Editor’s note: Bozi Tatarevic is a professional racing mechanic and pit crew member. He will provide technical analysis for NASCAR.com throughout the 2022 season.
Talladega brought out the excitement as the Next Gen car visited the longest oval on the schedule and some of the highest speeds that the car will see all season. We are finally getting into the stage of the season where similar types of tracks are repeated so teams now have some data to work with versus everything being brand new. While Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway do race differently, there are enough similarities that teams were able to sift through some data and optimize their cars.
It’s usually no surprise to see drivers from major teams like Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron and Kyle Larson and Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney out there leading laps, but seeing some of the smaller teams out front shows who is finding advantages with the Next Gen car and making the most of their data. Drivers like Erik Jones from Petty GMS Motorsports and Bubba Wallace from 23XI Racing were in contention for much of the race and led a number of laps alongside Daniel Suárez from Trackhouse Racing, whose teammate Ross Chastain became the eventual race winner.
This type of parity is a testament to the efforts put in place by the introduction of the Next Gen car but also shows the success in some of the personnel choices made by these smaller and upstart teams. While the Next Gen car places emphasis on equalizing the field with many single-source supplier parts, technical expertise and playing in that small box of adjustments plays a huge factor in how well these cars perform. And the choice to place people like Darian Grubb, Joey Cohen and Michael Wheeler in technical leadership roles on these teams is starting to pay dividends as the season progresses.
The top four drivers in laps led were all behind the wheel of a Chevrolet, and this is not surprising considering the speed that these cars have shown for most of the season. However, that engine strength can occasionally come with a compromise as we saw with the retirement of the No. 8 piloted by Tyler Reddick after just 31 laps. According to radio communications, the engine went off-pitch before eventually shutting down, which is usually a sign of one or more cylinders going down. Once Reddick coasted into pit lane, his crew diagnosed it as a broken timing belt and those factors combined likely mean that there was a valve spring failure.
The timing belt connects the crankshaft and the camshaft of the engine so they turn in sync. Typically, the carbon fiber reinforced timing belt does not break on its own but instead breaks because there is an obstruction causing the camshaft to go out of sync with the crankshaft, resulting in the belt being stretched. This would match with the earlier comment of the engine going off-pitch and having a misfire, often meaning a valve spring has broken for a specific cylinder. A valve spring breaking can result in a variety of damage from dropping the valve on the piston to damaging a pushrod or the camshaft itself, which would result in the loss of timing sync and breakage of that belt.
While the failure of Reddick’s car came quietly on pit road, the engine in the No. 16 Chevrolet piloted by Daniel Hemric quit in a much more chaotic fashion while he was in the middle of a pack. This time we had an onboard with audio that allowed us to hear the engine in that car go off-pitch and lose power much like what Reddick had described for his situation, but unfortunately, the sudden deceleration meant Hemric was hit and pushed down to the apron. Hemric tried to save the car, but it bounced back up the track and triggered a crash that ended up taking out the No. 14 of Chase Briscoe and No. 17 of Chris Buescher.
Briscoe ended up impacting the wall and had a hard right-front hit. In the past that would likely mean an immediate write-off based on the amount of damage that is visible, but the modular nature of the Next Gen car could allow the potential for repair. While the front clip of that car is visibly damaged and twisted, it is a piece that can be unbolted and replaced. And according to initial reports, the center section on the No. 14. appeared to be undamaged, so there is a possibility that a new front clip could be bolted on and that chassis could potentially be used again if it passes all safety checks.
Talladega brought the excitement and the speed but also brought some great long green-flag runs that are a welcome sight at superspeedways. While there was some chaos on the final laps, seeing such a long green-flag run in the last stage definitely brought a fun perspective for the race and even resulted in some unexpected fuel-saving elements to team strategy. The next superspeedway race should be even more fun as teams take everything they learned here to make their cars even faster for the second half of the year.