Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
While the All-Star Race is largely comprised of race winners whose talents fans are familiar with, the addition of drivers via the last-chance Open means that sometimes a driver fans don’t expect shares the spotlight. Saturday night was like that. It wasn’t a big surprise that Daniel Suarez was able to race his way into the main event because his Joe Gibbs Racing cars are top notch.
Slightly more eye-opening was that Suarez proved to be winner Kevin Harvick’s stiffest competition for the win. He might well have had that win had teammate Denny Hamlin been able to help him a little more on the final restart. While Harvick got a big push from Joey Logano, Hamlin slipped up the track a bit and dropped Suarez before he could complete the pass. Suarez charged back to Harvick’s bumper but didn’t quite have enough in his car to make a pass for the win. Still, Suarez ran a smart, aggressive race and put himself in position to race for the win.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
When NASCAR announced the latest All-Star Race format, the sanctioning body added a twist: a high-downforce, lower horsepower racecar similar to the package run by the XFINITY Series last year at Indianapolis. The package included a piece of equipment that’s akin to a dirty word to many fans: a restrictor plate. Designed to tighten up the field and allow the cars to pass one another, the package worked exactly as it was designed to.
Cars could close and pass. Even the leader, at an advantage in clean air, couldn’t get away from the pack. It wasn’t as tight as a plate race at Daytona or Talladega, and handling was a much bigger piece of the puzzle. NASCAR’s loop data showed 38 passes for the lead under green with 17 official lead changes at the start-finish line. Official lead changes under green last year? Zero.
A car could catch others without help, while passing was a little trickier but there was plenty of it, along with side-by-side battles for position throughout the race. Restarts weren’t the best or only opportunity to make moves. For fans in attendance, it was compelling, fast-paced action for just over 90 laps.
Some called it a gimmick, and perhaps it was, but by that logic, what’s not? How many production cars, past or present, have blade spoilers on the back? Not many. Speed alone doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the racing. Saturday night’s race wasn’t like a plate race at Daytona or Talladega, nor was it like a usual intermediate race with the regular package. It was something different, and it was exciting. While some fans complained about it, NASCAR tried to do exactly as they asked, and should be commended for the effort, even if it’s not perfect. It’s a starting point, something that can be worked with.
“Tonight’s race was very aggressive, and this is the perfect spot to try stuff like this,” race winner Harvick said after the race. “I think as you look at the effort that the teams put in to make all this happen was pretty high. The chance that NASCAR and Marcus and everybody took to put this into the All-Star Race is brave, bold. I think when you look at NASCAR racing in five years, I think you’ll look back at tonight and say it looks like this and it all started here.”
Where… did Harvick come from?
Entirely different cars? No problem. Harvick won three of the four stages on Saturday with varying degrees of dominance. He qualified fourth and was able to figure out the draft in Charlotte’s confines quickly. With restrictor plates, the cars were equalized a bit, so it’s hard to say Harvick had a car leaps and bounds better than anyone else, but he drove like he did, and that confidence allowed him to get every ounce of speed from the car.
Really, if the All-Star Race is a showcase of the sport’s top talent in any given year, Harvick’s win was absolutely the right ending to the night. He’s got five wins in 12 points-paying races this year and if he wins the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday, it would mark the second time this year he takes home three straight trophies. In a field of superstars, Harvick is top dog right now.
When… was the moment of truth?
On Saturday night, the elephant in the room was that the race leader still had an advantage over anyone trying to take a shot at him. It was significantly less of an advantage than in a typical race in that leaders were uniformly unable to open up more than a few carlengths’ worth of a gap, and that gap was easily breached. It was, however, not as easy to pass the car in front, especially if the driver protected the outside groove.
But what to do about it? The laws of physics can’t be bent to produce more exciting auto races. Other racing series can build more aerodynamic vehicles because they’re not constrained by the basic size and shape of a street car. And even if today’s NASCAR racecars bear little relation to their production counterparts, fans want them to at least resemble the showroom versions. Have you looked at a passenger car lately? They’re made to cut a small hole in the air around them for a reason: it saves fuel mileage, something most consumers look for in a vehicle.
What all that means is the leader is always going to have an advantage in cleaner air. It can be minimized, as it was Saturday, but there should be no illusions that it can be eliminated completely.
Still, throughout the race but particularly in the final segment, there was nothing to lose and everybody in the race drove like it. Unlike some of the competitors in the Open, the teams weren’t taking these cars to the Coca-Cola 600, and with the different rules, there was no reason to try and test for that race.
So, while the rules package was an overall winner, it was the nature of the All-Star Race that helped make it so. There were no full fuel or tire runs, and that may skew the results a bit in that there wasn’t time to get spread out, and at just 80 laps, drivers didn’t need to save their equipment. In other words, simply slapping the new rules onto cars for a race, like this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600, would not necessarily produce the same results.
Why… didn’t Open winner AJ Allmendinger pull it off?
After the lone practice session for the evening’s races, drivers agreed that handling was going to be important in making moves to pass. They could use the draft to close, but passing required a car that was dialed in. Allmendinger’s car was dialed in during the Open, and he sliced his way to the front in the final segment to take the overall win. Then, when he got to the big race, he was determined to do it again.
Starting 20th in the 21-car field, Allmendinger was challenging the leaders before the first stage was over. In the second stage, he surged into the lead group again with a bold move at the top of the track. It was clear that Allmendinger had a car capable of challenging for the win, but his aggression got the better of him in the second stage and he scraped the wall. Damage was minimal and Allmendinger finished eighth on the night, but the car wasn’t the rocket ship it had been earlier.
How… come NASCAR can’t implement the new package now?
There are a number of reasons not to race the high-downforce, low horsepower combination in points races this season. NASCAR’s charter agreement stipulates a certain amount of notice be given for major rule changes, so teams would have to agree to implement it sooner. Some teams, particularly smaller ones without unlimited resources, don’t have the money or testing equipment to prepare cars. Some estimated the cost of this weekend’s plate package at $200,000 over the cost of bringing the current cars.
Also, unlike the current car, this package is unlikely to be practical at every track, which would mean teams would have to build two different sets of cars for tracks between one and two miles, and that would require more personnel, equipment and money from teams. It’s much more complicated than just deciding to change the rules.
While the All-Star Race was the perfect stage to test the idea on, NASCAR really should schedule an open test or two with the package and some variations before finalizing anything. Points races aren’t the place to throw things at the cars and see what sticks; there’s too much on the line. A couple of full-day tests could provide a clearer way.
As Harvick pointed out after the race, the current package was first tried in the All-Star Race a couple of years ago and people raved about it until they got it. There’s a huge difference in an exhibition race where drivers can put it all on the line and have nothing to lose except expensive cars and pride and a points race where teams will always run more conservatively for a good chunk of the event because a mistake is much more costly. There’s no reason for drivers to go flat out for 400 or 500 miles, even if fans would love to see it because that’s not how race strategy works every week.
So while the package holds promise – and the XFINITY Series will run a similar setup at a couple of races this year after debuting it at Indianapolis last year – there is a lot of work to be done before it’s ready to be used in races. NASCAR and the teams did an outstanding job of trying something new, and it’s commendable. It’s likely that fans will see something similar at some races next year if team and fan feedback warrants, but making the switch this year is too much, too soon. Kneejerk reactions aren’t necessarily the best decisions long term.
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