Did You Notice? Hendrick Motorsports leading a new type of charge on restrictor-plate tracks? What got swept under the rug the second Austin Dillon got swept into the air is the way HMS spent much of Daytona running 1-2-3-4 in line. There was one point poor Landon Cassill, part of a single-car program, worked his way up to fifth and had absolutely zero chance of working further forward. How do you break up a four-car pack where all the teams are working in tandem with each other?
That’s the biggest change in plate racing these days, organizations working more closely together than ever to create these three or four-car “stealth tandems” within the larger pack. Every man for himself? More like every team for itself as the individuality of the sport gets lost. You can’t blame Hendrick; they’re playing within the rules, establishing a simple philosophy that resources are far better shared than used apart. It’s been a theory copycatted across the industry, leading to the explosion of multi-car teams, information-sharing and led to impressive results. No one can match the 11 championships won by HMS within the last 20 years – not even the old Richard Petty Enterprises. (Some would say Kevin Harvick (2014) and Tony Stewart’s owner/driver title, earned in 2011 with HMS equipment, makes it 13.)
This philosophy, rarely seen in 1-2-3-4 finishes on track, can actually hurt the competition in plate races. At Daytona and Talladega, the parity of the engine combination means all the cars will be stuck in the pack, running the same speed and fighting for position. But if you’re supposed to trust your teammate, who would you want around you more as you try and navigate this 500-mile speed trap? Suddenly, the ‘90s plate-race system of the past, one where teammates Dale Earnhardt and Mike Skinner would actually work against each other gets replaced by these four-car, behemoth organizations deciding to play nice. Sure, what you’re seeing is two-abreast on television, maybe three, but the relative safety within the pack is much higher. A teammate isn’t as likely to use that run to pass you, right? Or bump you into the corner when it’s unnecessary? There’s a higher self-awareness, one the fans are starting to realize as well.
How do you fix it? Nothing short of splitting up these organizations would work, cutting down the four-car stable which is currently impossible under NASCAR’s private contractor system. To their credit, though, it seems HMS has used their resources to shore up a potential vulnerability in the Chase. How do you avoid getting eliminated from the playoffs at Talladega? (Remember, that’s where Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne were unceremoniously ushered out). The answer is simple; have so much extra horsepower you’re able to run 1-2-3-4 as much as possible, keep from getting passed and stay out of the “Big One” that’s going to erupt at some point over the course of 188 laps.
A quick look at the plate races this year shows HMS engineering spent the time to hit on something. Their dominance has been so extreme they should have swept all three events….
Restrictor Plate Lap Leaders This Season
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 195 (won Talladega, Coke Zero 400)
Jeff Gordon – 134
Jimmie Johnson – 124
Joey Logano – 31 (won Daytona 500)
Denny Hamlin – 19
Austin Dillon – 8
Kasey Kahne – 8
As you can see, Hendrick cars occupy four of the top-seven spots. Combined, they’ve led 83.5% of all laps run at plate tracks this season. It makes them a heavy favorite for Talladega, although mistakes can and still will happen. Kahne, for example got caught up in a wreck Monday morning after a few drafting errors left him vulnerable. But we know what team doesn’t typically make a mistake during the Chase. Here’s a clue: they run out of the 48/88 shop….
Did You Notice? How Sprint Cup cars won’t run their initial 2015 rule package for intermediates again until the Chase? Today’s announcement from NASCAR on rule changes gives us several track-specific “tests” to sort through over the next few months. Each will be designed to increase drag, taking away downforce while making the cars more difficult to handle. No longer will you be able to run wide open at places like Kentucky, Darlington and Indianapolis; you’ll have to use the brakes, like the old days as drivers (not engineers) will make more of a difference during a long green-flag run.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Whichever team hits on these changes, starting at Kentucky this weekend through the regular season finale at Richmond will give us no indication of who will be the favorite come Chase time. Check out why with a look at what’s different….
Kentucky: New rule package, low downforce
New Hampshire: Normal 2015 package
Indianapolis: New rule package, higher drag
Pocono: Normal 2015 package
Watkins Glen: 2015 road course package
Michigan: New rule package, higher drag
Bristol: Normal 2015 package
Darlington: New rule package, low downforce
Richmond: New tire combination (normal 2015 package)
As you can see, there’s a large diversity of different packages to work through with only four races remaining unchanged. Of those four, none of them are 1.5-mile ovals, the type of track we see five times in the postseason including the most important one (Homestead) which decides the champion. Only New Hampshire, the 1-mile oval whose rules remain the same in the Chase, will give us a realistic look at what to expect.
So many questions now as NASCAR seeks changes designed for 2016 and beyond. Look, I totally understand switching back to “old hat,” keeping consistency through the 2015 playoff system. Changing the rules for the postseason virtually throws away how Kevin Harvick, Johnson, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have made mincemeat out of the field at intermediate tracks. That’s not fair. But won’t it also look weird if the new Kentucky package, rolled out this weekend, is highly competitive and then NASCAR takes it away for the races it claims matter most? How weird will it be for the fans to get more excited – then know the whole time NASCAR’s going back to a package that’s, um, well, boring? And what about the teams, who will have to go the next two months resting on their laurels from places like Texas, Kansas, and Charlotte? Not getting more experience under race conditions will make it difficult for teams with momentum over the summer, like Clint Bowyer’s No. 15 to fully catch up. Success the next two months is good for 2016… not Homestead in November.
On the flip side, how many resources will teams like Harvick’s and Johnson’s want to throw at the new rules, trying to keep pace with likely 2016 changes while making sure they don’t throw away their 2015 advantage? Is it worth it to them to fall behind the next few weeks while working ahead for the Chase, knowing the old rules give them a better chance to come out on top this November?
It’s a whole bunch of strategy questions I expect plenty of different answers to. You have to give kudos to NASCAR, though, for recognizing the aerodynamic problems within the sport and throwing the kitchen sink at it to stop the bleeding. The fixes will be expensive for race teams, already labored with millions in expenses, but over the long-term it must be done for the health of the sport.
Did You Notice? Quick hits before taking off….
Dillon claimed he’s gotten worse “playing football” in defending NASCAR’s restrictor-plate package Tuesday. Clearly, we should be celebrating Dillon’s health along with the fans in the stands. But I would stop short of calling Monday morning an unmitigated success. Anytime a fan gets hurt, we need to be working on fixes. Anytime a driver gets airborne, we need to study how to keep that car on the ground. Anytime a catchfence gets ripped to shreds, we need to focus on a better solution. Anytime mainstream reporters question whether this type of racing should be used, putting a negative spin on the sport, I wouldn’t call that a success. You earn new fans by letting them learn through injuries and whether it’s too dangerous for them to attend in person.
It’s also the third major catchfence incident with these restrictor plates within the last six years. Why are they used? Due to a horrifying 1987 accident with Bobby Allison’s car in which (surprise!) the catchfence was ripped apart. 27-plus years later, we still have a “temp” solution. That’s not a success.
It’s been two wrecks, two weeks, and a case of Lady Luck catching up to them. But I worry about the No. 78 team and Truex Jr. Suddenly, NASCAR is throwing new rule packages out like candy, increasing the costs for a single-car team like this one while giving the opportunity for others to catch up. Suddenly, a team with 14 top-10 finishes in 15 races is put in a spot where they need to start from scratch to regain momentum. We’re about to see, over the next month, whether they’ll truly be contenders.