Top 5 things from Darlington to look at ahead of Kansas

Problems With The New Car

There’s no doubt about it, the Next Gen has created some great parity in the sport. It’s done its job on the competition side. We’ve now reached 17 different winners in 27 races. On top of that, we’ve seen the most Average Leaders Since 2011; Up 9.7% Year-Over-Year: A total of 38 different drivers have led laps in the NASCAR Cup Series through the first 26 races of the season with an average of 10.04 leaders per race; up from last season’s 9.2 (+9.7%) – The 2022 season has produced the most average leaders per race since 2011 (12.77) over a decade ago.

Most Green Flag Passes For The Lead Through A Regular Season (26 Races): The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season has produced the series-most (1,162) green flag passes for the lead (GFPL) through the first 26 races of a season since the Loop Data statistic was initially tabulated in 2007 (the last 16 seasons).

Six different organizations are represented in this season’s NASCAR Cup Series Driver Playoffs – Hendrick Motorsports, Trackhouse Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske.

That’s all nice. But the car itself is also getting some warranted criticism in the terms of safety. It appears as if the crash data that’s being recorded isn’t matching what the drivers are feeling inside of the race cars. Routine hits with the previous car are feeling must worse this with one.

The data isn’t jiving though. NASCAR is showing one thing but the drivers feel another. Kurt Busch backed into the wall in Pocono qualifying and hasn’t been cleared to come back since. Denny Hamlin skipped the Darlington Xfinity Series race due to soreness from his Daytona crash. Bubba Wallace was vocal on his radio from the same crash due to impacts felt inside of the car.

Almost every driver has spoken out that these hits are harder now. Something needs to be done to help soften the impact.

Granted, an automobile traveling at a high rate of speed and hitting a wall isn’t going to have a good outcome no matter how you look at it. But, with soft walls and better technology available, there’s no reason the hits feel worse now than they did prior. They feel like they went backwards in some areas of safety and that it needs a look at to soften the feeling in crashes.

Another problem that has arose is that these cars spontaneously catching on fire. Early on it seemed like a fluke. Now, not so much.

Kevin Harvick’s car caught fire last Sunday in Darlington. That could have lasting playoff implications for him.

“It’s unacceptable for the cars to catch on fire,” Harvick said on the telecast. “I’m sure it’s just crappy parts on the race car like we’ve seen so many times. They haven’t fixed anything. It’s kind of like the safety stuff. We just let it keep going and keep going.”

Senior VP of Competition Scott Miller, came on The Morning Drive on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Tuesday morning and agreed that it is unacceptable.

“We’re debriefing it all. It’s unacceptable for the cars to catch on fire,” he said.

Miller also took notice of Harvick’s comments and said that while they were likely make in the heat of the moment, he wanted to address them.

“To say that NASCAR didn’t care is about as far from the truth as you could get,” Miller said. “That’s really all I have to say about that. I’m not going to get into any kind of back-and-forth contest with Kevin over the airwaves. I think he actually does know we do care.

“We’ve been working on different solutions for different things along the way that seem to maybe be the trigger. Obviously, we still have work to do.”

Miller did make notice that most of the problems that they’re seeing with fires seems to be in the Ford camp. Both Chris Buescher and Joey Logano, each Ford drivers, had problems on the Indy road course with fires. Ford driver Chase Briscoe had it in Richmond.

“We’re looking at clearances on particularly the Ford exhaust because they seem to be having more trouble with this than the others,” said Miller. “There’s a lot of work going on, a lot of collaboration within the industry to get to the bottom of it. We have to get to the bottom of it quick, obviously.”

Miller said that Darlington is a cheese grater on these Goodyear tires and says that an early look could make that part of the culprit if rubber is building up and getting trapped in these race cars.

“There’s a lot of rubber at Darlington and we’re not certain if rubber getting into the rocker box was the problem or not,” Miller said of Harvick’s fire.

