NASCAR has delivered two of the closest finishes in the sport’s history through the first four races of the season.
Were those photo finishes a product of NASCAR’s new low downforce aerodynamic package? It’s certainly too early to draw any concrete conclusions. Also, the package wasn’t in place for the season-opening Daytona 500, where Denny Hamlin beat Martin Truex Jr. to the checkered flag by .01-seconds, the narrowest margin in the race’s rich history.
But when Kevin Harvick edged Carl Edwards by (again) .01-seconds last week at Phoenix, the positive impact of the new aero package has – week-by-week, race-by-race – become more apparent.
The benefits of the package should reveal themselves again during Sunday’s Auto Club 400 set at driver-friendly Auto Club Speedway.
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It’s showcasing some pretty strong results. Like anything else, it can always be better.
“I’m really happy that NASCAR has made the steps they have,” said Edwards, who is fifth in the points standings and starts fifth Sunday. “You’re seeing the results on the race track. It is more fun to drive. This package is just simply more fun. The driver has more of an influence. The tires fall off a little more. There’s more passing.”
The effect of the new aero package is simple (it is not being used at superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega): The less downforce on a car, the freer it should handle on the track. In theory, that will bring a driver’s skills more into play, with an increased potential for passing and, NASCAR hopes, more exciting competition.
“It’s definitely an improvement,” said Brad Keselowski, who passed Kyle Busch with six laps remaining to win at Las Vegas, the second race run with the new package. “It’s showcasing some pretty strong results. Like anything else, it can always be better. I’m the type of guy that is progressive-natured and wants to see it continue to get better. I don’t want to rest on our laurels as a sport, because I think this sport has even more potential to work on the cars and open itself up to the things that most people would quantify as exciting racing.
The new aeropackage takes the downforce off cars, bringing drivers’ skills more into play.
“Last-lap passes for the win, like we’ve seen two of the first four weeks is really exciting for the sport. Everybody can rally behind that, so those doors open up a lot of times with the rules package. I think that’s what we’re seeing.”
The Harvick-Edwards finish last week provided that. But there’s more going on behind the leaders, as well.
“Having (one of) two of the closest finishes is a great foundation for (the package),” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “But we want to have as many of those moments as we can throughout the race. That’s the ultimate goal.”
Tires also play a crucial role in the package. Goodyear has developed a softer tire to provide more grip, somewhat counteracting the lower downforce by helping cars better stay on the track.
“Tires are working about the way we expected,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “We’ve gone softer at every track. But (teams) are starting to ask the question, ‘Are we going far enough?’ Teams don’t stand still. They want to get some downforce back that we’re taking away. That will be a continued point of discussion.”
The 2-mile Auto Club track has the oldest asphalt surface on the Cup circuit (it hasn’t been changed since the facility opened in 1997). It is bumpy, abrasive and streaked with tar-filled seams holding parts of the aging surface together.
Those are enough variables to make the track a driver’s dream. And it should only be better with the new aero package.
“You could write a book about a lap at this place,” said Edwards. “There’s so much happening out there. The wear you place your tires, how you enter the corner, what the guy in front of you is doing. All of those things add up to a lot different balance.
“There’s spots that I like to run, there’s things I like to do but there’s some spots out there and it’s like man, I can’t quite figure out what is happening. … You never really know what you’re going to get. I think that’s good. It’s a little bit unpredictable, it’s definitely tough and to me that’s part of the fun.”