With the thrill and pageantry of Daytona Speedweeks fading in the proverbial rearview mirror, the 2016 Sprint Cup Series campaign begins in earnest with Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
This race is significant for multiple reasons, the biggest being the fact that it marks the debut of the Sprint Cup Series’ 2016 aerodynamic package being used in all but the four restrictor-plate races — two at Daytona and two at Talladega.
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Drivers spent Friday and Saturday’s practice sessions shaking down their cars, which feature lower downforce than the 2015 cars.
The rules package is designed to create more passing opportunities for drivers and improve the overall on-track product from recent seasons when the dreaded "aero push" has made passing minimal at the front of the field, especially at intermediate tracks such as Atlanta Motor Speedway’s fast, 1.5-mile layout.
"The low downforce sent most of the teams, from what I could hear as far as chatter on the radio, in two directions," 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch said after winning the pole for Sunday’s race. "A lot of tight cars when they first unloaded and a lot of loose cars in qualifying trim. So, it just put a stronger emphasis on narrowing down on what is the exact problem. Lack of downforce just makes cars drive awkwardly. You have to work around that."
Not that awkward-driving cars are a problem. They’re exactly what NASCAR set out to achieve, because less grip means more passing opportunities among the front-runners — just as it did when the low-downforce package was used last season in one-off races at Kentucky and Darlington.
"I think race trim is going to be super-exciting for us as drivers," Richard Childress Racing’s Ryan Newman said at Atlanta. "I hope the fans can enjoy it. You’re putting the driver back into the equation, which is part of what we were missing in my opinion."
Six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, at least so far this weekend, hasn’t found the new rules package to handle a lot different from the old one. The similarity, however, is likely due in large part to Atlanta Motor Speedway’s aging asphalt.
"I’ve felt like the surface of this track has always created the slick conditions," Johnson said. "Even with a rules package that the drivers might not love, we still come to Atlanta and the drivers still love racing here. As rough as it is and how porous the asphalt is, it just continues to create an environment that we love regardless of rules package or tire that shows up. It’s always fun here."
Unlike Johnson, Greg Biffle felt a noticeable difference on Friday with the low-downforce aero package.
"The car is definitely a lot freer, on top of the racetrack a lot more," the Roush Fenway Racing driver said. "We started pretty far off. We didn’t have that much speed right off the truck, but we’re getting it dialed in slow but sure. It looked like some of the other guys’ cars drove pretty good. Every time I was leaving I could see guys loose running across the bottom, so I think it’s gonna be a great race. It’ll be a little slick on Sunday, and we’ll just wait and see what we’ve got to do."
Of course, Goodyear will play a critical role in how successful the 2016 aero package is both on Sunday and in the future.
This year’s "base" package includes a 3.5-inch spoiler, a .25-inch front leading splitter edge and a 33-inch wide radiator pan. As these components provide lower downforce, Goodyear’s goal is develop tires to complement the change.
"In general where we’re landing is softer compounds, as everybody would expect," Greg Stucker, the director of Goodyear Racing, said at Atlanta. "That’s pretty true across the board — at east on one side of the car, if not both. The other thing we’re trying to integrate on all these mile-and-a-halves is a couple new constructions we’ve been working on, which are actually a little bit more robust, which enables us to go softer yet on compounds, and also kind of standardizes and adds grip in themselves. The left side is what we debuted at Fontana a year ago.
"It enables the teams to run lower air pressure and we just feel as the car loses aero grip, they’re going to be looking for mechanical grip everywhere they can. So obviously we’re giving some of that back with tread compound and traction. But also by being able to run lower air pressure, particularly on the left side, they’re going to be able to explore those lower air pressures as well, and that construction enables them to do so."
As the season goes on and drivers get more laps with the low-downforce package, Stucker assures that Goodyear will react accordingly.
"We’re not just trying to go as fast we can," he said. "We’re also trying to make sure we get as much feedback from the drivers as we can to make sure we’re landing in the right spot, so it’s not just a matter of, ‘OK, this much aero grip went away so we’re putting exactly that much mechanical grip back.’ We’re just trying to find the right balance between the two."