NASCAR picks the show over safety

The weather has been a big topic this week. As amateur meteorologists, NASCAR fans and experts have a unique perspective on the weather and all of the myriad factors that contribute to its existence and production. Of course, this knowledge comes only after such weather has affected a NASCAR race.

This past weekend presented another delightful example of NASCAR’s current testy relationship with the weather, or more specifically, rain. Call it precipitation, wet, drizzle, drizzle, drizzle, scottish fog, squall, thunderstorm, downpour, torrent, downpour, deluge, downpour, thunderstorm or whatever, but please stop calling it weather. Weather is any atmospheric condition; a cloudless sky is also weather. So yes, the rain caused a bit of a calamity in the NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway, sending the leading cars into a sudden downpour, ending the day for more than half the field and denying all the drama of seeing said cars probably collide again on the restrictor plate track.

Leading when the race was stopped, Austin Dillon stayed ahead of the other 10 cars on the lead lap when the race resumed three hours later, earning the win that put him in the playoffs. The regular season finale provided another winner, making it the 16th of the season, with Ryan Blaney the only entry to make the playoffs with points. (Kurt Busch, who won at Kansas Speedway, rescinded his playoff eligibility waiver request, leaving two spots up for grabs at Daytona.)

Martin Truex Jr. nearly took Blaney’s place, but his battered Toyota couldn’t do much, and with other vehicles limping back into the garage, he fell three points short. Three lousy points. Three damn points. Three positions over the course of 26 races. To think that he missed because of three points is silly and amazing. Yet for all the drama surrounding Truex and the fascination of whether or not he’ll make the playoffs, the truth is, it doesn’t matter. Statistically and historically, Truex would have had little chance of lifting the big trophy at the end of the year. Dillon and Blaney don’t get a chance to either, for what it’s worth.

Consider that in 2004, when this experiment started with something called Chase, Jeff Gordon ‘won’ the regular season and placed first. Gordon had had a stellar year with five wins and, under the old scoring system, seemed almost certain to walk away with his fifth championship. But Gordon struggled over the last 10 Chase races, yo-yoing through the top three finishes, some in the teens and 34th. Jimmie Johnson won four races during the Chase and somehow finished second, while Kurt Busch won one race and then finished outside the top 10 just once and became champion by eight points over Johnson.

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Busch had two wins in the year before the Chase, with Johnson winning four, meaning the top three drivers had 16 wins for the season. Truex and Blaney were winless as they tried to earn their playoff position. But perhaps the overlooked aspect of the entire scenario is the aforementioned Busch.

Busch has been sidelined since his qualifying accident at Pocono Raceway in July. He relished the prospect of having a medical exemption that would have allowed him to compete in the playoffs, much like his brother Kyle Busch did in 2015. However, Kurt withdrew from the playoffs last weekend with his lingering concussion symptoms. cerebral, which put the team in the spotlight in the playoffs again with two spots open instead of focusing on Busch and the safety of the 2022 race car.

The debut of the latest generation of Cup cars has earned his scrutiny throughout the season. The single nut design applied to the wheel attachment gained notoriety throughout the year, most commonly for wheel drop or slow pit stops. But rumors of the car’s unsafety subsided as 2022 progressed. While fears were raised when testing the car in 2021, the first few accidents in 2022 gave the appearance that the criticisms were either unfounded or exaggerated. Kurt Busch’s absence provides evidence to the contrary.

Denny Hamlin offers supporting evidence. Hamlin was one of the first cars to hit the rain at Daytona and served as a passenger when his Toyota hit the wall.

When asked how he felt after being released from the infield medical center, Hamlin replied, “My jaw hurts. I feel like my jaw is one of those boxers that gets their whole face ripped apart. It was certainly the first really big one I’ve had in this car and everything they’ve been telling us, all the other drivers, is legit.”

Perhaps drivers have become too accustomed to crashes that leave little mark on the body. That’s not to say that we want to see drivers harmed in any way, but driving a car at 200mph is always a risk, and the fact that drivers have apparently left with no effect is just a little strange. Hamlin’s answer almost says that the law of averages played his hand.

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But the fact that Hamlin pulls out of the next Xfinity Series race this weekend at Darlington Raceway says something else. At a track where Hamlin reigns, and a race that would give him more track time that should help him prepare to open the playoffs.

In a statement from Joe Gibbs Racing on Wednesday (Aug 31), Hamlin stated: “I have had some soreness in my neck, back and hips from Sunday’s accident. I feel like the right thing for me is to stay out of the Xfinity Series race and focus 100 percent on preparing for the Cup Series playoff race this weekend.”

The problem here is curiously twofold. First, NASCAR may have had to be more judicious in how it handled the rain at Daytona. How they could have achieved such a feat is an enigma left to those with a deeper understanding of weather, track conditions and race management. It’s quite possible that NASCAR did the best it could with the knowledge it had and the result is unworthy of working. On the other hand, NASCAR may need to look at how it handles the “rain in the area” concept. There are certainly ways to determine if precipitation falls within a specific radius of the track which would then trigger a pause in the action.

Anyway, is the new car something that still needs some work? It looks like it is. The built-in stiffness doesn’t absorb enough shock, leaving energy to find the weakest point, the driver. The crumple zones on the car don’t mirror those of the previous generation and will likely become a focal point for future restyling, but that’s a bit late to help this season.

For a sport that has made brilliant moves in safety over the years (SAFER barriers might be one of the best inventions in racing [with the HANS device coming in as 1B]), there seems to be some retrograde thinking going on over the course of 2022. From the automobile, to letting drivers play a bone-crushing derby at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, to ignoring the threat of rain, there have been enough examples to think that there is cause for concern. Kurt Busch spending the rest of the year at home isn’t an outlier, it’s an omen.


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