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.
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.