Chris Buescher became the NASCAR Cup Series’ 19th different winner in 2022 with his win in last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night (Sept. 17). It was another unexpected winner in a season full of them. However, many in the NASCAR world felt that the race left a lot to be desired. It was yet another short track race that fell short of expectations and has been a trend on the tracks one mile or less since this new car debuted in February.
Does the Next Gen short track package need a major tweak or just a minor one going forward for the racing to dramatically improve? Amy Henderson and Stephen Stumpf debate just how much to tweak.
Hold on, there
Okay, so the racing on short tracks hasn’t been the Next Gen car’s shining moment. But before throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it, let’s look at the bigger picture.
Overall, the car has been as advertised. The racing at the intermediates has improved, sometimes dramatically, and more importantly, there’s finally real parity. The Cup Series has seen 19 different winners in 2022, and more importantly, they have come from teams that were not as competitive before simply because they didn’t have the budget of Joe Gibbs Racing or Hendrick Motorsports.
There have been some mechanical issues, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; attrition has always been and should always be a part of the sport.
So, those short tracks. Before we go throwing the baby out with the bathwater and making wholesale changes, there’s one thing that the previous car had on short tracks that the current one does not: more horsepower. The Cup Series cars had a higher-power package at some tracks, and that went away with the Next Gen car. It’s time to bring it back and then some.
More horsepower means more throttle response and a better chance of muscling by another car in tight quarters. And there’s really no safety reason not to have more power on the short tracks.
Changing other parts of the car just for the short tracks voids a lot of the cost-cutting measures that came with the new car. Body panels were not in ready supply for most of the year; changing anything there just creates that same issue all over again — with cars that are likely to get a little banged up over the course of the race. That’s not practical and it’s not cost-effective for teams.
Having to build separate cars for four tracks (one of which, North Wilkesboro Speedway, isn’t hosting a points-paying race) has the potential to take the mid-tier and smaller teams a step backward and put the game back in the hands of a couple of wealthier teams. That would be a terrible shame if NASCAR were to give up what’s been the single best thing about the Next Gen. Do fans want to go back to the same few teams and drivers winning every week? I know I don’t.
Teams had two different power packages with the previous car, and there shouldn’t be any reason why that couldn’t come back. It doesn’t need to be a free-for-all; opening up the engines to 800 or so horsepower shouldn’t hurt the parity if the tapered spacer is used to keep anyone from getting out of control. That kind of power should allow drivers much greater throttle response while the tracks themselves serve as a control for the speed. That should allow drivers to power underneath another car by using the throttle response to dictate corner entry and the ability to drive in a little deeper if the driver is brave enough.
All of NASCAR’s short tracks are very different from the others. Martinsville Speedway has long straightaways and tight corners with very little banking. Bristol Motor Speedway is about the same length but a high-banked, rounder oval. Richmond Raceway is a quarter-mile longer than either and while fairly flat, its D-shape makes it faster entering turn 1 and makes the entry to turn 3 entirely different. Add in North Wilkesboro, which is more similar to Martinsville than Bristol but is far from a carbon copy.
What that means is that changing the car completely for one of them might not make a difference at the others. Adding more power gives the drivers something to work with but doesn’t open the door for teams wanting a different car for every track. (Well, they may want it, but NASCAR shouldn’t even start down that road.)
One of the best things about the 2022 season is that no team has been able to find anything that gives a long-term advantage. A team can be on top of the world one week and struggling to make laps the next. Multiple car packages increase the possibility of a team (probably one of the wealthy ones) having a weekly advantage, simply because of cost. That’s not a road NASCAR should go back down.
All NASCAR should do for 2023 is to increase horsepower at the short tracks. It’s the simplest means to the most dramatic difference in the on-track product. It doesn’t put the financial burden on teams that a completely different package would, and it preserves the parity the Next Gen has brought to the Cup Series. If it doesn’t help the racing dramatically, NASCAR can then consider other changes. Throwing too many things at it at once muddies the waters in terms of knowing what the real fix is, and it’s expensive to boot.
Give them power, and see what the drivers can do with it. Sometimes the simplest solution turns out to be the best one. -Amy Henderson
Test and Experiment Until Something Works
With several complaints about clean/dirty air on intermediates with the Gen 6 car, the Next Gen car was heralded as the solution to all the problems.
But now that the honeymoon phase is over, it’s clear that the new car has had an equal and opposite reaction: intermediates have improved to the detriment of short tracks.
The wasn’t much of a difference between the two cars at Richmond Raceway, but the biggest concern came after a critically panned race at Martinsville Speedway in April where passing was virtually impossible after restarts. Unfortunately, the same problems arose at Bristol Motor Speedway last Saturday.
It wasn’t impossible to pass, as there were two on-track lead changes. It wasn’t a one-groove race either, as drivers were interchangeably moving from the top and bottom grooves. But nevertheless, it was extremely difficult for drivers to get big enough runs to pass when compared to races with the Gen 6 car. The cars were whipping by, but little happened on the track aside from flat tires and mechanical failures.
The short tracks are among the most anticipated weekends on the schedule, and they’ve failed to deliver for 2022. Therefore, NASCAR should explore all avenues to fix the problem as soon as possible.
For starters, a different tire compound needs to be used. It didn’t matter if a driver had zero or 100 laps on their tires, as they were running almost identical lap times throughout the night. If a driver was in the lead, they were likely to stay there.
In the Camping World Truck Series race, Chandler Smith dominated the first two stages but was only able to work his way from 15th to ninth in the final 84 laps after pitting. In the Xfinity Series race, Noah Gragson held off the entire field on 90-lap-old tires while everyone else on the lead lap had fresh rubber. In the Cup race, Chris Buescher led the final 61 laps despite being the only driver to take two tires on the final pit stop.
If used tires had more falloff than new tires, passing likely would’ve been easier throughout the night. Denny Hamlin echoed the same sentiments about tire falloff after finishing ninth last weekend, and he also said that the cars were way too fast in the corners for drivers to pass.
Another avenue to explore is the diffuser on the underbody of the cars. While it has worked to great success on the intermediates, removing the diffuser on short tracks would decrease the downforce and give drivers more passing opportunities.
Corey LaJoie said on his podcast “Stacking Pennies” that there was a possibility of NASCAR ditching the diffuser for short tracks in the playoffs, but that did not come to fruition last weekend. Martinsville in October would be the perfect opportunity to experiment.
And hey, there’s always putting more horsepower back in the cars. The Gen 6 ran a 750-hp package at short tracks last season, while the Next Gen runs 670-hp on every track. Might be beneficial to return to what worked last year.
With the problems continuing at Bristol, it would be wise for NASCAR to try one of the following suggestions for the penultimate race at Martinsville in October. Likewise, NASCAR should schedule short-track tests in the offseason. Teams visited Martinsville in August to experiment with a new tire compound and gear ratio for the upcoming October race, and further experimenting – whether in a race or a test session – is vital in order to prove what does and doesn’t work on short tracks with this car.
But the biggest reason why NASCAR needs to make changes to the car at short tracks? North Wilkesboro Speedway.
The return of the speedway after a 27-year absence from NASCAR is one of the biggest headlines for 2023, and the race needs to go off without a hitch for it to become a permanent fixture on the schedule. With the current short track package, North Wilkesboro’s triumphant return is setting up to be a disappointment if nothing is changed. – Stephen Stumpf
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