Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Friday 5: Legacy MC engineer Sydney Prince doing what few women have done in NASCAR

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Fans mingle on pit road, walking by cars that will later roar to life and begin the NASCAR Cup season. Some fans wander across the infield grass and others are in their seats under a cloudless blue sky at Daytona International Speedway.

A nine-second video surveys the scene well before the start of February’s Daytona 500. It is one of many videos taken that day by those in attendance, but this one stands out because of its viewpoint. It is shot atop a team’s pit box.

As the video pans to the right, one person stands out. An older woman, whose auburn-colored sunglasses rest on her white hair, is parked in the middle of Jimmie Johnson’s pit stall. She holds her phone in both hands to capture the pit stall and pit box.

She also captures something much more significant.

Across from her is a younger woman. Twenty-four-year-old Sydney Prince shoots a quick video atop the Legacy Motor Club pit box. She savors the moment ahead of her first Daytona 500 as an engineer for Johnson’s team.

There have been female engineers in the NASCAR Cup Series before, but they remain a rarity. Prince was one of two female engineers on the pit box for the Daytona 500. The other was Samantha Lunt for RFK Racing’s No. 60 car driven by David Ragan.

Prince was the only female engineer on the pit box among nearly 40 teams when Johnson raced at Texas and Dover. She is expected to be the only female engineer on a pit box during Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway.

Even though her first Cup race didn’t go as hoped — Johnson finished 28th after being involved in an incident — it still was special for Prince.

“It’s kind of like a you made it moment,” she told NBC Sports.

Prince might not have been at the Daytona 500 or any other race this season had it not been for her high school marching band.

The Connecticut native played trumpet through middle school and joined the high school marching band her freshman year. She didn’t enjoy it that first week and sought something else. A neighbor was taking an engineering course and suggested Prince do the same.

She had always been hands-on when she raced micro sprints and sprint cars with her family team. Prince enjoyed the mechanical aspect of motorsports.

So, she replaced band with an engineering class.

“This is what I want to do,” Prince said.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Josh Berry is moving up in the points, while Daniel Hemric has had back-to-back top 10s.

There was little doubt she would be involved in racing. When her father gave her a list of hobbies at age 5 to see if she and her twin sister Mallory were interested in any, Prince chose racing. Her grandparents watched NASCAR races and she recalls seeing it then. Also, there was a quarter-midget track not too far away from home.

When her family got a car and took her to a track to practice, though, she had to be coaxed to get in it. Once she did and drove it?

“My dad could not pull me out of the car,” Prince said.

She raced through high school. Her sprint car was No. 14 for Tony Stewart, earning her the nickname “Smoke Jr.” She became a fan of his when he drove the orange Home Depot car, which gained her attention.

She had a chance years ago to meet Stewart at the track but was too shy to do so. She’s never met him but competes against his cars in NASCAR’s premier series.

Before she arrived in NASCAR, Prince was focused on college. A high school counselor encouraged Prince to consider the University of North Carolina at Charlotte because of its mechanical engineering program and proximity to most NASCAR teams. Prince went there. She interned at Spire Motorsports in 2022 before graduating that year.

Prince joined Petty GMS, serving as a quality control engineer. She was promoted in 2023 to engineer on the team’s No. 24 Craftsman Truck team with driver Rajah Caruth. Prince moved up to Johnson’s Cup team this season as a second engineer.

Johnson is running nine of 36 races this season, so Prince spends most of her weekends in the team’s command center, helping provide information for Legacy Motor Club’s full-time teams of Erik Jones and John Hunter Nemechek.

When she’s at the track, Prince sits atop the pit box with crew chief Jason Burdett and lead engineer Evan Bensch. Prince examines data for her team and others and alerts Burdett and Bensch to what she sees.

“Looking at the data trying to figure out what other people are doing different that you’re not to try to help your driver get better,” Prince said.

She also will listen to the radio communication between Johnson, Burdett and spotter Earl Barban. Prince’s other duties include keeping track of fuel mileage for Johnson’s car. She also studies pictures that a photographer will send the team to examine the car’s body or see if there is any damage that affects its performance.

During the week, Prince works at the shop and is a part of Legacy Motor Club’s vehicle performance group. Her duties include work in a simulator, which allows Prince to get back behind the wheel.

The team has a static simulator, meaning the seat doesn’t move, and she’ll drive that to help build data on the tire that will be used at a particular track. Other times, she’ll go to Toyota Racing Development and drive its full-motion simulator.

