So far, so good. After just two races on open-motor tracks, the early response from drivers the new low-downforce package is nothing short of enthusiastic.
Drivers are able to pass. Tire management comes into play. And at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it was refreshing to see nine different drivers lead laps on Sunday.
This shouldn't be easy. This is the Sprint Cup Series. These cars should be very hard to drive.
Following a miserable outing at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the Team Penske Fords finished first and second at Vegas. Still, Jimmie Johnson led the most laps (76) with the No. 48 and No. 41 Chevrolets of Kurt Busch combining for 107 circuits in the lead. The Toyota trio of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth led a total of 57 laps.
There was plenty of opportunity to go around.
Back to the drawing board
Yes, the low-downforce Sprint Cup car is still a work in progress. But as Team Penske proved at Las Vegas, what a difference a week makes. At Atlanta on Feb. 28, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano finished ninth and 12th, respectively.
After a lackluster performance at Atlanta, winning Vegas crew chief Paul Wolfe was forced to build a better race car — particularly if he wanted to compete against the Chevys and Toyotas.
“I think there were a few late nights back at Team Penske where guys worked really hard,” Wolfe said. “We felt like we needed more potential out of our cars. We worked very hard on some aero pieces, some different things. Felt like when we unloaded at Vegas, we kind of showed that all that hard work paid off in qualifying, having both cars up front.”
Team Penske adapted to the new package. Like the other 37 Sprint Cup teams, the crews used Thursday’s test session to dial in the cars and work on qualifying. Logano barely missed out on the pole to Kurt Busch but after starting second — and Keselowski fourth — both the Nos. 2 and 22 were strong in race trim as well.
(Goodyear has) had a real challenge, especially at tracks like Vegas where we’re trying to get that tire fall off at a track where the speeds are super fast
Martin Truex Jr.
High praise from Keselowski and Earnhardt
Following his win, Keselowski described the new rules package as “tremendous”. Sure, one might find him biased but other drivers are echoing his sentiments.
“Because of the rules package, where the cars fell off a lot at the end of the run and you really had to drive them sideways,” Keselowski said. “Took a lot of balance as a driver, a lot of precise footwork and accuracy with where you put your car, how you place it, which is exactly what we want.
“The cars probably had a little bit too much grip and lack of throttle response early in the run. But late in the run they seemed to settle out very nicely, sliding around, allowing various talents to fall in line. I thought it was a really good balance.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose average finish of fifth in the first two intermediate tracks mirrors Keselowski’s, enjoyed the drivability the new package offered.
“The one thing that I really like is I can drive up to guys with that little spoiler on the back, I’m not really stuck behind people like we used to be,” Earnhardt said. “I lot of the drivers are wanting to keep going in this direction and even further. I wasn’t really so sure about that but now I feel like that might be a good move to go even less downforce. I don’t know if the blade needs to get shorter, but these things are sealed off on the ground.
“There’s a lot we could do to the bodies and stuff to take some downforce out of them. I’m sure NASCAR is looking at that. We can’t just keep taking the blade off, but we could probably take a little of an inch off and not really tell the difference.”
Where the rubber meets the road
Martin Truex Jr. led 34 laps at Atlanta and averaged a ninth-place finish on the first two 1.5-mile tracks.
He was particularly pleased with the amount of fall-off from the Atlanta tires — with a minimal amount off issues from the drivers. Truex witnessed similar results at Vegas.
“Vegas was a really big change from last year, not because of the speeds — because we had really fast speeds on new tires — but because of the fall off,” Truex said. “That’s really where the good racing and the passes and the off-throttle time that all the stuff the drivers have been talking about for a while come into play is when you start getting that tire fall-off because you have to start managing tires and slowing down at the start of a run and not run 100 percent so you have a bit of tire left at the end to finish off a run. It’s all those things that come into question.”
Truex, who participated in the two-day Goodyear tire test at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday and Wednesday, acknowledged the success of the new package will be predicated on what tires will be selected for each track.
“It’s so important what tires are on the race car,” Truex said. “You can change the tire and make it drive terrible. You can change the tire and make the car drive great — no matter how much downforce you have. They’ve had a real challenge, especially at tracks like Vegas where we’re trying to get that tire fall off at a track where the speeds are super fast, the tires have to be somewhat hard or they build us so much heat and wear out so quick.
“I thought at Vegas, they did a great job with the tire getting some fall out in it and no tire issues. It’s just really hard to do at Vegas and here at Charlotte with this newer style of asphalt. Obviously, a ton of work goes into it. (Goodyear’s) got a great group of people that come to the tire tests and work with the drivers and work with the teams and take in all of our comments and all of our feedback. I guess the hard part is filtering through all of the different drivers and the different teams and try to come up with the right solution. But I think they’ve done a great job.”
Like Keselowski, Earnhardt — and many of his fellow competitors — Truex feels that more downforce can be removed from the current package.
For Truex, less downforce combined with a softer tire equals “a lot of fun.”
Certainly with the wind, rain and sand storms, “fun” is not a word some competitors would use to describe the Vegas race. No, Keselowski isn’t looking for aSunday drive. Although Keselowski is an advocate for low downforce, the former Cup champion understands that will come with a price.
“This shouldn't be easy,” Keselowski said. “This is the Sprint Cup Series. These cars should be very hard to drive. At the end of the run they were a challenge. It's nice to be a part of that.
“I think the next piece to go with that is somehow trying to convince NASCAR to do one more step and I think the racing will get even better.
“The challenge is for NASCAR that we've got all these race teams spending millions of dollars to develop the aerodynamics on the cars because there's such a competitive advantage to finding more downforce, finding more side force, reducing the drag on the cars. It will only take us about half a year to a year's time to where we remove all the benefits that this package has given the racing to showcase a day like we saw (on Sunday) with a lot of passing for the lead.”