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

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.”

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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.”

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Bubba Wallace said his impact coming to the checkered flag 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

AUSTIN, TEXAS - MAY 23: Tyler Reddick, driver of the #8 Cheddar’s Chevrolet, and team owner, Richard Childress talk on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series EchoPark Texas Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on May 23, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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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

LOUDON, NEW HAMPSHIRE - JULY 18: Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 18, 2021 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

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“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.