ThatsRacin

NASCAR’s new aero package: So far, so good

Members of driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team make adjustments to the car during practice Saturday.
Members of driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team make adjustments to the car during practice Saturday. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte Motor Speedway will get a first look at NASCAR’s new low-downforce aerodynamic package in a points race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in next Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.

Through the first 10 races of the season in which the new package has been used (it is not in effect at restrictor-plate superspeedways Talladega and Daytona), racing appears to be more close and compelling. There are numbers to back that up:

▪ Eight of the first 12 races have ended with a margin of victory under one second (including the Daytona 500), the most since 2010.

▪ The average margin of victory is .877 seconds, the sixth time the average margin has been under a second in the first 12 races since the inception of electronic timing and scoring in 1993.

▪ Two races (Daytona and Phoenix) finished with a margin of victory of .010 seconds, which is tied for the seventh closest margin of victory since electronic timing and scoring started.

So, all of us are like, make it harder; make it harder, because that helps me. That’s pretty much the mentality in there.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Then there’s the eye test: Last week’s race at Dover, which featured Matt Kenseth holding off Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott at the end, was considered one of the most entertaining races at the “Monster Mile” in recent memory.

“The rules package, to me, has been a home run,” driver Jamie McMurray said. “I think the racing has been way better, not only for the leader, but for the guys even racing for 20th. There has just been more racing going on.”

The effect of the new aero package is simple: The less downforce on a car, the freer it handles on the track. That brings a driver’s skills more into play, with an increased potential for passing and, NASCAR hoped, more exciting competition.

The new package allows drivers to use more of their skills.

The new package includes reductions to the car’s spoiler, splitter and radiator pan. It was tested to wide acclaim by drivers and fans in 2015 at races at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and Kentucky Speedway. NASCAR also experimented with a higher downforce package last season at Michigan International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but the reviews were largely negative.

“A lot less grip,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, describing the new package. “The cars are really harder to drive. There is so much more going on inside the car as far as what the driver is facing and what he’s dealing with and how he’s struggling with the car. There’s so much more of that than we’ve had in the past.

“I don’t know if that makes sense to someone who’s not a race car driver, but you want it to be hard because all the guys in the garage think they’re the best driver in the garage. And the harder we can make it, the better shot each one of them think they’ve got at winning, right? So, all of us are like, make it harder; make it harder, because that helps me. That’s pretty much the mentality in there.”

8 Races this season that have been decided by under one second.

And that’s what NASCAR was hoping for.

“We got a lot of feedback from drivers,” said Richard Buck, NASCAR’s Sprint Cup managing director. “They were wanting to be able to show more skills and have more input in the outcome of the race.”

As engaging as the racing is with the new package, it has also slowed cars somewhat. So some teams have started putting downforce back on the cars.

“The teams are always making everything better,” Kenseth said. “If they make a rule to take away 60 horsepower, a few years from now you’re going to have a chunk of that back. There’s always research and development out there. ...

“When they first make a rule change, that’s always by far the biggest jump. That’s the biggest chunk and you know you’re going to get some of that back just with testing and learning and developing new pieces.”

But, in general, the package seems to be working.

“In my conversations with the fans, they’re seeing the cars move around,” Earnhardt said. “That’s something they hadn’t seen in a while. They’re seeing the drivers wrestle with the cars a little more, which is important, to having a more exciting product. And if they can figure out a way to capture more of that, particularly with the television audience, I think we will be going in the right direction.”

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