Race Weekend Central

The Frontstrech Five: Things To Like (or Not) About NASCAR’s New Rules Package

Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy writes about reasons to like the rules changes NASCAR announced for 2015…and also why not to.

NASCAR announced its new 2015 rules Tuesday, and as expected, there are reductions in downforce and horsepower. Also covered are preparations for running on a road course in the rain, options for digital dashboards and adjustments drivers can make in the cars, as well as changes to qualifying and testing procedures. For a full rundown, check out our full story.

Are all of the changes great news for the sport and its fans? Maybe, maybe not. There’s a lot to like for sure, but there are also a few that could have a negative impact on the sport. Here are some of each.

1. Like: Reduction in downforce and horsepower has potential to put races more in drivers’ hands.

Credit: CIA Stock Photography
A reduction in downforce and horsepower in the 2015 Rules Package should put more of the competition in the drivers’ hands. Credit: CIA Stock Photography

Anything that can put the racing more in the hands of the drivers and less in the shop is a good thing. In theory, at least, these changes should help reduce the aerodynamic dependence that has been a big – and unfortunate – factor in races. It can’t be eliminated completely, of course, but slowing the cars down and making them harder to handle should make a difference. This change should make it easier to pass if a driver can manhandle his car and would lessen the advantage that comes from clean air, allowing drivers to be more competitive on green-flag runs and not in need of a restart to gain ground.

It may also bring about some power shifts as this year’s rules have; these rules look to play right into the hands of the drivers who have competed regularly in the Nationwide Series as the 2015 cars will be lighter and less powerful. For drivers like Kyle Busch, who handles the Nationwide cars better than the Cup models, it could mean a big advantage, while putting those, who, like Jimmie Johnson, prefer the heavier, more powerful Cup cars, behind the curve.

2. Like: Rain equipment.

There are reasons – good ones – not to race in the rain on road courses. One of those is that racing in the rain forces fans in attendance to watch in the rain. However, many fans seem to be in favor of using rain tires in the Cup Series despite that discomfort to those in attendance, so NASCAR changed their long-time stance on it and will attempt to run in the rain at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. It will certainly produce a different type of competition, setting up a variety of strategies and adding an element of the unknown.

If the fans in attendance don’t mind sticking it out in bad weather, it gives those watching in person and at home more of a chance to see the entire race rather than risking missing it if it’s postponed to Monday. That’s good for NASCAR and sponsors as well, because there will likely be more eyes on the race on a weekend.

The downside here is that tires and windshield wipers aren’t the only thing for teams to worry about. Even with the wiper, visibility is poor and that’s multiplied if the windows fog up. That could lead to either a very slow parade of cars for many laps or to a lot of crashing. It’s still worth trying, because many fans have asked for it, but it won’t make for perfect racing.

3. Or Not: Tapered Spacers.

There had to be a way to reduce horsepower without using a spacer, whether that meant tweaking the fuel injection programming or using engines with a different compression ratio. The spacers, which act similar to a restrictor plate, will limit power and slow the cars down, but they rob throttle response and slow them artificially. Lack of response, even miniscule, can make for some messy consequences. It might help some of the smaller teams keep up, but it might not if handling is affected. Many times, teams that appear to be underpowered are not, but rather can’t run at 100 percent due to handling deficits. That’s not a terrible thing as it separates the competition, but it could mean racing that’s not as much better as it could be. With all the technology in NASCAR today, there is really no reason to use the spacers rather than developing an actual solution to reduce horsepower.

4. Or Not: No January Daytona testing

For a diehard race fan, the winter can be a very long, bleak time. Daytona testing was good for the sport for a few reasons, but chiefly because it put NASCAR on the map in the midst of NBA season and the height of the NFL playoffs. Keeping the sport relevant is never a bad thing, especially when other sports are taking center stage on a regular basis. Testing was also a time for teams to try things out and for drivers to shake off a winter’s worth of rust and to spend a little time with their teams getting ready for a new season. Still, the people missing out the most are the fans who look forward all winter to hearing the engines roar to life. It used to be a special time.

The 2015 testing ban, in general, also hurts the small teams more than the bigger ones. Testing was a chance for the little teams to find something in the cars that the big ones probably already have figured out thanks to high-tech equipment and wind tunnel time that many can’t afford. A better solution would have been to limit testing, while giving a few additional dates to teams with rookie drivers and those outside the top 20 in points.

5. Or Not: Even fewer areas for teams to work.

I’ve said it before, but NASCAR needs more grey areas, not fewer. There needs to be more gear choice, because it brings more risk: too much gear and you blow the engine, not enough, and you’re slower than a dog. The sport needs that aspect brought back. There’s little attrition any more, and that aspect of the sport is necessary. The element of the unknown keeps fans engaged.

Letting teams work on the cars is what the sport should be about. Sure, you need rules and parameters, but keeping them a little broader and open to innovation only makes the sport more exciting, makes winning that much more difficult and impressive. Teams should have more choice in everything from gears to suspensions; even tires should be an area where teams can choose from different compounds for a weekend. The more variations there are, the more teams and drivers will find ways to shine… or to fall on their behinds. The sport needs variation badly, and it’s not there.

About the author

Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Russ

The best thing about the new rules is the testing ban. Teams dont need the expense, and fans dont need to see 20 perfect race cars playing follow the leader. In fact IMHO take it one step further and dont allow any work between qualifying and the start of the race.
As far as the aero, we will have to see. But my guess is that the teams will pretty quickly come to grips with these rules. The reduction in power will make it easier to drive which should offset the power loss.
But hey there’s always hope that they got it right.

jerseygirl

Russ, IMO, NASCAR has been awful at getting anything right – they need to hire new engineers, rather than trying to insist that it all be about “spec” everything.

