It’s been an interesting summer in NASCAR. It’s left a lot of unanswered questions that fans should be looking long and hard at as the sport enters the homestretch of a season in which we’ve seen three different rules packages, a would-be champion who’s barely inside the top 30 in points, the swan song of one legend and the public struggles of another. The racing hasn’t been the best ever, but there have been some moments. Will those get more frequent going forward? Can NASCAR find a path in the darkness? Those are some of the things that bear a closer look as summer draws to an end. There are a lot of questions to ask.
1. What, exactly, is NASCAR trying to accomplish?
The short – and ultimately right – answer is better racing. Whether or not they’ve gone about it the right way, NASCAR is to be commended for trying to provide a better product for the fans at the end of the day. They’ve thrown new aero packages at the cars in real race conditions instead of offseason tests. One worked fairly well, one didn’t do much at all… and NASCAR will scrap it rather than beating a dead horse. Those are positives, and a departure, albeit a small one, from the like it or lump it approach of recent years.
The downside is what I fear the sanctioning body is trying to do. While the rules do need changes to allow for more passing and less dependence on clean air, it seems as though NASCAR is trying to make races look like what you typically see at Daytona and Talladega: big packs of cars running two- and three-wide. On the surface, that’s not a terrible goal for auto racing, but it’s an unrealistic one.
One, that style causes a lack of racing for much of the events, with drivers choosing to ride and avoid trouble for most of the day. Two, the crashes are inevitable, and they are big. I think most fans would tire of wondering when their driver was going to get taken out every week. As much as NASCAR says they don’t like to glorify wrecks, they often try to sell the sport on them, and that’s a step too far. Cars should be able to pass each other and get close enough to use a bumper on occasion, but multi-car crashes should not be a weekly occurrence.
2. Where do we go from here?
So, what direction should NASCAR be looking in? From where I sit, there are two things that need to be addressed: the cars and the points system. The cars do need to be addressed, and the low downforce package we saw at Kentucky looked promising. We’ll know more after we see it in action at Darlington next month. Speaking of Darlington, I have to say how much I love all the throwback paint schemes teams are running to honor the tradition of the Southern 500 when it ought to be run.
But I’d like to see NASCAR look at two critical areas when it comes to the cars. One, and you’ve heard this one from several of us before, the front end of the cars needs to come up off the ground by a good six to eight inches or more. Let air get underneath them and that will reduce downforce and make for more turbulent air, lessening the impact of clean air up front. It would also really showcase the talents of the drivers instead of just the engineers.
Tires are another critical area. With the days of bias-ply tires in the rearview mirror, there needs to be a tire that wears quickly, so they are an issue long before the end of a fuel run. This scenario could be achieved by combining a softer tire with the larger 22-gallon fuel cells seen a few years ago. The smaller cells have done little to nothing to change the racing anyway.
I’d also love to see NASCAR go to a system similar to what INDYCAR mandates on road courses: two tire compounds that teams must use both of during the race at some point. One compound is softer and offers better grip but wears out a lot faster. The other is harder, and therefore the car runs slower, but it lasts longer. Teams can choose between them as long as they run each type once. Could it work in NASCAR on the ovals as well as road courses? It might be worth looking at for some tracks. Strategy is and should be part of racing, and adding a new dimension of it in an era where there is little room to work in other areas is an intriguing idea.
Finally, there’s the points system. At the end of the day, a playoff system isn’t what NASCAR expected, and there are a lot of fans who feel that a Chase title is cheaply earned. This season has thrown in an additional wrench: a driver with four wins but who sits just 29th in points after missing 11 races. It’s a moving story, but championship-worthy? That’s a harder sell, especially when that driver will start the Chase with more points than many others who have run the whole season, thanks only to NASCAR’s reset. Kyle Busch didn’t deserve what happened to him at Daytona; no driver does.
But should a good story be rewarded with a possible title in a sport where every position and every point is supposed to be so important? That’s a tough call. What NASCAR needs is a system that rewards winning heavily, but that also rewards teams who are out there running every week in the top five, just to a lesser degree. Do that and drivers would be racing for wins and top fives every week. Consistency should matter. Storylines and how stick-and-ball sports do it shouldn’t.
3. Is status quo the way to go?
I was happy to hear that NASCAR is keeping the original rules package in place for this year’s Chase. Yes, the low-downforce package looked promising at Kentucky, but it’s been used in one race. That’s just not enough of a sample for teams to know what they’re working with when the championship run begins. NASCAR likes stick-and-ball analogies even if fans don’t, so running the new package in the Chase would be like deciding in batting practice for the World Series that games will only be seven innings and the designated hitter is no longer legal, or deciding before the Super Bowl that you can only punt left-footed. Teams simply wouldn’t have enough time to adjust, and that’s what NASCAR is up against. They’ve run 20 races on the original package, and they know how to adjust on it during a race.
Waiting until 2016 to implement new rules also makes sense for the sport’s smallest teams, who don’t have unlimited money for equipment or wind tunnel time. They will have the offseason to build the inventory they need and to work on it as much as they are able. Holding off gives NASCAR time to make tweaks after Darlington and to test them with some open sessions at Charlotte in December and January if need be. In the long run, it just makes more sense to start with everyone on the same page next year rather than randomly ripping pages out of the book altogether.
4. How hot is too hot?
With the high-drag package out the window, it might not be as critical a concern, but temperatures inside the cars are worth some research on NASCAR’s part. Casey Mears had a thermometer in his car at Michigan that read 155 degrees before lap 40. Unfortunately, Mears bowed out early due to a mechanical failure and we never got to see how high those numbers could go. Now, enduring the elements has always been a part of racing, and rightfully so. But is the heat in the cars an area of safety NASCAR is overlooking?
Most of today’s drivers are in excellent physical condition, and they tolerate the heat well. Still, at a certain point, heat exhaustion is a dangerous possibility and it puts not just one driver in danger, but the entire field. If a driver’s reflexes aren’t what they should be, if he’s feeling sick or dizzy in the car, he becomes a liability. With the technology available in the sport today, maybe it’s time to work in this area of safety.
5. Are looks really deceiving?
When NASCAR developed the current point system, it was supposed to make winning critical to a driver’s success. That was debunked within minutes of the announcement last January, when someone did the math and observed that all other things being equal, a winless driver would have won the title in 2013 under the current rules.
But it wasn’t until later that the real flaw in the system showed up. Realistically, a win all but guarantees a Chase berth, and two, barring disaster, will clinch one. So, every time a different driver wins, the number of those willing to risk disaster for a win goes down, and the number of teams going into Chase test mode increases by one.
Much has been made of the recent performance of drivers like Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson, who were dominant early in the season but have been decidedly lackluster lately. Are they slumping or experimenting? Look at the summer schedule; only Loudon is on the Chase docket as well. We won’t see an intermediate track with the 2015 package until Chicagoland, and how those teams are doing with the new packages is irrelevant. The last drivers to win at 1.5-mile ovals are Carl Edwards and Johnson, both of whom have been much quieter ever since. My guess from watching and listening to the teams and drivers is that Johnson is struggling a lot more than Harvick is, but in any case, not many teams are really pushing the limits right now, which is the opposite effect from what NASCAR expected.
But at the end of the day, should sandbagging really be a part of a major sport? For teams, under these rules, it’s a no-brainer; if it will win a championship, it’s worth a minor drought. But is that kind of thinking fair to fans, and is it a fatal flaw in a system that was flawed from the start?