Despite progress in overall driver safety and an excellent racing package including a number of track layouts, there has been constant criticism of NASCAR’s failure to meet community expectations. Amid the organization’s efforts to improve its sprint and road racing offerings, it has moved away from the short racing format that was, is, and will continue to be the sport’s bloodline.
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Although the introduction of the Next-Gen 7th generation cars was a step in the positive direction, the sanctioning body’s stance on short track racing has garnered a lot of backlash from the community, including including some of the sport’s greatest drivers. Especially considering the evolution of the short track package with the modern Next-Gen platform.
The sanctioning body’s efforts to expand its palette with more road-focused products to meet the tastes of its younger fans could be one of many factors contributing to this worrying trend. But if we look a little deeper at recent developments, things are a little muddy and may become a little too muddy for our tastes, especially if you are a traditional oval enthusiast who loves the short format exciting action.
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So let’s take a deep dive into the topic here and consider some of the organization’s reasoning while also considering the drivers’ perspective to understand why NASCAR might be shooting itself in the foot.
NASCAR and its controversial moves that agitate sports traditionalists
On the one hand, let’s not put all the blame on NASCAR. Why, you ask? Well, the organization has reason to believe that it is not the only one involved in this matter. A few decades ago, when NASCAR was in its glory days, short track racing was all the rage. The organization’s short, fast and exciting format was its flagship, with fans yearning for races on half-mile tracks like Martinville and Richmond.
However, the format picked up steam a few years ago and we now have a handful of short-track venues on the schedule. After its early years as a fan entertainer, NASCAR’s ambitions grew, aiming to attract an international audience. At the same time, the sanctioning body’s failure to heed fans’ demands for an improvement to the short-track format has gone unnoticed. Ultimately, the format as a whole no longer has its place, the organization having chosen to opt for routes more focused on the road.
Now there are only a handful of short tracks left on the schedule, including those mentioned above and Bristol. Amid all this, the organization’s efforts to gain sympathy from purists have now made the problem worse. Are you wondering how? The main problem the organization currently faces is how to integrate its Next-Gen platform into the short-form format fans crave.
With the introduction of new racing cars, overtaking such short ovals became the new challenge. By reducing the downforce on the 7th generation cars, the cars have now become very similar to each other, giving drivers another headache to deal with. From being one of its best products, short track racing has become a vulnerability for the organization.
Even after continued testing and development of the Next-Gen and short-track package, it did not achieve its goal given the competitiveness of racing at the time. Senior and former drivers have spoken publicly about it, including Joe Gibbs Racingit’s Denny Hamlin and JR Motorsports co-owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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Denny Hamlin Addresses the Elephant in the Room and Shares His Perspective Straight
As one of the outspoken drivers on the current roster, Hamlin gave his thoughts a few months ago. The JGR veteran didn’t hesitate to make his point bluntly, but when asked about Iowa Speedway returning to the 2024 schedule, Hamlin highlighted the main issue that NASCAR needs to address before adding more venues.
“We continued to reduce power. The car’s grip on short tracks is a byproduct of having wider tires and less power. In an effort to reduce costs, we continued to reducing power, which led to shifting…and made the race bad.” pic.twitter.com/j8FOrtlOm0
– Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverRA) October 5, 2023
In addition to reducing downforce on its cars, the organization’s decision to reduce power on the Next-Gen car doesn’t sit well with Hamlin. Hamlin, being Hamlin, said: “We continued to reduce the power. The car’s grip on short tracks is due to having wider tires and less power. In order to reduce costs, we kept reducing power, which led to shifting, which led to less power and more grip on short tracks, which made racing bad..”
And guess what? Hamlin isn’t the only driver to mention this problem. During the cars’ 2-day test a few months ago at Richmond, Hamlin’s teammate, Christopher Belland SHR driver Ryan Preece also sided with the veteran when Preece openly stated: “I could see a big difference between my car yesterday and my car today, so, it’s not what we were hoping for, I didn’t feel much difference.”
Although Bell didn’t resort to broadcasting like Hamlin did, he minced his words, saying: “It didn’t seem like a big difference. …I applaud NASCAR for trying. It’s cool (to see the pieces) but I didn’t notice anything.” As NASCAR attempts to return to its short track format, even after repeated testing, the result is much the same, with cars being underpowered on short tracks.
As the organization tries its hand at improving the short format that is in its heritage, Dale Earnhardt Jr also shared his views, reacting to NASCAR’s testing phase in New Hampshire a few months ago .
Dale Earnhardt Jr shares his views, pinning his hopes on next-gen drivers
On the one hand, the organization’s shortcoming on this front is that its Next-Gen platform is not a big secret. While fans publicly called out the organization and urged it to look into the issue, NASCAR went back to the drawing board with rigorous testing, trying to fix the flaws in the new generation.
Following the Crayon 301 at the NMHS in July, a team of 6 drivers was asked to test the cars on short tracks. The six included Bell and Preece. Giving his views on his popular Dale Jr Download podcast, the veteran believes that changes will certainly take time even if NASCAR discovers the root cause of the problem.
He said, “I think William Byron, Ryan Preece, Christopher Bell and a few other guys are going to test this package together. It’s about six o’clock and I said, “Hey, the future of short track racing and big league stock cars rests on your shoulders.” If you don’t come out of here with an answer, we’re screwed. We are.”
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The JRM co-owner also mentioned that things would go back to square one for future seasons if they fail to resolve the Next-Gen issue on short tracks. The two-time Daytona winner also reiterated the importance, saying: “You have to test and think about what is going to help the cars race the best when we go to a short track.
While Dale Earnhardt Jr. highlighted the sacrifices drivers must make for the sport, “The King” Richard Petty also isn’t a big fan of NASCAR’s progress on that front. Known for his abilities and exceptional track record on short tracks, particularly at Martinsville, Petty hopes the organization can soon identify and work on the problem.
Closing Notes – Short Track NASCAR’s Main Obstacle
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For the most part, the arrival of the Next-Gen car can be attributed to the vexing problem facing NASCAR. The behavior of the new cars, similar to that of a supercar, makes them very different from the cars of the older generation which used short circuits. Now that the organization is reducing horsepower numbers and fine-tuning aerodynamics suitable for road courses and high-speed circuits, NASCAR is caught at a crossroads.
A troubling position no promotion wants to find itself in is fixing its core product and reclaiming the traditionalists and die-hard fans who made the sport what it is today while keeping its younger fans engaged with newer formats.
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