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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Beside the Rising Tide: Ch-Ch-Changes in NASCAR

Speedweeks 2018 is upon us. A lot of NASCAR fans, even once ardent supporters, tend to take the offseason well, off, to celebrate the holidays and watch the NFL playoffs. (Look at that! Only one year in and I’m no longer typing “Chase” except for referring to the driver of the No. 9 car.) Daytona 500 qualifying and the Clash are already behind us and I imagine my esteemed colleagues have informed you as to what happened over the weekend yesterday here on Frontstretch.

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I’m a bit concerned about Thursday night’s two 150-mile qualifying races. For one thing, only 40 cars showed up this year for the Daytona 500, and one of them might end up getting towed away by a repo squad prior to Sunday’s event. (AKA, the Daytona 500 and The Great American Race, though I’m hesitant to use the latter considering political sloganeering going on right now. Make America great again? I must not have gotten the memo we, as a country, weren’t).

Secondly, every driver interviewed after the Clash talked about Sunday’s race as if the 150s really didn’t matter to them. Why should the qualifying races matter that much when absolutely nobody is going to get sent home unless they catch the flu? At the plate tracks, starting position doesn’t matter much. One could argue nothing until the final ten laps matters in a plate race as long as it you make it that far with a pulse and some signs of brain activity.

I’m sure the drivers have been reprimanded for that oversight and will sound much more excited about Thursday’s races during the week. This year’s new NASCAR theme is apparently; “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands,” the one song perhaps more hated than “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore” at elementary school concerts because what faculty member in their right mind is going to have the kids sing “Who Let the Dogs Out?” or “Shake it Off?” Anytime a NASCAR official overhears a driver speaking a discouraging word, he’ll just clap his hands and the driver will resume singing and dancing while reciting just how gul-dern wonderful everything is.

For those of you still catching up on this season’s changes, most of them seem to be off-track, particularly on pit road. Longtime fans doubtless remember the days of seven pit crew members going over the wall. Then, the catch-can dude got eliminated, leading to a spike in North Carolina unemployment. If your sole job skill is jamming a catch-can into the rear of a race car, you were damn near unemployable except in New Jersey.

This year, only five crew members will be allowed to go over the wall for routine pit stops. One of those five people is the designated “fueler” and all he can do is add fuel to the car. He may no longer make a chassis adjustment though he is still allowed to kick a wayward tire back towards the wall. (Though not, presumably, a wayward tire changer.) That leaves four other guys going over the wall. One of them will still be carrying the jack. Formerly, you had two carriers and two tire changers. Now, three guys must handle those functions.

Why? Well, if nothing else, you reduce the risk of someone getting run over out there by about 17%. Likewise, the teams will have one less crew member to pay, house, and feed for the weekend, which will save them some money.

Pit stops had become carefully choreographed 11-second ballets. At least at the outset, the five-man rule ought to make for markedly slower stops. During the Clash, they seemed to be averaging in the 16 and 17-second range. Doubtless those times will drop dramatically and quickly as crews adjust to the new challenge. I’m also going to guess that at least for the early part of the season, there’s going to be a lot for penalties for tires rolling out of the pit box and some race wins will be determined by that sort of a slip-up. I timed myself this week. I can pull into the local Sunoco, run in, grab a pack of smokes and a Ho Ho, add twenty bucks worth of gas to the Jeep, and still be back on the road in under five minutes. Put me in, coach; I’m ready to play.

My guess is that the front tire changer will end up having to carry his own tire while the tire changer in the rear of the car will still have someone carry his. Why? Typically, the rear tire changer is slower doing his task on a four-tire stop because he has to avoid and go around the fueler. That tire carrier will probably now be charged with carrying both used right-side tires back to the wall. Doubtless the guys behind the wall whose job it is to catch those spent tires and not let them roll away will be part of the pit crew practice team as well.

