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If not power, how about a narrower tire for NASCAR’s short track dilemma?

The conversation ultimately comes down to grip

NASCAR: Cup Qualifying
Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Lost in the figurative weeds about the current horsepower discourse within the NASCAR Cup Series community is that the conversation effectively comes down to grip.

The current car currently makes too much of it and the racing, especially on short tracks and road courses, will be drastically improved by getting drivers over the limit of the tires. That’s the opinion of drivers anyway.

The current car is so underpowered for its weight and aerodynamic properties, that drivers are in the throttle for too much of the race track, that cars are kept closer together but it also dilutes passing nor allows for exemplary drivers to make a difference.  

Kyle Busch said on Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway that the car was built backwards.

“The problem starts at the front of the car; the splitter and the way the air is, and everything that we all do on setup stuff for make these things rely on the air as much as they do,” Busch said. “That’s a problem. I think they went about it, and that’s a funny way to say it, backwards. There’s another way of saying that, but I’ll leave it for another day.”

But really, if everyone is going the same speed and drivers are barely out of the throttle, how does passing take place?

That’s the other issue here.

That ‘heartache’ was best articulated by Brad Keselowski on Saturday at Bristol.

“The car takes considerably less discipline to drive,” Keselowski said. “That’s probably the biggest frustration, especially for drivers who raced in this series 10 years ago. We remember coming to tracks like Bristol, or my goodness, Martinsville, where you could never go full throttle. It took a really disciplined approach to how you drove the car and everything around it.”

Keselowski says that drivers can race ‘side-by-side so well’ is a great attribute of the car but says that there can be greater balance to discipline and race quality.

“The NextGen car swapped those things,” Keselowski said. “We traded the discipline the Gen6 car for the ability to run these cars side-by-side and I think a lot of the drivers, their mindset is, if we could just have horsepower, we could have both and wouldn’t that be awesome?

“So, I think that’s what is driving this conversation. The drivers feel like the best-case scenario is a car that can be run side-by-side and still require discipline to drive and that will put on the best racing and showcase the best drivers. That’s where I think this hunger comes from.”

NASCAR: Shriners Childrens 500
Mar 10, 2024; Avondale, Arizona, USA; NASCAR Cup Series driver Brad Keselowski (6) during the Shriners Childrens 500 at Phoenix Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

To wit, even with a horsepower increase, this is still a spec car — meaning that every car is practically the same, all built from the same single-source supplied parts.

But NASCAR appears pretty resolute over its refusal to cave to driver pressure over increasing horsepower. League president Steve Phelps, chief operating officer Steve O’Donnell and Cup Series managing director Brad Moran have all issued the same rebuttals.

NASCAR says a horsepower increase would result in higher engine budgets for teams, a narrative team owners, drivers and manufacturers have pushed back against to varying degrees, but also that such a decision would potentially negatively impact the pursuit of new manufacturers.

“It’s been talked about, you know, more horsepower (and) smaller tires (which) equates to the same results, but in changing the (tapered spacer) and increasing the horsepower is relatively easy to do but we have to have all three manufacturer, obviously, on board,” Moran said on Tuesday morning.

“As soon as you do that, there is going to be reliability issues and that puts cost back into the engine and engine builder’s category, which they certainly will develop and start developing the engine.

“The number we’re at seems to be where we want to be to try to get potentially new manufacturers interested. If we start getting away from that number, it can create problems in that area. But we’re always open to everything. We do consider everything and the engine gets talked about quite often, but there’s a lot of different parties that have to agree before that one could happen.”

Okay, so lets focus on the narrower tire element, because that would also result in the same effect as more horsepower, cars that require more discipline to drive as Keselowski put it.

To do so, Goodyear would have to develop a new set of tire compounds for it, and wheel supplier BBS of America, would have to create a new wheel around the rules package. That’s costly, and Denny Hamlin said it would be more costly than just adding horsepower, so the co-owner of 23XI is out on this suggestion.

“I do not want to do that,” Hamlin said.

Is it cost?

“Yeah, cost, and then you have to redevelop the tire again and we have to do tire testing. I would not want to do that from an ownership standpoint for sure.”

So then Cup cars need to have more power, period?

“We do, yeah,” Hamlin said. “The answer is the same, for sure.”

Keselowski was more open to a different wheel and tire package.

“Yeah, why not,” he said. “The engineering challenge is probably beyond my ability to solve. I’m certainly open to it.”

Because it’s a grip conversation as much as it is a horsepower topic.

“Yeah, it connects back to the discipline required to drive the car, which is a factor of the grip level of the car and that’s power versus tire,” Keselowski said. “So this is just changing the equation. You can achieve this one of two ways, increase the power or decrease grip through the tire and the surface patch.”

Or maybe, in a perfect world, the tires they have on the cars now could just afford to be less forgiving for reasons expressed by Busch.

“I think we’ve all kind of said that, when the tire got wider, we all knew it was going to produce more grip,” Busch said. “We all expected it to be softer so it would wear, and it would wear out and then you would have less grip over the course of a run and have some falloff.

“But unfortunately, we haven’t seen that.

“We haven’t seen that softer compound yet. … You don’t want to have tire blowouts.. I get that. I understand Goodyear’s stake on that part. But I think when we have had softer tires in the past and have had blowouts, that’s because they were softer.. because they wore out.. because we punished them, you know. So you’re kind of to your own demise, in a sense. I guess tires not holding air probably don’t sell well on Monday.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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