The NASCAR Sprint Cup series took to the 2.5 mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway Friday in preparation for Sunday’s Crown Royal presents the Jeff Kyle 400 at The Brickyard (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). The teams all had extra practice time thanks to a new high-drag aero package mandated by NASCAR.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series package for Indianapolis includes a 43-inch radiator pan (increased from 38 inches), a two-inch splitter leading edge, a one-inch wicker bill and nine-inch spoiler (increased from six inches). The increased downforce adds drag to the car and creates a larger draft window in the back.
“When you look at a lot of the data, and obviously you see it play out on the race track, but the belief is that the second-place car, if they’re lined up maybe two, three, four, five, could have a five-mile-an-hour difference between the leader,” NASCAR Executive Vice President & Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell said when the package was announced recently. “As an example, if you came out of Turn 2 and you had a four-car-length lead, it’s the belief that second and third, if they hooked up, could head into Turn 3 up on the bumper of the leader and potentially have kind of that, more of that slingshot that you used to see and the ability to pass. A lot of that we’ve got to see in the real world once we’re out there at Indy, but that’s the effect we believe it’ll have.”
The Indy rules package differs from the first track-specific rule package used a few weeks ago at Kentucky which created lower downforce. The modifications helped produce a track-record 22 green-flag passes for the lead and a total of 2,665 green-flag passes overall.
Friday’s first practice generated speeds about 5 miles an hour lower than last season. Denny Hamlin led the first of three practices with a speed of 182.208 mph. It was the start of the second practice however, that had Hamlin scrambling and his crew making repairs to his Toyota. As Hamlin was running his first full lap at speed the hood on his Toyota flew up. It flew back and broke into pieces. Hamlin was able to slow and make it back to the garage area his vision unblocked by the gap in the remnants of the hood.
Hamlin later hypothesized that the hood pins were left undone. He added that he had no warning the hood was about to fly up.
“They were probably hanging, I would say. It wasn’t on TV, so I’m just assuming they were probably out,” Hamlin said. “You know the speeds we were going, when that hood comes up, it just disintegrates and blows. The good thing is it didn’t all stay together. The hood blew apart so much that I had a gap there I could see.”
Hamlin’s crew worked furiously on the damage as the practice continued. Hamlin was able to go back out with less than an hour left.
“The roof is what we’re most concerned about,” Hamlin said. “It blew the roof apart a lot and did some damage inside the car. It’s just a lot of force there that tears up a lot of stuff anytime the hood comes up.”
After running the fasted speed in the first practice, Hamlin said he was surprised when the hood flew up. He was confident however that the car would be fine the rest of the weekend.
“It did for a moment, then it’s just looking around, surveying the damage and figuring out – we had a really fast car the first practice,” Hamlin said. “Obviously this isn’t a problem that used to happen, but nowadays with everything so fragile, any kind of dent in the car affects it aerodynamically. We have it fixed up and I think we are still going to be alright.”
Hamlin’s attention turned to the racing that will result from the new package. There is speculation that with the new package will create more passing, as it did at Kentucky. Friday after practice Hamlin was still unsure how that will play out Sunday.
“Passing will be tough to say the least,” Hamlin said. “We’re trying something new. I can’t fault them for trying – they tried what we wanted to try and I thought we had a pretty successful race (at Kentucky) and now we’re trying something different. We’ll see if it’s better or not. Still, here is a very tough race track. This is a one groove race track where it’s definitely been tough to pass here for 15 years or as long as I’ve been here. It’s just going to be one of those tough tracks.”
The higher spoiler of the package it was thought could impede the vision from the cars. After the practices though Hamlin said there shouldn’t be an issue. The spoilers are clear from the halfway point up.
“The vision is okay, actually,” Hamlin said. “I wish the wicker was clear, but I was actually surprised I could see more than I thought I was going to be able to see, but still would like to see a little more clear but other than that, it’s fine.”
Jamie McMurray was 24th in the final practice. The Chevy driver said the real test will come during the restarts in Sunday’s race.
“To me the restart is where this package is going to play a bigger role than in practice,” McMurray said. “The thing with practice is that as you start to catch the car in front of you, typically their car is not very good. So, when you see somebody catching you fairly quick you pull in so you can work on it and get your car better. I really haven’t been within 10 car lengths of anyone in front of me. “
“ The closest I was to anyone was behind (Greg) Biffle at the very start of practice,” he added. “He pulled off the racetrack when I got within about 10 car lengths of him. I really don’t know. I haven’t gotten to feel the…you know they said like 100 and some horsepower drag advantage to the car in back. I haven’t been close enough to feel that yet. I honestly think until we get into the race on Sunday that it’s hard to get anyone’s true opinion on what we are going to have. To me on Sunday when you get two cars side-by-side with this package the guy in third is going to have an extra engine. It’s going to be crazy the amount of speed that he is going to have. I don’t know, the restarts are going to be pretty wild, I think.”
Kurt Busch led the final practice with a speed of 181.987 mph. The Sprint Cup series will next take to the track on Saturday at 1:10 p.m. ET. The qualifying format has been updated to align with the high-draft rule package.
There will be two rounds of qualifying with drivers turning one timed lap. The qualifying order in the first round will be determined by a random draw. The top-12 drivers from round 1 advance to the final round where their times are reset. The final round qualifying order will be set from slowest to fastest speeds in the first round with starting positions 1-12 determined by the fastest laps in the second session.