By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
William Byron has won half the races.
Alex Bowman is the championship leader.
Kyle Larson is fifth in points, up front every week.
Much could change over the course of the spring and summer, but Hendrick Motorsports is the class of the field through the first four races of the Cup Series season. They showed the most pure speed in Daytona 500 time trials and have now set the pace in the first true intermediate and short track races of the campaign too.
Even rookie Josh Berry, subbing for the injured Chase Elliott, earned his first career top-10 on Sunday in just his second start driving the Next Gen platform.
It’s a testament to the organization, with the crew chiefs especially working diligently over the offseason to maximize a body that already seemed to provide an advantage over Ford and Toyota, with the separation growing early this season.
That’s not to say the other organizations don’t work just as hard, because they do, but you get feted when you’re on top of the world the way Chevrolet and Hendrick is.
Jeff Gordon recalls a story about walking into the Hendrick Motorsports campus on December 26, one day after Christmas, finding just one other soul in the building. It was No. 24 crew chief Rudy Fugle.
“I came to the office, this guy was there all by himself,” Gordon recalled. “I’m so proud of this guy and the efforts they’re putting in, see the results.”
And it’s just not Fugle, but also the other crew chiefs in Alan Gustafson, Cliff Daniels and newcomer Blake Harris, and how they work with each other and their drivers to find every missing bit of speed.
“We work together really well,” Fugle said. “Cliff and I were chatting about what strategy we were going to do. Open in the chat multiple times if we were going to take four or two, how we were going to do it. Even racing against each other, fully working together. We work together great, all four crew chiefs, all four teams.”
LIKELY PENALTY COMING
But there is a storm looming over the horizon as NASCAR confiscated the hood louvers from all four Hendrick Motorsports cars on Friday and recent precedence indicates that a massive penalty is likely to follow.
Last March, Brad Keselowski, crew chief Matt McCall and RFK Racing were hit with a massive penalty for modifying tail panel of the Next Gen car. This resulted in a 100-point penalty for both Keselowski the driver and the No. 6 car in the owner standings. Keselowski and the car lost 10 playoff points, and lost McCall for four races in addition to his own $100,000 fine.
That’s the precedence, as is Denny Hamlin having a win disqualified at Pocono last summer as a result of his team placing a two-inch wide, five ½-inch long, .012-inch thick strip of tape applied beneath the car’s vinyl sponsor wrap.
That was deemed, in NASCAR’s collective minds, a modification of the single source supplied part.
As a result, speaking on his podcast on Monday morning, Hamlin believes NASCAR is likely to rock all four Hendrick Motorsports cars for this infraction.
“These are very, very important pieces of the car,” Hamlin said. “Let’s be honest though, they could put box stock louvers on the hood of the car, and they probably did, and they were still rockin’ fast on Sunday. Just like the noses are, and we got a DQ, first one in 60 some years at Pocono, not for altering a part, we just thickened the wrap on top of the part, and we got a DQ.
“I think they’re screwed to be honest with you. I don’t see how NASCAR could say ‘it’s all good, we checked them and its fine.’
It’s also worth noting that NASCAR took louvers from the Kaulig Racing cars, but it’s not clear if that was from a suspect violation or to forge a baseline.
It’s a bit of a controversy because, while the Next Gen car is a spec platform, teams sometimes receive parts that do not fit the way they should. This is best described as buying a lego kit car with some of the blocks not fitting together the way the manual indicates they should.
NASCAR has told teams to not modify the parts, unless getting expressed consent from the sanctioning body, which Jeff Gordon said on Sunday has led to some miscommunications.
“I can tell you it was weighing on all of our minds coming into today,” Gordon said. “Certainly will continue.
“We had some conversation, will continue to have conversations, with NASCAR. Every situation is sort of unique, but this is a more unique one than I’ve seen in a while where there’s been a lot of communication back and forth on this particular part, especially for this racetrack because they did a parity test in the wind tunnel.
“I think it really opened up the door for some miscommunication. I don’t want to go any further than that. We’ll continue to just share all the facts and be transparent with NASCAR as we have been so far.”
But man, imagine NASCAR landing on the RFK penalty for Hendrick and how that sets back each car in both the drivers and owners championship. Rick Hendrick has the money to pay the fines but 100 points and 10 playoff points, potentially, for each driver would be a massive setback once the playoffs begin.
Had Keselowski found someway to win a race last year, for example, he still would have started each round with negative playoff points. Those playoff points are added to each reset championship point values at the start of each consecutive round.
So those are the stakes, and why Gordon said this was weighing on their minds all weekend, because it’s a season altering verdict.
Every point matters September through November.
As expected, the short track and road course specific rules package update unveiled for this weekend at Phoenix was directionally positive but doesn’t really change the fundamental challenges created by this platform.
