Presented by Racemaker Press

"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ NASCAR's real season starts at Atlanta

by Gordon Kirby
This year's Daytona 500 was dominated by Joe Gibbs' Toyotas with Matt Kenseth leading most of the closing stages and Denny Hamlin making an aggressive last lap move to win the race. Hamlin and Martin Truex ran side by side to the checkered flag with Hamlin nosing ahead to steal victory at the line in the closest finish in Daytona 500 history. Kyle Busch finished third to complete a one-two-three sweep for Toyota while Kenseth got sideways and was shuffled back to fourteenth as everyone made their moves coming off turn four.

Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited race the previous weekend and led 95 laps of Sunday's 500, substantially more than anyone else. His victory was the first for Toyota in the 500 and Joe Gibbs' first win in NASCAR's biggest race since 1993.

"It's the pinnacle of my career for sure," Hamlin said. "This is my biggest win and it's a huge team win. Joe said enough of these sidebar races, let's go win the big one. We were in a position to have a shot at it but I had no anticipation of winning this race on the white flag lap. But when I saw Harvick make a move I went up there to block him because I knew if I didn't, he would shoot on past me.

"My plan was to block Harvick and he was coming with such a head of steam. He kept pushing and hitting my back bumper and we kept lunging forward and I got a huge run. He hit me so hard it gave me the run I needed."

After winning the first of Thursday night's two 150-mile qualifying races in dominant fashion Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the favorite but he struggled in the 500 after he got stuck in traffic and crashed late in the race while trying to make up ground in the high groove.

"It caught us by surprise," Earnhardt said. "We were working on the balance all day. That was our problem. We really underestimated how important handling was going to be today. We had a rocket all week. The car handled really well in the night racing, but it wasn't as good today on a hotter, slicker track. We were starting to move forward and get aggressive but I just lost it."

Following his qualifying race win Earnhardt discussed the challenges of restrictor plate racing. Earnhardt emphasized how much he enjoys NASCAR's current restrictor plate rules package.

"When we had the tandem draft a few years ago you basically had to team up," he said. "That wasn't any fun. The idea of driving a race car is you're single-minded, you're selfish and you're a jerk. You're a jerk on restarts, you're a jerk every time you're battling for position. You're not doing anyone any favors out there. You're not trying to help anybody. That's racing. That's the way it's always been.

"When we started that tandem stuff it was like a tag team match. It felt so unnatural to run second by having to draft a guy that was going to win the race. That was the oddest thing to wrap my brain around, that I might have to settle for second intentionally.

"When all that went away we got lucky that this package is similar to the '01 to '05 range, maybe even similar to the late 'nineties where you have to look out for you. You've got to be selfish and that's what makes this fun again.

"That's why you see the same guys up there because they understand the mentality. Different styles work. Denny (Hamlin) and mine is real similar. He's aggressive. Logano is aggressive, Keselowski too. But Kenseth does well and he's not quite as aggressive. He's real smart.

"So different styles work. But it's a mentality where you just have to be a selfish jerk. You can't be buddying up and help your buddy get clear for a couple of laps and then start racing again. You can't be doing any of that. You have to be racing for yourself."

Of course, the true shape of NASCAR's 2016 season won't begin to take shape until next weekend at Atlanta with the debut of NASCAR's new low downforce formula. Included in the package are a reduction in spoiler size from six to 3.5 inches. The splitter has been cut from two to 0.25 inches and the radiator pan trimmed to 33 inches from 38 inches.

At Daytona I discussed the new package with Ken Howes, Hendrick Motorsports' vice president of competition, and Stu Grant, Goodyear's racing boss.

"The big change comes at Atlanta and on from there on the non-restrictor plate tracks," Howes said. "The drivers have really pushed for this and we feel the new package will play to at least one or two of our drivers' advantages at some tracks where the tires degenerate and the cars become awkward and difficult to drive.

"Engine power was brought back last year (from about 850 to 725 bhp) and to me personally there was too much downforce for the power that was available. I'm an old school guy, but it's good to see a little better balance between the power and downforce. These things are supposed to be difficult to drive."

The new rules are expected to reduce downforce by as much as 30 percent as NASCAR puts more restrictions on the cars' underbodies as well as the splitters and rear spoilers.

