Clint Bowyer Says NASCAR Next Gen Needs to Be Harder to Drive
For much of the past three seasons, races at the highest level of NASCAR have been won and lost with drivers barely lifting off the throttle, especially on some of the largest tracks on the schedule.
To call this era of Cup Series competition polarizing would be an understatement.
The NA18D rules package was an effort to keep cars closer together through the use of a 8” rear spoiler and a tapered spacer that restricted horsepower from a maximum of ~900 to 550 on the largest tracks on the schedule.
It was essentially designed to be a drafting package.
Even the low downforce rules package used at various points of the past half-decade restricted horsepower from ~900 to 750.
And through it all, since 2014, NASCAR has been chasing the consequences of eliminating ride height rules that resulted in every car riding as low to the ground as possible — the front splitters just barely clearing the racing surface.
That rule was a response to teams spending millions on research and development to circumvent ride height rules during race weekends each season. Cup Series teams would put soft springs in the front of the car to pass pre-race technical inspection, and the G-forces and driver weight during the race would significantly lower that ride height during the course of the race.
Often, those springs gave out under the weight and failed post-race inspection, leading to fines and penalties. It was a cat and mouse game between teams and the sanctioning body to circumvent those ride height rules so NASCAR opted to eliminate them altogether.
Of course, the elimination of ride heights led to cars that were increasingly draggy and even more aerodynamically sensitive during a race with NASCAR trying all manner of experimental rule packages over the past five years.
In 2015, NASCAR presented a high drag package and drivers countered with low downforce, winning that directional battle for the next three years until the sanctioning body implemented NA18D with its huge rear spoiler and a further reduction of horsepower.
The rules are intended to serve as a bridge to the Next-Gen car and an engine platform that will accompany it in subsequent seasons, but drivers have frequently expressed a sentiment that their talents have been marginalized.
For the intermediate tracks, those that around a mile and a half, drivers barely lift off the throttle if at all, and are subjected to maximum aero push conditions. Up front, cars in clean air are protected by the lack of turbulence, while dirty air causes a good amount of passing and potential chaos, especially in the laps following a restart.
Once cars string out after a restart, it’s largely single file with drivers barely lifting off the throttle to varying levels of results depending on the condition of the racing surface.
When he was a driver, Clint Bowyer once lamented that ‘this isn’t racing’ and that this formula‘ definitely skews closer towards entertainment,’ but hasn’t lashed out against the rules package since joining the FOX Sports television booth alongside Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon.
During an interview by Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the Dale Jr. Download Podcast, Bowyer conceded that NASCAR needs to make the Next-Gen harder to drive than the status quo, and expressed conviction that it will be.
It was during the race at Nashville Superspeedway — a track that is almost a mile and a half at 1.33 miles but utilized the higher horsepower and low downforce rules package — that Bowyer realized what NASCAR has been missing in recent years.
“How long has it been since you saw two or three guys just spin out,” Bowyer said. “You know what I mean? That resonates to me. That car was hard to drive. They busted their butt by themselves.”
Earnhardt has recently formulated his own fix that includes loading the drag on the front of the car instead of the rear, and taking the entire rear spoiler off altogether.
By doing it that way, NASCAR could make a car that is still challenging to drive and could do it with 550 horsepower or less.
“Keep taking it off until you see cars doing what they were doing at Nashville,” Bowyer said.
Bowyer said at least one car would spin out in practice each week during his formative years as a Cup Series driver in the late 2000s.
“We have to get back to making these cars harder to drive,” he said.
Bowyer said he respected the cars of that era because they were the hardest to drive in NASCAR and conceded they aren’t right now.
The NASCAR Xfinity Series is widely regarded as the most challenging car to drive in the system right now and routinely delivers some of the most exciting races as well.
For its part, NASCAR executive Steve O’Donnell has promised a car that is harder to driver starting next year, with the Next-Gen appearing to have a much higher ride height than its current generation counterpart right now.
“I think first and foremost, this will be more in the hands of the drivers, and that’s something all of our fans want,” said the NASCAR executive vice president during the unveiling event in May. “Reducing some of the downforce that’s out there, the cars will be harder to drive in the corners.”
NASCAR aims to present a car that has virtually eliminated sideforce through via a symmetrical body, stepped splitter, rear diffuser and a completely flat undertray.
The reduced sideforce and overall downforce will also be paired with wider, lower profile tires on 18” wheels to make the mechanical grip. O’Donnell has said this combination will allow Goodyear to provide a tire that falls off and rewards a driver’s skill set.
“We’re really looking forward to our drivers going out there and showcasing their abilities,” O’Donnell said. “They’re the best in the world at doing what we do. We believe the car that our engineering team and the entire industry has put together is going to enable us to do that.”
If true, it will be music to the ears of both Earnhardt and Bowyer, proponents of cars that are harder to driver and representative of the highest level of a motorsport.
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