Did You Notice? … Stock car racing threw a grenade into the garage with its redesigned 2019 NASCAR rules package? Between the ROVAL on Sunday (Sept. 30) and a laundry list of changes announced Tuesday, this sport feels like it’s suddenly reinventing itself.
Most importantly, the new package removes the words restrictor plate from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series vocabulary. After February’s Daytona 500, they’ll be thrown in the trash heap in favor of the new rules that will add a tapered spacer into the mix. The spacer, combined with giant air ducts, will reduce horsepower by over 25 percent (to 550 from 750) while cutting the speed needed to ditch the plates.
The 2019 rules also come with a large, eight-inch spoiler, a two-inch overhang on the splitter and adjusted radiator pan. The picture below illustrates the major adjustments.
These new rules will be in effect at 17 of the 36 races on the schedule. Five other events — Darlington’s Southern 500, the Atlanta race, both Pocono events and Homestead — will run a higher-speed package without the ducts. The other 14 events, held at either road courses or tracks one mile or less, will run, in essence, this year’s car.
The changes make sense considering where improvement was needed the most. What races have needed the biggest jolt in competition? It’s the Charlotte oval race, not the ROVAL we saw this past Sunday. So while I would have loved to see an adjustment for short tracks, too, as Richmond, in particular, left much to be desired, this change is a step in the right direction.
There’s a bit of a downside in how much it kills speed on the racetrack. But as we saw with the ROVAL, it’s the side-by-side competition and ability to rub fenders which brings fans up to a standing ovation. We need spacers, not physical space between the cars, so they can draft and run bumper to bumper.
As with any change, there will be fans who can’t stomach it and head for the exits. I’ll be honest; if the All-Star Race and the ROVAL made you stomach sick, you’ll hate the 2019 version of NASCAR. But the sport is well aware it needs to do something different. And with schedule changes and the Gen-7 car still at least a year away, throwing a curveball to the 2019 chassis was the best way to make a major adjustment. Do you want the status quo, or do you want a sport willing to throw the kitchen sink at the problem? Fans have asked for the kitchen sink for years. You can’t have it both ways.
The hope is that in adding in some extra horsepower, taking off the restrictor plate will satisfy drivers worried too much that skill was taken out of their hands. But just like with any change in this sport, I think the best teams will find a way to squeeze out extra speed. Over time, that speed will put more ability back behind the wheel and drivers will adjust. They’re also selling themselves short on drafting and strategy, important skills we’ve seen play out in restrictor plate races the past few years.
Fans annoyed by these adjustments should take note of the ratings. The track change to the Charlotte ROVAL paid off; it was the first natural Nielsen ratings increase for NASCAR on television this year. And the hype surrounding the All-Star Race clearly rubbed off on the sport’s executive branch desperate to stem the tide of negative press.
There’s no telling how much next year’s package will change the racing. But it’ll certainly be different and that’s what the sport needed to give itself a chance. Insanity is trying the same thing all over again, expecting the same result and this 2018 package had fans headed for the exits more than ever. An adjustment was needed.
And it seems we’re just on the tip of the iceberg. Between a potential sale, a new president, potential new CEO (if Brian France doesn’t return) and tracks investigating ROVALs, the shakeup is just getting started. Three years from now, expect the sport to look radically different, in terms of ownership, scheduling, chassis and car design.
Did You Notice? … Jimmie Johnson is kicking himself for fighting for Victory Lane? After the race, he admitted he was “worried about the win more than anything else.” Had he played it safe, settling for second, the No. 48 team would still be fighting for a championship.
My question is… why? Why beat yourself up, Jimmie? Sure, there was an opportunity for Johnson to change the narrative in what’s easily been the worst season of his career. We head to Dover this weekend, a place where he owns virtually every track record. A win by Johnson there, after a second place at Charlotte, would place him in the Round of 8 with plenty of momentum.
But let’s stop this train for a second. While Hendrick Motorsports has shown well in the postseason, they have never come close to title contention. The Chevy Camaro is still clearly second rate at the intermediate tracks making up the next rounds of the playoffs.
Even if Johnson somehow snuck through to the Championship 4 by winning at Dover and Martinsville, his chances at Homestead were slim to none. The Big Three of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. would have needed to virtually take each other out for Johnson to sneak past.
So the championship, while nice to fight for, seemed pretty farfetched for Johnson. But winning? What a race driver’s supposed to care about? Now that looked firmly within Johnson’s grasp. He was two turns away from ending a 51-race winless streak, the longest of his career and earning the inaugural trophy on a “new” track. Who could blame him for getting aggressive with Truex? The No. 48 has been so down on speed for so long Johnson may not get another shot in 2018, putting another one of his Hall of Fame-worthy streaks in jeopardy (16 straight years with a win).
In the end, he made a mistake and failing to advance in the playoffs proved to be proper punishment. But you can’t blame a racecar driver for doing what he was born to do. Points racing is a large part of what got NASCAR ratings to start falling apart in the first place.
Did You Notice? … Ford has fought through the first round of the NASCAR playoffs? All seven of its teams made it to the Round of 12, joined by just two Toyotas and three Chevrolets. In particular, it’s Chevy that’s hanging by a thread. Its trio of drivers has just one win, Chase Elliott at Watkins Glen.
In what’s been a renaissance season for the Blue Oval crowd, they’re setting a new bar for themselves. It’s the first year Stewart-Haas Racing has put all four of its cars in the postseason, let alone the Round of 12. Ditto for Team Penske’s three cars (although this year is the first with that big a team since 2010).
A quick look at the history of this format shows Ford’s difficulty in advancing before this year.
2014: 3 cars in the Round of 12
Ford also is in position to win its first manufacturer’s title since 2002. Earning 15 wins through 29 races, it’s 10 points ahead of Toyota with seven races left to go. It hasn’t won a driver’s championship since 2004 (Kurt Busch) but has a 58 percent shot based on the numbers this year along with two top contenders: Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski.
Keep in mind Ford is also introducing a new car, the Mustang, next season. But you wonder with the success of the Fusion (currently the oldest car on the circuit) whether executives might regret that decision.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Kyle Larson should be sending a thank you card to Daniel Hemric. If it wasn’t for the rookie making a mistake on the final turn, spinning Jeffrey Earnhardt, Larson doesn’t make the Round of 12. But think of all the races Earnhardt has affected by crashing this past month. At Indy, his late-race tangle with Landon Cassill bunched up the field and arguably stole a win from Denny Hamlin. He hasn’t been the same driver since (spiraling out of the playoffs in three races). Then, at Richmond, it was Earnhardt’s spin in the middle of green flag stops that brought out the race’s only natural caution. That trapped a handful of top-10 quality drivers like Hamlin and Kurt Busch a lap behind. Larson was running seventh in that race and Johnson eighth at the time of the yellow, but Johnson was gaining. In the end, it was Larson who fell back in the final stretch, then passed Johnson in the final four laps of the race, armed with a better long-run car. Who knew the pass Larson made then would be the difference? It just goes to show you … Every. Point. Matters.
- It’s a shame you don’t hear Matt DiBenedetto’s name come up more often for 2019. He was 13th at Charlotte with the underfunded Go FAS Racing team and left for next season in hopes of a better ride. But it’s unclear whether one will even be available. With Kurt Busch all but guaranteed a spot at Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 1 car, the No. 41 is the only top-tier ride open and he’s not a serious candidate. Perhaps the No. 95 would work in a pinch if Daniel Suarez doesn’t end up there? Maybe Front Row Motorsports would take him on? DiBenedetto’s got the talent, similar to Landon Cassill, but can’t seem to find the right opportunity.
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