By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer
AVONDALE, Ariz. – Thunder returned to the Valley of the Sun in the form of a two-day test session at Phoenix Raceway. Six of the NASCAR Cup Series’ best drivers turned laps in different variations of modifications to the Next Gen car in an effort to improve the current short track package, and what better place to do it than at the site of Championship Weekend?
The drivers taking part in the two-day evaluation process were: Brad Keselowski, Christopher Bell, Erik Jones, Joey Logano, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ross Chastain.
For Logano, this was the first time since November he’d be returning to the hallowed ground of his second championship. While traces of his momentous day still lingered in the desert air, they quickly evaporated as the seventh-generation stock cars ripped against the baby-blue walls of the one-mile track and attempted to lay the foundation for the future.
“It’s always kind of fun when you come back and you relieve a couple memories of what it was like the last time you were here,” Logano said. “It’s neat, but also at the same time it’s over. You can’t live in the rearview mirror, you gotta look out the windshield.”
The first run of the day, teams utilized the current short track package to get an idea of how the modifications used throughout the two days differed from what used in 2022. Keselowski was the first car to hit the track with his No. 6 carrying a tribute paint scheme for motorsports legend Ken Block, who lost his life at the beginning of the month.
“I can’t imagine a more beautiful thing” pic.twitter.com/nLTGHMM7Ab
— RFK Racing (@RFKracing) January 24, 2023
From there, teams tested a variety of methods designed to enhance aerodynamics and aid maneuvering around other cars in dirty air.
The most noteworthy change of the test was the reduction of the rear spoiler, which was shortened from a 4-inch height to 2.5 inches. This went hand-in-hand with an alteration to the diffuser, courtesy of the insight gained while developing the Garage56 car for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
These changes to the underwing were designed to create more downforce in the rear and enabled NASCAR officials to test the shorter spoiler heights. Don’t fret: the small spoiler offsets the increased downforce, so there really isn’t much of a difference from 2022.
If anything, these alterations made the cars a little more difficult to drive – but fun – as made evident by drivers slipping and sliding at a more frequent rate. At the conclusion of the first test session, the consensus was the spoiler reduction was a step in the right direction
“It felt good with the smaller spoiler,” Stenhouse said. “It still wasn’t perfect in traffic, but I think all of us at least had a lot of fun driving it. It gave us the feeling that we had more horsepower, because it took drag away, so we felt like we were going faster.
“I think all of that was a positive. But it’s still racing and the second car is always going to be at a disadvantage; it’s just trying to cut that gap down a little bit. I’d like a little less spoiler, maybe a little more horsepower.”
Drivers were able to get a sense for how the various packages handled in traffic thanks to a handful of simulated 30-to-40-lap races. While six cars is a small sample size to work with, many felt it was enough to determine if the changes would aid in passing.
“I think directionally it was correct,” Logano said. “Until you race a car without a body on it, you’re going to fight aero. You’re creating downforce with a body, whether you’re racing sprint cars, Cup cars or go-karts. Once you start relying on downforce, you’re going to have turbulent air when you’re behind a car. There’s no fix to it, but there’s ways to lessen it.”
Day two of testing brought change in the form of mufflers on the exhaust of the cars. The use of the silencers would only be used for the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, due to the track’s quarter-mile length and stadium seating, and the Chicago street course to reduce sound pollution while racing through the streets of downtown.
Before getting worked up, the mufflers only mitigated six-to-10 decibels, and in all likelihood, it would be hard to notice unless told about them – especially when racing in packs. During single-car runs, a minor reduction in the engine output could be detected, but it felt less harsh on your ears without sacrificing the trademark, throaty roar of the Next Gen cars.
The only complaint with the muffler was the additional heat being dispensed into the cockpit, which was an issue in the development stages of the seventh-generation car. The belief is that the muffler will be implemented for the Clash and Chicago, but changes will need to be made in order for them to be used at the latter.
As far as the diffuser is concerned, almost every driver said they couldn’t tell a difference from the 2022 configuration. At any rate, it’s unlikely NASCAR will implement a new underwing or shorter spoilers, as this was more of an aerodynamic evaluation than a call to action – but never say never.