Six drivers are set to hit Phoenix Raceway for a two-day NASCAR Cup Series short-track test session, with plenty on the docket ahead of the 2024 season.
Team Penske’s 2023 NASCAR Cup Series champion Ryan Blaney will return to the track in which he claimed his series championship as one of the six drivers testing. Others are Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell, RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher, Legacy Motor Club’s Erik Jones and Spire Motorsports’ Corey LaJoie as NASCAR officials hope to improve the Next Gen car in a variety of areas.
“I would say we have a pretty long laundry list of items being tested,” Chris Popiela, NASCAR’s senior director of aerodynamics, told NASCAR.com. “It’s kind of just a collection of items that we’ve been working on throughout the year with feedback from the drivers and the industry. We’ve kind of categorized them into specific departments – we’ve got aero, some of the gearbox changes for handling shifting, we’re looking at design changes on our mufflers and some things that we can do to help control the heat inside the cockpit, and then we’re going to have an array of tire configurations that Goodyear is working with us on.”
Each of the four designated areas warrants its own checklists across the two days, with various goals to work toward – all in hopes of raising the quality of racing on short tracks over the next season.
“When we left Richmond (after a separate summer test), we were trying to make sure that we looked through all the data and if there was anything that we could improve upon,” Popiela said. “And we certainly did through CFD (computational fluid dynamics) testing and wind tunnel testing. And the hope there from an aero perspective is to make sure we bring the best possible package and improve on the short-track and road-course package.”
A significant portion of the test will be dedicated to determining the right steps to take with tires. Goodyear brought a tire compound with thicker treads to run at Martinsville Speedway and Phoenix Raceway at the end of the season using lessons learned from the aforementioned Richmond test, and that tire was received well by drivers and teams alike. Half of the first day at the upcoming Phoenix test will revolve around tires.
“We decided to use the initial baseline package – so essentially what we raced earlier this month as a baseline package,” Popiela said. “And then Goodyear is going to spend about three to four hours doing tire configuration changes. I think they were pretty successful on what they brought to Martinsville and Phoenix as well. We’re building off of that. So that’s a pretty important thing to do and in parallel with all the aero package changes that we’re doing.
“I think that’s why we have the tire test kind of leading the test and really getting some driver feedback and feedback from the technical people on the teams to get the best selection of tire and then move forward with the rest of the test afterward.”
Goals surrounding the gearbox include adjustments that would limit or eliminate the frequent shifting that drivers currently find necessary on short tracks. Separately, decibel levels were successfully lowered with the introduction of mufflers at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the Chicago Street Course, but internal cockpit temperatures remained high enough to warrant further examination into making driving conditions more tolerable for the drivers.
“I think, overall, when I look at this test, I think it’s a really collaborative effort,” Popiela said. “It’s really worked with the cadence of these types of tests where it’s six cars from different organizations and two from each OEM, which is really helpful. It’s worked really well. And I think having the ability to do group runs and have a lot of driver feedback and a lot of collaboration has been really key in moving things forward.”
Blaney, who won the Cup Series championship at Phoenix one month ago, is eager to drive his No. 12 Team Penske Ford all over again with a clearer picture of what the sport’s officials are hoping to extract from the test.
“We had a pretty good run though of what they’re gonna do procedure-wise when we had our meeting with NASCAR before the season ended, so I have a pretty good idea,” Blaney said Thursday ahead of the NASCAR Awards in Nashville. “I don’t know if it’s changed or not, but I am ready to get back behind the wheel. I think that will be nice. It’ll give me a pretty good break. It will actually let me focus on doing productive things for a little bit, so I am excited. Hopefully, we find some good stuff at that test. I know we’ve got a lot of things to try, and hopefully, we can improve that package a little bit.
… “I think you’re just looking for what path we can continue to go down to try to help it out, so hopefully, we can find some of those things, and I think that will make it fairly successful.”
RFK Racing’s Buescher had a breakout season with three wins in 2023, one of which came on the 0.75-mile Richmond Raceway.
“I think the biggest thing we want is just to see how to get better racing, better opportunities,” Buescher said. “Looking for tire fall off. You’re looking for less dirty air. You know, we’ve gone through and talked about it throughout the last couple years plenty and what we feel is right. I feel like I’m still a proponent for more horsepower and still feel like that’s a strong candidate.
“There’s a lot of things that we want to try out and figure out if it can improve our product. Personally, I thought the last Phoenix race, passing was fairly decent there. I think that not spraying PJ1 down kind of let the track go back to a more natural state, and as it’s aged, that’s creating a little bit of racing in itself. So not gonna say that covers up some of the obvious races that we struggled at this year … but I do think that some of that will come just from us learning – learning race cars, learning these tracks and how to make these cars better at them. I think there’s a lot of opportunities to get the racing to where we feel like we can not be so (reliant) on clean air when we go short-track racing essentially.”
Indeed, that feedback made its way to NASCAR’s aero department, helping determine next steps in the journey toward better short-track racing.
“The package that we’re fine-tuning, the point of that is to improve the car when it’s in traffic,” Popiela said. “An ideal situation is if a car in traffic performs as if it was by itself. That’s always the number one goal. So the idea of this package – and I think we’ve gotten the backing from the industry of all the data and all the CFD data and all the wind tunnel data that we’ve shown them and that they’ve been a part of – is that this is a step in the right direction.”