Ride height could make big difference in drivers' ability to race side-by-side
Read more: Mobil 1 Technology Series | Breaking down the 2014 rules package
With all that changed in the NASCAR world since the season-ending awards banquet in Las Vegas, the 2014 rules package has flown under the radar.
Changes to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format and qualifying procedures garnered lots of attention -- and they are important -- but the rules will have a lasting effect on the way the 2014 racing season transpires.
New for 2014 -- at least at the non-restrictor-plate tracks -- are a square leading edge on the splitter, adjustments to the side-skirt and rear fascia and an eight-inch spoiler. The radiator pans will now measure 43 inches by 13 inches.
The biggest change, however, might be in ride height, according to several NASCAR crew chiefs.
The rules call for statically setting the ride height and doing away with the pre- and post-race front height rules and inspections.
What that means, according to crew chief Donnie Wingo of Wood Brothers Racing, is teams can run what they want and not worry about making sure the car is a certain height after qualifying or the race.
"Basically, the biggest factor from the team standpoint is the zero ride-height rule," Wingo said. "That allows a team to set the car up a half-inch off the ground or an inch off the ground. We just have a maximum rule in the back where it can't be more than a half-inch higher after qualifying than their max.
"We've always got the cars on the ground. But in the past, we always had to make sure they'd return, because if they didn't, you'd get thrown out for qualifying and maybe a penalty and a fine. It's a good step on NASCAR's part because everybody can sit and watch the race and know that everybody's car is slammed on the ground. If it doesn't come back up, it doesn't come back up, because everybody has figured out how to get them on the ground."
Getting the front on the ground is the key to making the aero package work. If there's an opening at the front of the car, air gets underneath and lifts the car rather than creating downforce. Make no mistake downforce is the key to going fast.
It also robs grip, and that is just as important.
Wingo was pleased with the change.
"That's a really good step," he said. "You might want to run a big spring in it and get a little more grip in the car because it turns better. Everybody has always tried to achieve that aero platform of getting the car down. You want that splitter not necessarily touching the ground, but right on the ground. It gives the teams a different approach to be able to do that and not necessarily have to do it with soft springs. When you do it with real soft springs and stiff bump stops that takes mechanical grip away from the car.
"This way, the cars have more grip and hopefully they can get more side-by-side racing."
That's exactly what NASCAR was after, according to Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR's vice president of innovation and racing development.
"Our past chassis setup has had some pretty light springs in the front, and those springs were essentially springs that were used to put the car back to inspection height," he said. "We've now eliminated that. So now we will be having heavier springs in the front end, which will enable the teams to essentially be not running on the bump stops or having the whole vehicle totally loaded on the suspension system. We'll have some dampening between the mass of the body and the suspension, which will give them more mechanical grip.
"What this should translate into is a car which feels more stable and predictable. The drivers feel very good about the car. But they do indicate that sometimes when they get into heavy traffic, the car does get a bit unpredictable and less stable. So we're hoping that this will, in fact, provide the drivers with more confidence in these type of very, let's say, congested environments to drive harder and be willing to pass."
More grip to a crew chief -- and a driver -- is like too much money; you can never have enough.
"Is there such a thing as too much grip?" said Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Matt Kenseth. "No, never. I think grip is directly proportional to speed. The more you get, the faster you're going to go."
But, as with too much money, too many options can be something that creates problems for guys like Ratcliff.
"If nothing else, the toolbox just got a lot bigger," he said. "Can't be anything wrong with that, right? We have more tools to work with, but then you realize that the toolbox is so big, and the setups are just about endless. Then you're like, 'Wow, where do I start?'
"It's so creative in this sport. If you give them all these things to work with, you gotta try 'em all, right? Until you go through all these setups and eliminate the bad ones, you got a lot of stuff to work with. You quickly realize that more options are not always a good thing."
Kyle Busch's crew chief, Dave Rogers, put it more succinctly: "Sometimes I think regulations are put in place to protect us from ourselves."
Not that having options is a bad thing. It's just a matter of the time teams need to work on setups, especially with the new qualifying format in mind.
Rogers is just glad there's more grip, and the fact he doesn't have to do things in such a tight box is liberating.
"It's a whole new variable," Rogers said of the ride-height rule. "When you wanted to change a right rear spring, you were making an aero change and a mechanical change. With more right rear spring in, I pop the blade up so I can protect my aero but also I'm shocking the right rear tire so I'm making a mechanical change. Now you can separate the two.
"If I want the blade up higher, all I have to do is put rounds in the back. Now the only thing I've changed is the aero. I haven't changed mechanical. Or if I want to free up a little bit, but I don't want to prop the back up and change the center of gravity, I just put a bigger right rear spring in and lower the blade. You can completely separate aero and mechanical, which is something we haven't been able to do in the past."
The changes are hardly visible to the naked eye, and almost certainly won't be apparent to those in the stands.
"The aero changes may look small to the fans, you won't be able to see them quickly, but they're pretty big changes," Rogers said. "In the end you're going to see some pretty big speeds and some track records this year."
If it turns out there's too much grip and too much speed, NASCAR can walk some of these back, Rogers said.
"If it gets to the point where NASCAR thinks we're just flat-footing it, they can trim aero, shave the blade, trim the downforce," he said. "We made some changes at a test and Kyle still hasn't told me we have too much grip. We're still lifting through the corners. But I think you're going to see a lot of track records."
You'll likely see a lot closer racing, too, because grip is better and aero is a stabilizing influence rather than a mortal enemy.