Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images via NASCAR

Old Wilkesboro Surface Could Make for Best Next-Gen Short Track Race

By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor

NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — It’s been a long time since the NASCAR Cup Series has raced on a surface this old.

“Never,” says Corey Lajoie.

Yeah, that’s probably true, but certainly true from a modern standpoint where the highest levels generally compete on the most pristine surfaces and still state-of-the-art facilities. With all due credit to Marcus Smith and Steve Swift, North Wilkesboro Speedway looks incredible all things considered, but this place is neither state-of-the-art nor pristine.

That’s generally a good thing in advance of the All Star Race this weekend.

Chase Elliott has generally been critical of the Next Gen car on short tracks, lamenting the lack of speed disparity created by a spec platform but is also optimistic that the tire falloff this weekend will be significant enough to offset that and its aerodynamic shortcomings.

“I hope that’s the case, for the racing’s sake,” Elliott said. “With the track being short, the leader might get to lap traffic a little quicker. So that might be a good thing, especially when the bottom groove was certainly the place to be (in the Late Model races) on Wednesday night.

“So, if that’s the case again and you get to lap traffic and you have to start moving around, I could see that putting us in a good position to put on a good show.”

Brad Keselowski believes the lack of grip is going to be a net positive on Sunday.

“I think two things stand out to me about it,” Keselowski said. “One, it really favors itself to removing some of the aero stuff that we’ve had problems with as a whole, and I think that’s probably going to be really good for us and put the racing a little bit more in the driver’s hands and I think that feeds into the second part that stands out to me is how will the drivers adapt.

“The drivers have fallen into a routine of racing where the cars have been fairly easy to drive and I think generally when you go backwards we see a lot of spins and accidents and things like that when you go backwards on that grip knob. This is a step backwards on the grip knob, which is welcome by me at least and we’ll see what it does to the driver’s ability to find that limit without going too far and having a bunch of accidents.”

Corey Lajoie worries, to a certain point, if the falloff could be so great that it doesn’t allow the drivers to actually race on Sunday.

“I’m not going to be upset when they dig it up and put a new fresh layer on it so you can hammer down, spin some guys and run close together,” Lajoie said. “I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of that on Sunday because of how limited the traction is.”

At the same time, the traction is so limited that drivers shouldn’t be downshifting one of the other things working against short track racing in addition to the aerodynamic flaws and a lack of horsepower. Lajoie does agree that there are positives to this surface too.

Most notably, that Cup has never raced on a surface this old nor has any data on it, makes it an unknown in all the best ways.

“I think the biggest benefit is that the engineers haven’t had a time to figure it out yet, and make it bad,” Lajoie said. “We don’t have a good validated track sim model to see where the grip and the bumps are.

“Those make the cars drive considerably better. I think we’re going to see some cars with short run skews and others with long run skews and I think you’ll get some disparity there 40 laps into a run.

“But I don’t think people fully anticipate how slow we’re going to be — about two seconds slower than the Super Late Models because we’re 100 lbs. heavier. We’re going to be sliding around I don’t think we’re going to be 50 percent throttle 15 laps into a run.”

After running the ASA STARS Super Late Model race on Wednesday night, William Byron praised that platform for allowing drivers to close up on the rear-end of another car without pushing up the track the way the rear diffuser forces a trailing car up the track.

And again, with so little grip in the track, Byron also thinks it will negate downshifting — something else that should help the racing.

“It will be tough to want to shift this weekend,” Byron said. “The length of the straightaways has a lot to do with it, as well. Martinsville being tight corners and long straightaways, it gets you in that RPM range where you have that other gear to work with. I don’t think you’re going to shift this weekend.

“I think you’re going to ride around there in fourth gear and maybe shift to fifth all the way around to save the tires more. It might actually work the opposite of what we normally have with wanting less RPMs to save the rear tires. Who knows? Maybe we start shifting if the pace is fast but I think you’re going to run around there in fourth.”

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