Joey Logano, driver of the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, and Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Chevrolet, lead the field at the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Koblat 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 6, 2016.(Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Perhaps more than ever, the drivers will determine how exciting the racing will be in Sunday’s Good Sam 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
That’s because NASCAR, in yet another attempt to create more side-by-side action and what Chairman Brian France has called “wow” moments, gave the drivers an unprecedented amount of say into this season’s Sprint Cup car rules.
This year’s Chevrolet SS, Ford Fusions and Toyota Camrys have less aerodynamic downforce, meaning the airflow over, around and under the cars won’t pin them to the track surface as much as before. Without that downward pressure, the cars typically do not handle as well in the turns, putting more of a premium on driver ability and especially throttle control.
And that’s what the best drivers, after versions of this package were tried in last season’s races at Kentucky Speedway and Darlington Raceway, told NASCAR they wanted.
Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray lead the field to a restart during the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series CampingWorld.com 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.(Photo: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
“The drivers and crew chiefs have all collectively agreed this package will put more ability on the driver,” said Mike Helton, NASCAR’s vice chairman. “There are going to be occasions -- in Phoenix, I think -- the driver’s aggression will have more to do in the corners than they do now. They are going to be busier in the corners and Phoenix is a natural for the entertainment side of that. There will be some sliding around to get where you want to get.”
Changes have been made to the rear spoiler (height reduced from six inches to 3.5 inches), the front leading splitter edge and radiator pan with specific rules for each track, such as the drive train configuration and rear gear ratios to maintain a maximum engine performance of 9,000 rpm. Digital dashboards are now mandatory and Goodyear is to develop tires to complement these rules.
“It’s going to make for better racing because the cars are going to be able to get closer to one another,” said Jeff Gordon, the retired four-time Cup champion and now a Fox Sports analyst. “Track position will still be important but not as much. I think it’s going to benefit everybody.”
Top-shelf drivers continue to hope Goodyear will be able to develop softer tires. These initially provide increased grip but wear out sooner, again making driver ability more of a factor.
But tracks repaved in recent years, including PIR in 2011, are more durable than in the past due to improved materials and techniques. Goodyear has been reluctant to move too far away from a harder, longer-lasting, tire.
“It’s all about the surface,” Gordon said. “Somebody needs to go talk to the paving companies. The pavement that is being laid down today is not the same as years ago. It’s more durable, it stays together longer.
“From an investment standpoint, you can understand why tracks are investing in this type of pavement. But if you look at the pure entertainment aspect of it, it has challenged Goodyear and the teams dramatically.
“It’s (new rules) still going to be good because they’re taking aerodynamic downforce off the cars and that’s going to allow more cars to pass. But I don’t know how much it’s going to allow the tires to change. I don’t think the cars are going to be going that much slower through the corners.”
Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Gordon’s former teammate, agreed.
“I hope the new rules will continue to lead us to softer tires with more fall-off,” Johnson said. “The problem we have since they repaved this track (PIR) is it’s not abrasive. It doesn’t wear the tires out. We’re going pretty fast around here (over 140 mph in qualifying) so Goodyear has to bring a harder tire. A hard tire on a track that’s not abrasive I don’t think puts on the best racing.”
As for NASCAR going along with what the drivers want, Johnson is a realist.
“We probably will lose a lot more along the way,” he said, “but we won this battle."