The “Big One” occurs on Lap 137 of Sunday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400

Rain In The Area Guidelines

Another area to watch moving forward is what NASCAR does with rain in the area. That was a big problem in Daytona with drivers wondering why they were racing with rain so close. It was clear it was coming and by being late on the button to throw the yellow, a big crash took place in Turn 1 was rain fell on the Speedway at the moment the cars were going through there.

This time around, NASCAR wasn’t taking any risks in Darlington as a light shower fell on the track early on in the race. Miller said that the yellow flag being displayed was influenced by the Daytona incident a week earlier.

“Certainly, we couldn’t afford to have a repeat of what we had at Daytona, that’s for sure,” Miller said. “To say that we were more cautious, I think is obvious. Candidly, the sprinkles that we had at the start of the Southern 500, there have been times in history where we have raced through those. 

“The fact that we knew from the radar that it was a quick passing, very small cell and we didn’t believe we were going to completely lose the track and have to red flag it, we did what we did, which, in retrospect, was the right decision and only a slight delay.”

That’s a shift after the drivers were ire of NASCAR’s decision making in Daytona.

“I just don’t get it,” Justin Haley said of the crash and call by NASCAR to not red flag it one lap sooner. “My spotter said it was raining. It was raining on my windshield for a good bit, and then we literally all lost traction. The tires did not meet the road anymore; it was wet. When we’re running 200 miles an hour, you can’t do that.”

Daniel Suarez was the race leader at the time and said he felt like NASCAR could have errored on the side of caution to bring the yellow out knowing that it was absolutely going to rain.

“We knew the rain was coming; it was raining next door,” said Suarez on the incident. “It was just a matter of time. Why would we wait for that, I don’t know. Maybe I’m a little biased because I was in the front, but there’s nothing you can do. Sometimes you are running 200 mph and you’re able to turn left, and then you see a few drops hard, and you’re just spinning.

“I feel like they have a lot of technology to know that the rain is very, very close. I don’t think it’s hard to not put us in that position.”

Denny Hamlin, who was battling Suarez for the lead agreed.

“Just throw the caution before the rain came,” Hamlin said. “We had rain down the front, so about 10 seconds before we got into Turn 1, it was raining. I’m sure the fans felt it, and then they watched us all pile in there.”

Haley noted that “they had about a whole lap to call a caution and tore up a lot of race cars,” Haley said. “That was pretty unacceptable.”

On the flipside, Kyle Busch noted that the lap prior, he didn’t see any rain on his windshield.

“And then that lap it was just drop,” said Busch. “What do you do? You can’t check up that fast. You’ve just got to try to drive through it. Thankfully, I was on the right side. I saw water and saw everything and everybody wrecking in front of me.”

As far as what could have been done differently in the drivers’ point of view though?

“Better officiating, that’s all we can do … we’ll learn from this, I’m sure,” Hamlin said.

NASCAR didn’t necessarily agree then. They sided more with Busch’s stance as senior VP of Competition, Scott Miller, said that he didn’t feel that they could have done anything differently.

“We were on top of the weather, monitoring it with all of our turn spotters, in touch with the spotters up top, the pace car,” Miller said. “We’ve been dodging a little bit of weather for a little while. Nothing had hit and all of a sudden, there was that shower. The pace car was sitting down there on the inside, and it was still dry when they wrecked, and if you watch the in-car [cameras], you can see that some rain definitely started right before they wrecked.

“But we really couldn’t do anything about that. It’s not something you can predict — when it’s going to start raining. Just a super bad situation for everybody.”

Now, they acted quicker.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 04: Erik Jones, driver of the #43 FOCUSfactor Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory ane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 04, 2022 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Another Upset Winner?

Erik Jones because the first non playoff driver to win the postseason opener. That dates back to when NASCAR went to determining a champion via a playoff format in 2004. Now, can we go 2 straight weeks without a playoff winner?

