LAS VEGAS -- The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams participating in Thursday's four-hour test from 3-7 p.m. ET at Las Vegas Motor Speedway are not only weighing their chances for Sunday's race there, but also exploring their odds for the longer season at the type of 1.5-mile track that dominates the schedule.
This weekend marks the first time NASCAR's tech team will see if its 2014 intermediate track rules package looks to be a winning combination. The test and Sunday's Kobalt 400 will give NASCAR its first full deck to play with in terms of assessing the chassis and aerodynamic changes to the cars on the style of track and in the sort of conditions they were designed to impact most.
But, NASCAR Vice President for Innovation and Racing Development Gene Stefanyshyn cautioned, don't expect the payout until the series has visited at least three of the intermediate tracks for which this setup is designed.
"What we want to do now since Las Vegas is our first intermediate track, we wanted to give them some time to get comfortable with that package," Stefanyshyn said. "That's basically what the testing is about. This chassis package at higher speeds provides more stability and that's where you get the benefit. So Phoenix last week was a bit of a peek into it, but because of the nature of that track, it didn't really get us the full picture as will Las Vegas.
"But we shouldn't hang any conclusions on one race. We need to get at least three races under our belt, let the teams get dialed in. It is a fairly significant change for them, and there is a lot of learning for the teams. We need to watch carefully but not jump prematurely and draw a lot of conclusions with minimal data points and understanding. There is a learning curve effect here and people need to get the learning curve and stabilize, then we're in a better position."
Although Cup teams tested in December at the Charlotte 1.5-mile oval, the final rules package came later and was a culmination of what was learned at that Charlotte test along with input from teams and drivers. Stefanyshyn said his group tried five different combinations in the Charlotte test and "came up with this one from there."
The biggest changes to the Gen-6 cars for 2014 were aerodynamically and to the chassis, which essentially had its ride-height rule relaxed. That allows teams to use the same springs in the race that they do in inspection.
"The springs in the front of the car were more for inspection than for racing before,'" Stefanyshyn said. "A lot of effort and energy went into spring work for inspection purposes and had little value for the racing on track. We essentially said, all right guys, why don't you set up your spring package for how you want to race.
"What that means is they've gone to stiffer springs. What I think will happen ? when they get at higher speeds the cars will be more stable, therefore the drivers will have more confidence and the theory is they'll drive closer together."
Stefanyshyn said NASCAR has been happy with the cars' performance at the first two races. This intermediate package, however, isn't used on the Daytona and Talladega superspeedways and Phoenix's 1-miler didn't showcase the potential either because the low speeds never gave the new aero design a chance to affect things.
Kevin Harvick's dominating Sunday at Phoenix was more a combination of two variables than an indictment on the car's real potential, Stefanyshyn said. The second through 10th place cars at Phoenix were tightly grouped and their finishes decided by smaller fractions of a second.
"It's a strong track for Harvick, he's always done well there and they did seem to demonstrate in Charlotte in December that their team had this chassis package figured out, they seemed to have chassis changes figured out early on," Stefanyshyn said.
It is a glimpse of what to expect this week at Las Vegas, and at the 2-mile Fontana, Calif., track and then again at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway high banks.
"What we'll probably see, is the aero changes are essentially the same for everybody so there isn't a lot of room for the teams to play around in there," Stefanyshyn said. "That piece is mostly the drivers finding the limit of the aero and getting comfortable driving at that limit."
NASCAR's tech department has its eye on the big prize. And even then, Stefanyshyn says, the big jackpot will likely be next season when NASCAR's plans to tweak the cars again in its effort to further facilitate the kind of close, exciting racing for which the sport is famous.
"Going into 2015 we'll press harder on the aerodynamics and see if we can make bigger changes and also work on the engine and tire area," he said. "We'll determine how this 2014 package is going and if we're right and the stars align, it could be everything is wonderful with the aero package we won't necessarily make changes to 2015 if we don't think they're needed.
"We have to start working now with an eye that if we find more improvements we'll get them in time for 2015."
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