NASCAR and the short-track problem: How can it be solved?

NASCAR and the short-track problem: How can it be solved?
Credits: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The 2023 Martinsville race exposed the weaknesses of the new Gen7 car, as it did in its debut the previous season – But how can the problem be solved?

NASCAR has a problem with the Gen7 cars on the short tracks, as the 2023 Martinsville race showed despite adjustments to the package. Drivers had difficulties passing other drivers and attacking even significantly slower competitors. While NASCAR has adjusted the aerodynamics of the Next Gen cars based on data from the previous year, there is still plenty of criticism from drivers. But can the problem be solved?

“We’re in a bad spot right now on the short track stuff and the road courses too,” Christopher Bell tells ‘Out of the Groove’. “everything that we do to these race cars is somewhat of a band-aid for one problem and that’s the horsepower problem. who would have thought that we’re going to Martinsville and shifting out of literally the smallest track on the schedule?”

“I’ve been pushing for more horsepower since I got in the series in 2020,” the current championship leader clarifies. “More horsepower would make a lot of things a lot better.” Bell is not alone in this opinion; Denny Hamlin has also spoken out on the issue and shown a clear edge to ‘NBC Sports’: “We’re in a box with these engines, and NASCAR’s leadership wants us (with these) engines, they keep lowering horsepower, which makes us have to shift.”

But beyond power, Hamlin identified a second weakness that NASCAR could address to improve racing on the short tracks: the tires. “So I don’t know if we’re ever going to fix this until we put more horsepower on the cars or build a tire that somehow falls off,” says the Gibbs Racing driver and 23XI Racing owner. “We have to try something different because we can’t just have follow-the-leader racing.”

“Man, you want to see passes for the lead and we’re just not really seeing any of that right now,” grumbles the veteran racer. The statistics show that Martinsville was an exciting race for strategy fans, but with ten lead changes, three on the track and only one among drivers on the same tire strategy, there was only little action happening at the front. In the Gen6 era from 2013 to 2020, there were an average of 16 lead changes per race. 33 lead changes in the 2014 spring race is the record.

However, there has been one situation in the 2019 season at Martinsville that resulted in almost no passing at the top. In each of the season’s two races, there were only three lead changes. This season, the cars on the short-track courses have 750 horsepower, 80 horsepower more than the Gen7 cars. So sheer power is no guarantee of much more excitement at the front if the overall package isn’t right. But is it even possible to add more power to the Gen7 cars in the short term, and is that even intentional?

According to Doug Yates of Roush Yates Engines, it would be no problem for engine tuners to increase power by 50 to 100 horsepower at minimal cost, but so far this has not been an issue in discussions with NASCAR. To reduce costs, downsizing was a step the series and manufacturers took together. It was also intended to attract a new manufacturer, which has not been successful to date. And despite the long-life engines, costs are said not to have dropped.

So, in addition to aerodynamics, does NASCAR need to change the performance of the cars on the short tracks? According to Dale Earnhardt Jr. there is another variable in the equation that could make for better racing: brakes. The Gen7 car has bigger brakes than its predecessor, so the 2023 cars will come to a stop much faster. This is another reason why overtaking at Martinsville will be more difficult, as the attack zone – the braking zone – and the room for error have become smaller. After all, it must not be forgotten that racing is a sport of mistakes. Without mistakes, there are low chances of overtaking maneuvers.

But what does the short-track problem mean for NASCAR? Is the series on the decline? No, a lot of drivers agree. Joey Logano says: “We have a way of making things sound a lot worse than they really are, and that’s just life in general. People complain more than they give compliments, all day long. They usually come in and complain, and that’s just the nature of our society in general. We have negative attitudes.” According to Logano, the problems on the short tracks are being worked on and the two-time champion is confident that a solution will be found.

André Wiegold