Where has the racing disappeared to in NASCAR?
There was no sign of racing at Charlotte, Kansas City or Chicago -- all intermediate tracks (1 to 2 miles in length) -- and there is but a glimmer of hope that things will be different at Atlanta. At least there is plenty of room for racing there.
It used to be that Winston Cup races, no matter the track, went down to the wire. But think about the closing laps Oct. 13 at Charlotte. Bobby Labonte tried to make a run on Jamie McMurray and pass him, and though Labonte's car was just as fast or faster, his attempts were futile. Why? It's a combination of factors, primarily aerodynamics and tires.
Pull the string on the talking driver, and out come the same catchwords about the general inability to gain the lead at the intermediate tracks: "clean air," "aero-push," "track position" and "tires."
Teammates Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman have provided examples of how difficult it is to gain the lead on the intermediate tracks.
Despite the strength of Penske engines, Wallace has struggled to lead laps and contend for wins. Newman has been more successful in laps led, though he has found it difficult to take the lead after reaching a spot in the top five, where he has finished 14 times. Such was the case when he finished second to Jeff Gordon at Kansas City. After the race, Newman said track position was the deciding factor.
"We had a fast racecar; we just weren't in the right spot at the end," Newman said. "I feel if we were in front of Jeff, I think we could have held him off. I think a lot of guys could say that because that's how big of a difference the clean air makes. There could have been a lot of side-by-side racing on that track, but it was very difficult with the air to do that. You've got to have your car fast, and that means you've got to have it set up to run up front."
But that same setup does not work when drivers are in traffic.
The cars behind the lead driver never have downforce equal to the leader's. The difficulty in attempting side-by-side racing that Newman referred to is caused by "dirty air" -- turbulent air currents created by fast-moving cars. Dirty air spins around the cars and bounces off the noses and spoilers, slowing the cars and making them harder to control. That unstable handling is called "aero-push."
Think of how squirrely your passenger car gets when a tractor-trailer passes you on the highway at 65 mph. Multiply that feeling by three because that's how fast the Cup cars will be traveling when they reach the corners at Atlanta. Sterling Marlin says it feels like the car is hydroplaning.
Crew chief Jimmy Makar, who was instrumental in designing the 2003 Pontiac Grand Prix, believes that racing today is too dependent on aerodynamics.
"We build these cars in the wind tunnel to run in clean air to make our aerodynamic balance perfect on the racecar," Makar says. "When you have that, the car is very stable and fast. If you don't have it, it makes it very difficult to drive your racecar. ...
"The guys running third, fourth, fifth on back into the field have the dirty air ... so they have nothing to help the car stick to the racetrack a little bit better like the leader does."
The hard tire compounds exacerbate the problem. Goodyear has been praised for constructing a tire that doesn't wear as past compounds used to, and that allows teams to take two or no tires during a pit stop. The disadvantage of the harder tire is its lack of grip on the track, which some drivers miss more than others. A driver who has new tires doesn't have the advantage he once did over another whose tires were giving up after 30 or 40 laps.
As for clean air, a driver must run at the front of the pack to get it, and more often than not, track position is gained through the performance of the pit crew. Yes, NASCAR always has been a team sport, but the driver's role has diminished significantly. To gain track position, pit strategy is as important as who's driving the car.
Racing can be put back into the drivers' hands. Reducing the angle of the spoiler or eliminating it and pulling out the fenders would improve the handling of the cars behind the leader on the intermediate tracks. Going back to a softer tire would enhance competition on all tracks.
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