"Underneath the radiator behind the splitter you're allowed to have a radiator pan extension about seven or eight inches wide," Howes noted. "It's width has been reduced and there's a substantial reduction in downforce to the order of maybe 30 percent less than we had. So it's a noticeable difference.

"A fair amount of work has been going on in the wind tunnel trying to understand what areas you can find some gains with the smaller splitter at the front and the smaller radiator pan.

"The outer body shapes are pretty much controlled by the rules and more and more underneath the cars are controlled by the rules. So the areas to work in are smaller and smaller all the time and it becomes more about details and fine adjustments.

"Once upon a time you could find a five or ten pound increase in downforce in the wind tunnel. But now, it's the old saying, we're stacking pennies. And it's happening in all forms of racing, not just NASCAR. The sanctioning bodies try to decrease the speed of the cars and the race teams try to increase the speed of their cars.

"Like always the teams have gone straight to work to find more downforce within the new rules. Any race team is going to go to work to get as much as they can out of the rules. That's what's expected. It's how racing works. Whether it's the same rules or new rules, you're either trying to get more out of it or get back what the rules have taken away."

Most of the testing that's taken place so far with the new package has been Goodyear tire testing.

"I think everybody's got to give Goodyear time and work with them to get the right combination," Howes remarked. "It's a very difficult balance to strike. Goodyear understand what's required. At the same time they can't get out there and have failures. There are many different tracks, different surfaces and different temperatures to deal with. It's a monumental task. I'm not sure Goodyear get enough credit for the difficulties they face.

"Criticism of the tire companies happens in all forms of racing," Howes added. "Pirelli have taken a lot of criticism in Formula 1 and Michelin are now getting hammered in MotoGP because they're on a learning curve. Racing can be a rough business for any tire company."

Stu Grant is Goodyear's director of racing. Grant has more than 40 years experience in the business.

"Overall, we're totally in favor of taking the downforce away and giving the cars more mechanical grip," Grant said. "That puts it more in the hands of the drivers. The downforce puts a lot of load on the tires but all the grip comes from the downforce.

"If you look back to last year one of the best things we did as we were working with NASCAR to figure out what the rules package should be was when we ran the low downforce set up in race conditions at Kentucky. We did that with the 2015 tire package because we didn't have the time to react and make a tire specifically for that low downforce package, but the racing was darned good.

"So that was a good starting point. We kept testing and did the same thing again at Darlington but we actually ran a tire test with the low downforce package and were able to build tires that got back not all the grip that you lost from the downforce but a good part of it. We got a lot of lap time back from increased mechanical grip and making a better tire, but not all of it.

"As we were closing out 2015 NASCAR told us they were going with the low downforce package and they asked us to concentrate on the mile and a half tracks to give us some more grip. So that's what were working through this season. The first half of the season we're going to hit most of the mile and half tracks with a new setup and we'll see how it goes in the second half.

"Most of the time the thought is not to change things for the second half of the season because it throws everybody off a little bit. So there will be some discussion between NASCAR and the teams. If there's a race in the first half of the season where we didn't react in the right way what do we do for the next race at that track in the second half of the season?

"And as the year wears on NASCAR may decide they want to change the rules for 2017. But that's yet to be determined. It's a fluid and very dynamic situation. And of course, whatever the rules are the teams are going to be busy trying to get back whatever's been taken away."

Added Grant: "There are a lot of moving pieces from the teams to us to NASCAR, but it's all about communication. If you can keep a dialogue going to make sure you've got input, I won't say it eliminates the surprises, but it keeps them to a minimum."

Earnhardt provided some closing thoughts.

"Speedweeks has always been a little bit different," Junior commented. "It's not a true measuring stick of what the rest of the season might look like or who might be the dominant team.

"Next weekend at Atlanta is really the start of something different. We won't be taking any of the notes from Daytona anywhere but to Talladega. This is a different style of racing and I really enjoy, but I'm looking forward to Atlanta and all of the tracks with this new package. It's going to be a whole new ballgame.

"Everybody is wondering where everybody is after the off-season. Every year you have to get another measure of your competition because everybody gets a little better in the off-season and we'll see how all that works out once we get to the next couple of tracks."

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright ~ All Rights Reserved