During Saturday’s Sprint All-Star Race, Kevin Harvick had the car to beat Denny Hamlin, but not the air.
As the final 10-lap segment unfold at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Harvick hounded the back of Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota, looking for the right moment or a Hamlin misstep to take the lead.
But Hamlin literally cut off Harvick’s chances with three laps to go, moving up into the middle of the track, Harvick’s preferred lane, exiting Turn 2. The move caught Harvick off guard and killed his momentum.
“I felt like I had options to run all the way up against the wall or I can run the bottom,” Harvick said Thursday. “I could maneuver my car, he just caught me off guard at the right time and I was committed to the middle.”
The difficulty for a second-place car to pass the leader on a 1.5-mile track has always existed in all forms of racing Harvick said, and it’s not going to go away.
“Does anyone watch Formula One? It’s been there for years,” Harvick said. “It’s in IndyCars, it’s in racing. If you run behind one of your colleagues in this room, you’re going to have an aero push.”
The defending Sprint Cup champion said the sport’s reliance on technology has made the presence of aero push more obvious than in earlier eras.
“I think these cars, over the last 20 years, have become more sensitive in aero push, and I think in the ’70s and ’80s, it was probably there, they just didn’t know,” Harvick said. “We almost know too much about everything that’s going on now. I could make my car run fast behind other cars last week, but it’s just a totally different way of driving a car when you’re behind someone than it is when you’re by yourself.”
Harvick said the conditions of the 10-lap sprint lend itself to moments like the one that ensured Hamlin would come out on top.
“When you’re carrying too much speed on entry and over-using the throttle like you do in a 10-lap sprint, you’re right on the edge of really losing the front end if somebody’s in front of you,” Harvick said.
Jimmie Johnson, who has won seven points races at Charlotte, agreed with Harvick. Johnson and Harvick know a thing or two about navigating tracks like Charlotte. The two drivers have won the last seven points races on 1.5-mile tracks, dating back to 2014.
“We keep working on a variety of rules packages to try to make it better,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we have made it better at some tracks. I don’t think we have necessarily hurt it, but it is so hard to get around the brutal truth. The car leading has the best aero situation and the rest don’t.”
Johnson said drivers had been encouraged about the possibility of a rules package that allowed more off-throttle time, but that it hasn’t materialized in 2015.
“This rules package has not done that,” Johnson said. “But for 2016 there was a lot of hope that we were going that direction. It looks like that stuff has been tabled for now, potentially. So, the more wide-open percentage throttle you are running, it is just harder to pass. It makes the track narrower and it makes the air for the leader more of a premium.
Johnson doesn’t believe there is an “easy fix” for the issue, which is more difficult to navigate on Charlotte’s narrow surface compared its sister tracks, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, both of which Johnson has won at in 2015.
“You have the real estate to do it in the center of the corner, but you can’t go anywhere with that run,” Johnson said. “I think this track is also not the best track for this current rules package. I think Atlanta, Texas; much wider, abrasive surfaces work better, put on a better show.”