HAMPTON, Georgia: NASCAR’s new aerodynamic package makes its debut Sunday (Monday in Manila) on one of the Sprint Cup circuit’s more challenging surfaces.
In any year, controlling a car on Atlanta Motor Speedway’s bumpy, deeply grooved 1.54-mile track is a chore. The test becomes stiffer with the much-anticipated low-downforce package being introduced for the QuikTrip 500.
“We definitely have less downforce on the cars,” said Jimmie Johnson after one day of practice. “But I’ve always felt like the surface of this track has always created the slick conditions. Even with [other]rules package that the drivers might not love, we still come to Atlanta and the drivers still love racing here. As rough as it is and how porous the asphalt is, it just continues to create an environment that we love regardless of rules package[s]. It’s always fun here.”
The effect of the new aero package is simple: The less downforce on a car, the freer it should handle on the track. In theory, that will bring a driver’s skills more into play, with an increased potential for passing and, NASCAR hopes, more exciting competition.
The new package includes reductions to the car’s spoiler, splitter and radiator pan. It was tested to wide acclaim by drivers and fans in 2015 at races at Darlington (South Carolina) Raceway and Kentucky Speedway. NASCAR also experimented with a higher downforce package last season at Michigan International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but the reviews were largely negative.
“I think there is going to be slipping and sliding around,” Greg Biffle said. “We’re going to be two-, three-wide in the corner. You’re going to have lead changes. It’s going to be a good race.”
The new package starts on an old surface. The Atlanta track hasn’t been repaved since 1997. The package also starts at Atlanta because it’s not being used at NASCAR’s two biggest tracks, Daytona (Florida) International Speedway and Talladega (Alabana) Superspeedway.
So when the cars were rolled out of their haulers on Friday (Saturday in Manila), it was their first official time on the track with the new package. But with tests during last season in the off season, most drivers were well prepared. And to some, the drivers who best take advantage of the new package will be pretty recognizable.
“I think we’re more familiar with it than you think,” said rookie Chase Elliott. “There have been a lot of tests over the off season that a lot of guys have taken part in. I don’t know if it’s going to be a game-changer. I don’t think the faces of who runs good is going to change. The same groups of guys and the same teams who have run well the past couple of years will continue to run well and continue to be the ones to beat. I do hope it opens doors for better racing and being around cars a little easier.”
Reaction of tires
Another factor with the new package will be how it reacts with tires. With less downforce, the tires’ grip will “fall off” at different rates than they have in the past. That brings in another variable.
“You want the tire to give up because it just adds another layer to the race,” said driver Carl Edwards, who won the race last year at Darlington with the low-downforce package. “Do you pit or not? You can just stay out until you run out of fuel and stay in front of the guys regardless of whether they have new tires. Now, I know Goodyear wants the best tire competitively that they can make, but they are put in a box because we’re doing the exact opposite as teams. We’re going faster and faster and faster through the corner and adding more downforce and adding more load and they keep having to make the tire more durable.”
Said Johnson: “From a handling perspective or a driver-style perspective, if you are going to be nice to your tires, they are going to last longer and [you’ll] work your way to the front. If you are a young guy and have something to prove, you are probably going to start off quick and then fall fast. It creates passing.”
The bottom line? Watch for a different kind of racing on Sunday.
“This is what we are all after,” Johnson said. “You’ve got the best drivers, best teams in the country. Put them all in equal cars running the same speed, it’s a parade. We don’t want that.”