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At first glance, the core question of today’s article might appear somewhat unusual. How important is the car in NASCAR? Well, pretty darned important, no? Without the car, there is no race, and there is no NASCAR, period.
NASCAR aims to make the race cars as equal as possible. To make the sport a test of driving abilities rather than manufacturer big budget and engineering abilities, like formula 1 for example. Even so teams still work to the very limit of these stringent rules to get the most performance they can from the cars.
Let’s look at the question in a slightly different way. When thinking about the importance of the car in NASCAR, let’s say we’re referring to the role the car plays in securing a victory when compared to other factors: the driver, the track, the pit crew, the weather, and so on.
The fact is that all of these things play a key role in securing a victory at any NASCAR event. Looking at the factor of the car, then, how big of a role does it play?
The important thing about the cars in NASCAR races is that they conform to a certain set of specifications. Today’s blog comes at an interesting and opportune time, because as it happens, NASCAR in 2022 is moving into an all-new generation of its cars with new specifications that do have significant bearing on how they will perform in future races.
Table 1: basic specifications of NASCAR’s latest generation of vehicles:
|Weight (without driver and fuel)||3,200-lbs|
|Horsepower||670-hp or 550-hp (with restrictor plate)|
|Transmission||5-speed sequential shift|
A number of new features have also made it into the cars this year, including (but not limited to):
- 18” aluminum wheels
- Lower-profile tires
- Independent rear suspension
- Sealed bottom, rear diffused and underbody
- Redesigned chassis
- Incorporated hood exist for greater cooling
- …and more
The point of these specifications as a rule in the sport is to create parity among the teams. It’s not the case that one team can simply invest their bigger budget into making their car the fastest and most advanced piece of automotive technology on the planet and start winning more races. The principle of parity is to actually remove that possibility from the equation and make driver skill the key factor behind each race.
This is the foundation of our main question for today’s blog. With this in mind, can it really be said that the car is a truly important factor in victory if they’re all basically the same? They intended for the drivers’ skill to emerge as the top factor. Doesn’t that render the car somewhat moot?
Above we have already mentioned the other important factors behind each NASCAR victory, and we can cover those in more detail in other articles. Let’s now focus on why the car does matter.
It’s important to note that our question is not whether the car is the most important factor in NASCAR, but rather we’re trying to place its importance in comparison to other factors.
In an old article for USA Today, Kyle Busch was reported as claiming that “drivers are only 35% of the equation.” In addition, Jeff Gordon added that the car is “way, way more important,” estimating that drivers are only 20% of the equation for success. Kasey Kahne echoed Gordon’s sentiment.
Let’s look then at all the things that make the car so important:
First and foremost, the car is the protective shell that ensures the drivers are safe during every moment of the race. NASCAR is undoubtedly proud of the lack of fatalities in its sport since the tragic loss of Dale Earnhardt on the last lap of the Dayton 500 in February 2001. The protective features of the car, as well as its overall design strength, are instrumental in keeping NASCAR a viable sport.
It has to be said, that if NASCAR vehicles were considered true death traps, would it still be acceptable in the public eye to even continue with the sport?
People may have tolerated it more in the 1970s and 1980s, thinking of the danger as all part and parcel of the sport, but in the modern age we are much more safety conscious, and far less tolerant of organizations deliberately putting young people’s lives at risk for profit and continued existence.
Perhaps one of the biggest driving forces behind the likes of Busch, Gordon, and Kahne giving the driver such a low percentage in the overall success equation is the fact that they see the drivers’ skill as somewhat useless when there isn’t a good car through which to channel those abilities.
Whereas some might say that a skilled driver could win a race in virtually any powerful car if they were skilled enough, these drivers are pointing out that in fact they could not.
Looking at things in this way, we see that the car is the finely-tuned instrument that allows the driver to show their best performance. Without that instrument being properly designed, calibrated and maintained in a certain way, drivers can’t demonstrate their true ability on the NASCAR track.
The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series saw a record 7 tracks included that were road courses, a huge increase on the 3 that had typically featured in recent years. The car matters on all types of track, no matter how deceptively simple, but when one is navigating a more complex and intricate road course, the way that the car is constructed makes a huge difference to success.
This is one of the reasons that the new features in the next-generation models are so important, especially if NASCAR is planning to respond to fans’ overall demand for a greater proportion of road courses moving forward.
Finally, it’s also important to look at the engine and body shell of each car, because these are two key areas in which these seemingly identical stock cars actually differ. NASCAR is very strict on specification rules, of course, but manufacturers (Ford, Chevy, and Toyota) can still complete on certain engine components:
- Engine block
- Cylinder heads
- Intake manifold and spacers
- Fuel pumps
- …and more
Therefore, it’s critical for drivers and teams that these are well-made and placed rightly in the car in order to boost chances of success. In a stock car race, every single little edge, no matter how seemingly small, can make the difference between victory and defeat.
The car and the driver work together in NASCAR racing, A good car will not win a race without a good driver, and a good driver will not win a race without a good car.
Which one is more important can be argued, and is, but the fact a good driver without a good car may get average results, but to be at the very top of NASCAR both the driver and the car have to be at the very peak of performance.