Coca Cola 600 a Big Test for Next Gen Platform

A sold out crowd is set to watch the new car in the sport's longest race.


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The Coca Cola 600 is a big test for the current and future direction of the NASCAR Cup Series.

A crown jewel by every measure, the marquee event at Charlotte Motor Speedway has suffered in terms of race quality over the past half-decade under the previous generation car. Regardless of horsepower targets or downforce levels, the longest race of the season was a perennial drag with numerous one-sided beatdowns.

On one hand, the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway might be an indicator of what the Coca Cola 600 could look like -- a single groove track position affair in which passing up front becomes a chore, regardless of speed.

On the other, there were two tests at Charlotte Motor Speedway over the winter that eventually encouraged NASCAR to adopt a lower downforce rules package to optimize this race car and track together. Speedway Motorsports also applied a resin on the outside groove in the hopes to creating a wider racing surface.

It worked tremendously for the Xfinity Series race on Saturday, but 2014 Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick worries that Sunday will be more like what happened last weekend in Fort Worth.

"I don't think it will be any different," he said.

So, like last week at Texas in that it was hard to pass and hard on tires?

"All of that."

So, what happened?

The first handful of Cup Series events on intermediate tracks with the new car received generally positive reviews. In a departure from the 550 rules package from the previous three seasons, races at Las Vegas, Fontana and Kansas, saw cars sliding around the track and generating increased action over previous seasons.

Defending Cup Series champion Kyle Larson says the racing quality from behind the wheel has tapered off the past two intermediate races at Kansas and Texas.

"I felt like I really enjoyed the cars early in the year and I think you know the intermediate style tracks stuff was really exciting early on in the year," Larson said. "I don’t know if that’s because people’s set ups were different and stuff like that. Maybe now maybe everybody’s narrowed down what’s good. It seems like the racing’s been really hard to pass lately. Hard to pass, hard to make runs. There’s been exciting finishes and stuff, but I haven’t really been that excited about the racing the last couple of months."

That timeline also includes the short tracks, which have even bigger problems for NASCAR to address at some point as Richmond and Martinsville suffered from procedural races and stifled passing opportunities.

"The dirty air’s been the biggest issue I feel like to me anyways," Larson said. "I don’t know if the other manufacturers struggle with it but feel like we’ve struggled in dirty air worse than it seems like most have."

Martin Truex, 2017 champion, says he agrees with that sentiment but thinks Charlotte will race closer to Las Vegas earlier this year.

"I think teams are figuring this car out and times are getting closer," Truex said. "Look at qualifying times. It's crazy close. And then you get on a track where tire wear isn't a factor and you don't have a second lane, and you get stuck in place a little bit. You can only get so close to someone.

"Now, I do think this will be closer to Kansas and Vegas, especially if the traction compound keeps expanding the groove. But if it doesn't it's going to be tough."

Truex also believes Fontana, Vegas and Kansas are just inherently racier tracks than Texas and Charlotte, for what it’s worth.

The Next Gen car was designed to be a low horsepower drafting car in the same spirit as the 550 HP rules package used the past three years with the Gen 6 car. The underbody, rear diffuser and inherent drag built into the car just wasn’t built for what the industry is trying to accomplish with it now.

The point is best articulated by Denny Hamlin during his appearance on the Dale Jr Download this week. Hamlin says the car will need to be modified to a certain degree to make it better for the current rules package.

But those changes will need to be decided soon to allow the supply chain to catch up to a testing regiment.

"We've already seen that Texas, yikes," Hamlin said. "On one lane tracks, especially flat tracks, it has some issues. Just simply from a competition standpoint, trying to pass, it's just very difficult. We have to redesign some stuff on the car to do that. It's going to take forever, so we need to be testing now to fix the things for next year."

With that said, Hamlin is also optimistic to see the gains from late last year to where the car was at the start of the season.

"We've come a long way since September when I tested it last year," Hamlin said. "I was thinking we're in big big trouble. I think NASCAR though we are in big big trouble too, which is why they went to the teams and said 'help us out here,' We need y'all to help with the competition side of it. The car drove really really bad and it had some design flaws. The teams worked on it and got it better."

Daniel Suarez argues that Larson is more likely to scrutinize the current state of the Next Gen purely from the standpoint that the level playing field took away many of his advantages from his championship winning campaign.

"He won 10 races, so I'd be upset this year as well," Suarez said. "He had the best car and now this year is different. I'm loving this year because everyone has the same car and you have the same starting point for adjustments.

"I think there are a lot of teams that are doing a good job, keeping the cars close in this tight box and my team is one of them."

Lastly, teams are planning for the longest race even being longer than usual with the number of spins and crashes being up this year with the temperamental new car.

"I think it has the possibility of being maybe the longest Coke 600 we’ve ever had, just considering how many more cautions we’ve had recently compared to the last few years, so I could see that changing some and being longer than normal," Logano said. "But, to me, you’ve got to prep for 700 miles and that way you’re still fresh at 600."

More cautions means more restarts and generally more action, so that could also play into race quality on Sunday as well.