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Can NASCAR Drivers Drift? Why Don’t They?

In other racing series, you may see drivers drifting their cars around corners. And even in NASCAR, there are times drivers appear to drift. So, it makes sense to ask if NASCAR drivers can drift, and why they wouldn’t do so.

NASCAR drivers can drift, but they do not drift during a race. NASCAR drivers don’t drift because doing so is not the fastest way to drive around a track. If you see a car drifting during a race, it’s 100% not the driver’s choice, as this is a slower way to corner and will wear the tires out.

Below, we will discuss whether NASCAR drivers can drift during a race, or if NASCAR bans the practice. We will also dive into full detail of why NASCAR drivers don’t drift, before elaborating fully on the tire degradation process. We will also reveal whether drifting around corners is ever faster. 

Is Drifting Allowed In NASCAR?

Drifting is allowed in NASCAR. There is nothing in the rules that bans NASCAR drivers from drifting. However, drivers do not engage in drifting for many reasons. But that doesn’t mean you won’t see instances during a NASCAR race that you may believe is drifting. 

In these rare occurrences, you will see a driver look like they are drifting to avoid an on-track incident. However, they are not drifting, but instead they are either correcting their cars to keep themselves from spinning and hitting the wall, or simply momentarily losing control of the rear of the car. Therefore, although this looks like drivers are drifting, they really are not.

This nearly always brings out a caution because of the smoke and subsequent visual impairment that it brings. For this reason, and the fact that drifting inherently involves finding the balance between having control and losing control of the back end of the car, NASCAR would likely clamp down on a driver if they were intentionally drifting as it could be dangerous.

Future NASCAR Drifting Event?

Some have called on NASCAR to hold a drifting event, especially since they have expanded their road course schedule, added a dirt race, and even a street race to their schedule. But since drifting is a different discipline entirely, it would be too hazardous to place onto the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. 

The only time you would ever see NASCAR drivers drift would be on a closed course and not during a race. For example, Joey Logano once teamed up with Vaughn Gittin Jr for a drifting session during the Generation 6 era

Why Don’t NASCAR Drivers Drift?

The object of NASCAR is to pull off the fastest possible lap times that will translate into a strong finish and, ideally, a win. One reason NASCAR drivers don’t drift around turns is because doing so will slow their cars. Further, NASCAR drivers don’t drift because they also don’t need to drift thanks to two variables: track banking and tire grip. 

The Banking

Since NASCAR tracks usually contain at least some degree of banking, it also allows drivers to turn instead of drifting. Banking helps the cars maintain a higher maximum speed around the corners, something that is most prevalent at Daytona and Talladega – both of these tracks contain a high degree of banking, at 31° and 33° respectively. 

Tire Grip

Dale Earnhardt Jr once recalled the first time he stepped into a NASCAR car at the Talladega Superspeedway for a test that his dad, Dale Sr, set up. Earnhardt Jr stated that, because the car must be driven at full throttle, he had no idea how smoothly it would turn, until he realized how strong the tire grip was, which, in turn, kept the car from needing to drift

Drifting is also tough on the tires, and one of the top priorities for NASCAR drivers is to save their tires for each leg of the race. When tires degrade faster, the cars move slower and it will result in more pit stops for the driver, none of which is desirable in a sport where pit strategy is imperative to fielding a winning car. 

Tire Degradation Explained

Goodyear supplies teams with slick tires because the goal is, on dry, asphalt surfaces, to maximize tire grip. NASCAR tires are designed to wear, and they also lose grip as they go through heat cycles, as they will grow harder and less malleable. Drivers know this and have found ways to minimize the impact of heat cycles. 

They know how to keep all four tires heated, and therefore wearing, equally, and this results in fewer heat cycles and more grip. But because NASCAR is a high-speed game, tires wear down between 40 and 60 laps at intermediate and large tracks, and after 100 to 120 laps on shorter tracks like Bristol. 

Proper Tire Wear 

Goodyear and tire engineers on each NASCAR team realize that proper tire wear is a safety aspect of the sport, which explains why the tires are intended to wear down and get replaced at various portions of the race. This will result in slower cars as the tire wears, but improper wearing, thanks to the excess heat, will cause vulcanization (hardening) of the tire. 

If the tire vulcanizes too quickly, it will grow harder at a faster rate, which will further cause the tires to lose grip on the track as softer tires are grippier. But the tires also lose tread as they’re used throughout a race, and excessive sliding – as would happen with drifting – would cause the tire to shed this tread much faster, further reducing grip.

Different Tire Degradation At Different Tracks

One important aspect to remember about tire degradation is that it is never the same. So, when you watch a race at Darlington, and another race at Bristol (non-dirt), and a third race at Martinsville, know that these three tracks, and all other tracks on the NASCAR circuit, require different types of tires.

Though these tires look the same, their compounds will change in respect to the next event’s track surface and banking. For example, Bristol, a concrete track, and Darlington, an asphalt track, will require different compounds. But each of these two tracks also have different angles of banking and turning degrees. 

So, the tires will degrade differently in a place like Darlington, with two narrow turns, than they would in Bristol, which has wider turns and greater banking. Then there are tracks like Martinsville, which contains asphalt and concrete, plus lesser banking. This further affects tire wear in unique ways.

Tire degradation can also differ at different stages of the race at the same track, and while NASCAR teams use the same tire compounds for the same race, there will be a difference in degradation considering the track conditions, bearing in mind things like track temperature and the weather (i.e. if the track is bone dry or slightly damp from a passing shower).

How Drifting Would Affect This

If a NASCAR driver was to drift, not only would their sliding directly wear the tire down by shedding some of the tread (i.e. the usable rubber part of the tire), but it would also cause them to overheat. While warm tires are key for grip in racing, getting them too hot makes them too malleable, and they begin to wear much faster and provide less grip, making the car much slower.

KEY POINTS

• NASCAR drivers don’t drift around corners, although there are no rules against it

• Drifting affects how fast drivers can corner and it affects tire wear too

• NASCAR drivers must manage their tire wear throughout a race, and drifting would hinder their ability to do so

Is Drifting Round Corners Ever Faster?

Drifting around corners is never faster in NASCAR, but it is a useful tactic in rally racing. In road racing, drifting around corners would not be faster because the car loses traction, and therefore, speed. Rally drivers drift as it is actually usually the fastest way to corner. 

When a rally car approaches a turn at high speed on an irregular surface, like gravel or dirt, the drivers intentionally kick the back end of the car out to force the car to turn. This is in large part because the front tires can’t grip the surface as well as they could a tarmac track, (usually) making it slower to try and corner normally.

NOTE: There are a lot of nuances involved in why rally drivers drift. Some say it’s about predictability and others say it’s about guiding the car into the corner. All you need to know for the sake of this discussion is that it’s usually faster in rally racing, and always slower in NASCAR!

NASCAR does have some road courses that have lesser banking in some turns, along with sharper corners. But even in these instances, because tire grip is king when it comes to speed in NASCAR, drifting is not something you would see at any of the road courses

Final Thoughts

NASCAR drivers can drift, but they will not drift during a race. There are times where you may see drivers look like they are drifting, but this is usually them correcting to avoid a wreck or a wall, or simply losing control, and it’s not a drift. Drifting is not a feasible way of turning in NASCAR.