Race Weekend Central

Holding A Pretty Wheel: NASCAR Moving in the Right Direction 1 Step at a Time

“Are you ever going to be able to fix dirty air?” “No. It’s in very form of motorsports now. No matter what. No matter what you’re racing, racecars depend on air at some level.”

Joey Logano spoke to the assembled media at Phoenix Raceway on the Saturday morning before the 2023 United Rentals 500, the first race in which NASCAR would run its new and (hopefully) improved short track package.

The sanctioning body made the changes in response to lackluster racing on flat tracks of a mile or less and road courses in 2022. Drivers participating in a test over the winter asked to try a smaller spoiler to create less downforce, making the cars harder to drive but less aerodynamically dependent.

But was it enough?

See also
Thinkin' Out Loud at Phoenix: Has Hendrick Motorsports Broken the Next Gen's Parity?

The racing on Sunday was decent – at least in the pack – with some good battles through the field for much of the day. Overall, it was an improvement over last year. But was it enough for fans? The drivers offered mixed reviews throughout the weekend.

“The goal with changing the package is they’re trying to make racing better at short tracks,” said Logano, who went on to mention that it’s a start, but not an end solution.

“I don’t know if I’d call it the fix, but it’s definitely the right direction to make racing better on the short tracks. I’ll make it a lot more fun for the drivers and more entertaining. The cars are harder to drive, and you’re forced to move around the racetrack more, which opens up opportunities to find clean air. That’s one part that was a struggle last year is that everyone ran the same lane, and you couldn’t move around to find clean air.

“So, there’s some more options for drivers, more fall-off, which is something we’ve always asked for. There will be more comers and goers possibly as drivers may overuse their tires and abuse them or get their balance off from short run to long run and it just makes for more passing on the racetrack, which is directionally good for racing.”

Tyler Reddick added, “It’s a little different, not groundbreakingly different. A lot of things we struggle with in dirty air remain the same.”

AJ Allmendinger echoed Reddick’s thoughts. “The cars are still tough in traffic. They’re gonna slide around more, so I do think… hopefully it makes the racing better for that. I think, in general, dirty air is still dirty air and it’s going to be a challenge.”

The reality is that NASCAR is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Racecars can’t break the laws of physics; they can only adapt to them. It’s easy to say aerodynamics weren’t a thing back in the day, but it’s closer to the truth to say that because the cars were so much less aerodynamic than they are now, we noticed the effects of the air less. 

The rules were also different. The tires were different. The tracks were different.

Teams didn’t have the technology they have today, but they did have more options to set up the cars, more ways to find the speed or the handling to make passes. 

Taking away downforce addresses part of the problem. Cars that don’t handle well put the racing more in the drivers’ hands. Simply put, the driver who can make the car work for him can make passes on a driver who can’t.

But taking away aerodynamic grip doesn’t necessarily mean changes in mechanical grip. A harder tire, for example, gives less mechanical grip than a softer one (but lasts longer). Goodyear can look at compounds that wear more—tire falloff makes cars hard to handle, and the drivers support that—but creating one that’s safe takes time.

If downforce was the only thing that affected the cars, it would be relatively easy to add it or take it away to change the racing. The spoiler angle and height could be tweaked for every track. But there’s more to it: tires, horsepower, gear ratios, suspensions and body configurations.

And even with all of those things in consideration…the laws of aerodynamics can’t be changed.

Air matters. It will always matter.

See also
The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2023 United Rentals 500 at Phoenix

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. sums up the first weekend with the new package well. “I’m sure we can still make it better; it’s definitely not where we want it yet, but we’re happy that they went this direction,” said the Daytona 500 winner.

NASCAR had to start somewhere. Upcoming races at Richmond Raceway and Martinsville Speedway will give a more complete picture of whether the lower downforce is the way to go and what else can be done. Hopefully NASCAR will continue to work with teams to make the racing more fun for fans and the competition in a comfortable spot for teams.

They just can’t alter the air.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Mike Kalasnik

Sadly it didn’t help much. The first 5-10 laps after a restart were great, then everyone got single file and it was like nobody could pass.

DoninAjax

They need to get the cars to punch a bigger hole in the air to allow the car behind to fully pass the car and they need to give the teams a real “race” car that the teams can set up for their particular driver.

Shayne

Does anyone think NASCAR will ever figure out their own car? Excuses, excuses is all we’ve heard for almost 20 years.

Cars suck, blame the tracks. Look at the tracks NASCAR has ruined trying to fix their spec car.

NASCAR shows up every week and still can’t deliver the goods.

But hey, it’s the track.

MikeinAZ

That is two races in a row that the next generation car is not producing even close to competitive racing. We just suffered through two straight weeks of Hendrick dominance. It will be interesting to see if after 6 or 7 straight wins from Chevy if Nascar will make changes like they did too Ford a while back when they had a really strong start to the season.

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