At NASCAR’s discretion, an additional crew member might be allowed to go over the wall to “service” the driver. But that individual can do nothing but hand them a drink or pull away a windshield tear-off. In that case, there will be six men over the wall. But if a team is changing tires and not fueling the car, the fueler is not allowed over the wall to help out in another capacity. In that case, only four team members will be allowed over the wall.

Remember the old five-minute clock for race-damaged vehicles? It’s still in place, only now the repair time is upped to six minutes. (Presumably, the name will be changed to the six-minute clock, though given NASCAR’s recent track record on the term “encumbered,” I’m not certain.) Why? The presumption is that five guys doing six minutes of work on a damaged car equals six men working five minutes. Though, in my experience, that will only be the case if one of those five guys was born with two pairs of hands. I’m sure Joe Gibbs is trying to hire Hindi princess of war Durga right now….

Oh, and remember Matt Kenseth getting parked for the day and losing a chance at the title for having an additional man over the wall while the team was under the damaged vehicle clock? NASCAR has decided not to do that anymore. One can only guess how thrilled Kenseth will be to learn that. From now on, the penalty for too many men over the wall while on the crash clock is a two-lap hold.

But is that going to backfire as well? As of right now, to the best of my understanding (like you, I don’t have a 2018 rulebook at my disposal, anyway to get one or even read it online. I’m told Brian France ate all the crayons before they finished the latest edition). Anyways, there’s no additional penalty beyond that extra one man over the wall. So if 12 guys go over the wall and start trying to repair the car, what call will NASCAR make? My guess is that it depends on the driver and team involved.

But if there’s a new Matt Kenseth rule, there’s also a rules clarification we could call the Yimmy Juanson regla. It is no longer permitted to add gas or tighten lug nuts once the car has exited its pit stall. Not even for “safety” reasons like NASCAR cited last year when the No. 48 team did it during the playoffs.

Continuing with changes on pit lane, you’ll see a new NASCAR standardized air impact gun for the tire changers. Why? It seems that teams have been spending tens of thousands of dollars developing air guns that are even fractions of a second faster than the standard ones, each gun custom fitted to the athlete who was intended to use it on pit road.

The new ones are manufactured by Dino Paoli. (Apparently ,they’re headquartered in Italy, not Paoli, Pa. down Route 100 from my place. Paoli, Pa.’s only real claim to fame is it’s your last chance heading westbound to do a U-Turn before you hit Exton, where rush hour is 24 hours long.) Prior to the race, NASCAR will issue at random three air guns for each team: a front gun, a rear gun, and a spare. Teams may not modify these NASCAR issued air-guns in any manner and they will be sealed to eliminate any tampering.

No one will speak on the record but allegedly, it’s the Joe Gibbs Racing bunch who dislike the new rule the most. And if one of those air guns fails? Presumably after the stop, the team could request another from NASCAR. If a gun breaks during a stop, my guess is there will be some thoroughly irritated people hollering at NASCAR officials in the most profane language possible.

In the garage area, a new measuring system will inspect the body of the cars entered to make sure they are in compliance. The old laser measuring system was found to be too slow and cumbersome to set up, and it failed to produce repeatable results essential for the small tolerances the rules stipulate.

The new system has been dubbed the Hawkeye system (with all apologies to Hot Lips Houlihan and Frank “Ferret Face” Burns.) It uses seventeen cameras and eight projectors, which reportedly will measure somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 individual points on the car to ensure compliance to the rules.

All I need to know is if the Hawkeye gets jostled getting unloaded at the track and won’t work, can you give it a sharp rap with your wrist and have it start back up? No? Control, Alt, Delete? Amazingly enough, with Inspector Hawkeye on duty this weekend it was still obvious to the human eye that the cars were once again dog-tracking like they used to a few years ago. (I’d love to hear how the new spring and no ride height rule makes cars dog track. That ain’t the case.)

There will also be another new camera in use this year. Hopefully, none of us will ever have to see any film it takes. In a severe wreck, a high-speed camera trained on the driver will record how the various parts of their bodies react to the impact. One would like to think any footage that shows a severe injury or worse won’t be made public but in this era of YouTube and Twitter, I have my concerns.

