NASCAR’s Latest Attempt At Improving Its On-Track Product Debuts This Weekend

NASCAR will return to the desert outside of Phoenix this weekend for the first time since last November. Joey Logano would win the race and his second NASCAR Cup Series title.

But there were only three leaders in the field to lead more than a lap in this final race; Chase Briscoe, who led 11, Ryan Blaney, who led 109, and race winner Logano, who led the most laps on day 187 of a total of 312 laps.

But the race was far from boring. But the race that day was anything but ideal.

NASCAR is constantly looking for ways to improve its on-track product, and perhaps a hint that for this trip, a new short-track package will make its Cup Series debut.

The new package includes a 2-inch spoiler (up from the current 4-inch), the removal of three diffuser strakes and engine panel strakes, which officials say will result in a 30% reduction in downforce. All changes were tested during an organization test at Phoenix in January.

The new package will be used on tracks where wet tires are legal: Charlotte Roval, Chicago Street Course, Circuit of the Americas, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Martinsville, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix, Richmond, Sonoma, Watkins Glen and of course Phoenix. Rain tires are also new this season for the short ovals and are only used in wet conditions.

While Sunday’s race will not determine a champion, there will still be a race winner. This race winner will qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs and could eventually return here in November in the final four battling for the NASCAR Cup Series season title.

Of course, with this new package comes a new set of unknowns. And among those unknowns are the drivers, who have little idea how the cars are going to drive.

“I guess we’ll find out,” said driver Corey LaJoie, adding with a chuckle. “I don’t have a PhD in aerodynamics like a lot of the guys who actually pull the trigger on these things; I don’t pretend to be any smarter than people who have degrees in such things.

“I think we have a lot, a lot of high school graduates like me who race cars and make a lot of money. Sometimes they think they know more than doctors and aerodynamicists. I think we’ll really see who’s right.”

NASCAR shared information from the January test with teams, and unlike most other weekends in the post-Covid NASCAR world, NASCAR has made Phoenix Raceway an “extended practice weekend.” Added a 50 minute workout scheduled for Friday.

“This 50-minute practice session will be crucial,” said Arizona native Michael McDowell. “I’m not saying you’re guessing to the best of your knowledge, but you take the numbers that are presented to you and you try to factor everything in and hopefully you strike the right balance.

“The good thing is that we have this practice and probably more important than just the practice is the ability to work on it after the practice. What I mean by that is that on a typical weekend the cars are seized – their springs, shocks, geometry and settings are pretty much set – but on Friday night after practice we can change springs and suspension to really maximize everything we can can for saturday.

“I’m looking forward to getting behind the wheel of the new package and figuring out what it takes to make this work.”

However, this brief exercise may not be enough.

“I don’t know if you’re really going to go out in a group and do a simulated race or something,” said driver Kyle Busch. “We’re all just going to do our normal workouts, where we roll out together, spread out a little and get going. I don’t think we really get a chance to predict how our cars will look in traffic until we line up for the race and go.

“In terms of practice, I’m just trying to get a feel for what the pace is going to be like, what the feeling is, is it going to be a lot slower or is the car going to have a lot less grip, all that kind of thing. That’s pretty much that Biggest you can expect.”

The big unknown, also in training, will remain the race on Sunday.

“It should make dirty air racing a little bit better,” said LaJoie. “I don’t know if it’s going to have the opposite effect where you’re so reliant on clean air because you have so little downforce; If it’s a bigger improvement for the guy in front since he has clean air compared to someone behind you who doesn’t. That’s the stuff I don’t know.

“It will make the cars a little bit more difficult to drive.”

And NASCAR’s goal is to make cars harder to drive in traffic.

“I think we’re hoping that the cars will be harder to drive,” said driver Chris Buescher. “More movement, which is probably at the expense of some speed in the corners, mid-corner speed, which is fine. The speed will pick up again immediately so I think the idea is to try and make the race better.”

With increased passability, where you start may not matter as much as it did before. The advantage of starting from the front in clean air could be diminished, but qualifying on Saturday will still be important.

“I think for this particular race where everyone doesn’t know much about the package it will probably open things up a bit just because we don’t know all the complicated details of what it takes to make the car quite fast yet not,” said Kevin Harvick, who leads all active drivers here with 9 wins. “It won’t take long. Of course we know a lot more about the car than before, but still different and I think that opens the window for probably more overtaking manoeuvres.

“I still think you will have problems in traffic so qualifying will be important but I think the door is open to get the setup right and to overtake better than in the past. “

If the changes work and the product improves along the way, the new package will be considered a success. If not, don’t be surprised if NASCAR decides to try different things to make sure their product is as good as it can be on the track by making the cars harder to drive.

“Because the cars drive well, they have a lot of traction,” LaJoie said. “And I think the cars are heavier now. So the horsepower-to-weight ratio is lower and they have more tires in contact with the ground, which provides more grip. This will only make the cars heavier, lazier and have more traction. I think there are some things NASCARs are working on tire-wise and hopefully they’re looking at some horsepower options, but that’s a lot of red tape.

“It’s always a balance and I’m glad I don’t have NASCAR’s job to try to figure that out. But at the end of the day it’s going to be the same for everyone and you’ll have to figure out how to make your piece of metal run faster in the next few guys.”

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