For over two months, the NASCAR engines of your favorite race teams have turned silent, drivers and teams left idle during a offseason filled with rules changes and nervous anticipation regarding the future of our sport.
But as the last week of January dawns, that future is sitting on our doorstep. Speedweeks for NASCAR lies just two weeks away, with both the Bud Shootout and Daytona 500 qualifying ushering in a 62nd season for the number one racing series in America. That means it’s time to get the blood racing and ask the tough questions to figure out just exactly how this year’s going to work out. This week, we’ll get you thinking on six big questions facing NASCAR in 2010; as we try and find the answers, the staff you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and most of all… a sense of humor. After all, we’ll all need to laugh if these predictions blow up in our face come November….
Season Preview 2010
Part I: Can The Four-Team Rule Be Enforced?
Part II: How Will Danica Do?
Part III: Will NASCAR Really Loosen Up?
Part IV: Is McGrew The Answer For Earnhardt?
Part V: What Tracks Lose A Sprint Cup Date In 2011?
Today’s Season Preview Topic: The new spoiler rules are the start of what could be several changes to make the Car of Tomorrow handle better on the racetrack. But with the controversial Chase system still in place, will better handling necessarily lead to better racing?
Tom Bowles, Managing Editor: No question, wing-to-spoiler heads us back in the right direction with what Matt McLaughlin likes to call the “Car of Sorrow.” More changes are coming, and it’d be no surprise to see major adjustments to the front end by November. A bigger restrictor plate will also help drivers with throttle response at Daytona and Talladega.
But parts and pieces can only do so much. The rules may add downforce, but they can’t automatically bring down driver’s conservative attitudes. If it makes sense for someone to settle for third ’cause it’s too much of a risk to run second based on their Chase prospects, then you know what – they’ll settle for third. This “playin’ it safe” philosophy has permeated the NASCAR garage, and until you have a points system that rewards otherwise no car in the world is going to completely exterminate the problem.
Jared Turner, Turner’s Take (Tuesdays): Well, there’s no guarantee that swapping a wing for a spoiler will make the cars handle that much better. And even if it does, don’t expect races at the 1.5 and 2-mile tracks to all of a sudden become can’t-miss affairs. As I often remind people: The racing at these tracks, which unfortunately make up most of the Cup schedule, wasn’t exactly thrilling before the introduction of the CoT. To make the racing better, NASCAR needs more short tracks and another restrictor-plate track, rather than a spoiler.
S.D. Grady, Fan’s View (Newsletter Tuesdays): Yes. Have you ever known a racer to back off the opportunity to squeeze past a competitor when their car is on rails? When we have a car that can be driven door-to-door and bumper-to-bumper, we will see great racing, even when points are on the line. Because ultimately, nothing replaces the thrill of victory lane in this sport.
Mike Lovecchio, Weekend Lowdown (Fridays): If the drivers are comfortable behind the wheel, the racing will improve – it’s that simple. The reason drivers get conservative in fear of hurting their Chase hopes is because they don’t want to be put in a position where they can crash and lose points. If they have the confidence that the car will stick if they put themselves in position for a pass, they’ll go for it. These guys are race car drivers, and if they have a shot at a win in a good-handling car, they’ll go for it.
Amy Henderson, Holding A Pretty Wheel (Mondays): It’s a bit early to assume that a spoiler will make the cars handle better. The height and angle of the spoiler, which hasn’t even been tested by more than a select handful of cars, will determine whether it makes the cars easier to drive. A large spoiler, such as was seen on the last version of a Cup car, gave plenty of downforce, but contributed to the aerodynamic push that drivers had to fight each time they tried to pass someone else, and led to many, many fan complaints about the lack of passing. Many drivers have also said they don’t want the cars to be easier to drive, because the actual driving is what separates the best from the rest. So until the new spoiler is proven to provide better competition, the Chase system is secondary. It needs to go, but for now, the two issues are completely separate ones.
Doug Turnbull, Hot/Not (Tuesdays): Yes, slightly. The main CoT complaint has been the difficulty to pass a car after catching up to it. If passing the leader is easier, then the racing is automatically better. Unfortunately, just like with the “drivers can rub and race” announcement with NASCAR, drivers know that making it to the finish is the most important factor in how they race with the Chase, so drivers will race conservatively enough to make sure they qualify for the playoffs.
Matt Taliaferro, Fanning The Flames (Thursdays): Replacing the wing with a spoiler will not magically transport us back to 1992, so let’s get that out of the way. A philosophical change in how the drivers attack each weekend, each race and those last 100 laps (or miles) of each event will ultimately predicate the product – and points racing isn’t going away anytime soon.
That said, a comfortable driver is a better driver, and if the guys feel like they’re driving the cars and not vise versa, we could possibly see a racier product. The jury is still out on this one, but a fundamental shift will not be borne out of one offseason of change.
Tony Lumbis, Marketing Director: In some instances, yes it will lead to better competition. There have been plenty of events over the past two years where competitors have commented on how difficult it is to pass with the new car. This has often resulted in fans witnessing a freight train of nose-to-tail “racing.”
Yet while the Chase system can probably be blamed for conservatism in the weeks leading up to its commencement, I don’t think it has ever been the reason for bad racing. There are some tracks that just seem to produce stinkers – no matter what cars are being used or point system is in place. The wide banks of Fontana have allowed cars to spread out over long green-flag runs, and that will continue to happen. While Dover has had some spectacular finishes over the years, it too is known for long green-flag runs with limited action throughout the middle of the race. On the other side of the spectrum, the high banks of Bristol always produce one of the best shows of the season, again, no matter what kind of car is unloaded off the haulers. So while changes to the cars will help in some instances, don’t forget that track configuration is often the main contributor to the type of racing NASCAR fans see on any given weekend.
Mike Neff, Full Throttle (Wednesday Newsletter): The racing has been better in the last few years, but the only real change that will lead to better competition is awarding championship points for leading specific laps during the race. If there is no incentive to lead laps during the race other than the current five point bonus, then for the most part you’ll have uninspired racing until the last 100 miles.
John Potts, Driven To The Past (Fridays): Not sure about the spoiler rule. If the “shark fin” is more than a couple of inches tall, it’s going to be as ugly as the wing. As for better handling equaling better racing? Probably. The bigger plate at Daytona and Talladega might help a little — but the question is, will we get the same kind of pack racing at higher speeds?
And one more, for good measure…
Danny Peters, The Yellow Stripe (Tuesdays): Let’s hope. If it doesn’t, the hemorrhaging TV and at-track numbers will continue at a parlous rate. No question, it’s a crucial year for the sport.