There is at least one new rule that affects the cars themselves this year. The side skirts (the bodywork beneath the door and between the two wheel openings on the side of a car) will no longer be made of sheet metal but rather of a composite material. With the sheet metal skirts, teams could yank them and flare them out to get more downforce on the car. Some teams even designed their chassis so the driver coming up off the track apron onto the banked portion of the track would flare out those skirts. The new composite material will supposedly spring back into place under the same circumstances.

Also starting this year, if a driver and team have to roll their backup car off the trailer for any reason anytime during the race weekend (practice included) then that driver and car will have to start at the tail end of the field.

As best I can reckon, these are the most salient changes made in NASCAR for 2018. There’s a possibility that I’ve overlooked something and will notice something unexpected soon. Not to parse words, but that’s to be expected. There’s also a very good chance NASCAR will also see something they overlooked, coming up with these new rules and procedures as they go along.

That’s a far bigger issue. Stay tuned.

About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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24 comments

  1. Matt, may I ask what town you live in? I am currently in the Bethlehem area right near ABE airport.

    • Matt

      Mack, I’m in South Conventry between Exton and Pottstown but so far off the grid Google maps doesn’t acknowledge it.

      • Ahh yes know the area somewhat. I remember “cruising the strip” in P-Town back in the day. Haha

        • Matt

          And I know your area as well. When she first got married my sister managed a motel near ABE. She and her husband later moved to their first house right off of Union Blvd. behind the Chevy dealer. Yep, cruising Pottstown used to be a blast. Remember the summer the mayor said he’d have the cruisers out of Pottstown by Labor Day. Saturday of that Labor Day weekend cruisers simply took over the town to shoe we weren’t going anyway.
          But we all grew older and most kids today would rather stay home and play video games not ride around with the window down in a jacked up big block Chevelle with ladder bars and Torq Thrusts. Nowaday the first weekend of June, July, August and September they shut down High Street and a have a massive (but static) car show. It’s 20 bucks to show your car but free to spectate….if you can find a place to park within walking distance. Some things never change. It’s worth a trip down. You might even running into some folks you knew back in the day.

          • Yup I am 10 minutes from Union Blvd. The Chevy dealer is long gone now and most of the hotels by the airport are very shady these days. It’s a shame part of the area has gone downhill. I’m glad your sister is out that area now. I remember being run off by the cops a few times on the strip and then we would go eat and come right back 🙂 … I didn’t know they were doing shows and stuff down there so I will most likely make a trip down this summer. Then I moved to Charlotte and attended UNCC for engineering in hopes of a racing career and the cops shut it down during that time.
            But I miss those days so much; checking out the cars and also the scenery in Pottstown. If you end up going up this summer you should let me know so I can shake your hand for some of the best racing articles I have ever read.

  2. Charlize Theron as grand marshal? Really?

  3. Fun article, Matt. Love the Yimmy rule. Talk about another convoluted mess of “rules” that NASCAR has once more written in chalk no doubt since they will be revisited once the law of unintended consequences kicks in part way thru the season.

    Janice/Bill B – yeah the whole Tide Pod thing makes no sense to me. They want to make MORE “laws” to prevent people old enough to know better stop doing something that is just plain stupid.

  4. Matt, this is your conscience speaking. “A pack of smokes?” Have you lost your mind? As to things like the “Matt Kenseth Rule” and the “Jimmie Johnson Rule” I continue to be amazed after all these years at the straight-faced “reasons” for allowing or disallowing the sin du jour that NASCAR always comes up with at the time. “We are NASCAR! We do no wrong!” Then they quietly change the rule in the off-season using the direct opposite reasoning from what they said at the time of the infraction.
    The 125s or 150s or Dual Duels or Twins by any name you like have been rendered totally useless under the Charter system and earlier with the guaranteed 35. Supposedly these things are to keep sponsors around and contributing, but seem to be having the opposite effect. Sponsorships are down sharply and more leave every chance they get to escape.We’re told there are lots of new “Stakeholders” and “Partners” coming in, but they’re paying 10-cents on the dollar of what the big boys that left were paying. Semantics just ain’t gonna fix that.
    For what it’s worth, I kind of enjoyed Sunday’s race. Just muted my TV and watched cars able to pass, even single-car passes at times, on the plate track. Haven’t seen that in years. NASCAR will have to do something about that. Watch and see!

