Can Next Gen car help return Cup to Indianapolis oval?

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MADISON, Ill. — The positive reviews for last weekend’s racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway marked another triumph for the Next Gen car on an intermediate track. That raises the question of if the car could help the Cup Series return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s oval.

This season marks the second year Cup cars will compete on Indy’s road course after running on the oval from 1994-2020. Even before the move to the road course, some drivers were outspoken about their desire to remain on the oval.

The track always has been difficult for Cup cars to run side-by-side because of the narrow groove in the corners. Attendance declined through the years, leading to the move to the road course, which incorporates a portion of the oval. 

With the Next Gen car this season, the racing at Auto Club Speedway (2-mile track) and Las Vegas and Charlotte (1.5-mile tracks) received rave reviews. 

But the car hasn’t worked well at all tracks. The racing in the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile track, was not viewed as positively. Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said Friday that Texas “isn’t very racy at all.”

But could things be different with Indianapolis?

“Indy is just a difficult track,” Larson said Friday at World Wide Technology Raceway. “You can look at even the IndyCar race this year – it wasn’t that exciting and those cars build really big runs. So, I still think it would be not very good racing for us. And it seems like with these cars and the way the air runs off the back, I think it could have the potential of being even worse than normal, just because it’s a flat track.

“As a driver, I would love to win on the oval there. But the road course is, to me, more exciting racing.”

Larson is not alone in his opinion.

“Honestly, I think Indy would be worse in these cars,” Ryan Blaney said. “With the prior car, with a little bit of skew in them you’d pray for like six inches or a foot that (the car ahead would) miss the bottom. If you could get your headlight out (in clean air), you’re in decent shape. 

“Now there is zero skew in them. You would need half a car down and at Indy that is not going to happen. I honestly think that it would be worse in this car. I love racing big Indy just for nostalgia purposes, (but) I think it would be a worse race than what we had.”

Christopher Bell noted that the racing has been good at the intermediate tracks with multiple lanes. That’s not as likely at Indianapolis. 

“Any of those tracks that you can move around and pick different lanes, we’ve had great races,” Bell said. “At Texas we could not move around. We had to follow each other and it was not a great race.

“If we went to Indy and ran on the oval, I think it would be very similar to Texas — if not worse.”

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While the field was jumbled on a late restart in the 2020 Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the cars often get spread out around the 2.5-mile track. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Former Cup champion Kurt Busch sees opportunities at Indy — but some changes would need to be made.

To me the quickest answer is (after) watching the Indy 500 and racing in it a few years back, there are options for downforce that teams have in other forms of motorsport,” Busch said. 

“In NASCAR, we’re basically boxed into this very small box of adjustments. Let the teams have more downforce that they can take out of the front or put in the front, in the rear or out of the rear. 

“That would create a window for guys who have this package and guys having that package at the same style track. That might open things up to who has short run speed versus long run speed in a different way or a different opportunity.”

Whatever the solution, Kevin Harvickwho won the last Cup race on Indy’s oval in 2020 — is steadfast in saying that the series needs to run the same track that hosts the Indianapolis 500.

“It could be the greatest race on earth,” Harvick said. “What is the real ingredient that made Charlotte so much better than Texas? I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows. You just have to do it. I think that would be the only way you would find out. 

“It is kind of a stumper to try to figure out exactly what the ingredients are that make a good race or a bad race and what tracks are good and what tracks are bad. I wish somebody could tell me because I would have bet a million dollars last week that Charlotte was going to be horrendous. Then all of a sudden we are running up on a part of the race track that we haven’t run in five or six years.”

Even if it wouldn’t happen at Indianapolis, Harvick said the series belongs on the oval.

“I hate driving into the Brickyard and driving backward down the straightaway and driving the road course,” Harvick said. “I think it is terrible for our sport and almost degrading to a certain degree that you take the best racing series in the country and take it to what most would consider one of the greatest race tracks in the world but race on the road course.”