How Toyota are first to figure out short track NASCAR package

Christopher Bell beat Chris Buescher to win the fourth round of the 2024 NASCAR season

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The Next Gen car has struggled to impress on short tracks, and NASCAR hoped to change that with the debut of the new short track aero package at Phoenix Raceway. Toyota were the first to solve the calculus behind it, while Chevrolet and Ford are less than pleased with how the race went.

Hoping to stimulate a rather dull racing product, NASCAR conducted rigorous short track testing at Phoenix between the 2023 and 2024 seasons, which participant and Sunday’s winner Christopher Bell remarked felt “like eighteen different rules packages.”

These sessions culminated in the introduction of a new package for tracks under a mile in length and road course, mandating a simplified rear diffuser with fewer strakes and removing strakes from the engine panel.

While the diffuser change reduces the car’s front downforce, it is somewhat cancelled out by the rear spoiler being increased from two to three inches. Goodyear also introduced a new tyre for the race that falls off more during longer stretches, but is faster in the short term.

Bell technically never used the final result as his engine blew up “right before we put this package on the car,” but he still entered Sunday’s Shriners Children’s 500 with high hopes.

His optimism was validated when he won the second stage and led fifty laps, including the final 41. All three of his Joe Gibbs Racing team-mates Ty Gibbs, Denny Hamlin, and Martin Truex Jr. combined to lead 191 laps; by the end, including a contribution from Stage #1 winner Tyler Reddick, Toyotas were in front for 298 of 312 laps.

Christopher Bell won the fourth round of the 2024 NASCAR season in Phoenix | Chris Graythen / Getty Images

“It drove a lot different,” Bell stated. “I guess less diffuser and more spoiler on the car made the car slide around a little bit. You could definitely drive it looser and more sideways than you could in the previous races. I think it definitely shook up the field.

“Whenever we come back in November, everyone is going to have a lot more development on these tyres, on this aero package. I would expect November to be a much different race. Hopefully the same winner, but I would expect it to be a much different race.”

Could increasing horsepower improve the package?

Bell’s rivals certainly hope things will improve when the Cup Series returns to Phoenix for the season finale and at other short tracks like Bristol and Martinsville, especially as other drivers were less than enthused by how the package performed.

Many of them, including the other JGR drivers, were vocal about their cars performing poorly in traffic; Chevrolet‘s Chase Elliott went as far as to say after practice that the difference from last year’s package was so miniscule, he forgot revisions took place.

Clean air continued to reign supreme, though Hamlin noted the ability to pass was improved, even if only a “very, very small amount.” Still, like many drivers, he believes increasing the horsepower from its current 510 to 750bhp can make a world of difference.

NASCAR has frequently tinkered with horsepower, willing to sacrifice higher speeds for closer racing, which has proven controversial among fans who feel the cars are not being pushed to their fullest potential.

Hamlin and Kyle Larson have posited that increasing horsepower back to 750bhp or even 1000 is more than a viable option, the former suggesting it can happen with “one phone call with no additional money” as early as Bristol.

“I think any horsepower I think you can add will make the racing better,” Hamlin continued. “It is hard to pass because we are all on the gas so much. You have to get us out of the gas whether through the tyre or the horsepower.

“That combination is what makes passing so difficult. The more you can get us out of the gas, which means if we have more horsepower, we have to let off sooner, that gives us the opportunity to overtake for the cars behind. 50 horsepower, while it may not be a game changer, any horsepower gain will be an advantage for passing.”

Ty Gibbs and Denny Hamlin lead the pack in Phoenix | Chris Graythen / Getty Images

Even if most discussion revolved around the package, Bell‘s crew chief Adam Stevens was quick to point out his driver’s own natural ability played just as much of a factor in his win.

“It’s just a completely different balance, especially with the rules package too,” said Stevens. “It’s harder for me to tell you how much of the balance difference is from the new body and how much is from this rules package honestly here. It’s wildly different.

“The setup it takes to optimise it is wildly different than what we ran. The things you focus on, the tools you use to get there are the same. I think a big part of the reason we’re going on the long run is the way that Christopher manages his inputs and what he does with the car to protect the tyres.

“He’s really good at making speed without slipping the tyres if his car is decent. He showed that today. He’s really good at making micro adjustments to his line to chase that little bit of grip as rubber goes down and the track changes. I think what you saw today is just his skill set and a car that was up to the task.”

The next race at Bristol Motor Speedway will be yet another test of the short track package, giving teams another week to figure it out.

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