A goal for her is to match how the Legacy MC drivers run laps around a track to see the impact it has on the tires.

“It’s not necessarily her going out there running the fastest lap as much as it is taking driver inputs … and trying to match them to match the lap time and balance,” Burdett told NBC Sports.

Toyota drivers have won four consecutive races at Kansas Speedway.

She’ll run laps and gather much of the data before Corey Heim gets in the sim. Heim, the team’s reserve driver who will again fill in for an injured Erik Jones this weekend at Kansas, takes Prince’s data and sees what else can be maximized.

The role of engineers, which has grown through the years in the sport, has increased with Cup teams running single-source supplied parts with the Next Gen car instead of making many parts. Legacy Motor Club put an emphasis on expanding its engineering department a couple of years ago and now has about 20 engineers among a competition side that nears 80 employees.

“We don’t do any activity even in the shop without an engineer,” Joey Cohen, vice president of race operations for Legacy Motor Club, told NBC Sports. “Whether that be a (quality control) process when the parts come into the building. … The margins are so small (that) every body panel that comes in has to be scanned, has to be measured. An engineer has to do that. When we go to (assemble) cars now, when they attach a clip to the center section, an engineer has to be involved.”

That’s just among the many duties for engineers. Cohen notes that all the cars are set up by engineers. They provide reports to race engineers to see how well the a particular setup will do for a driver.

The focus on engineering has made it a stepping stone to becoming a crew chief in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“I fully intend for her to be on one of the (team’s) main cars, the 42, 43, in the future,” Cohen said of Prince. “That’s her path. Ten years from now, we might be talking about her leading a team. I think she’s very capable. She’s on the right path.”

2. Dissecting dramatic finish

The last three weeks have been tough for Michael McDowell and his Front Row Motorsports team.

He crashed racing for the lead at Texas. He crashed defending his lead coming to the checkered flag at Talladega. A hub failure sidelined him last week at Dover. That’s three consecutive finishes of 31st or worst, dropping him from 22nd to 29th in points.

McDowell came so close to winning at Talladega, which would have put him in the playoffs for the second year in a row and third time in the last four years.

“If we can dig ourselves in a hole in four weeks, we can probably dig ourselves out of a hole in five or six, but the hole is getting mighty deep,” McDowell said.

Two of the national NASCAR series return to action at Kansas Speedway.

McDowell admits he and the team spent “four or five hours just digging in and going through” that finish and what could have been done differently.

So what did McDowell do right?

“What I did right is I went for it,” McDowell said of attempting to block Brad Keselowski twice to keep the lead. “What I mean by that is there’s been a lot of comments and a lot of people (have been) like, ‘Oh, you only get one block and the second one never works.’ I was two inches away from the second working. If Noah Gragson doesn’t lift for Brad Keselowski, I win the race. So those are the things that we did right.”

Another key moment came on Lap 139 of the 188-lap race. McDowell was 18th.

Ross Chastain moved from the middle to the top lane as the leaders saved fuel and ran a slower pace. McDowell followed Chastain up the track. Soon others joined. They charged to the front.

McDowell took the lead on Lap 142. He led 33 of the final 47 laps. That move to the top lane was key because it gave McDowell track position. When the Toyotas crashed on Lap 155, McDowell was at the front. That allowed him to lead the field down pit road. By burning gas and gambling on a caution, McDowell went from the middle of the pack to controlling the race.

“If I didn’t run wide open and use up the fuel and get in the outside lane and get to the lead, we would have run 10th the rest of that race just like the guys that were stuck back there,” he said.

On the last lap, McDowell led the bottom lane with Keselowski pushing and Gragson behind him. Tyler Reddick was on the middle line and had Martin Truex Jr. behind him, but they got disconnected. That allowed McDowell’s line to surge ahead. McDowell, Keselowski and Gragson all cleared Reddick in Turn 4.

After Keselowski pushed McDowell ahead, he backed off, falling back to Gragson to get a push.

“As soon as he got off my bumper, I rolled 100% out of the gas and backed up as fast as I could to him,” McDowell said. “It doesn’t look like it because that little sucker stood on the brakes. He did. He did everything right and I did it halfway right.”

Keselowski then got the push from Gragson, who was pushed by Chastain. Keselowski got a big run off Turn 4. That’s when he went high. McDowell blocked. Keselowski went low and McDowell couldn’t complete the block. There was contact and McDowell crashed.

“I just want to clarify, it’s 100% my fault,” McDowell said. “Brad did nothing wrong.”

For a moment, Gragson thought he might win.

When Keselowski went high and McDowell blocked, Gragson initially went up the track a few feet but then dropped back into the bottom lane.

Gragson said he thought about going up in front of Reddick in middle lane but worried that Reddick would have enough speed, along with the draft off Gragson’s car, to get by him.

Noah Gragson has posted four top-10 finishes in the first 11 races this season.

Then Gragson recalled how Chastain won the spring 2022 race at Talladega by staying on the bottom lane as others in front changed lanes.

“Maybe that will happen with these two going up,” Gragson said he thought as he saw McDowell and Keselowski move up the track.

Almost.

Instead, Reddick won.

3. Denny Hamlin vs. Kyle Larson

Last weekend at Dover marked the sixth time Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson have finished first and second in a race.

Hamlin has won all six times.

One of those races was last year’s spring Kansas race. As the Cup Series returns to Kansas this weekend (3 p.m. ET Sunday on FS1), here’s a look at those six races Hamlin finished first and Larson was second.

Sept. 10, 2016 (Richmond) — Hamlin leads a race-high 189 of 407 laps, including the final 86. Larson went from 12th to second in overtime, taking advantage of fresher tires than all but one car that restarted ahead of him. Larson got boxed in by Martin Truex Jr. on the final lap, slowing his progression and did not challenge Hamlin in overtime. Hamlin won by .609 seconds.

July 16, 2017 (New Hampshire) — Hamlin leads 54 laps, including the final 34. A key moment was on the final pit stop. Larson was third, Hamlin was fourth. Hamlin got by Larson on pit road. Hamlin moved into the lead on Lap 268, two laps after the final restart. Larson moved into second on Lap 277 of the 301-lap race but couldn’t catch Hamlin, losing by .509 seconds.

Sept. 5, 2021 (Darlington) — Hamlin leads 146 laps, including the final 69 to capture the playoff opener. He won a stage and Larson won a stage. Larson led a race-high 156 laps. Larson runs along the wall in Turns 3 and 4 in a video game move to close to the back of Hamlin’s car on the last lap. Hamlin stays ahead and beats Larson to the finish line by .212 seconds.

May 7, 2023 (Kansas) — Larson leads on the final lap when Hamlin challenges. Contact sends Larson into the wall. Hamlin drives by to win. Larson finishes second, 1.307 seconds behind.

Sept. 16, 2023 (Bristol) — Hamlin leads 142 laps, including the last 135 to win beat Larson by 2.437 seconds.

April 28, 2024 (Dover) — Hamlin gets by Larson on a restart with 72 laps to go. Hamlin holds Larson off in the final laps by air blocking him. Hamlin wins by .256 seconds.

4. Cautions down

After 11 Cup races this season, cautions are down 27% compared to the same time two years ago — the first season of the Next Gen car. Cautions were up that season as drivers struggled to handle the new car.

Cautions are down 8.75% compared to this time last year.

The cautions are down this year even with 16 at Texas last month — the most cautions in a 400-mile race on a 1.5-mile speedway.

Part of the reason cautions are down this year is because there were fewer cautions in the Daytona 500 and at Talladega than last year. The two tracks combined for nine cautions this year and 16 last year.

For drivers, fewer cautions means fewer restarts. That puts more emphasis on those restarts to gain or keep track position.

The next three points races — Kansas, Darlington and the Coca-Cola 600 — combined for 35 cautions last year. It will be worth watching to see if cautions continue to decline or if this next set of races matches what happened last year.

5. Tire testing dates

NASCAR has updated its testing schedule and five tire tests are scheduled through the rest of the season.

Those dates and tracks are:

May 28 at Iowa Speedway. This is a confirmation test of a tire that will be used for the inaugural Cup race there June 16.

June 4-5 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Cup Series returns to the track’s oval for the first time since 2020 and will need a different tire than what has been run on the road course there.

June 26-27 at Watkins Glen International.

July 16-17 at Bristol Motor Speedway. This will be the first chance for NASCAR and Goodyear to run there since the spring race that featured excessive tire wear.

Aug. 20-21 at Martinsville Speedway.

Earlier this year, NASCAR and Goodyear had tire tests at North Wilkesboro Speedway and Sonoma Raceway. Both tracks were repaved since last year’s race.

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