We always need to make all elements of the car better, the engine, the aerodynamics, the chassis, the setup, the tire model, our simulator model, and that’s what we’re working on. We have a lot of meetings and advancements with our teams to try and do better every week.”

As for what he feels has been the key area in Ford’s struggles this season, Rushbrook said: “We’ve had different strengths across different cars at the different tracks. I think that’s part of the struggle is this car is so sensitive that even when one team is taking four cars or two cars to the track with very small differences, you’ll see one near the top of the board and two or three or four down at the other end of the board.  

“So, that’s part of it and just understanding how sensitive it is and making sure we can really find the optimum spot for these cars to run.”

5. Building momentum

With Chase Elliott’s streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes ending last weekend at Indianapolis, Bubba Wallace holds the longest active streak of top 10s with three in a row.

Wallace has finished third at New Hampshire, eighth at Pocono and fifth at Indianapolis. It is his longest top-10 streak in his Cup career and the longest for 23XI Racing.

For a team that has been plagued by pit road mistakes, strategy miscalls and accidents to have even a small three-race top-10 streak is “massive,” Wallace said.

“We needed to all step up,” he said. “We all needed to look ourselves in the mirror and do better. We’ve been doing that, so I’m proud of everybody.”

Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, said the team is working on a contract extension with Wallace.

“We’ve got something on the table and, obviously, want him longterm with us,” Hamlin said.

Friday 5: Hard hits have Cup drivers wondering what’s happening

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Joey Logano says he’s “never hit harder” than his crash in May’s Coca-Cola 600. Bubba Wallace calls the contact he had at Atlanta in March among the hardest he’s felt. Christopher Bell notes the headaches he’s had after a couple of big hits this season.

But what some drivers feel isn’t necessarily what data from crash recorders show, according to John Patalak, managing director of safety engineering for NASCAR. 

Patalak said crash data this year looks similar to data from more than a decade’s worth of incidents.

“So that leads the drivers to ask, ‘Then why do I feel the way I feel?’” Patalak told NBC Sports. “‘Why does it feel so harsh? The data you’re showing me doesn’t match up with what my body is telling me.’

“We’ve had those discussions with drivers. I certainly will tell a driver, ‘I absolutely don’t doubt or dispute how you feel.’ At the moment, I don’t have a great engineering explanation as to why the perception is not matching with the data that we’re seeing.”

Even with those concerns, no Cup driver has missed a race this year because of an injury from an accident. The Cup Series has not had a driver fatality since Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. 

Earnhardt’s death, which followed the deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper in separate accidents in 2000, spawned the sport’s safety revolution. 

That led to the SAFER barrier, which reduce the energy transmitted in a crash to the driver, head-and-neck restraints and improvements to the restraint systems in the cars and the vehicles themselves. 

Some competitors wonder if changes to the Next Gen car exacerbated the transfer of energy in an accident to drivers. 

“NASCAR built the center section (of the car) to accompany outlier accidents, the 3% of hits, probably less than that,” Corey LaJoie said. “With that, they made the car stiffer for the 97 or 98% of the other crashes, right front blown, backing it into the fence.”

While safety enhancements were included as part of the Next Gen car, the contacts can remain big.

“These cars, they hit harder than ever,” Logano said. “They hit really, really hard. They’re super solid. It hurts.”

Joey Logano says of his hit in the Coca-Cola 600: “I’ve never hit harder in my life. That was horrible, and it hurt really bad.” (Fox Sports)

Austin Dillon said it can take an “extra day” to recover from some of these hard hits.

“That seems to be the consistent chatter (among) the drivers,” Dillon told NBC Sports. 

Bell said he’s felt the effects of two crashes this year. He spun and backed his car into the wall during at Texas and during a test at Pocono.

“Both of them from the outside looking in … does not look like a hard impact,” Bell told NBC Sports. “But it absolutely felt way harder than any other car that I’ve backed into the fence before in NASCAR.”

Bell said he had a headache after both incidents, which he noted was “different than what I’ve had in the past.”

While drivers note how hard they’ve hit, their incidents have come at different angles. Bell backed into the wall. Logano hit driver side. Wallace slammed the wall with the car’s right side.

One element that stands out is the number of crashes this season. Drivers have struggled while learning the new car. Crashes in practice have been common. The Coca-Cola 600 featured 18 cautions, including seven for accidents and seven for spins. Sixteen of the 24 caution periods in the two Atlanta races this season were for accidents. 

Patalak said that by the end of May, the Cup Series had exceeded the number of crashes it had all of last season. Patalak says a crash is defined as contact that triggers the crash data recorder in a car. There can be multiple crashes for a car in one incident.

Crash data recorders measure a variety of elements in an accident, including delta-v (the change in velocity) and peak acceleration.