    • Patty – you said what i thought, especially since Matt had written something prior to end of season about bypass surgery! but i guess the damage is done so stopping won’t matter now.

      • Never too late to stop Janice. I smoked for as many years as he’s been alive. Put ’em in a drawer 9 years ago and never opened the drawer. I’ll be 80 in July and so far… knock on wood… I don’t even have the vestige of a cough, never mind COPD as one doctor diagnosed me. It can be done and it’s never too late.
        I have a penchant for always saying what I think. There is a direct channel from brain to mouth in this old girl. Doesn’t endear me to some folks, but I probably didn’t like them either. 🙂

    • PK,

      Look at the bright side, the 125s give Danica another opportunity to crash.

      • She isn’t going to wreck. She will either ride around at the back to get some practice in or park early knowing she will be in the race. That team couldn’t find a way to get a car ready for the Clash so I doubt they have a competitive backup car nor do they want the expense of a trashed race car.

  5. If they are going to give them impact wrenches that they can’t monkey with, why not give them cordless impact drivers? That way there is one less thing to worry about tripping over during a stop.

    • Then they’d lose that penalty for running over the air hose. Can’t have that happen!

    • i like the monkey comment.

      the air wrench this now like restrictor plates. will that have serial numbers recorded and who received them to do a tech inspection once they’re returned so they can verify that no one monkeyed with the?! lol….monkey and na$car!

  6. Perhaps the biggest question leading up to this years 500 is whether the BK Racing car will get repo’ed or will the bank continue to hope for a miracle.

  7. so how is the composite material attached to the body of the car? how long before the chevy teams petition na$car for a new rear bumper for the cameros? last night on racehub they were talking how the rear bumper had indentation for where the the license plate goes on production model. guess that’s one of the few production model features, besides the point on the front end, that the car has to say “win on sunday buy on monday”. only if you have a spare $40k+ sitting around!

  8. The two 150 qualifying races’ only purpose now is to generate revenue. At one time they were exciting just because failure meant missing the race. First the charters or top 35 rule took much of that drama away. Now there are only 40 guys showing up so why run these. I think they will be glorified practice sessions at best this year and the drama will be nonexistent. The risk vs. reward just isn’t worth ruining your primary car anymore. I am betting that there are a lot of guys on smaller teams that park early to ensure that they don’t wreck their primary car before the 500 itself.

    Nice recap of the rules as they are at the start of the season Matt. You will probably have to do this again in ten weeks as the unintended consequences that no one thought about come to light and require a new layer of rules to fix them.

    I have to laugh at the Jimmie Johnson rule. Common sense made most of believe you weren’t supposed to work on the cars outside of the pit box EVER last year, but NASCAR told us differently during the playoffs. I suppose it’s no different than needing a warning on a bottle of Drano telling us not to drink it.

    • bill, watch out kids are eating tide pods now. i’m waiting for the time to where i’ll have to show my license and sign for laundry detergent at the store. funny, i have to do that for decongestant at the pharmacy, but one pharmacy clerk a few months ago asked me how many boxes i wanted. guess he slept through the training about meth!

      • Janice, what really bothers me about the Tide Pod thing is that they now want the manufacturer to put additional warnings and change the colors and God knows what else. That would make sense if there were small children eating them because the look like candy, but it isn’t. Teenagers who know you aren’t supposed to eat them are the one’s ingesting them on purpose. There is nothing you can do if people decide they want to do stupid things so what a waste of effort.

  9. I get the sarcasm which is warranted in this story. However I am still a dim bulb as to why NASCAR went yet again into the NITPIC box and created this new BS. I really don’t understand it, NASCAR has racing that sucks and this is what they are centric on?