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July 28, 2023

Two-day test of proposed short-track package set for Richmond

NASCAR competition officials have scheduled a two-day test of a potential new Cup Series rules configuration for short tracks and road courses for possible use in competition in 2024. Test days are set for Monday and Tuesday after this weekend’s events at Richmond Raceway.

A new front splitter – informally labeled an “up/down splitter” internally and already called a “lift splitter” among some drivers – is the key aerodynamic component to be tested. Six Cup Series teams are scheduled to participate at the 0.75-mile track, with multiple 30-lap runs scheduled for the group both days. The two-day test was originally scheduled for earlier in the month after the race weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but a forecast for inclement weather prompted competition officials to postpone the test, moving it to Richmond.

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Dr. Eric Jacuzzi, NASCAR Vice President of Vehicle Performance, said July 13 that the modified splitter had shown positive results in wind-tunnel testing and in Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) computer modeling. Jacuzzi called the effect of turbulent or ‘dirty’ air “a problem as old as time in racing and physics” for trailing cars, but said that the downward-sloping angle of the new splitter’s midsection produced data that showed a trailing car gaining downforce in traffic instead of losing it – an effect that should promote passing.

“You’re a car in traffic trying to make downforce, you’re always going to be kind of worse, if somebody’s in front of you, right? It’s just, you can’t make that vehicle disappear,” Jacuzzi said. “So we said, instead of fighting that battle that we’ve been fighting forever, why don’t we take a different approach and actually make lift in that section of the car that has wake coming into it. And then when that lift goes away, essentially, we balance out and act as if that car in front isn’t there. And that’s what we’ve been able to achieve in CFD and in the wind tunnel.”

NASCAR officials introduced a new, lower-downforce Cup Series rules package for short tracks and road courses earlier this season. Teams tested the configuration in late January and competition officials implemented it in time for the March 12 event at 1-mile Phoenix Raceway.

The package to be tested at Richmond takes a different tack with the Next Gen car’s underbody, designed to mitigate the lingering effect of dirty air and provide more level aerodynamic footing for cars in traffic. Jacuzzi said no changes are planned at the test for the rear spoiler, which was reduced from a 4-inch height to a 2-inch blade for those track types before the season. Teams will also test with and without a filler panel, which would cover some of the bracing material aft of the new splitter. Two ride-height settings will also be tested — one with a maximum 3-inch ground clearance and the other open to any ride height.

Competition officials took the unusual step of placing two cars — one a NASCAR tester and the other a backup No. 54 Toyota on loan from Joe Gibbs Racing — in the Windshear wind tunnel July 10 in Concord, North Carolina, to measure the airflow’s effect on both cars. The data showed gains of as much as 100 pounds of downforce on certain points of the front splitter for the trailing car. Testing it at the track, Jacuzzi says, will add driver feedback and real-world data collection to the configuration’s validation process.

“I think the best way to describe it is I want them to get out of the car and say I couldn’t even tell that there was a car in front of me,” Jacuzzi said.

Teams scheduled to participate in the two-day test at Richmond are:

No. 20 – Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (driver Christopher Bell)
No. 21 – Wood Brothers Racing Ford (Harrison Burton)
No. 24 – Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (William Byron)
No. 31 – Kaulig Racing Chevrolet (Justin Haley)
No. 41 – Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (Ryan Preece)
No. 42 – Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet (Noah Gragson)

The second day of the test will concentrate on testing Goodyear tire options, working to match the rules configuration with a softer, higher-wear compound. Jacuzzi said that based on feedback from drivers, NASCAR officials intentionally scheduled the test after a full race weekend so that teams could make runs on a rubbered-in track that more closely resembles racing conditions.

“When the race track is green, and it hasn’t been run on, when you go there and run one or two cars, the tires get really consumed and worn very quickly,” Jacuzzi said. “And then when you get a bunch of series racing, and then hundreds of laps on Sunday, you end up rubbering that track in and then we don’t end up getting that same amount of wear. So then, Goodyear’s designed the tire for this wear and we end up with a very small amount of wear, so we could have gone softer. We could have gone with tires that had more grip and more fall-off, so that’s kind of the key goal of what they’re trying to do.”

At New Hampshire, teams raced for the first time on a new Goodyear tire compound that introduced more tire wear. The balance of grip and wear was determined after a tire test April 25-26 at the 1.058-mile track, with Bell, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski — a driver from each of the three Cup Series manufacturers — participating. Moving in the direction of a softer compound will also be tested next week at Richmond.

“I thought we made a lot of gains with the tire at that test, and it really opened my eyes to how much better we can make things with just the tire compound, on its own,” Elliott said ahead of the New Hampshire event. “And that really surprised me because for a long time, and I still feel like Goodyear’s in a really tough place because they don’t want to fail tires, because if they fail tires then they think it might hurt their sales on Monday, right? But you’ve got to make a tire I think that is a little closer to the edge than where they’ve been in the past and put some responsibility on the teams to make sure they live within the guidelines or live within the livable zone of the tire, and I think that that falls on the teams to make sure that they’re doing that in some capacity.

“So I was really, really excited about some of the things that I saw there, and it was really eye-opening to me just how far we could go with a good tire compound and also made me extremely optimistic that they could do it, and they could do it well.”

As far as potential next steps with a new front-splitter configuration, Jacuzzi said that officials plan to gather the testing data and debrief with the drivers before possibly moving forward with implementation. He said that if the feedback and conclusions are positive, the soonest officials could introduce a new package would be 2024.

That potential timeline, Jacuzzi said, was partially due to the availability of parts. Fibreworks Composites, the supplier, has provided 10 splitters for the test – six for the teams, two for NASCAR and a pair of spares. The earliest that production for full-field distribution could occur, Jacuzzi said, would be later in October, and he added that competition officials would be reluctant to present a new rules package during the Cup Series Playoffs. The most likely timetable, he said, would be to conduct an organizational test in the offseason to provide every team an opportunity to try out the new configuration and to allow ample production time for parts.

The next steps in that potential direction begin Monday.

“It’s an opportunity for us drivers, NASCAR and Goodyear to, to get it to where we can put a great show on for the fans but have a compromise for us drivers that’s something that we feel is what we want for a short-track package,” Preece said before the New Hampshire weekend. “Yeah, that’s kind of where I’m going to leave it at that right now. And, you know, I’m very optimistic. I’m really excited about it because this part of the sport, you know, it’s very dynamic. We have road courses, we have intermediates, we have short tracks and we have superspeedways. And this is an opportunity for me and some of the other drivers to shape the short-track package to what could be great. And I’m excited to have a hand in that. There’s definitely got to be communication between all of us and have an understanding of what we’re all trying to achieve.”