By David Morgan, Associate Editor
TALLADEGA, Ala. – It appears the days of just riding around at superspeedways and biding your time until the end of the race are over.
In the Next Gen era, track position has become even more important at the majority of the tracks on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, especially on superspeedways, where it now takes an aggressive, concerted team-based effort to move forward in the pack instead of a driver being able to take the race into his own hands and power to the front of the field.
Ahead of Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, drivers explained how they have to race with the aerodynamics of the Next Gen car fighting against their efforts to return to three and four-wide racing at the 2.66-mile track.
Polesitter Denny Hamlin was very thorough in his explanation of how the Next Gen car has handicapped his style of racing that had helped him to two previous wins at Talladega and three wins in the Daytona 500.
“I struggle because this type of racing does not fit my skill set at superspeedways,” Hamlin said. “It’s two-by-two and I want to be the Dale Earnhardt who can go from 18th to first in three laps or whatever it is. With it being such a teammate type of race or manufacturer type race, I’ve always pushed to just let me do my own thing or be on my own, but it’s very hard in this climate and this type of racing for that to be successful.
“You have to have people behind you that you know are committed to going wherever you’re going. At times, if you get told that you have to run with this car or that car, you just put handcuffs on my skill set, but it’s a different type of racing and I have to convert my type of racing into working with teammates and that type of strategy because it’s been what’s most successful.”
Hamlin added that instead of being selfish and running his own race, he has had to adjust his driving style to conform with the new norm that is superspeedway racing with the Next Gen car.
“Being selfish was beneficial until Next Gen – for sure, absolutely. My independence and not wanting to work with teammates, not because I didn’t want to, but they made moves I didn’t necessarily agree with so I just would go rogue and go on my own. I just feel like this Next Gen era in two-by-two racing, you can’t pull out and pass like you used to, by yourself so you have to rely on teammates. We’ve converted our style and I’ve had to change my style.
“I haven’t won in Next Gen. I’m working on it. I wish I could go back in time to when you would see three and four-wide. All I needed was air disturbed, any kind of air disturbed, I could find any little pocket of air to make my car go. This, you really have to just continue to push whoever is in front and make sure someone’s in line behind you.”
Michael McDowell, who has a superspeedway win in the Daytona 500 and is always a threat on these types of tracks, explained that track position is the key to the high-speed chess match that superspeedway racing is.
“I think you’ve got to get track position, you’ve got to put yourself in position,” McDowell explained. “I think that with this Next Gen car on superspeedways, track position has been pretty important. You don’t see a lot of guys coming from 25th to fifth, you know, in the last 10 laps. So, I think you have to wedge yourself up in that top 10 and be in that position.
“You don’t have to do it on lap 10, but you need to be working towards it because you’re not going to be able to just snap your fingers and get there.”
McDowell also noted that even with the challenges that the Next Gen car brings, if enough cars team up, the strength in numbers can allow a third lane to form and make for a better race.
“The third lane will go if you get enough cars in it,” he said. “The reason that the third lane isn’t as productive as it used to be is because the side draft isn’t as effective on the outside. So, in the previous generation cars, when that outside lane would would get to the middle lane or the bottom lane, they would stall that row out so much that that’s where the momentum kind of came from, was stalling that row out.
“The side drafts aren’t as effective as they used to be because these cars aren’t as side force dependent and they’re also more symmetrical. And so being that the bodies are more symmetrical and the quarter panels are smaller and they’re not flat, there’s just not as much effect with the side draft. But that’s not to say that the third lane doesn’t work.
“If you give me the 10 fastest cars here tomorrow and they all get in the outside lane, the outside lane’s gonna win. Right? It’s just not as productive as it used to be. So that’s why you see a lot of two wide instead of three-wide. So, it’s not that the car won’t do it, it’s just it doesn’t have as much of a gain as it used to when the outside lane starts to form.”
Corey LaJoie, whose Spire Motorsports team circles races like this to be able to capitalize on a leveled playing field, pointed out how trying to ride instead of being aggressive can and will backfire with the Next Gen car.
The driver of the No. 7 Chevrolet even provided an example of that very thing happening with defending series champion Joey Logano last year.
“Look at Joey last year, right? Joey went in with his, he was like, I’m just gonna go ride, right? It works for some guys. We’re gonna ride, miss the wrecks and he rode around all day and run 28th,” LaJoie said. “You just can’t afford to if you wanna win, man. You gotta be up in the mix. And he knows that, right? So it just, his plan backfired that one instance he wanted to try to ride.
“I used to be, I called it Vulture racing and I didn’t like doing it, but just the speed in our car, we, that was what kind of we were relegated to. We were just fast enough to drive to the middle of the crash, right? Or right where the middle of it, where it happened. So, we generally would ride in the back and protect our car for 500 miles and be there at the end when everybody wiped each other out and finish seventh to 10th.
“But you’re not gonna win like that. So, our strategies have certainly changed since this Next Gen car came into play.”
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