How dirty air lifted Denny Hamlin to Dover victory

Denny Hamlin held off Kyle Larson to win at Dover Motor Speedway last Sunday

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It is a phenomenon that drives NASCAR drivers crazy: dirty air. Although present at every track, Dover Motor Speedway is especially susceptible to making it a nightmare for drivers to pass the car in front of them.

Dover‘s straights are so short whereas its turns are wide and sweeping, cars trailing the leader are unable to use the slipstream to catch them like they can at tracks such as Daytona and Talladega (although said tracks have higher turns, which reduces downforce, their straights are long enough to negate the effect).

This was best showcased during Sunday’s Wurth 400 as Denny Hamlin dominated the third and final stage en route to his fourth win of the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Kyle Larson and Hamlin’s team-mate Martin Truex Jr., who respectively won Stages 2 and 1, attempted to close the gap but were unable to as dirty air prevented them from gaining any traction.

“He was kind of able to out-race me into (Turn) 1,” Larson said about Hamlin. “His car was really good on the short runs. I could pace it, get closer to him at the end of the runs. It’s so easy to air block.

“Not that he was doing anything dirty or anything like that. It’s so easy as the leader, especially at a place like this, to shut off the air on the guys behind you.

“I knew when I got within three car lengths, he was going to start moving around. I couldn’t really do anything. I was trying all sorts of different angles and speeds, all that. Nothing could generate enough speed to get close enough I guess to do anything. That was a bummer.”

Close nose to tail racing was an issue at Dover Motor Speedway in April 2024 | NASCAR
Close nose to tail racing was an issue at Dover Motor Speedway in April 2024 | NASCAR

Sawyer defends NASCAR Next Gen car

While some criticised the Next Gen car for being so difficult to pass in, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Elton Sawyer feels otherwise.

“I can remember hearing the words, ‘I’m aero tight,’ so I think it’s just a terminology that the garage uses today,” he explained. “I don’t think this has anything to do with our current car.

“I think what it really has a lot to do with was two of the best drivers in the history of our sport… and both of them are really on their A-game right now. To think that the #5 [Larson] is going to drive up there and drive around the #11 [Hamlin], that just doesn’t happen. These guys, these teams, they’re just really, really good.

“Whether it’s camera or what aero or whatever it is now, I think its going to be difficult for Kyle to make that pass. But that’s the allure of NASCAR Cup Series racing. It’s supposed to be hard.”

Did rearview cameras also help?

The Next Gen car’s introduction brought a bevy of new technologies to the Cup Series, including the addition of a rearview camera inside the cockpit to complement the usual rear-facing mirror. According to Sawyer, the camera was added at the behest of drivers while developing the car.

“They didn’t feel like they had the ability to see what they felt like they needed to see. It’s amazing after three years now, we could see more than we thought we could,” Sawyer continued.

Although dirty air certainly helped Hamlin keep Larson and Truex at bay, Larson suggested Hamlin liberally employed the rearview camera to keep his eye on them and block accordingly. The runner-up even went as far as to propose NASCAR remove the camera altogether to increase the challenges in blocking.

Ironically, Hamlin noted the camera did not have much of an effect at Dover. Nonetheless, he feels that acquiescing to Larson’s request would not change much.

“I use it at times. I didn’t use it much today simply because Dover is just a track where things happen so fast. I feel like personally if I take my eyes off the road for a second, I take it to the camera, I’ll miss my line,” Hamlin stated.

“I kind of rely more on the spotter to defend than I do the actual camera just simply because I don’t think I’m good enough to drive and look backwards.”

Denny Hamlin in action at Dover Motor Speedway in April 2024 | NASCAR

Instead, Hamlin pointed to the rise of using dirty air to block and build gaps over the opponent, a trend that existed during the final years of the Gen-6 car upon introducing the 550-horsepower aero package.

“We started running the big-ass spoilers, low horsepower, at that point is when it started for sure. Then it’s kind of ramped itself up a little bit since then,” Hamlin continued.

“Honestly, we’re running a car that just hates being in traffic. It does not like being behind another car. That’s why it races really well on tracks that are really wide because the second-place guy can go whenever the leader is not.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game. Sometimes you start the corner here, you drive up when you see all you need to do is get him to cross your wake and you know you’re going to send his car off track.

“It’s a product of the car. It just happens at all tracks now. I think it happened five years ago when we went to the intermediate package that we went to.”

Sawyer says that while removing the camera anyway is “something that we can talk about,” Larson and critics should not get their hopes up.

“I don’t see that as top priority moving into Kansas this week or even next year,” Sawyer concluded.

Justin Nguyen
Justin Nguyen is Total-Motorsport.com's resident NASCAR aficionado and is also the off-road reporter for The Checkered Flag.
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