Carl Edwards had the lead on Sunday until the final caution flag. But five laps and a little strategy can change a lot; as Denny Hamlin crossed under the checkered flag, moments later he was three cars behind in the running order.
So it was what Edwards said after the race, regarding NASCAR’s decision-making process for the new car in 2013, that was arguably more important—and more interesting—than the 200-lap, 400-mile event at Michigan International Speedway.
Races at Michigan and its sister track, Auto Club Speedway, seem to fall one way of late. Everyone races on the wide-open spaces of the two-mile bowls, seeking a groove that fits their car’s setup… and the oh-so-valuable asset that is track position.
They do this for 170 of the 200 laps, depending on the way the cautions fall and how good the mileage is. Then, over the final 30, they race for all they can get and let the chips fall where they may. It usually boils down to fuel strategy, too, since there aren’t a lot of caution flags to make adjustments and keep the tank full.
That’s the way it’s been at those tracks for several years, but the new car, which debuted in 2007, has exacerbated the problem.
With yet another chassis adjustment scheduled for the season after next, Edwards made a plea for some changes on NASCAR’s part.
“This is a great race track and track position is so important,” said the point leader. “Sadly, downforce is such a big factor in these cars and I am really hoping that NASCAR will take the opportunity in 2013 to take downforce away so the fans can see the guys race race cars and not race downforce. That would be cool.”
In short, he said a mouthful. Racing each other is OK, mano a mano and he who has the best car or the steadiest nerves or the better line wins. There’s just one problem: for one of the sport’s star drivers, that’s not the way it works anymore.
“All the cars are very close,” Edwards said. “So let’s say all of the cars are a tenth [of a second] apart and you are behind two or three cars, your car is two-tenths of a second slow. You can’t make it up.
“I am not whining. Denny [Hamlin] earned this win and those are the rules we are under. Track position was huge and I just wish it wasn’t like that.”
Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, who nearly spun out on the drive to the checkered in an effort to catch Hamlin, didn’t go that far, but he had some things to add for perspective.
“I don’t have any suggestions for what NASCAR should do,” he said, “but, yeah, it’s been more difficult to pass I think lately. I like this new nose in this car a little bit better, but seems like it’s just a little bit harder to pass.”
Kenseth said it’s not just the car, either.
“I honestly think that’s probably the tire more than it is anything else,” he opined. “Seems like the tires we’ve been running this year lay down a lot of rubber, which is nice. But on the restart [at the end of the race], it was slime bottom to top. You are on top of all that rubber sliding. That’s what it feels like to me. I don’t know if that’s what it is or not.
“You do the best with what they give you. It’s definitely an advantage to be in front. It’s hard to pass, that’s for sure.”
Thus, you have a two-hour, 36-minute race in which the real dicing came on restarts and in the final 40 laps. That, last time I checked, wasn’t the definition of racing that NASCAR is known for providing.
The track is so darn wide, offering as many as five grooves, and so momentum-driven that it is almost physically impossible to make up time or positions over anything more than a handful of laps.
Once the initial wad is dissolved after a restart, the lines diverge and the drivers are racing the track, not each other. The handling is usually a problem because of the air around the cars, which is dirtier than it used to be because the cars are bigger and boxier.
When Kyle Busch trips the trap into Turn 1 at 213 miles per hour, you know they’re moving, and when they’re moving that fast, they need clean air to make the aerodynamics work.
The idea behind the Car of Tomorrow was to make it safer and harder to race. Being taller and boxier meant that they would punch a bigger hole in the air, and the downforce lost in the redesign was meant to make the drivers a bigger part of the equation.
But, as race teams often do, the boffins with slide rules and pocket protectors spent the last four or five years making the package they have slipperier and more dependent on downforce… which is where they were when the COT made its debut in 2007.
Less downforce means, ostensibly, that they have to slow down to go fast. As oxymoronic as that sounds, it’s true. You have to lift to make it turn. They’ve spent the past four or five years figuring out how to make the current package so that you can run most of the race with very little time off the gas.
Add in fuel mileage and races that are 100 miles too long, in some cases, and you have… this: moribund racing, fuel-mileage chasing, little passing and a feeling that something needs to be tuned, tweaked or refined to make it something more palatable for the viewing public.
Edwards is asking NASCAR to fix the problem before the new car is locked in. NASCAR would do well to take that advice and seek a solution that will return racing to the drivers and not the guys driving laptops and seven-post shaker rigs.
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