- Streamlined penalties with immediate consequences
NASCAR cut its tiered penalty system to two levels and, in general, clarified several points, drawing clear lines in the sand for things like loose lugnuts depending on the number left loose. There are also now more immediate weekend penalties for inspection issues. Teams that fail one station now have to repeat the whole process, which should serve as a deterrent to teams that may take a car on the edge of legal and see if it will slide through. In the past, they could simply pull it aside, repeat that part of the process and roll on, but the tighter rule might give some pause if it’s enforced.
All in all, these changes are good. The exception is the five-minute damage clock, which encourage teams to try patch things together too quickly, and if NASCAR can’t actually figure out a way to time them in their boxes and not rely on the existing timing and scoring, shame on it. The nature of the sport means that not all teams have equal resources, but they can, and should, be treated with equal fairness, and hopefully that’s what will be ensured here. The rules do fall short in a couple of areas, mainly postrace infractions, because after all the fines and docked points, encumbered finishes and suspensions, the finish stands. The old excuse that fans should know the winner when they leave the track is obsolete if it was ever relevant. Do fans want an instant winner, or a legal one? I’d venture to say it’s the latter, and it should always be. And that goes double for drivers who aren’t even eligible for points in a race.
- Those stages, though…
I was surprised how little this one bothered me when it was introduced. What I was afraid of – races segmented with actual breaks in between – didn’t come to pass, and while I don’t love planned cautions either, it’s the lesser of those two evils for sure. Fans can decry it all they want, but the fact is, drivers are racing harder early for those extra points, and with no incentive, they weren’t going to risk the finish just to spice things up. The sport is big business nowadays, and like it or not, there is simply more at stake than there was decades ago.
Does it change how we watch the race? Not really. That had been my biggest fear, but really, adding a couple of extra cautions early doesn’t change much. That said, though, those cautions need to be shorter. With nothing on the track, it should be a quickie yellow, with all cars pitting together and then back to green in three to four laps at the most. That minimizes the amount of actual racing lost to the extra cautions. The best option would be to simply not count those laps, but the problem there is that it’s one small step away from an actual break and NASCAR might be tempted to add one. The sport doesn’t need that. Otherwise, though, while the broadcast loves to make a big deal out of the stages, they really aren’t one.
- The low, low, low downforce package
I liked what I saw in Atlanta, a lot. The caveat is that it was the first race with this package, and this same race was fantastic last year, too. Of course, a track with older pavement is going to race better than one with fresh asphalt anyway (kudos, by the way, to Atlanta for being at lease willing to rethink a repave after getting feedback from drivers). Still, there was promise. A driver could get a run and if they could get to the inside, they could complete a pass. It seems simple, but it’s incredibly important, and it has been lacking.
The best illustration of this was late in the race Sunday. Kyle Larson had gotten to the front running the inside lane, but he’s notorious for liking to run the top. In the past, if you could hold that top line in clean air, other drivers would have a very hard time making a pass stick. But on Sunday, those passes stuck, and it cost Larson the race.
In general, it’s too soon to really see what this package will do, but the first race was certainly promising. The elephant in the room is still the low front end and the splitter. Going to a valance and getting the nose of the cars off the ground would seem to be a logical next step as there’s only so much that can be taken off the back end without working on the front.
- Where the rubber meets the road
Two things here. One, I like the tires Goodyear brought this week. Tires didn’t last a fuel run and that’s such a key to better racing in the strategy it brings back to the table. Also, good on Goodyear for telling a certain complainer to go pound sand. When all teams have the same tires and a few have issues, that’s the teams’ management, not the tires.
Also a good move is cutting the number of sets of tires teams get at the Cup level and requiring teams to start the race on the tires they qualified on. A set of tires costs about $2000, and a couple fewer sets on race weekend lets the smaller teams save that money without giving up something the competition has. A savings of $4000 a week translates into $144,000 for the season that can be spent on other things to make cars go faster. That’s the kind of math the sport needs.
- Don’t do it, NASCAR
And then there’s the news circulating this week that NASCAR is considering making the engines quieter, supposedly so that fans can talk to each other during the race (Who even does that? That’s what cautions are for). Stifling the noise would be a mistake. It’s part of the experience that makes casual fans diehards when they go to the track. You don’t just hear a racecar, you feel a racecar. The angry, frustrated growl of pent-up power on the parade laps gives way to the throaty song of a race and fans stand and cheer because of that experience. To anyone who loves the sport and the past it represents, the engines aren’t an annoyance but a Siren song: beautiful, irresistible. Long may they roar.
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