Patalak says peak acceleration comes from the acceleration of the vehicle from front to back, left to right and up and down over time in a crash — because a car is moving in multiple directions in a crash, such as forward and up the track. NASCAR combines those numbers and takes the peak value.

Patalak notes that delta-v is from the moment of impact with the wall until the car essentially leaves the wall or when the crash is over (when the acceleration is less than 3 Gs). 

Patalak explains that if a car is going 150 mph the moment it hits the wall and then is going 100 mph shortly after impact, the delta-v would be 50 mph (the difference in speed from the moment of impact to a point measured).

“Sometimes things that look really severe have a low delta-v, or things that don’t look severe but have a high delta-v,” Patalak said.

Patalak notes that “the delta-v on some of our crashes are sometimes higher this year. That is something that really boils down to the speed and the angle at which the cars are approaching the wall.

“There’s always going to be severe crashes. That’s part of racing, that’s part of motorsports, but our data is showing us that we are having higher delta-v crashes than what our average would be over the last several years. When we look at the reasons to why are we seeing that, it’s a hard thing to have an engineering answer to.”

One element is the challenge drivers have had with the car when it gets out of shape. With the new steering box and feel of the steering wheel, what drivers did to get out of a spin went too far with this car. Drivers have gotten better at adjusting how much they turn the wheel in a spin.

“Some of the crashes very early on, we looked at potentially maybe some overcorrection, maybe trying to save the car a little too long,” Patalak told NBC Sports. “That produced some really high angles into the wall, which were very severe crashes. Maybe as the teams are learning the cars, we had maybe some setup issues. The industry has responded really well. A lot of that has gone away.”

Bubba Wallace said his impact coming to the finish at Atlanta in March is among the hardest he’s had. (Fox Sports)

One aspect the industry is learning more about is the headrest foam in the driver’s seat. Drivers have their headrest foam in different manners. Ideally, the foam would hold the head snug, but that can transfer the shocks and bumps the cars go through on track and cause the head to bounce around So some drivers want their headrest foam to not as be as snug. 

But it can present challenges in a crash, as LaJoie experienced when he wrecked in practice at Charlotte and crashed the following day in the 600. In both instances a left rear tire blew, sending LaJoie into the wall.

“You don’t want your head moving around much between the headrests,” LaJoie said. “If you blow a left rear tire, like I did in Charlotte on Saturday in practice, and my head is up against the right side headrest and I hit with the left side — I’ve got three inches to bounce my head off the headrest — it’s going to ring your bell and you’re going to be looking for the phone that is ringing all day long.

“Then you turn around and go do the exact same thing on Sunday, blow a left rear tire down, and as I was in the process of swapping ends, I’m like oh … I’ve seen this movie before, let me pull my head against the headrest. I just got my helmet to the left side headrest before I hit the fence. 

“That’s why your headrest foam gap is so important but also leaning into. You blow a right front like Austin (Dillon) did, and he mentioned it in his interview, he put his head against the right side headrest and you try to go limp and try to absorb it.”

LaJoie said that has been a discussion on the drivers’ text chain.

After Dillon’s hit at Atlanta — he got turned at the bottom of the track and shot up it, slamming the SAFER barrier with the right front, he noted he was fine.

“The hit looked bad,” Dillon said. “But the impact wasn’t as bad as it looked.”

Not every driver has been able to say that this year.

2. Tyler Reddick, RCR seek to move forward 

Tyler Reddick signing with 23XI Racing for 2024, more than a year ahead of time, is not unprecedented in the sport but rare.

It’s happened twice in the last decade. Clint Bowyer signed in 2015 to be Tony Stewart’s replacement in 2017 at Stewart-Haas Racing and spent 2016 with HScott Motorsports. Kevin Harvick signed in 2012 to join Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

A situation like that presents potential challenges for a team and manufacturer that will eventually lose that driver. 

NASCAR Cup Series EchoPark Texas Grand Prix
Tyler Reddick’s decision to leave Richard Childress’ team after the 2023 season will have the organization seeking a replacement. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Richard Childress Racing issued a statement shortly after 23XI Racing that “the timing of this announcement could not be any worse.”

Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of Chevrolet Performance, said Thursday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio admitted that “we’re disappointed to lose him down the road here.

“I had a chance to talk to him and the RCR team and Tyler is completely committed to running every lap as hard as he can throughout the rest of this year and next. I do believe him.”

Although Harvick was set with his ride for 2014, his final season with RCR is 2013 was one of his best. Harvick won four races, had 19 top-10 finishes and finished third in the points. 

Reddick will remain with Richard Childress Racing through next season after the team picked up the option earlier this season on the third year of its contract with Reddick. 

