Say Short Tracks, Road Course Package Needs Work

The Next Gen has made intermediate tracks better at the expense of one lane venues.


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While increased safety remains the number one priority as it pertains to updates to the new NASCAR Cup Series racing platform, a legitimate number two priority has emerged in terms of how it races on short tracks and road courses.

The race on Sunday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL encompassed some of the challenges facing the continued development of the Next Gen -- especially since so many important events next season will take place on short tracks, road courses and a downtown street circuit.

Effectively, the car makes an incredible amount of grip with its wide, lower profile tires on 18' center-lock wheels, decreased horsepower and aerodynamic configuration. That’s to say nothing of the big road course brake package universally applied across the cars too.

"The cars are too easy to drive," said Cole Custer after the race on Sunday. "The braking is too easy. There's too much tire. Too much downforce. It's an entire race of qualifying laps on these tracks."

The package has actually benefited intermediate tracks compared to the various directions applied to the Gen 6 over the past decade, especially once drivers convinced NASCAR to target 670 horsepower with decreased downforce across the entire schedule in December, but that has come at the expense of flatter tracks with only one groove.

Take the Bank of America Roval 400 for example:

Drivers were all but locked into whatever position they started or restarted throughout the race. Some teams would trade stage points for track position before the pits closed two laps before the break and would get stuck in the back until the strategy flipped again.

This was first seen at Martinsville in April and is expected to be the case again for the penultimate race of the season following a summer test that laid down more rubber but shouldn’t change the racing conditions when its once again frigid in late October.

Denny Hamlin, during his state of the sport rant at Talladega Superspeedway on October 1 suggested the car would soon get exposed at Martinsville, and combined with the safety element, suggested a complete redesign.

"The car needs to be redesigned; it needs a full redesign," Hamlin said. "It can still be called Next Gen, but it needs to be redesigned everywhere — front, middle, rear, competition. The whole thing needs to be redesigned. We’ve got a Martinsville race coming up and it’s going to be tough. This thing is going to be exposed about how bad the race is and that’s just part of it."

Chase Elliott was fortunate to have track position at the end of Sunday’s race, but equally unfortunate to have been spun from the lead on the first green-white-checkered, something that may have influenced the sentiment that the racing product was incredibly frustrating from a driver standpoint.

"Really difficult to pass," Elliott said. "Standard with what we’ve seen with this car all year and just going to get worse."

After the similarly procedural race at Bristol, Elliott suggested this is a byproduct of spec car racing when everyone has virtually identical equipment and are essentially running the same speeds. He predicted, 'no one is passing anyone at Martinsville.'

When asked if it was the same as what he said at the Roval, he agreed.

"Yep, only going to get worse," Elliott said. "Enjoy."

His teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, William Byron, said during a midweek teleconference that it’s taken a backseat to the safety issues but conceded there needs to be something in the works for short tracks and road courses too.

"It's come up for sure, but it is on the back burner a little bit, unfortunately" Byron said. "From my standpoint, as a driver, I'm concerned because Sunday's race ... it was concerning for us. I thought we had one of the fastest cars in practice and qualifying and couldn't do anything with it.

"We took the green flag and I started catching Joey (Logano) and once I got within three car lengths, I was toast. For me to make those three car lengths, I would have to tax my tires, extremely, more than I had done to catch him. I'm concerned. The one lane tracks, where there's an optimal line or no outside lane, like on short tracks and road courses, you can't just peek a headlight out to get clean air.

"I hope we can do something there, because I think there's a lot of skill involved to saving your tires and setting up passes on a long run, and right now, that technique isn't there. There's no merit to it right now on these tracks because it's just a track position game."

It’s an important conversation to have parallel to safety this autumn and winter because NASCAR is banking a lot of its fanfare in 2023 on these types of tracks.

Martinsville and Phoenix will again close out the Cup Series playoffs. New races at North Wilkesboro Speedway and the Streets of Chicago are the exact kind of tracks that have produced the worst on-track product this past season.While the Clash at the Coliseum was a success, it could be worsened by a better understanding of these cars entering its sequel event.

The general consensus is that short tracks somehow need a compound that better falls off, a tire that is a little narrower and less overall downforce, things that are easier said than done. The cars make too much corner speed with drivers simply shifting and grabbing a gear to get off the corners without the loss of momentum.

Another consensus is that adding to that horsepower target could go a long way to providing a remedy to the short track product while making the intermediates even better as well. After all, corner speeds have contributed to the increased loads and and tire failures this season.

Even if NASCAR made a decision this week about adding a different width tire for short tracks, or even a different horsepower target, the process would include various meetings with the part suppliers and teams, and then scheduled tests throughout the winter. In short, the industry is running out of time to make these changes.

With that said, Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney is optimistic that those changes will occur, even as he agrees changes are needed.

"Short tracks and road courses have been a bit of a struggle with passing but mile and a halves have done pretty well," Blaney said. "Places where there are multiple lanes do really well, but I agree that the one lane race tracks need some work.

"I know they’ve tested taking the diffuser and underbody off, and whether that was better or not is still a mixed opinion, kind of wishy washy. I think there are some things we can do to improve the races, and NASCAR is just as committed to that as we are.

"Just like us, they want to put on the best show possible, because they know its better when we can get aggressive and make passes. Everyone is working towards the same thing. I can’t tell you what some of those changes are going to be because we’re on the same page that we need to make short tracks and road courses better."