It’s time for real action on short tracks, NASCAR

There are no more aerodynamic levers to pull and the status quo is unacceptable

Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

NASCAR Cup Series short track racing is such a mess right now for reasons best articulated after the race at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday by Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 crew chief Chris Gabehart.

“We’re split stinting green flag runs now at Martinsville and that’s asinine, truthfully, but nevertheless …”

Translation: The final stage featured green flag pit stops … at Martinsville … and the Cook Out 500 was decided purely on the track position gained and lost on pit road.  

Which is fine in a vacuum but it’s also not inherent to NASCAR’s identity — aspirationally or in actuality.

The NextGen car has turned short track races like Phoenix, Richmond and Martinsville into IndyCar races over the past 30 months, fitting for a platform designed to be a GT3 – Australian Supercar hybrid of sorts at the expense of its stock car roots.

It’s just really hard to pass with these cars, which would be fine if drivers could get to the back bumper and run someone off the track, but they can’t do that either thanks to the amount of grip it makes, its power to weight ratio and the downshifting taking place in every single corner.

Oh, and this certainly doesn’t help either.

Translation again: Everyone is literally going the same speed in a spec car where drivers have access to each other’s’ throttle and brake traces and can mimic each other until they are just as spec as the machines they drive.

Denny Hamlin articulated that point during his Actions Detrimental podcast on Monday.

“Now, not only have you created the Next Gen of cars, you’ve created a Next Gen of drivers that all drive the same,” Hamlin said. “It’s clear the optimal way to drive it. So how are you going to pass? You’re not. At the end of the race, I was trying my damndest to knock Austin Cindric out of the way. He was holding me up. Bad.

“He was laps down in the middle of guys racing for the win and I couldn’t even get to him to knock him out of the way. I’m trying to knock him out of the way and can’t even do it. So instead I just have to sit behind him and let the laps just go away. That’s a problem and it’s why we don’t have cautions and wrecks like we used to. We can’t even reach the bumper of the cars.”

NASCAR has parity murdered its short track product and it remains unwilling for some mysterious reason, to do the one thing that every driver says would fix it in increasing the horsepower so they could melt the rear tires off the car and create greater disparity.

The mysterious reason appears to be that prospective future manufacturers do not want to race 900 horsepower engines.

A Cup Series driver texted me on Sunday night after the race:

‘If you were CEO for a day, what would you do? You know short track racing better than anyone I know.’

I didn’t have answer because there is just too much, right? Like, if power isn’t the answer, how about narrowing the tires, something that might prove challenging to implement for reasons stated here, a more traditional brake package or the underbody.

That driver responded with the obvious, once again, and said horsepower.

‘Easiest fix to me is the power because every engine shop has said its easy and wouldn’t cost any more but I guess that scares off (future potential) manufactures. … Even if we had 800 horsepower, I don’t think that would be drastically different but it would be 30 to 40 percent better.’

The implication, according to that driver, is that this car requires un-tapered horsepower and that is a sentiment shared across race shops in the 704 too.

Instead, NASCAR is three years into trying a variety of aerodynamic fixes, including a failed gimmick front splitter that intended to punish the leader in clean air while giving a downforce advantage to drivers in otherwise dirty air.

It has tried the two-inch splitter and now a three-inch splitter with a simplified rear diffuser and the early results across Phoenix, Richmond and Martinsville have ranged between ‘slightly better,’ ‘the same’ and ‘they somehow made it worse.’

Kyle Busch landed squarely on the last one.

“I didn’t think we could make it worse, but by golly we did … for me anyways,” Busch said. “Maybe it’s just because we don’t have it quite figured out like others do, but I cannot follow anybody in front of me whatsoever. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the bottom lane, the middle lane, the top lane – if there is a car in front of me, I am terrible. Really bad.

“I will say the only positive to it is that you can slide the back of the car around a little bit more and not crash. But the front ends are just ungodly not working.”

Busch said last month at Bristol that the NextGen 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.”

What is his proposed solution?

“It doesn’t matter because they’re not going to do it, so it doesn’t matter,” Busch said. “I’m not going to paint myself in a bad spot to get in trouble.”

Listen, Martinsville Cup Series races had become more and more procedural over the past decade, even with the old generation car so this isn’t entirely a NextGen issue. Even with the old car, parity became more and more prominent, the drivers too good and parts too reliable.

Certainly, the damaged vehicle policy serves to get cars off the track that would otherwise be in the way or potentially result in a debris caution.

But this car, especially, is built like a tank. Even when the race on Sunday came down to an overtime on mostly equal tires, the cars were still too secure to spin out, didn’t have the ability to follow and were just an exercise in bumper cars on a conveyor belt.

Watch the Xfinity race the night before for what NASCAR on short tracks is supposed to look like.

Meanwhile, the latest duct tape fix produced more of the same at Martinsville said Chase Briscoe.

“It was literally the exact same,” Briscoe said. “The exact same. I was talking to my guys and apparently the left rear wore out more than we have seen in the past but I still feel like we slipped around more last year. Maybe that was temperature related.

“It’s frustrating from a driver standpoint and probably fans too. We have to figure out something to make this better. We’re just running the same lap times for 80 straights laps. It feels like we have unlimited grip.

“Yeah, definitely a lot of work to do.”

His teammate, Ryan Preece, echoed a lot of those sentiments.

“Here’s my thought: Goodyear is doing an awesome job working towards trying to give us fall off and all these things,” Preece said. “With that said, when I as a driver make the decision that I want to lean on my tires more to make passes and try to trade off life of the tire for track position, I just can’t.

“It’s a radial and it doesn’t want to work both directions. It doesn’t want to lean on the tire and go straight at the same time. They’re working on it. They build a phenomenal tire. It just needs to be a continued effort and I appreciate that work and we’re all working together on it.”

Short track racing has been historically NASCAR’s best product and the NextGen car has flipped the script. The intermediate tracks, while still generating its fair share of dirty air and air blocking affairs, has produced generally compelling races over the first two seasons.

The car was designed as a 550 package style (2019-2021) drafting car, that ultimately wasn’t used for that purpose, but the compromise rule package has kind of been more or less a win for the industry.

But the same things that make this car generally compelling on intermediates, the extra grip and aerodynamics, are actively sabotaging the short track product.

NASCAR has a lot banking on the success of tracks like Martinsville, Richmond, Phoenix, North Wilkesboro and Iowa. It wants to build another half-mile in Southern California. Speedway Motorsports may bring the Cup Series back to Nashville Fairgrounds.

Goodyear may yet replicate what everyone accidentally backed into at Bristol, but if it can’t, everyone keeps telling NASCAR what the final lever needs to be.

It’s past time to reach for it.     

“The racing needs to be fixed,” Hamlin continued. “I just, I’m not saying anything that no one else will be saying all week, because we’ve already said it. The drivers have already said it. The media has already said it.

“If we sit back and do nothing, then shame on us, because we deserve whatever we get in the long run.”

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

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