One of the keys for RCR is to perform well the rest of this year and next year with Reddick and elevate that car’s standing in the sport to attract the top talent available. 

“We just got to manage our way through it,” Campbell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “What I’m first of all proud of is that the team is going to focus on driving for the championship with Tyler.”

3. Career-changing moment

A handful laps of practice 12 years ago at New Hampshire Motor Speedway proved life-changing for Aric Almirola.

Jimmie Johnson’s wife was expecting the couple’s first child at the time, and Almirola, who had no full-time NASCAR ride, was tabbed to be on standby for the team. 

Almirola got a chance to climb into Johnson’s No. 48 car at New Hampshire in late June 2010 to run some laps in practice. Almirola said those laps put him on a path that brings him back to New Hampshire (3 p.m. ET Sunday on USA Network) as the race’s defending winner. 

New Hampshire Cup
Aric Almirola celebrating his New Hampshire win last year. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

“I got in his car on Saturday morning for practice and actually went faster than he did,” Almirola said. “And that was a big boost of confidence for me. That practice session honestly changed the course of my career.”

Here’s how.

“Chad (Knaus) and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports just really gave me a lot of praise and talked highly of me,” Almirola said of Johnson’s crew chief at the time. “All the other crew chiefs, standing up on top of the haulers watching the 48 car go around the racetrack with a different driver in it and still being fast, I think, it just changed people’s opinion and perspective of who I was as a race car driver.”

Almirola said soon after that Dale Earnhardt Jr. asked him to drive the No. 88 car for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series. Almirola drove the car in eight races that season and then the full season in 2011. That led to Almirola joining Richard Petty Motorsports in 2012 and moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018.

“I feel like that particular weekend at Loudon, driving that 48 car on a Saturday morning in practice, changed the course of my career,” Almirola said.

4. Another new winner?

Kevin Harvick enters this weekend the first driver outside a playoff spot, trailing Christopher Bell by 19 points. 

Crew chief Rodney Childers looks at what the team has done at similar tracks and looks at this weekend as a chance for Harvick to do well and become the 14th different winner this season.

Teams will have the same tire that was used at Phoenix, Richmond and World Wide Technology Raceway.

Harvick finished sixth at Phoenix, placed second at Richmond and was running in the top 10 until a mechanical failure sent him into the wall in the final laps. 

“If you look at those types of tracks, those are the ones we’ve actually been the best at,” Childers said. “Those are the ones he’s felt the most comfortable at with this car and even going to the simulator with him (Wednesday), he hit the ground running.

“You can just tell the places he’s comfortable with. He’s made thousands and thousands of laps without the track being changed or things being different, and he knows where every crack and every little seam and all that stuff is and how to manipulate the car and all that.  

“Those are big keys for us right now is that kind of stuff – going back to these places that he’s got a ton of confidence at and hopefully we can capitalize on that.”

5. More shifting

Rudy Fugle, crew chief for William Byron, says that drivers could be downshifting twice every corner and upshifting twice on the straights in Sunday’s race at New Hampshire.

“We all kind of know where we’re going to be at for pace, but that overall lap time we run because of track grip and different reasons, the heat in the track, is what will determine what gear and if we go down to third,” Fugle said on Wednesday’s MotorMouths show on Peacock.

“So that’s two downshifts every corner and two upshifts on every straightaway. That’s a lot of times to make a mistake. The hard part of that is doing some of that under those braking zones and over the bumps and the car is out of control and it makes you miss the corner. You see people do that in qualifying when they’re pushing really hard. 

“But it also makes it a lot harder to pass. Guys that are struggling can use that downshift as a little bit of a handicap, it helps rotate the car. You have more RPMs, so it turns on the throttle pedal or it turns on the downshift.”

Corey LaJoie says he believes the shifting could prove helpful.

“I think shifting once, potentially twice, if running the bottom or the apron at New Hampshire this weekend, will make the race really good,” he said.

“It’s been a notoriously one-groove racetrack if you don’t spray the (resin), and then we run that lane up off the bottom and you wrap the left front around where that difference in banking is. It’s hard for everybody to pass. They spray the PJ1 or resin (neither will be used this weekend), then you run up in the third groove pretty much all day long and you might be able to pass somebody on the bottom.

“Now, if you have a little bit better race car and you’re kind of stuck, you can go push it to third (gear) and roll the bottom and actually get the launch (off the corner). 

“Getting a launch out of the middle of the corner because your RPMs are so low there was always the challenge of trying to run the bottom. I think you’re not going to have that now. I think the bottom lane is going to be equally as strong as what the second or third groove is going to be. So I think it’s actually going to be a pretty good race.”

Denny Hamlin, though, is not as enthused about how shifting can impact a race. He shared his feelings on social media Thursday.