Brad Keselowski whipped the field Saturday night in a NASCAR race that will likely be described by many hardcore fans as “less than thrilling.” Sadly, that’s become the norm more than the exception these days, a commonly-repeated phrase by diehards when describing Sprint Cup races on 1.5-mile tracks this year. But despite the sanctioning body’s best efforts as of late to rectify the situation, tinkering with small rule changes (mostly in regards to side skirt heights), Saturday night’s event at Kentucky proved that the magic bullet fix for NASCAR’s “cookie cutter” races has yet to be found.
Now, before I get jumped on for just being one more guy bagging on NASCAR’s intermediate track problem, I didn’t think the race was as bad as some in the media have made it out to be. In fact, it was actually pretty OK; if I was a new fan just getting into the sport, I probably would have been fairly entertained. There was some passing, fast speeds, and some decent battles for the lead. Kasey Kahne made a spirited charge to second in the closing laps, Jimmie Johnson nearly lost control on the final restart… it’s not like this event had zero storylines.
But that opinion, at the moment, appears to be in the minority. As a member of the media who has also followed the sport since age 4, I know that the current product NASCAR has right now on the 1.5-milers pales in comparison to the type of racing that was seen on such tracks in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, a downturn that really draws the ire of NASCAR’s hardcore race fans. The 1.5-milers put on reliably good races in those days, from Jeff Gordon’s first win at Charlotte in 1994 to an Atlanta nailbiter Dale Earnhardt won by inches in 2000. And for those that don’t believe me, search for perhaps the best race of them all on YouTube: 2001’s Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 at Atlanta. Watch that with an open mind, then come back to me and let me know if “cookie cutters” are as snooze-inducing as you claim. The fact is, the “cookie cutters” can and should deliver good racing, and I am here today to show you just how NASCAR can accomplish that feat.
Before I get into what can be done to fix the problem, it would probably be wise of me to explain exactly why it is that we have a problem in the first place. As I am sure many astute readers are already aware of, there is a certain phenomenon that has existed for years on Sprint Cup cars known as the “aero push.” To keep things concise, aero push is simply when a trailing car loses front end grip when approaching a car in front. Since the cars don’t poke a big enough hole in the air on these tracks to combat aero push via drafting (more on that later), passing becomes incredibly difficult. This issue has been compounded by the introduction of the CoT car (which has made the aero push worse) and also by rock hard, Goodyear tire combinations which have little to no falloff in speed. A tire that doesn’t wear properly means that everyone is running the same times throughout an entire run, making passing difficult to impossible to come by. Add it all together and cookie cutter tracks have quickly become the type of speedway most NASCAR supporters want cut off the schedule in chunks.
So how do we go about fixing this problem? Many in the NASCAR community have posed possible solutions. There is near universal agreement among observers that a softer tire that wears better would fluctuate speeds, meaning this fix alone would remedy many of the issues fans have with “cookie cutter” tracks. Fixing the aero push issue, on the other hand, is not so cut and dry. Some experts and fans seem to believe that taking downforce away from the cars, which would make them looser and tougher to drive, would fix the problem. That would shift the focus away from aero grip and place it in the hands of mechanical grip. This adjustment works… but not completely. Note the design of the CoT would never radically change, plus with drivers skating around, on the edge of control how confident would anyone be to run side-by-side?
In mind, we need to go a different direction, leaning towards a fix that this humble writer feels could truly be that catch-all for the “cookie cutter” track issues. The adjustment? Let’s bring drafting back. As it stands right now, the draft provides little to no advantage on 1.5-mile facilities. However, if you go back and watch a race from the 1970s or 1980s from Charlotte, you’ll notice that the drivers in those races could pull off Talladega-esque slingshot passes down the straightaways. Being directly behind someone on track back then was actually an advantage, simply because the draft was strong enough to defeat whatever little bit of an aero push affected one’s car. And drivers still had to wheel the cars back then. What a concept!
I’m not an engineer and thus, can’t give you an exact method for making the cars draftier. Restrictor plates aren’t an automatic answer; we saw how well they worked at Loudon, a one-mile oval where there was exactly zero passes for the lead when used over a decade ago. But obviously, the sport’s past proves drafting can be made possible at any track, anywhere. If the geniuses that work at NASCAR’s Technical Center are as brilliant as they are cracked up to be, they can certainly find a way to design next year’s 2013 cars in such a way that they actually benefit from dirty air (drafting) instead of being hurt by it (aero push). Regardless, whether or next such a magic fix manifests itself before next season remains to be seen.
Fixing the racing on NASCAR’s 1.5-mile tracks certainly won’t be easy, but the brilliant racing that graced such tracks in the past proves there’s hope. All I can tell you is that NASCAR needs to continue to search, because the quality of racing we saw this past weekend at Kentucky is still a ways off from where it needs to be going forward. Doing nothing, in an age of declining attendance and viewership clearly isn’t the answer to drum up long-term interest in the sport.
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