Russ

Jerseygirl, it’s “parity” that’s the problem, not the parts.If everybody is running the same speed what do you get? Either a parade or cheaters.

GinaV24

Ugh, sorry, I can’t say that any of the 2015 rule changes make me excited. Like you, I don’t want less room for the teams to work on the cars, I think there needs to be more.

Dennis

Matt Kennseth said there was far less turbulence when testing the low downforce configuration at Michigan. Said it opened up more lanes and passing and was quite surprised by the effect. Now, I believe that test was without the horsepower reduction. So, how the two changes combined would affect the racing, who knows? Plus, this was one test at one track. Still, I’ve felt that the way to improve the racing was to get rid of as much front downforce as possible. The sad thing is NASCAR wanted to INCREASE the front downforce thinking that would make for better racing. Have they been asleep for 20 years?

Mike

“There needs to be more gear choice, because it brings more risk: too much gear and you blow the engine, not enough, and you’re slower than a dog.”

I’m having a Stroker Ace flashback where Lugs tells Stroker he put too tall of a gear in the car.

Mark A Mitchem

What do you guys expect . The people who comes up with NASCAR rule package every year is overseen by a guy who used to be the main engineer in F1 .

JohnQ

Let’s reduce downforce so the cars can pass and then put on a restrictor plate that reduces throttle response so that they can’t. Ah NASCAR logic. But to be positive, if you do not like a NASCAR rule do not worry too much, all the rules change weekly anyway.

Moparjeff

At the local short tracks, a guy can make up for bad handling with more horsepower – making passes on the straights and trying not to lose too much ground in the corners. I think NASCAR should leave horsepower alone, maybe issue 8000rpm pills to keep things in check, let the teams choose their own gear ratios, take away more down force, and trust drivers to slow down in the corners. The combination of tapered restrictor plates and too much down force is likely to lead less competition on the track. Regarding testing, I think wind tunnel testing and the use of tie-down rigs ought to be severely limited and on-track testing should be opened way up for teams outside the top 15 or so. Oh, by the way, I am a mechanical engineer with a race car in my garage.

JohnQ

Finally, an expert. If they got the cars up off the track and did away with all the tape wouldn’t that slow the cars down without gelding the motors? Wouldn’t lessening the aero dependence give us more ability to pass and thus better racing? What would you suggest?

Chris

I can’t disagree with one thing you say Jeff. Why NASCAR took away the teams ability to choose their own gear ratios I have no idea, John, you are correct. Lose the splitter, put a bigger grill opening, lower the spoiler, and use tires that actual wear and that would be a first good step.

Carl D.

Football fans watch games in downpours and blizzards. Race fans are just as hardy if not moreso. If watching a sporting event in the rain is problem for someone, there’s always the ballet.

Mary Dzuro

I have to agree with you about putting more in the team’s hands as far as gear ratios or suspensions. This will allow the car chief and crew chief to work with his team and driver to get what they can out of the car. I also am not thrilled with the no testing in 2015. I really think this puts all of the teams at a disadvantage with all the changes.

Tim S.

I will miss Daytona testing too. As my interest in the series overall has waned, I still maintained a sense of excitement when winter testing started. Seeing my driver on the speed charts ahead of your driver was a good way to get the season’s trash talk started. Now, I don’t even have any friends who want to trash-talk about the Cup Series anymore.

Instead of all that worrisome, yucky, dirty Daytona testing, they can have a “Winter Warmup” press-only event at the NASCAR Hall of Fame that would be just as effective at getting out exactly the message that the higher-ups want to convey. Edited, scripted interviews with lots of social media “tie-ins” and maybe a new moniker for the car, like Gen 6 Tuneup or something.

JohnQ

I wonder how many of us have this same experience. I used to love the going to work Monday morning and winding each other up about the race. Now I am the only person I know that watches.

babydufus

nascar’s track record for creating better racing through the rule book is abysmal. Even worse when they dictate ride heights, shocks, gear ratios etc. To make changes without testing them is just absurd and could very well lead to unintended consequences (like what happened with “the car of tomorrow.”) Correct me if I’m wrong but going back to my Karting and Sprint car days I sort of remember that when you make new changes to the car you do so one at a time so you knew what the change actually did and you only threw a bunch of changes at the car if you happened to be so “out to lunch” there was nothing to loose… hmm.. There is already enough evidence to support that nascar is currently incompetent when it comes to the rule book but is this new rule package a true sign of desperation?

nwoods

I may be in the minority here, but I think slowing the cars down is a good idea. Using the qualifying speeds for the Coke 600 as an example the cars of the last 2 years are 11-12 mph faster than 1996 and roughly 7 mph faster than 2007. That’s quite a jump in the last few years.

As for the tapered spacer, they used it because it’s cheap. Unlike a change to something like displacement or even compression ratio it requires little investment from the teams outside their normal engine development. The one hard part it was most likely to change, the camshaft, was coupled with change to roller lifters, to maximize the benefit of the teams expenditure.

No one seems to be interested in it, but I think the change that may have biggest impact on the flow of a race is the allowance of the in-car track bar adjustment. I think the team that figures out how to use it over the course of a run (similar to open wheel cars) rather than making incremental adjustments like is done during pit-stops today, will be out front.

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