Think back to the last time you were watching a NASCAR race, and picture where all the drivers are most of the time. Are you seeing a group of cars mostly traveling in line? Has it ever occurred to you why that might be? We’ll be exploring this main question in today’s blog. While it may seem silly for drivers in a race to spend a lot of time following each other in line, there is indeed a method behind the madness.
The main reason NASCAR drivers appear in line most of the time is because they’re trying to stay “in the groove.” No, this doesn’t mean they’re trying to maximize or showcase their skill level, but rather to stay in the literal “racing groove.” This refers to the most optimal route for a driver to take around a racetrack. Since most drivers are trying to stay in this groove, the natural result is that many end up following each other in line, at least for some time while they explore opportunities to make a break for it.
As we mentioned, the term “racing groove” refers to the best-possible route — meaning the fastest — around a racetrack. During any NASCAR race, just like in other motorsports, every second counts. Even every half of a second counts. Optimizing the route one takes around the track, therefore, is critical for shaving off those precious seconds and half seconds needed to make the difference between another average placement and a potential victory.
If you played with slot cars when you were younger, you might easily think of the “groove” as being something that is physically carved into the surface of the track, but this isn’t the case. There’s not any kind of line or indicator created by the track managers, but there is something that appears as the race begins and the cars start moving around the circuit. NASCAR vehicle tires are designed to wear, and this means they leave noticeable black marks on the track, and it is these that drivers use to identify the groove during the race.
The longer the race goes on, the more visible the groove becomes for drivers. In fact, the increasing amounts of rubber left on the track can even provide a degree of additional traction that helps drivers more securely navigate each lap. This is not always the case, however, with the rubber in the groove sometimes acting as a slippery hindrance.
If you’re a fan of track and field, you might naturally think that the fastest and most optimal route around an oval track — as many NASCAR tracks are — would be to hug the inside. This makes sense in some ways, but is not reflected in reality. NASCAR is all about speed, with cars often reaching and exceeding speeds of 200-mph. To hug the inside of an oval track constantly, while being the shortest distance, would require a driver to lose speed to maintain their position. On balance, this would be a bad move.
So, where does the racing groove take a NASCAR driver? If a driver doesn’t want to lose speed as he enters a turn, the best thing for them to do is to turn widely. This takes them closer to the outside of the track and the wall. This does indeed increase the distance, but on balance that doesn’t matter because the increased speed makes up for it and that’s what matters most to the drivers, pit crews and wider teams, not to mention the fans who love to see their favorite drivers whizzing around at break-neck speeds.
Using the path of the groove, drivers can maintain near full throttle for the entire duration of the race. Those less familiar with NASCAR might now be wondering, however, how heading to the outside of the turn allows you to still maintain such a high speed. After all, Formula 1 drivers still have to slow down even if they take a corner more widely, even if it’s less than they need to slow down when taking the inside. The main difference is that NASCAR tracks have “banked” or sloping curves. While the flat parts have a much smaller degree of tilt, the turns are steeper and very noticeable. But it’s heading into the banked curve that is the key to the drivers not needing to slow down to anywhere near the same degree as in other motorsports.
What about those drivers who don’t stay in line during a race? Do they even exist? It would be a most bland affair indeed if the drivers did just stay in a line the entire time. Some drivers absolutely do go outside of the groove, but they do not do so lightly. The fact is that driving outside of the groove means you’re either too close to the apron — where the flat inner part of the track meets the bank of the curve on the track — or too close to the wall on the outside. This is most often a bad move for drivers.
However, such moves have proven both necessary and worthwhile for some drivers. The most recent past season saw one infamous example of this when Ross Chastain performed his now legendary “wall ride” to get past Denny Hamlin at Martinsville Speedway, the last race before the final Championship 4 in the NASCAR playoffs. Chastain took his number 1 car careening along the outer wall in a move previously only thought possible in video games, allowing him the speed (and empty space) he needed to overtake his rivals and secure a place in the final 4.
So, the thrill of NASCAR races does sometimes show to us that the best thing to do is stick to the groove as a rule of thumb, but be ready to go well outside when opportunity presents itself.