That’s entirely possible too.

Martin Truex Jr. could have won last week and has a top 10 in every Kansas start with the exception of 1 since 2017. He finished 6th this past May. Bubba Wallace is coming off of a top 10 last weekend, was 2nd in Michigan last month and had a car capable of winning this past spring. Pit stop problems derailed his efforts. Kurt Busch instead won. Wallace is in that 45 car now…

They have to lead the list of favorites among non playoff drivers.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 04: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Toyota, drives after the engine expires during the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 04, 2022 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Can Joe Gibbs Racing Bounceback?

Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch each had mechanical failures while leading late in Sunday’s Southern 500. The question now is, can they bounce back.

Denny Hamlin still finished 2nd. Christopher Bell was 5th. It puts each in a good position in points with 2 races remaining in the round. Hamlin is +30 in 3rd while Bell is +28 in 4th. Busch was looking like a win and an advancement to the Round of 12 but instead now sits just 8 points above the cutline in 11th.

Can they put that aside and dominate this weekend’s race in Kansas?

Toyota has won 6 of the last 11 NASCAR Cup Series races at Kansas including 4 of the last 6 Kansas in the Sunflower State in general. Just this past spring, they landed 5 cars in the top 6 and all 6 of their main cars in the top 10.

Can they repeat that on Sunday?

Hamlin is the only driver to repeat at Kansas in the last 10 races. He finished 4th back in the spring race. Truex Jr. has had a top 10 in all but one Kansas start since 2017 including sweeping both race wins to start this streak off with. He finished 6th in the spring race. Kyle Busch won last May of 2021 and has 5 top five finishes in his last 8 Kansas starts including a 3rd place run this past spring. Bell scored his first Xfinity race win at this very track a few years ago as well as being 10th and eighth in the last 2 Kansas playoff races and 5th in the spring race of this year.

23XI Racing was even better. Bubba Wallace was strong and looked like a race winner before pit road problems while his teammate, Kurt Busch, ended up winning after leading 116 of 267 laps.

The Toyota’s have been among the best cars on the intermediate package which is why I have my eyes on them on Sunday. Can they avoid calamity like they had last weekend with 2 cars taken out due to mechanical failures and each while leading?

They need to hope so because their short track package is certainly lacking and they don’t want to go into Bristol needing to make up ground.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 04: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA/Children’s Chevrolet, spins after an on-track incident the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 04, 2022 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Seeing Tracks A 2nd Time Around Could Help Byron, Bowman, Is Elliott In Trouble?

Most people thought that 2 of the 4 drivers that would get bounced in the opening round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs would be 2 Hendrick drivers in Alex Bowman and William Byron. Entering the postseason, Byron had 1 top 10 in the last 18 races run including none in the last 10 races to the regular season. His last top 5 came via his Martinsville win back in April.

Bowman had similar misfortunes with 1 top 10 in his last 12 starts to the regular season an no top 5 finishes in any of his final 15 races.

Then at Darlington, there both were scoring top 10’s and finishing ahead of both Kyle Larson (12th) and Chase Elliott (36th).

Bowman and Byron got their seasons back on track last week. Can they meet up front again?

Byron says they went the wrong direction this summer in a sense what they were learning on the simulator wasn’t translating to the track. By seeing tracks a 2nd time in the playoffs (7 of the 10 tracks are return visits) they can use what they have from the first time around. Which is why he scored a stage win and led 50 laps.

Byron also went from 7 points up to +32. Bowman gained 7 points from +3 to +10. By comparison, Elliott went from +33 to +14. Larson gained minimally from +12 to +17.

Elliott could be in danger in a sense that he finished 29th at Kansas back in May. A similar track in Las Vegas he finished 9th. In Charlotte, another 1.5-mile track, he finished 33rd. After scoring 5 straight top 2 finishes, he’s since finished outside the top 10 in 4 of the last 6 including 3 of which being 16th or worse.

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