Sure, the cars were harder to drive but still produce a tremendous amount of grip and drag. Worse yet, they’re still shifting, allowing drivers to grab a gear anytime they miss a corner, getting their momentum back without skipping a beat.
They’re heavier, under-powered and over-gripped, but Hamlin on his podcast cited track factors with Phoenix too.
“Since the PJ1 was way up in the race track, it had so much grip compared to the bottom, that everyone just ran in a freight train up top,” Hamlin said. “It’s a combination of the shifting on the short tracks, we’re shifting at California Speedway, what are we doing shifting there?
“I know NASCAR has really tried to get to OEMs to come up with a drop gear so the spread is so great that we don’t shift but I plead with NASCAR, get rid of the shifting and the racing will be as good as we’ve ever had.”
NASCAR, teams and the OEMs have worked together to lower rpms to extend the life cycle of engines, which is why they’re shifting on ovals in a discipline that generally is about momentum.
“We’ve reduced the rpms to 9000s … What has happened, is it’s costing us our racing product,” Hamlin said. “We are starting to be detrimental to our racing product. This is where cutting costs is costing us our racing product.
“What happens is, in reducing the rpms means we have to shift. Every single driver will say this, you can miss corners, shift and you get your momentum right back.”
To that point, it didn’t really matter how much downforce NASCAR took off the cars this weekend, even if that number was something closer to 40 percent from the standard configuration. The cars still pushed in dirty air, and speeds were so similar throughout the top-20 that it was just incredibly difficult to pass, especially when factoring in shifting.
“Yeah, I thought it was really difficult to drive, like from an objective standpoint,” Byron said. “I know we were competitive, but I didn’t think we could pass any better. There’s still some work to do there with something going on with how tight they get in traffic.”
Ultimately, Hamlin says NASCAR is starting to suffer from the byproducts of its own pursuit of parity, too.
Last year, early on in the Next Gen development lifecycle, it was like throwing a dart board at the wall to see who would land on the right set-up and that’s how they ended up with 18 different winners. The parity isn’t going to create many different winners, it’s just going to produce procedural affairs that benefit the manufacturer with the best clear advantage in Chevrolet.
“What we saw on Sunday is what’s wrong with parity,” Hamlin said. “Parity means most all the cars are the same, that the team in 25th has a chance to win as much as the first-place guy on speed, because they’re running the same times.
“First through 20, they’re all within a 10th of each other. Passing will always be difficult when everyone is running the same dang speed. The car in front will always have an advantage because he’s taking up all the clean air that the cars need to give them turn.”
Kevin Harvick said on Saturday that NASCAR should just randomly use a different rules package every week so that it would create speed disparity.
“He’s saying that because he wants there to be a difference between the fast cars and the slow cars,” Hamlin said. “And unfortunately, this is what you get when you have true parity, all the cars are exactly the same. The only difference is the crew chief set-up, the driver, the engine and the body.”
This is an argument Chase Elliott has been making since last summer. After a disappointing Bristol Night Race, Elliott blamed parity. He did it again after the Charlotte Roval too.
“This is what happens when you make everyone so even,” Elliott said in Charlotte. “Enjoy.”
But still give NASCAR credit for making an effort, especially when they started so late in the off-season to admit there was a problem to try to navigate through.
“I liked the tweet that Jeff Burton put out, that let’s appreciate that the sanctioning body was willing to change,” Hamlin said. … “We’re going to have more tests throughout the year, the short track package is going to evolve and it should.
“I think we need to be working towards 2024 right now. What parts can we change? How can we improve the superspeedways (too). I don’t want that to get lost. We have to work on that, with no three-wide racing anymore, the skillset that it takes, it’s null.
“I’m just sitting in a pack and I know I’m just stuck in line. The Dale Earnhardt days of going 18th to first, we keep playing those replays, they’re done until we make some changes. We went through a lot of changes during the offseason, we had to send them all away for safety reasons, and that’s great, safety first, right?
“But now we have to start working on the racing product and I think the sanctioning body is willing to make those changes. That has been our call, what we have been about for decades, we don’t see closer racing like you do in NASCAR. You don’t see contact like you do in NASCAR. It’s the best form of racing out there. There is optimism for the future. Will there be for Martinsville, probably not. Will there be shifting? Yes. Is it one lane? Yes. This package is better, no question, it’s more in the driver’s hands but the passing is still difficult.”
Ryan Blaney is optimistic for Circuit of the Americas and Martinsville, but challenges will persist.
“It’s hard to tell,” Blaney said after the race. “I hope it’s better. I really do. I hope it’s better at Martinsville, a slower track. Richmond, I could see it being better. Time will tell.”