NASCAR: Horsepower not the biggest issue facing short track racing

Adding more horsepower has largely been seen by NASCAR drivers and fans as an easy fix to the poor short track racing. However, it's much more complicated.
NASCAR / Jared C. Tilton/GettyImages

For all it's worth, short track racing is a key component of NASCAR's DNA. It's what largely makes NASCAR what it is.

Throughout the 76-year history of the sport, short tracks have made up a good chunk of the schedule, and in the early days, they made up virtually the entire schedule. They are beloved by both drivers and fans because of their rich history, tight close quarters action, and their representation of grassroots racing.

Many, if not all, drivers racing in NASCAR today got their start in racing as young kids at local small-town short tracks. It's where they cut their teeth and where they learned their craft. For that reason, NASCAR as a sport feels like home whenever it visits these circuits.

Since hosting its first race in 1949, Martinsville Speedway has had at least two dates on the Cup Series schedule every season. It has always been one of the best tracks NASCAR visits, year after year, with its paperclip shape creating action and endless memories.

However, after William Byron's win at Martinsville led a Hendrick Motorsports 1-2-3 finish this past Sunday, the discussion about this great track and its product was not positive. In fact, it was just more fuel poured onto an already burning flame: the downfall of short track racing.

Since the introduction of NASCAR's Next Gen car in 2022, short track racing has quickly lost its luster.

The Next Gen car was developed by NASCAR for years to accomplish many things, but the main goal was to right the wrongs of the Gen 6 car used from 2013 to 2021 in terms of how the cars could race one another.

While the new car has largely fixed its predecessor's issues on the mile-and-a-half tracks, it has come at the cost of quality short track racing. In a shockingly quick turn of events, every time that it's race week on a short track, a collective groan can now be heard across America.

Suddenly, it has become extremely difficult to overtake, for a multitude of reasons to be explained, even if a car is much quicker than the car in front. This has led to many instances of single-file racing, lap after lap after lap, for several races at several short tracks recently.

As does seemingly everything in the NASCAR world these days, this has sparked numerous debates on what can be done to fix the racing. The one argument that has continuously been brought up is for NASCAR to simply allow the teams to run more horsepower on these tracks.

After the race at Phoenix Raceway in early March, this argument was the talk of the town among virtually everyone in the NASCAR garage.

Adding more horsepower to the short track package is part of the solution, but not the fix.

Adding more power beneath every driver's right foot would undoubtedly make a difference. It would bring the speeds up, which would introduce more time on the brakes entering a corner, and more off throttle time through a corner. In theory, a car's performance would be put more at the mercy of the driver's skill.

While this would effectively solve some problems, it is not the be all, end all. Don’t forget that the end of the Gen 6 era almost always had great short tracks races despite having just 80 more horsepower than the current cars. There are several issues with this Next Gen car as a chassis that even 10,000 horsepower could never fix.

First of all, the tires are much wider on the Next Gen car than they were on the Gen 6 car, and they have a smaller sidewall. They are also way too hard, meaning that there is next to no tire falloff. This all makes the tires much more forgiving and allows the drivers to drive as hard as they want to with little to no consequences.

Then there's the body of the car, which is made of composite materials to create less damage from impacts. But this also comes at the cost of good racing. Gone are the days when a driver could pull off a subtle "bump and run" on the driver in front, because the cars are now so strong that they can withstand a few shots without issue.

Finally, there's the transmission. With the five-speed sequential gearbox on the Next Gen car compared to the traditional H-pattern four-speed from years past, shifting has become a regular occurrence for a driver to bail out of a mistake. If a driver makes a mistake and his RPMs drop, he can just drop it down a gear, put his foot down, and lose almost no time.

What issue do all these factors combine to create? They make the cars too easy to drive.

Of course, that's not to say that these cars are easy to drive, because no ordinary person or athlete could hop into the seat and be even remotely as fast as any professional drivers.

However, what NASCAR has right now is a car that has a very small setup window compacted into a very tight set of restrictions, and there is only one optimal way to drive it. There's no way to get creative with it and differentiate from the rest of the field.

Combine that with the small skill gap between all of the top drivers, and you get a follow-the-leader scenario, where every car is almost the same and every driver is running a very similar pace, unable to do anything to stand out and make a difference.

NASCAR made some minor changes to the short track package to start the 2024 season, but that has produced little to no positive results. In the days since the lackluster Martinsville race, NASCAR has stated that they "need to work harder" to make more improvements, but what changes actually need to be made?

For the short term, the easiest and quickest fix would be for Goodyear to bring a very soft tire to the rest of the short track races in 2024. The only objectively good short track race in the last few years was last month's race at Bristol Motor Speedway, when everyone was hanging onto their cars just 50 laps into a run with destroyed tires.

There were comers and goers all throughout the race, a ton of passing, and lots of pit strategies on display, with some teams trying to outlast the competition and stay on the track while others pitted early and were as much as four seconds faster than everyone else.

It proved that even with a flawed car, NASCAR can put on a great show, horsepower increase or not.

As for the long term, however, every change imaginable should be on the table, including a horsepower increase. What's important is for NASCAR to find the right combination of changes to implement, not just a bunch of knee-jerk reactions like they already did to start 2024 -- to no avail.

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The sport cannot afford to have the tracks representing its roots putting on poor shows in front of its core fans for much longer.