My colleague Chris Estrada touched on the races of Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman yesterday, as they both are among the final eight drivers who have advanced to the Eliminator round.
Of course, there’s the other factor in play that still exists with both of them: they have as many Sprint Cup wins this year as I do, writing this piece, and as you do, reading this piece: zero.
It is both ironic and almost a touch hilarious that it’s these two drivers – Kenseth and Newman – in this situation in the year a supposedly greater emphasis was placed on winning, and considering these two helped drive the impetus for a change to the points structure and the introduction of a Chase in the first place, ahead of the 2004 season.
But 2003 seems so long ago, doesn’t it? Yet more than a decade ago while NASCAR, then in its final year as Winston Cup before it became NEXTEL Cup (forerunner to Sprint Cup), had perhaps its best ever on-track finish for the win when Ricky Craven edged Kurt Busch at Darlington, it also had a champion who had all of one win in total: Kenseth.
That was the year Newman, then in his second full year in the series, stormed through the field like a tornado through the central U.S. He scored 11 poles and eight wins driving for Team Penske – easily the class of the field in both categories – yet his inconsistency on race day resigned him to a forgettable sixth place in points.
Yes, Newman had the eight wins, but they were balanced out by seven finishes of 37th or worse. That included his infamous barrel roll in the rain-shortened 2003 Daytona 500 and a run of 39th, 38th, 42nd and 39th from Talladega in April through to Richmond in May.
Kenseth has long harbored consistency as his trademark and he’s using it again to his advantage this year. It’s not that he can’t win races – witness the fact a year ago Kenseth was in Newman’s shoes, winning a season (and career) high seven races and yet falling short of the title – but this year for either lack of luck or occasional lack of speed he’s been unable to get the job done.
Heck, Kenseth’s biggest news making moment this year came a week ago at Charlotte, when he went after Brad Keselowski in the garage post-race.
Meanwhile it’s hard to pinpoint what Newman’s biggest news making moment has been this year.
But 11 years later, Newman is a far more consistent driver than he was in the boom-or-bust period of that 2003 season. He’s been a steady, solid rock at the helm of Richard Childress Racing this season in his first year there, and has flown under the radar to get to this point.
So how would NASCAR react if one or both of Kenseth and Newman continue their consistent, nondescript, methodical run of results, fail to win, and advance through to Homestead, battle for the championship, and eventually have it come down to say, who finishes sixth or seventh to win the title?
It’s a question I’m guessing they don’t want to answer. But it would break open the debate about the value and true impact of this new format if either winless driver, again if they stay winless, was to emerge as champion over a six-win Brad Keselowski or a five-win Joey Logano, for instance.
Although, if it was Kenseth beating a Penske driver with the most wins, we’d have history repeat itself… just under a format designed primarily to prevent that from happening.
This all goes for naught if Newman or Kenseth wins between now and then. For the sake of the “winning means everything” mantra that has been trumpeted this year though, it’s not in NASCAR’s best interest to have either winless driver take home the biggest prize of all at the end of the season.
As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.
McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.
In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.
“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.
“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”
Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.
Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.
When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.
“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.
“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.
“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”
No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.
On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.
In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.
“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.
“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.
“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”
Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.
“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”
With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.
“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.
“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.
“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”