Friday is a dark day at Charlotte Motor Speedway and we don’t mean that in a bad way.
There is no on-track activity today, as the Friday before the Coca-Cola 600 is traditionally a day teams use for fan events, shop open houses, sponsor meetings and other activities.
With that in mind, here are five things we’ve learned about this weekend so far as we approach NASCAR’s longest race, which begins Sunday night at 5:30 p.m. ET on FOX.
ROUSH RENAISSANCE — It’s no secret that the last couple of years have been lean ones for Roush Fenway Racing, a team that in 2005 won 15 races and put five drivers in what then was a 10-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
The Roush organization hasn’t won a points race since 2014, but last week team drivers Trevor Bayne and Greg Biffle each won a segment in the Sprint Showdown. Thursday night, all three Roush drivers qualified in the top 10 for the Coca-Cola 600. This team just might be on the way back.
BUSTED — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Aric Almirola were all penalized Thursday night with a loss of pit-stall selection for the Coke 600 after getting their respective fourth warnings of the year for minor inspection violations. Instead of picking the pit stall where they qualified, they will get the last three choices.
Is this a big deal? Eh. It doesn’t help them, certainly, but over the course of 600 miles presumably there will be a lot of green-flag running, which means a lot of cars will go a lap down. That, in turn, means that not everyone will pit at the same time — remember, lead-laps cars pit first under caution, then lapped cars pit the next time by. That makes pit-stall selection a little less critical.
NEXT NEW WINNER — It takes an awful lot to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup race and it’s really, really easy to lose one. Winning requires a myriad of things to go right — good pit stops and restarts, sound strategy and a top-notch driver. But more than anything, above all else, it requires fast race cars.
If you look at the top 10 drivers in terms of miles led this year, seven of the 10 have won points races already in 2016. The three who haven’t are Martin Truex Jr., who ranks second in miles led, Kurt Busch (ninth) and Joey Logano (10th). Right behind them are Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott, who are 11th and 12th, respectively. Your next new 2016 winner almost certainly ought to be one of those five. And maybe as early as Sunday night.
RULES CHANGES — NASCAR is experimenting with new rules to again cut downforce, which makes cars slower in the corners, reduces aero wake and makes passing easier. They are testing this new package at Michigan and Kentucky and if all goes well, it will become the basis of the 2017 rules package.
That should be good news for everyone. This year, the racing is the best it’s been in years, and cutting more downforce should make it that much better. And just like last year, NASCAR won’t make a rules change during the Chase, which is the fair way to do things.
NOTHING STAYS THE SAME — I get this question all the time: Why can’t NASCAR just make one set of rules and leave them in place for an indefinite period of time? Because the teams are constantly working to get every pound of downforce that NASCAR cut back. NASCAR cut 900 pounds of downforce out of the cars for 2016 and some teams have already gotten 150-200 pounds of that back.
The latest trick teams were using was to take brake blower fans, which were designed to blow cool air onto the brakes, and position those fans in such a way that they actually generated front-end downforce. It was legal a couple of weeks ago, but now NASCAR has outlawed the fans totally.
As long as crew chiefs are trying to figure out ways to make their cars go faster, NASCAR will have to adjust their rules accordingly.