Skip to main content

NASCAR’s horsepower dilemma will not go away


The short track package test scheduled for last week at Phoenix Raceway came and went — a six-car, two-day session that ultimately turned into a tire and muffler test more than anything else and produced largely negligible results.

It was conceived to address a two-year reality of NASCAR Cup Series races on tracks a mile and shorter that just are not currently producing the kind of action that the discipline has been known for over the past 25 years.

The races are objectively bad.

The current car makes too much grip thanks to a wider tire and it stops too well thanks to a larger brake package — the end result of a stock car designed from sports car sensibilities. It generates too much drag and the transaxle encourages shifting because there isn’t enough power to otherwise drive off the corner.

At the same time, the car has created compelling intermediate track racing but the status quo on short tracks are just plain bad and no aerodynamic adjustment thus far has made a tangible difference. They have modified the spoiler, splitter and rear diffuser and it’s not working.

Meanwhile, in the background, what seems like a vocal majority of those inside the garage areas insist that more horsepower would at least be a directionally positive decision:

Denny Hamlin
Kevin Harvick
Dale Earnhardt Jr

Then, there is NASCAR itself, who has pushed back every figurative step of the way for two years that horsepower is too expensive to pursue and prohibitive for future prospective manufacturers.

The league has methodically reduced horsepower from over 900 in 2014 to 550 on intermediate tracks (NA18D) from 2019 to 2021. That was the target range for the NextGen car too before drivers and teams pushed back hard during winter testing period in advance of the 2022 season.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps and chief operating officer Steve O’Donnell are not budging.

“I think everything is up for consideration,” O’Donnell said last month during the end of the season press conference. “We’ve proven that. You have to factor in what are the costs involved as well, right? It’s not as simple as just upping the horsepower. You better be ready for all your OEs to be onboard. It better make sense for any potential new OEM and technology. It’s not just a short-term answer.

“For us, we’re going to look at shifting specifically around that at our next test and see what we can do. There will be variations. Also some aero things we do with the underbody. There’s some things we found in Richmond from an aero standpoint that could work as well.”

Those things were tested last week at Phoenix and the drivers did not feel like they did not make a noticeable positive impact. Goodyear, however, was praised for inching closer towards something better for the racing product but even during that test, people within race teams continued to beat the drum for higher horsepower.

Phelps is not budging.

“I don’t think the answer is more horsepower because more horsepower is expensive,” Phelps told NBC Sports during the Champions Week event in Downtown Nashville. “If you ask a driver what’s going to solve it, they’re always going to say, ‘Give me more horsepower.’

“It’s a thing. I’m not a driver, but I’ve listened to enough drivers and that’s their solution. So the question is is that really what it is? I don’t know. I think there’s some gearing things that we’re looking at as well. Some shifting things.”

Further, those who work for alongside the teams continue to say a marginal increase in horsepower is not more expensive than the 650-target utilized over the past two years.

The most vocal was Earnhardt Childress Racing Engines SVP Bob Fisher on Tuesday morning during an appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“We want all the horsepower we can get,” Fisher said. “These engines are capable of producing well over 900 horsepower. To help the racing, if they wanted us to bump up the power levels to say 750 horsepower wouldn’t be a huge tear up for the engine companies. We already have a package where we used to run engines, multiple races with the seals on, and would feel quite comfortable doing that.

“I know NASCAR, uh, they don’t really want to talk about it. They haven’t asked much of the engine companies. When they have asked, we haven’t been against it by any stretch of the imagination. I will say, I think we could give these drivers more horsepower with an engine package that has already been validated to run more than one race at a 750-horsepower level.”

There is so much to unpack there:

NASCAR, uh, they don’t really want to talk about it…”
“We haven’t been against it by any stretch of the imagination

Also, the reaction from Harvick, who will transition from the grid to the FOX broadcast booth next season.

During an appearance on the Dale Jr Download on Tuesday, Hamlin and Earnhardt talked about it and it was expressed once again that engine bills have not gone down at all from the 750 short track package with the previous car to the universal 650 package with the current car.

“I can tell you, as a team owner, our engine bills, when they were 750-800, they were no different,” Hamlin said. “I don’t understand why, taking a 50 cent piece of aluminum, the tapered spacer, and opening it back up to 750 … I can’t make sense of why we’re not doing it.

“The engine builders, like (Ford’s) Doug Yates has come on and said, ‘we can change that next week, the components won’t change that much and we’re going to get the same durability.’

“There is just something going on to where they are not going to do it and I hate the excuse of ‘new manufacturers.’ Fuck that. Until someone knocks on my door and says ‘we’re coming in and we’ll only come in once it’s this, okay, but until that day comes, you have to make the product (we) have now better.”

The manufacturer element is such an puzzling rebuttal because a new manufacturer, short of Dodge, whom had a current-generation platform already developed, is not going to come in until a hybrid, electrification or alternative fuel component has been agreed upon.   

The NextGen car is heavier than its predecessor, stops too easily and makes too much grip on tires that are too wide.

For all the talk of adding horsepower, Tyler Reddick, who dives for Hamlin at 23XI Racing says he has simulated 800 horsepower and said that even wouldn’t be enough to overcome how much drag this car inherently makes.

“A couple of months ago, in sim, just for fun, I asked the guys at 23XI, there was a weird knob we could work on to increase the power of the car by 150 horsepower and it didn’t change much,” Reddick said on the Door Bumper Clear podcast. “The amount of off-throttle time was so marginally different.

“The drag of the car, the car has a lot of scrub.”

So how much horsepower would be needed to overcome it?

“A lot,” he said. “I think we need to be above 1000HP to move the needle and that’s a big jump.”

All told, it’s clearly reaching a fever pitch to where Phelps, O’Donnell and company need to offer clear transparency on NASCAR’s approach beyond the widely rebuffed cost containment and new manufacturer arguments.

At a minimum, they need to simply test a 800-850 HP package across the board, just to have a data point.  

The status quo is clearly reaching untenable levels and with so many important races using the road course and short track package, a tangible breakthrough is important for the long and shorter-term growth of the sport.

North Wilkesboro All Star
Iowa inaugural event
Richmond, twice
Streets of Chicago
Charlotte Roval playoffs
Martinsville playoffs

Something has to budge here.

Mentioned in this article:

More About: