Owner/driver Brad Keselowski firmly believes NASCAR Cup Series cars should be difficult to drive, and from his experience last Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, he feels NASCAR accomplished that objective with the new competition package for short tracks and road courses.
“I enjoyed the race last week from the perspective of how hard the car was to drive,” Keselowski said Saturday morning before Cup qualifying at Atlanta. “I thought that was a massive gain here in the Cup Series. When I first came in the Cup Series these were some of the hardest cars I ever drove in my life. In fact, they were the hardest car I’d ever driven in my life.
“You would come off the corners and they would wiggle and they would wobble, and you would really be out of control and you’d spin the tires and then drive back down into the next corner and you’d about back it into the fence. And then over time the cars have gotten easier to drive. I think some of that was gaining experience as a driver, but the reality is that most of it was the cars over time developing into a series where they were easier to drive by the specs that NASCAR allowed us to utilize.”
After racing at Phoenix, however, Keselowski applauded the new rules package, which features significantly reduced downforce. The most obvious change is the rear spoiler, with its height halved from four inches to two.
“The car that we raced last week, if I put a local short track vet in it from anywhere in America, he would probably have struggled to drive,” Keselowski said. “He would probably spin out on corner exit. He would probably have a handful of problems with it.
“The cars that we had with the downforce package before that, I feel like I could take any local short track driver in the country, put them in there and they’d probably get in a good car and run pretty well. That’s not what we want at this level. That’s not what I think is indicative of what our fans and our sport has as an interest for what drivers should be at this level. So, I think in that sense, last week was a significant gain that we can hang our hat on.”
The Road Course and Selected Short Track Package will now consist of the following:
- 2” Spoiler
- Remove Engine Panel Strakes
- Remove Center and Inner Diffuser Strakes. Only the Outer Diffuser Strakes will remain installed. Spacers will be installed between the diffuser flap and diffuser due to removing the inner diffuser strakes.
- Remove Diffuser Fences and Replace with Baseline Fences.
- Splitter stuffers will remain unchanged from the current components.
The package features slight modifications to the Next Gen car that significantly decrease the downforce created by the vehicles. This configuration will be utilized at all tracks where “wet weather equipment” will be required: Charlotte Roval, Chicago Street Course, Circuit of The Americas, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Martinsville, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix, Richmond, Sonoma and Watkins Glen.
Chief among the changes are a two-inch rear spoiler (a reduction from the current four-inch blade on the rear deck lid) in addition to several tweaks underneath the car. Those include the removal of three diffuser strakes, engine panel strakes and trimming the diffuser’s outer fencing. All changes were run together during the second day of a January test at Phoenix.
“That basically adds up to about a 30% downforce reduction,” Dr. Eric Jacuzzi told NASCAR.com. “We’re now in a downforce level we haven’t been at since pre-2000s for sure — like mid ’90s.”
Unfortunately, while the slipping and sliding did occur, it didn’t do much to spice up the show. 10 lead changes among 6 drivers with only 5 cautions for 35 laps.
The only lead changes were really on pit sequences. Prior to Kevin Harvick passing Kyle Larson for the lead with 43 laps remaining, both Larson and William Byron had combined to lead 244 of the first 246 laps. The only time they didn’t lead was on the Stage 2 pit sequence when Larson pit on Lap 118. Ross Chastain stayed out and led Lap 119 before pitting. Keselowski did the same one lap later (Lap 120). Larson reinherited the lead on Lap 121 and would lead until his next pit stop on Lap 246.
At that point, Erik Jones stayed out to lead 14 laps before pitting. Larson took over the lead again on Lap 261 and was passed by Harvick on Lap 269. Only reason the lead changed hands two more times was for that caution with 11 to go for which Harvick took four tires and Larson won the race off pit road while taking two then Byron passing Larson for the win in the end.
Last year, Bristol’s spring race had the least amount of lead changes in well over a decade. Richmond has largely been a bust last year. They had 13 and 16 lead changes. That the worst since the 2019 package which was dubbed a mistake and changes were made. Same for Martinsville. It was terrible back in the spring of a year ago. The 5 lead changes that night were the same as we saw for 2019 too. The pair of 2019 races (3 lead changes each) and this past spring (5) were the worst there since 1997. There were 18 and 15 respectively just one year ago. Last week we saw 6 cautions and 8 lead changes.
What about Phoenix?
There were 14 lead changes in the spring race a year ago and just 11 in the championship race. There were 22 and 18 respectively the year prior. The 14 lead changes in the spring were the least amount since….2019. The 11 was even lower.
This time, we only got 10 lead changes.
What concerns me is this is the championship deciding race in November. Does this mean we’re in for a snoozefest season finale?
This package also did tell me that the Ford’s advantage is long gone here. They led just 37 laps last Sunday afternoon, 36 of which by Harvick in the end. The other by Keselowski by running his stint one lap longer in Stage 2.
The Ford’s last year had the leg up on the competition a year ago in the two annual visits to the Arizona track. They led 89% (558-for-624 laps led) of the overall laps led, including 248 of the 312 in the spring race and 310 of the 312 in the Fall.
The thing is, last week in Las Vegas too, they were nowhere to be found up front. They had just two cars in the top 12 at the end (Austin Cindric 6th, Kevin Harvick 9th). Brad Keselowski (5 laps led) was their only lap leader.
Chevy led 280 of the 317 laps (88%) on Sunday in Phoenix while Toyota hasn’t led a lap here in each of the last three races now.