Who will go up when NASCAR's power goes down?
When NASCAR debuted its sixth generation car in 2013, the goal was to improve on-track racing while doing so in a car that looked more like an actual street model. The car delivered on looks; to be fair, in going against the hated 'Car of Tomorrow' made that task an easy win. Many in NASCAR argued that it delivered on competitive racing. Yet to the average fan the product remained the same as clean air dominated and passing was often at a premium. In year three of the Gen 6 car, NASCAR is throttling back the power and a major story for 2015 will be who benefits and who suffers from the change.
First, the obvious must be stated. Teams with more resources will have a decided advantage over those who do not. While both Joe Gibbs Racing and Front Row Motorsports will be starting from the same model car, JGR (and its Toyota engine partners) have the ability to wring every last ounce of power from their engines. Even without on-track testing, NASCAR's mega-teams have the money to research every part of the new engines to find speed. Smaller teams may get lucky and discover an advantage here and there. But you can safely assume that any such discovery will be quickly replicated and improved once it lands at Hendrick Motorsports.
When considering which drivers will benefit, a look at their performance in the Xfinity Series is a great place to start. The Xfinity cars have similar aerodynamic characteristics as the Cup cars but run on less horsepower. Winning consistently in that environment takes a driver who understands and can maximize momentum lap after lap. The extra 500 RPMs simply will not be there to get back up to speed after a mistake so smooth, consistent corner entry and exit is crucial. The lower rear spoiler only adds to the advantage of a momentum-based driver.
The driver who may benefit most is Kyle Busch. For years, Kyle has dominated the competition in the second tier series- so much so that various rules have been proposed to limit Cup participation in Xfinity events. He's won 19 of the 52 events he's entered in that series over the last two years with an unbelievable 46 top five finishes. Without question he knows how to maintain his moment with less power under the hood. Had he not broken his leg at Saturday's Xfinity series race, this may well have been his best chance at a Cup title.
Another Gibbs contender will undoubtedly be Carl Edwards. Like Busch, he's dominated when the power was turned down. Until NASCAR forced drivers to choose a championship to chase, Edwards was a fixture in the title chase. He finished in third place once, second place in four different years and won the 2007 Xfinity series championship. He's also piled up 38 wins (including his last start, a 2012 win at Watkins Glen) and 130 top five finishes in 245 career starts.
Outside of JGR, a driver who will also likely adapt quickly is Penske Racing's Joey Logano. Like Busch and Edwards, Logano has had a great deal of success at the Xfinity level. While his resume isn't quite as gaudy, he's been a contender. Over the last three years, he's run 47 Xfinity races, winning 12 and scoring 28 top five finishes. Just as important, he's riding a wave of momentum from 2014 and has hit his stride as a Cup driver in the Gen 6 body style.
The flip side of the “less is more” camp may be the Hendrick Motorsports contingent. Yes, they will have every advantage that money can buy. But less power has not equated to better results for three of its four drivers. Jimmie Johnson struggled mightily during his time in the then-Busch series and those struggles made some observers question Hendrick's initial decision to place Jimmie in the #48. Junior is nearly two decades removed from his tier two championships and hasn't done well in his limited Xfinity series action of late. And while Jeff Gordon cut his teeth at the Xfinity level, he's spent the last two decades concentrating on the higher powered Cup cars alone.
Earnhardt in particular has plenty working against him in 2015. Ignoring his late-season swoon in 2014, NASCAR's most popular driver will be breaking in a new crew chief in Greg Ives. That alone will result in a fair amount of transition time and it may well be 2016 before we know whether the pairing is sustainable. It's also worth noting that Earnhardt's renaissance in 2013 and 14 came in a car that drove and felt much like the fourth generation Cup cars that he experienced his early career success with. Yes, he won championships in the past but he has only one win at that level since leaving Dale Earnhardt Incorporated in 2007.
Overall, it will be interesting to watch how the veterans adapt to driving a car that will be vastly underpowered compared to what they've had under the hood for decades. It's been no secret that the bulk of NASCAR's best known drivers are aging and the sport hadn't seen much new blood prior to the last two years. Many of those veterans continue to hold seats with NASCAR's biggest teams. The old guard includes former champions like Johnson and Gordon plus others such as Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, and defending series champion Kevin Harvick. Other high-profile stars include Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and last year's runner up Ryan Newman. Will these seasoned pros be able to adapt quickly to such a massive change in power?
For once, the advantage may lie with the newcomers. Drivers like Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Brad Keselowski are all former Xfinity series champions and young enough to remember being in victory lane in those cars. Essentially they will have less to unlearn and fewer 900+ horsepower habits to forget. The reduction may also open the door for other drivers who simply haven't Cup success to date since the cars just haven't matched their style.
A dark horse who fits that description is Sam Hornish Jr. After coming up achingly short of the 2013 Xfinity series championship, Hornish found himself a victim of NASCAR's numbers game. Penske needed his seat for a younger driver and Sam was unable to find a comparable ride elsewhere. Instead of strapping in for a non-competitive team or returning to IndyCar, Hornish took the occasional spot start and waited for a ride to open up. When Marcos Ambrose decided to go back down under, Richard Petty Motorsports tapped Sam to replace him in their #9 car.
Hornish finally has a second chance at the Cup level. His skills as a wheelman have never been doubted but poor decision making and a rushed Cup debut resulted in a number of poor finishes and wrecked race cars at Penske between 2008 and 2010. He filled in for A.J. Allmendinger after the Dinger was suspended by NASCAR but the ride never felt like Sam's and was given to Joey Logano at season's end. Since that time, he's done everything asked of him and become a true stock car driver. RPM may not have Hendrick-level equipment; then again, who does? The Blue Oval Group had plenty of power last year and if RPM/Roush Fenway Racing can figure out the new aero package, Hornish may finally have the coming out party his fans have long waited for.