Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Can NASCAR Stop the Air Blocking?

It was the phrase of the day at Dover Motor Speedway on Sunday (April 28) after the NASCAR Cup Series race, and nobody (except for Denny Hamlin) was happy about it.

So, let’s talk about air blocking. 

P.S. It’s not new.

See also
Stock Car Scoop: Denny Hamlin Conquers the Concrete of Dover

Aerodynamic dependence as a whole has always been a part of racing, but as the cars have evolved, it’s become a problem. But it’s not new. Even as a problem, it’s something that fans have been concerned about since at least the 1990s and the fourth-generation racecar.

It was aero dependence that allowed the slingshot passes of old at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, too. Different car, different times. It was to the benefit of drivers and fans back then, though, so it wasn’t something to try and fix.

Fast forward to now, and air is king.

A big part of that is that the sport still wants the cars to look like their showroom relatives. Fans want the cars to at least bear a passing resemblance to a car they can drive to work and manufacturers want people to recognize their cars. As far from stock cars as NASCAR is in the 21st century, nobody is ready to turn to a car that’s designed to race well and not look like any car fans can buy.

The need for, and the advantage of, clean air has been maligned for years, but it was particularly showcased on Sunday at Dover, when passing was next to impossible thanks to the ability of the leader, in clean air, to block his opponents simply by moving enough to change the airflow and take away the downforce.

This wasn’t physical blocking, where the driver in front used his car to stop the pass. The driver behind can parry that kind of blocking with his bumper. He couldn’t get close enough to use a bumper on Sunday, and drivers got loose on their own just trying to make a pass, with varying consequences up to spinning. 

Speed didn’t matter.

And there’s the real problem fans had with it. Speed should matter. Skill should matter. And they didn’t matter Sunday.

Dover’s days could be numbered if a solution can’t be found; it was that bad.

Kyle Larson, who finished runner-up to Hamlin despite appearing to have a faster car in the late laps, was critical of how easily the leader could hold off any attempt at a run on him. To be completely fair, Larson 1. Has used air blocking to his own advantage and 2.

He’d just gotten beat, so if he sounded a bit hypocritical, that’s a fair criticism.

But that doesn’t mean he was wrong. It made the race into a snoozefest.

Larson’s suggestion to remove the rearview cameras from the Next Gen cars isn’t terrible either, particularly at tracks a mile or less in length. The cameras make things easier for drivers, but not necessarily safer than the traditional rear-view mirror coupled with a good spotter. Considering that racing at the Cup level isn’t supposed to be easy, losing them wouldn’t be detrimental to anyone. So sure, ditch them and make the drivers work a little harder.

Landon Cassill took it one step further, saying he’d support limiting the information spotters can give to drivers to safety only, not competition.

That’s a step too far, spotters have always played a role in race strategy and that’s fine. A driver has to be on his game to hear and process the information the spotter feeds them and then execute a block or a pass. That’s part of the skill game, and it’s fine.

One thing that made Dover and all of its aero-dependent glory stand out was the tires Goodyear brought which lasted a fuel run and therefore helped keep it boring. It didn’t need to go full Bristol Motor Speedway tire, but something that wore significantly and allowed drivers to pass if they managed their tires better would have made a major difference.

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Deepdive: Mike Leffingwell - NASCAR Driver Turned Con Man

NASCAR has used the All-Star race to try out changes in the past, and one thing it’s doing this year is to introduce an alternate tire with a softer compound that has more grip (and speed) but wears faster. Teams must use both that and the regular tire at least once during the race.

If NASCAR isn’t going to allow more horsepower on tracks of a mile or less, then it needs to experiment with tire options. That could look like a lot of things. It could mean a tire that wears out well before the end of a fuel run like we saw at Bristol. It could mean using two different tires like teams will at North Wilkesboro Speedway in a couple of weeks, or it could mean bringing two compounds but requiring teams to choose one at the start of the weekend: a slower, more durable tire, or one that runs, but also wears out, faster.

The cars are unlikely to get less aerodynamically dependent because street cars are too aerodynamically advanced to change the race version meaningfully and keep the look the manufacturers and fans want. NASCAR has remained adamant that more horsepower isn’t in the future, so that leaves the tires as the biggest area to work with short another new racecar.

There isn’t much NASCAR can do to change things overnight, but there are steps to take to at least reduce air blocking like we saw Sunday and increase the ability of a faster car to pass. Losing the cameras to make it harder to mirror drive and exploring tire options would be viable bandaids, at least until significant changes can be made to the cars.

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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DoninAjax

It looked to me that Humblin took away the line Larson wanted to use and any other line didn’t have enough speed to pass the leader.

wildcatsfan2016

If you’ve been to as many races at Dover as I have, it is quite often a snoozefest. Multiple iterations of the cars that NASCAR has used and it’s the same thing.

Bill B

I agree 100% but I would still say this generation car has made things even worse.

wildcatsfan2016

I agree with you Bill B. That’s why I did yard work rather than watch more than the last 10 laps!

WJW Motorsports

Same here, but I always had the opposite reaction. Sure if you sit and stare at Jimmie blasting the field in his Chadmobile it could be pretty boring. But a strange thing happens when you can see everything and choose what to watch. I was always struck that night when I watched the replay how much more I enjoyed the race that day. I was also at the frozen Mville race considered to be the “worst of all time” and while it was definitely cold, there was plenty of racing going on that night (just not so much out front).

Last edited 16 days ago by WJW Motorsports
wildcatsfan2016

LOL I think I was probably at that race too. Johnson was my brother’s favorite driver and after the race, my brother thanked me for not complaining about being cold so he could enjoy the race. One of the reasons I always liked being AT the race is, as you say, being able to watch the entire race (well except for the big tracks like Dayton and Dega). I would watch the race, not just what the IMO idiot TV producer chose to show. I think they’d be better off with an overhead drone shot that showed the entire track all the time – even if it was in a PIP – then the fans could SEE the race.

Kevin in SoCal

The mirrors are for safety, so that would be a last resort.

More horsepower and more tire wear seem to be the best solutions. The tires should last slightly longer than the fuel run so the drivers have to manage them to make them last the whole time and keep up their speed.

John

Multiple tire compounds–First it was the car–all alike. Then the single lugnut. Now tire compounds? INDYcar wannabes–here we come!

And when that happens, there I go.

Brian

If the manufacturers want a car to look like the street car and attempt to fix the issues with aero, go look at the parking lot or dealership and measure how high above the ground the front end(bumper) is. Apply that to the race car and poof aero issues are pretty much down. Driver’s would also be more important as maybe just maybe they might have to drive the car, manage the handling, and be skillful. Seems like all things people have said they want.Watch broadcasts from 70’s and 80’s I do not believe aero was mentioned except for slingshots at Daytona and ‘Dega. Mechanical grip ruled in those days which was skill and knowledge used differently

Jeff

Amen brother

wildcatsfan2016

Well said Brian!

Jeremy

Not enough Thumbs Up in all of the internet for this!!

DoninAjax

They should be driving 1979 Monte Carlos and Thunderbirds.

Jeremy

Can we bring back the Cutlass, Magnum, and Regal too?

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