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NASCAR seems to make marginal progress with new short track rules package

Drivers agree there is still work to be done

NASCAR: Shriners Childrens 500
Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway wasn’t so much a revolution from the NextGen short track status quo as an incremental evolution.

That’s to say that while no one will argue that NASCAR and Goodyear has solved the entirety of its dilemma on tracks 1.1 miles or shorter, most did agree afterwards that it was a step in the right direction.

First, the NASCAR supplied stats:

Today’s race had 2,813 green flag passes – the highest total of any NextGen race at PhoenixRaceway:

Mar 2024 – 2,813
Nov 2023 – 2,201
Mar 2023 – 2,584
Nov 2022 – 2,065
Mar 2022 – 2,058

There were 19 green flag passes for the lead too.

The Shriners Children 500 was the first race to feature a simplified rear diffuser and 3” rear spoiler in the name of decreasing turbulence for a trailing car and Denny Hamlin said on Saturday after practice that he felt it was a 10 percent improvement.

That assessment was validated to a certain degree by drivers and crew members afterwards, starting with Chase Briscoe, who also offered a suggestion for the next step.

“I think the package would be pretty good if we were on the right tire,” Briscoe said. “It was so good. It falls off a little bit but it has so much grip still.

“Package wise, we were able to slide around but the tire holds you. Anytime you take away 10 percent downforce and the car drives the same, it means the tire is too good. Obviously, they don’t want to go too far and get on the other side of it.”

Christopher Bell and crew chief Adam Stevens dominated the second half of the race and could be accused of bias but even they articulated the pros and cons of the new package in their post-race press conferences.

“I don’t think that it was any better in traffic,” Bell said. “It drove different. The car handled significantly different. I’m sure that the racing probably didn’t look much better but it was different inside the car.”

In the same way that Hamlin said there was a slight improvement and the data supports it, Stevens echoed that sentiment.

“It’s just one data point but that’s the one we have,” Stevens said. “We had a good car but when we were tight at the start, we weren’t going forward. We barely held our ground. When we got the balance close, he was able to make moves and get up there.

“I think, if anything, you would say that there was an improvement there. You have to ask some of the other competitors really to get a better feel for that, but I thought when we had a run, we could get close, closer than we could, and we could make a move.”

That’s really what this whole conversation is about.

The drivers have not been able to get close to the car in front of them without pushing up the track, getting an aero push, in a condition that is called ‘aero tight.’

And even if the aero package made a minimal effort, and if Briscoe thinks Goodyear needs to go with an even softer tire, Stevens says he saw the improvement from them too.

“The other thing I liked was the tire and the track conditions and the reduced downforce overall kind of widened the racetrack out a little bit,” Stevens said. “You could run two-wide on both ends of the racetrack. You could pass high if you had to, pass low if you needed to. It was just overall racier, I would say.”

Part-time rookie Derek Kraus can’t compare this package to the one that came before it but he has driven both Xfinity and Cup, which makes this line pretty noteworthy:

“I would say it’s 10-15 times worse than anything I’ve ever driven,” Kraus said. “It’s pretty frustrating because you catch people and can’t pass. You can be a lot faster than someone, catch them, and not pass. I thought trucks were bad but these are pretty bad in traffic.”

Noah Gragson said the car drove way better here than his previous starts over the past two years.

“I don’t know if it was the package last year or what,” Gragson said. “You probably have to ask some more experienced guys, some guys that ran up front in both races. I felt good with it. I felt like we could move around a lot and the tire was good. It was a fun day.”

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

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