By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
Much of what the NASCAR Cup Series will be remembered for during the 2023 season will center around short tracks, road courses and a downtown street circuit.
As it stands right now, league officials have been challenged to get these races closer to industry expectations following a lackluster showing in Year One of the Next Gen platform. Specifically, the underbody, decreased horsepower, increased mechanical grip (tires) and sequential shifting has stifled passing in a significant way on the heavy braking tracks.
To wit, many of these tracks are the most important stops on the schedule. The playoffs in September and October run through the Charlotte Roval, Martinsville and Phoenix — each considered letdowns from a competition and passing standpoint.
At the same time, the new car did bring a degree of excitement back to intermediate tracks but at the expense of the short tracks and road courses. It was a role reversal of sorts from the final years of the previous platform.
This is an important conversation for the industry to have because a considerable amount of fanfare has been placed on the return of North Wilkesboro Speedway and the first-ever street course event in Downtown Chicago.
But right now, drivers and teams are challenged by a considerable amount of dirty air under braking in addition to the shifting and increased corner speeds. It’s just not a good combination for short tracks and road courses.
In response, NASCAR scheduled a fairly last-minute test on January 24 at Phoenix Raceway to experiment with smaller spoilers and modified underbody configurations. That test was attended by Jimmie Johnson, Ross Chastain, Brad Keselowski, Christopher Bell, Joey Logano, Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
While directionally positive, Jones doesn’t think significant progress was made at the current home of the Championship Race Weekend.
“I don’t think there was anything that was groundbreaking in any way,” Jones said. “We made a few changes to the (underbody) and some other things that didn’t affect the car a whole lot.
“The biggest thing were the smaller spoilers and some underwing changes to balance that out. The low downforce option is the one most want us to go. I’m indifferent either way. It didn’t fix the issue following a car, front to back, but others felt it was where we need to go.
“If that is the way we go, I don’t think there is anything wrong with making the cars harder to drive and that seems to be the direction we’re going to go for short tracks and road courses.”
NASCAR tried both a 3″ and 2″ spoiler and the latter is the one they have taken to the wind tunnel for additional data in advance of Phoenix in March.
William Byron of Hendrick Motorsports moonlights as a Super Late Model driver in his free time and says he wishes the Next Gen could race more like one of those cars on tracks a half-mile or less.
“There is only so much spoiler you can take off these cars,” Byron told Motorsports Tribune last month about the Next Gen. “And like you said, the tires play a factor too. These wider tires have a lot more grip. And there’s not a ton of fall-off so they just have to make us less air dependent.
“At Martinsville last year, it was like a mile and a half track, where you would just lose the nose every time you followed someone in the corner.
“That’s one of the reasons I love racing these Super Late Models because you can follow someone into the corner, put a little bumper to them, and drive off. We have to get closer to that in the Cup Series.”
At the time he was asked about, 2020 Cup Series champion Chase Elliott hadn’t been debriefed about the test, but said the rear diffuser is such a vital part of what makes downforce for the car that NASCAR can’t simply take it off to alleviate this particular issue.
“One-inch spoiler, or 10 foot spoiler, it’s still going to be important under the car,” Elliott told Motorsports Tribune. “So, I don’t know how they go about that and make it better for short tracks. To me, this seems like it comes down to the efficiency or inefficiency of the diffuser more than the spoiler.”
David Ragan, while largely retired from Cup Series competition these days, has actually served as the lead test and simulator driver at Ford Performance over the past four years.
He has a great deal of experience with these cars and is still very up to date with the process and wishes NASCAR had placed a greater sense of urgency in fixing the short track and road course issue when they first became apparent in testing.
“The test was directionally the right direction,” Ragan said. “But what frustrates me is that there is no sense of urgency. You know, we have known for over a year that these cars would have a wider contact patch with the tire. They have better brakes. The sequential gear box allowed for shifting at the short tracks and there was more loading on the tires, so Goodyear has taken a really conservative approach.
“We saw during the Martinsville test that this could happen two years ago and the races this past year confirmed it. So what baffles me, is that we are 10 months past that first race at Martinsville, and we’re just now trying things?
“I mean, why in the world were we not trying this in October? We could at least have an answer or a better direction to have taken this offseason, but we’re just trying things out two weeks before the Clash.
Ragan conceded that there has been a degree of trepidation from team owners about spending on new parts a year after buying cars that were supposed to represent a fixed cost. He also conceded that every change for safety or competition is forcing Goodyear and the OEMs to spend additional resources on their simulator programs too.
But he also believes this process is important for the health of the sport.
“I think there are some small things they can take from that test, and there are people a lot smarter than me working on it, but why in the world are we doing this in January of 2023 when we knew the problem existed for sure in April 2022,” he said. “I just feel like there should be a greater sense of urgency and that hasn’t been the case.
“Short tracks are the bread and butter of our sport and we lose some of that momentum, even if we gained some of it back on the intermediate tracks, but that is not a net gain in my opinion.
“We have a great opportunity at Wilkesboro and some of these other short tracks that are coming back on the schedule and we do not need to disappoint fans and not put on the great races that we are capable of.”
As for the Chicago Street Course, Elliott says he wants to put on a good show there as well but said there will be other considerations that determine the success rate beyond the rules package.
“When you look at Chicago, that’s an event,” Elliott said. “We need to step back and take a look at that for what it is, and that’s an event. The way that event is laid out for attendees and spectators, you want people to enjoy the event and whatever you get from the race is a bonus, right?
“I think Wilkesboro will have so much (tire) falloff, because the surface is so old, that it’s going to chew up tires because it was abrasive when I last raced there in 2011.
“We were okay at Martinsville after about 80 laps when the tires finally fell off, so we just have to find a way to get there maybe a little bit sooner. I’m not smart enough to have all the answers but I can certainly provide feedback when asked, and I do.
“It’s all a mixed bag because I thought there were other areas of our racing with this car that was maybe better, too.”
Like the intermediates?
“Yeah, some of them,” Elliott said.
“I’ve said this a lot but what we’re up against sometimes is that you can’t redefine the laws of physics and we’re not going to unlearn all that we’ve learned over the past 20 years. But there are some things that we can do to get closer to where we want to be, and I know everyone wants us to get there.”