Parity reshaping start of Cup season

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The Next Gen car is making an impact in NASCAR nearly a year before its scheduled debut.

The result — at least Sunday — was more parity at a 1.5-mile track than often has been seen at such tracks.

With a freeze on teams updating several parts on the car as the sport prepares to transition to the Next Gen car, big teams have fewer areas to have an advantage on smaller teams.

The result is the parity that took place at Homestead-Miami Speedway in a race won by William Byron. Consider:

# Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell finished sixth to give Front Row Motorsports its first top-10 result at a 1.5-mile speedway. Ever. The organization first ran a Cup race in 2005 and has run a full-time schedule with at least two cars since 2010.

# Chris Buescher won a stage and led 57 laps Sunday for Roush Fenway Racing, the most he’s led in his 189-race Cup career.

# Roush Fenway Racing’s Ryan Newman scored his first top-10 finish since 2019 on a track other than Daytona and Talladega.

# Seven different teams finished in the top 10. Those teams were Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, and Chip Ganassi Racing. JTG Daugherty Racing was 13th with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Trackhouse Racing placed 15th with Daniel Suarez.

A season that started with two first-time winners continues to show parity, in part, because of the rules.

“The rules are the rules, and they haven’t changed in a while,” Martin Truex Jr. said after his third-place finish for Joe Gibbs Racing. “Everybody is really just trying to work on the same things here each and every week. So it gives you time to work on your stuff and not have to really develop a lot of things. The smaller teams definitely get to catch up. We’ll see if it continues.”

Said McDowell: “I agree with Martin that (the parts freeze) definitely has closed the gap, but the best teams and the top teams will always be the top teams. They just consistently do it just a tad better. Pit road, execution, lighter, faster, more downforce. We’ll just take it as it goes.

“The one thing about this 34 team is we race our guts out, and if we have a 25th-place car, we’re going to race our guts out and finish 23rd. And if we’ve got a 10th-place car, we’re going to race our guts out and finish eighth.”

McDowell charged from 17th to sixth in the final 100 laps. McDowell and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, who finished fifth Sunday, are the only drivers to place in the top 10 in each of the season’s first three races.

“We have done a great job of making big gains,” said McDowell, who ranks fourth in points. “To be running down Kevin Harvick with five laps to go for a top five, that’s stinking awesome for us to even be in that sentence.”

How much is this parity likely to carry forward? The series heads this weekend Las Vegas Motor Speedway, also a 1.5-mile track.

“It is a different racetrack and it is worn out,” said Buescher, who struggled late and finished 19th. “You’re still going to maybe not compare it directly to Vegas, which is very fast and high grip, but you’re definitely going to be looking at Atlanta or some of these other mile-and-a-halves that are getting a little rougher, getting a little more wore out.

“So yeah, there’s definitely things that will apply. Not 100 percent of it, but at the end of the day, there’s a lot that you can learn from these types of tracks, even though the speeds are very different from the beginning of a run to the end of a run.”

Tyler Reddick, who was 13th with 50 laps to go and finished second for Richard Childress Racing, said there could be a carryover to other tracks but not all 1.5-mile speedways.

“Maybe you’ll see it at Kansas,” Reddick said. “But those kind of tracks I would agree – Darlington is another one where it may not have the size of the other mile-and-a-halves, but you move around and search for grip. I would say those couple tracks you will. But your Vegas, your repaves, those tracks, I think they’ll look a lot different than what we saw tonight because you don’t move around as much and you don’t have the tire falloff.”