The 2016 season has started with a bang for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – but is it due to the new low-downforce package?
Four of the five Sprint Cup races contested so far in 2016 have been run with the new low-downforce package – Daytona used the typical restrictor plate setup – and it looks like NASCAR has hit upon something. The series has set two new closest-ever finishes at Daytona and Phoenix, seen a slew of track records be set in qualifying and seen Jimmie Johnson tie and pass Dale Earnhardt on the all-time wins list.
Fans have action to watch at the track. Cars are sliding around. Drivers have to wheel it, and boy do they love it.
Before the CoT. 2004ish https://t.co/6hT1c6eL8k
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) March 21, 2016
2004: the year that Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers ran their first full-time Cup seasons. This was well before the Car of Tomorrow and the Generation 6 vehicles took to the track – and during the height of NASCAR’s popularity boon. Will the increase in fan happiness with the races themselves bring old fans back to the track? Maybe, although other issues will likely need to be addressed to get them watching each week.
But with the first off-weekend of the season upon us, it’s the perfect time to really dive into the package and see if it’s all it’s cracked up to be. So let’s take stock then (excuse the race car pun): has the new race package lived up to expectations?
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) March 14, 2016
Take a look at this tweet for a moment. Let the epicness of that classic finish wash over you one more time.
Do I really need to put anything more?
Fine. I’ll break it down a bit more.
The 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has gotten off to a thrilling start. With two photo finishes, passing easier than it’s been in nearly a decade and new faces creeping into the fray, the series has held positive momentum for a full five weeks.
To be fair in ruling solely against the new package, I’ll remove the Daytona 500 from this debate, but even without the season-opening event, the racing has been incredible.
The average margin of victory has been just 0.367 seconds to date, the closest average through five races since the inception of electronic timing and scoring in 1993. All three manufacturers have made their way to Victory Lane, and four different organizations have earned wins.
Of the four races completed with the new low-downforce package, two (Atlanta and Fontana) have set records for most green-flag passes for the lead since the stat first appeared in 2005. Another, Las Vegas, saw an increase of four lead changes compared to 2015. Atlanta also saw 3,717 green-flag passes throughout the field, the second highest amount in the last decade, despite the field having three fewer cars.
The stats look good, and the words of NASCAR’s best drivers seem to be enjoying it to.
Carl Edwards, arguably the biggest fan of implementing the package, said the package provided “real racing” after Atlanta.
“We’re driving hard,” Edwards continued. “You can see the guys out here just digging for everything they’re worth. I’m worn out.”
NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver seconded Edwards’ opinion.
“It’s (lower downforce package) great,” said Dale Earnhardt, Jr. after Sunday’s Auto Club 400. “Every week has been fun, fun, fun. The cars are fun to drive, slipping and sliding. It’s a good challenge and I’m enjoying it.”
Paired with Goodyear’s new softer tire compound, the low-downforce package has produced arguably the best racing since the Gen 6 car’s debut in 2013 thus far, whether on short runs or long.
Brad Keselowski referred to the package as “tremendous” after the falloff caused by the new tires and package allowed him to work his way through the field to win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Even Superman – Jimmie Johnson, if you’ve been living under a rock – exclaimed his love for the package after his second win of the season.
“I love the rules package, how the car drives,” said Johnson. “When we come to a track like we have here, an old surface, it’s so much fun to drive the racecar.”
Sure, the package isn’t perfect. Phoenix was still dull at times in the middle, not that any rules package would help enough to prevent that on the flat Arizona oval. There are still a few grumbles about aero-push from time to time, and the leader still maintains a slight advantage over the cars behind them.
Still, NASCAR’s made a big step in the right direction. Drivers have been happy, teams have been happy, and, most importantly, fans have been happy.
If that doesn’t meet or exceed the expectations you had going into the season, then perhaps your dreams were a bit too lofty.
Close, But No Cigar
I hate to burst your bubble, but the racing hasn’t improved by the leaps and bounds that everyone was hoping to see. We’ve seen more passing, yes – although the television networks could do to show more of it – but the outcomes are largely the same.
Let’s take a look at the second through fifth races of the last three seasons – we’ll discard Daytona because it uses a different race package. We’ve seen a smaller margin of victory in the four races this season than the other two years (0.49 seconds as opposed to 1.33 in 2015 and 0.74 in 2014), but that’s been due to the three green-white-checkered shootouts in 2016 – Atlanta, Phoenix and Auto Club. 2014 and 2015 saw only one GWC each season, both at Auto Club. So this historically-low average finish isn’t a direct result of this package.
How about leaders? This season has seen the lowest average number of leaders per race – 7.3 as opposed to 2015s 8.5 and 2014s 11. And of those that do lead, the top spot is passed around less than the previous two years. In 2014, there were an average of 23.3 lead changes including a whopping 35 at Auto Club, while in 2016 the average for lead changes is 17.67 with only 26 swaps of the lead in the same race.
After five races, NASCAR's loop data says green flag passing is up 3.6%, but down among top 10 drivers. pic.twitter.com/UPxpy6vjM3
— Geoffrey Miller (@GeoffreyMiller) March 22, 2016
Passing is down among the top 10 drivers this season. Not good. Okay, so passing is up 3.6 percent overall, but that’s not the great big number we thought we’d see, right?
We thought we’d see drivers battling for the lead easier than they had in the past, but that hasn’t been the case. Sure, you can pass in theory, but not if the leader is flat-out dominating like they have this season. If you compare Atlanta 2016 to Atlanta 2015, you’ll find Kevin Harvick led the most laps in each but he led more in this year’s running. Likewise, Harvick led the most laps at Auto Club (142), which is 38 more than Johnson led there in 2014 and 77 more than Kurt Busch led in 2015.
And while Harvick once again dominated at Phoenix, he led fewer laps than his wins in the spring race there in 2014 and 2015 – but he started farther back. If there’s anything this new package has got going for it, it’s that the cars that qualify poorly can make its way to the front – but considering passing is up only 3.6 percent (and down among the top 10) it’s not a stretch to say that those increased numbers come from cars moving to the front before stalling out.
Another piece of this package that is obvious to the eye is that it makes cars harder to drive, slowing them down and putting more control in the drivers’ hands. While this is true, we’ve actually seen a decrease in the number of cautions year-by-year since 2014. In that year fans saw 33 cautions through the four races, an average of 8.25 per race. Those numbers were repeated in 2015, but in 2016 there have only been 20 total cautions, an average of five per race.
And while we’ve seen a decrease in debris and competition cautions this season, the net “quality” caution (for wrecks and fluid) is still lower than the previous two seasons. So cars are harder to drive but cars aren’t spinning out left and right like many thought might happen with the reduction of downforce.
I won’t say the package is a failure, but it isn’t living up to the expectations that we had. NASCAR should decrease the downforce even more and give the teams more leeway in setting up the car. Then we’ll be closer to calling the package an unequivocal success.