For all the novelty and talk of manufacturer relevance, NASCAR’s next-generation race car will ultimately be judged based on the quality of racing it produces.
To that end, Steve O’Donnell issued a lofty and optimistic claim while introducing the machine on Wednesday in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I think first and foremost, this will be more in the hands of the drivers, and that’s something all of our fans want,” said the NASCAR executive vice president. “Reducing some of the downforce that’s out there, the cars will be harder to drive in the corners.”
That is a welcome sentiment following a three-year science experiment with the current generation machine that has included increasing downforce and reducing horsepower in the hopes of creating closer competition.
At best, the cars have occasionally featured closer deltas, but the eight-inch spoiler attached to the car on intermediate length tracks have also stifled passing opportunities. The combination of increased downforce and minimal horsepower has also meant drivers no longer needed to lift off the throttle.
While NASCAR isn’t claiming to have completely eliminated aerodynamics from the competitive equation with its new car, the sanctioning body does believe it has made gains in minimizing the importance of aerodynamic grip by increasing mechanical grip.
For one, the Next-Gen promises to virtually eliminate sideforce through its symmetrical body, stepped splitter, rear diffuser and a completely flat undertray.
The reduced sideforce and overall downforce will also be paired with wider, lower profile tires on 18” wheels to make the mechanical grip. O’Donnell believes this combination will allow Goodyear to provide a tire that falls off and rewards a driver’s skill set.
“We’re really looking forward to our drivers going out there and showcasing their abilities,” O’Donnell said. “They’re the best in the world at doing what we do. We believe the car that our engineering team and the entire industry has put together is going to enable us to do that.”
Martin Truex Jr. tested the car over the winter at Charlotte Motor Speedway and detailed his wish list from the new platform.
“Overall picture in my eyes: We need something that you can get up behind a guy and at a mile-and-a-half track get near his bumper in the corners,” Truex said. “That’s something that needs to happen, and we haven’t been able to do that really in the past few seasons. Hopefully, we can get back to that somehow.”
To his point, when drivers are wide-open on the throttle all the way around the intermediate tracks, the result is cars in closer proximity not unlike Daytona and Talladega, especially on restarts. However, unlike the two superspeedways, there isn’t enough momentum to break through the turbulence of dirty air.
With so much downforce, several 1.5-mile tracks have become single-file and single-groove five laps after a restart, with NASCAR experimenting with traction compounds to encourage moving around the track.
Additionally, the cars have produced so much downforce and sideforce that they are legitimately easy to drive by themselves, but unpredictable in traffic.
With the Next-Gen, NASCAR hopes mechanical grip and driver talent will have a greater impact on the results instead of track position and dirty air.
Arguably the biggest change might be the carbon composite body and a side skirt that can no longer cut down tires when there is contact between two cars. Once the pillar of NASCAR racing, drivers have been punished for even the slightest amount of contact with each other or the wall at the highest level over the past decade.
That should change with a more durable body and that excites 2018 champion Joey Logano.
“Look at Darlington this weekend,” Logano said. “You can’t afford to hit the wall. You knock all the shape out of the right side of your car. Even if you don’t cut a tire down, you lose performance in your car, it bends and it doesn’t come back until you make a pit stop or worse, you cut a tire down and your day is pretty much over.
“This will allow you to be more aggressive. I think that’s what the fans want to see, is drivers being more aggressive, getting closer to things, not being worried about making a little bit of contact, whether that’s side by side with other cars or just pushing it harder up against the wall. Sparks will be flying a little bit more with this new car.”
There is still much to learn about the new car.
There has been only one test with three cars on the track at the same time, and nothing that resembles a race or practice session.
Even though NASCAR has taken away downforce and sideforce in the base version of the platform, teams will seek to get it back as soon as organizational tests begin later in the summer.
Defending champion Chase Elliott says it’s too early to reach any sort of conclusions.
“To be completely honest and blunt about it, until we get on track and we can really understand what the challenges are, I don’t know that anybody can answer that question honestly,” Elliott said. “Somebody might give you an advance. It’s probably not going to be honest because I don’t really think anybody knows.”
All told, Logano is excited to see what it drives like, and wants his No. 22 Penske team to be the first to master it.
“So many new challenges, us not knowing what’s coming next, what is the next corner going to be like, what is it going to be like when we race each other on a speedway, a short track, a dirt track,” Logano said. “We have a lot of unknowns of how we race each other, how we set up the cars, as we all try to evolve so quickly to become the first winners in this car and try to win the championship next year — it’s going to be a blast.”
A blast is exactly how NASCAR wants it to drive, too.
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