NASCAR officials released additional findings Monday from Ryan Newman’s severe last-lap crash in the season-opening Daytona 500, saying that previously announced rules changes designed to improve safety and competition at superspeedways should limit engine strength by an additional 35-40 horsepower.
The details emerged from a Monday briefing with John Probst, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Innovation and Racing Development, and John Patalak, NASCAR Senior Director of Safety Engineering, who previewed the changes ahead of Monday’s GEICO 500 (3 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM) at Talladega Superspeedway.
NASCAR had announced rules updates for superspeedway events on May 1, introducing safety enhancements with the addition of two roll bars and competition changes intended to slow the cars, including the elimination of aero ducts and a reduction in the size of the throttle body. The rules will be in effect for this season’s remaining Cup Series races at Talladega and Daytona International Speedway.
Officials indicated that many of the changes were a result of NASCAR’s investigation of the final-lap crash in the Daytona 500 in February. That incident, which came at the end of a crash-filled season opener, resulted in serious injuries for Newman, who was hospitalized after being removed from his Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 Ford. A NASCAR spokesperson indicated that a full, sit-down debrief with Newman and his Roush Fenway Racing team had not occurred because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“I think obviously when we go to superspeedways, as we said, any of our races, what we do is inherently dangerous,” Patalak said. “Stopping a wreck from happening, that would be pretty difficult. I would say that slowing the cars down surely should and would help from an aero liftoff standpoint. I would say our findings from the Ryan Newman crash, his liftoff was not due to an aero event but from him getting into the wall. The idea there is reducing the speeds of the car, slowing them down. We would expect speeds under the 200 mph barrier here. So from that standpoint slowing the cars down, keep from having as violent wrecks.
“Like I said, I mean, when the checkered flag is out for the Daytona 500, any of our races for that matter, the opportunity for accidents is high. I think the changes you see here that we’ve put forward, it’s to ensure that once a chain of events like that are set into motion, we have all the safety mechanisms in place to mitigate the outcome, negative outcomes, I should say.”
Superspeedway races have become especially crash-ridden affairs in recent years, with the closing rate and momentum for challenging cars with an aerodynamic push becoming too great for leading cars to easily stem those moves and keep the lead. NASCAR’s competition team shifted from restrictor plates to tapered spacers before last season to reduce horsepower at the sport’s largest ovals.
The changes announced in May are expected to shave horsepower figures from the 550 target at multiple tracks to around 510 for Daytona and Talladega. Probst said that the changes were expected to add more than a second to lap times at Talladega. For reference, Denny Hamlin led opening practice at the 2.66-mile Alabama track last October at 46.734 seconds for a speed of 204.904 mph. Adding one second to that clocking would net a lap speed of 200.612 mph.
“I can’t say that 200 (mph) is a magic number by any means,” Probst said. “… We have had races where we exceed that. Certainly it seems like in practice in particular at Talladega when they’re able to form a single line, not have to worry about protecting positions, speeds can sometimes be higher than what we see in the race. But certainly if we get up in that 205, 206, 207 kind of range, that’s generally where you start seeing us looking at ways to slow the cars down.”
The officials said an evolution of safety changes through the years kept Newman from being more seriously injured when his car made impacts with the outside retaining wall and Corey LaJoie’s No. 32 Ford. In the debut of the Gen-6 car for 2013, NASCAR added more roll bars, a laminate windshield and new window net mounting structure. Two years later, seat-belt improvements were introduced, and for 2016, an enhanced vehicle chassis made its debut at superspeedways before a full deployment the following year. “When you really look at the two vehicles, how they interacted, the severity and the orientation of it all put together, those couple things really stood out as highlights to the outcome that we had,” Patalak said.
Patalak and Probst indicated that the May 1 changes were also intended to reduce the frequency of tandem drafting, though they admitted that engineers and crew chiefs would likely try to offset the effects to gain a competitive advantage. “I’ve done this long enough to know that I will not make any bold, blanket statements that would challenge them to prove me wrong,” Patalak said. “I think with the reduction in power, the aero ducts going away, that will make sort of a smaller hole, if you will, that should make it much more difficult to get into that configuration.”
The officials also said that the addition of slip tape to the rear bumper cover at superspeedways would reduce friction during bump-drafting, decreasing the chance of hooking or spinning the lead car when bumpers make contact. “We’re trying to make the rear bumper of the car being hit like ice,” Probst said, “where they slide across, don’t contact and start influencing the car in front laterally, left to right, if you will.”
In another change adapted in the wake of Newman’s crash, NASCAR mandated a check valve for the oil reservoir tank or overflow expansion tank to mitigate the amount of fluid lost if a vehicle overturns in a crash.
Drivers’ first test run of the new superspeedway package will come in Sunday’s 500-miler, after NASCAR officials announced last weekend that the Cup Series will race without a scheduled practice session. The series has held eight races since returning to action after the COVID-19 outbreak, and none have included practice as officials try to limit travel time and exposure with coronavirus safety protocols still in place.
“That was something we had discussed with the teams, initially had protected for in our schedule,” Probst said. “Working through the changes with our teams, I would say that we’re at the point now with a lot of the simulation that while these changes, when we list them out, may seem like a lot for the teams, it boils down to a lot of power and drag type things. Having worked through it with them, we don’t feel right now we need to add any practice time to the Talladega schedule for this.”
Hamlin, a winner Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, said he had little concern about the field being able to adapt quickly to the new rules configuration without a practice shakedown.
“I’ll know in the first couple laps how big the runs are, what kind of gap I need to have to the person behind me to give me the run forward,” said Hamlin, who prevailed in the Daytona 500 for the first of three wins so far this season. “I’ll know pretty quick what to do with the package. I think we have probably a pretty good idea of it anyway. … These drivers are so good, they’re going to figure it out pretty quick. I wouldn’t expect anything out of the ordinary.”
Ryan Blaney wound up second to Hamlin at Daytona and was involved in final-lap contact with Newman’s car. The Team Penske driver is also Talladega’s most recent winner, having edged out Newman in a fender-banging duel there in the final lap last October.
After Daytona’s chaotic finish kicked off the year, Blaney said that drivers discussed the proposed changes with competition officials in an effort to make the difference in closing rates less drastic.
“The runs were gigantic. We get hooked up, that made your runs even bigger,” Blaney said after finishing third Sunday. “I hope the runs aren’t as big. There’s a fine line. You need the draft to work to where you get runs on cars, but not monstrous drafts where it’s dangerous to kind of block them and things like that. Hopefully we can find a fair in-between.”
“I’m looking forward to it. I know NASCAR did their research on hopefully trying to figure out a good balance of that.”