NASCAR is perhaps unique in mainstream sports in that they schedule their biggest event of the season as the first event on the calendar. As such the connection between success in the season-opening Daytona 500 and the rest of the nine month long grind that makes up the whole rest of the schedule is tenuous as best.
NASCAR started crowning Cup champions in 1949. The first Daytona 500 (as in run on the 2.5 mile high-banked oval track not on the beach and a public highway) occurred in 1959. Occasionally along the way the same driver who wins the Daytona 500 goes on to win that year’s Cup title, but like the Triple Crown in horse racing it’s the exception rather than the rule. In 59 years, the Daytona 500/Same Year Championship has been pulled off only nine times. Perhaps not surprisingly in that he has won seven Daytona 500s and seven Cup titles, Richard Petty pulled off the feat four times. (1964, 1971, 1974, and 1979), Jimmie Johnson is the only other driver to accomplish the deed more than once. (2006, 2013). Other drivers who have pulled off the double include Lee Petty (1959) Cale Yarborough (1977), and Jeff Gordon (1997). So don’t bet the ranch on Denny Hamlin as 2019 Cup champion just yet. But nor should you write off, say, a Chase Elliott’s title hopes this year based on his 17th-place result of even Martin Truex Jr.’s chances at a second title after his 35th-place finish Sunday.
Last year’s Daytona 500 winner, Austin Dillon, went on to finish 13th in the standings. Second place Bubba Wallace finished 28th in the year end standings. Finishing third in last year’s 500 was none other than Hamlin, who went on to a lackluster 11th-place standings at the end of the year absent even a single race win to hang his hat on.
Part of the reason for the low correlation between Daytona 500 success and yearlong success in the Cup series is starting in 1988 NASCAR mandated the use of restrictor plates in the Daytona 500 to limit engine horsepower and lower speeds. The Daytona 500 was one of only four “plate” races a year, the others being the two Talladega races and the Firecracker 400 at Daytona again in July. The plate races served up a certain style of racing most years, with cars running nose to tail in packs two and three wide often eight to ten rows deep. As such most plate races were punctuated by the occasional bone-breaking, heart-stopping, multi-car, cars on their roofs and on fire, wrecks that earned the nickname “the Big One.”
Another thing that has remained universal throughout that time period is my absolute loathing of plate racing, a sentiment shared by many of the sport’s best drivers, perhaps most notably Tony Stewart (who never won a Daytona 500) and the late Dale Earnhardt (Who won the 1998 Daytona 500 and was killed in the 2001 running of the race. It’s odd that every year since the presenting network covering the 500 finds a way to work in some footage of Earnhardt winning that 1998 race without mentioning the tragedy that occurred three years later.)
But, friends and neighbors, Sunday’s race was the last restrictor plate race in NASCAR at least for the foreseeable future, and I certainly hope the last ever. So I’d ask NASCAR officialdom if since they won’t be using them anymore, they could mail me a stack of restrictor plates. I could use them as coasters to keep cold beverage cans from leaving rings on my This End Up furniture.
So this year’s Daytona 500 in fact not only an oddity on the schedule it was a full blown rabid blue unicorn. Not only will that engine package not run again, neither will the aero-package used Sunday. NASCAR is going boldly where no racing series has ever gone before with a clean sheet of paper design that’s going to keep our heads spinning until we get used to it or it proves to be such a disaster it is unceremoniously dumped.
Last week, campers, we discussed NASCAR’s new policy of disqualifying race winners whose cars were found to be illegal after the race. I think most of us agreed that it was a fine idea and a bit overdue but expressed concerns that NASCAR would find a way to screw it up somehow given their track record.
Next Sunday at Atlanta the NASCAR rules package will be very different and the following week at Las Vegas it will be completely different again. Then we’ll sort of bounce back and forth between two different rules packages presumably until someone comes up with a third and a fourth package.
Let’s clear the air on this “last plate race” concept. Going forward NASCAR will lose the plates but run “tapered spacers.” The intention of these tapered spacers is to lower engine horsepower, just like the plates. The goal is to reduce the 700-750 horsepower an unrestricted Cup engine allegedly produces down into the 525-550 horsepower range. I’d always heard that over recent years Cup engines had crested the 900 horsepower summit at least amongst the better teams but then when talk turns to horsepower and quarter-mile times gearhead types tend to turn into bald-faced liars. Let me tell you about the 600 horsepower, 11 second ET Cobra Jet Mustang I drove in high school. OK, that Mach One actually ran low 13s and an occasional high 12 ET with 473 dyno-verified horses but I fudged the numbers a bit back then and rarely lost a race anyway.
I know this is the Frontstretchnot Hot Rod magazine but I need to get a little technical here. I’ll make it as brief and painless as possible because that also lessens my chances of making a glaring mistake.
Cars run on gasoline. (Let’s leave electric cars out for now in that they make up such a low percentage of the vehicle population.) You know that cars run on gas. You’re used to stopping at the local filling station and filling up and it doesn’t matter if you drive a Corolla or a Corvette.
Well cars don’t actually run on gas. They run on a mixture of gasoline and air. The perfect stoichiometric (there’s my five penny word) mixture of gasoline and air is about 14.7 to 1, as in you mix 14.7 grams of air to 1 gram of gas and you’re cooking with fire; good power, lower emissions, decent fuel mileage. Ideally you’d like that fuel-air mixture to be like a fog. You’d also like it to be relatively homogenous, so that the front cylinders of the engine get the same mixture of fuel and air as the rear cylinders. For years upon years the job of mixing the fuel and air together into a fog was the job of the carburetor, an often devilishly complex, finicky and trouble-prone piece of equipment that invited constant tinkering with often disastrous results. The most important piece of equipment to have on hand when tuning a carb was a fire extinguisher not a screwdriver.
With the current emission laws and fleet fuel economy standards (and please show me in the Constitution where it says the job of the federal government includes automotive design) carbs are a thing of the past in production cars now. I believe the last carbureted mass produced car in the US was the 1988 Chevette. And if you drive a 1988 Chevette you’ve got worse problems than the carb. Is it warm enough for you at the homeless encampment this winter?
Nowadays fuel injection systems take care of mixing the gas and air in the cars, SUVs and trucks you and I drive. It does a much better job. It can adapt better to real world conditions. They even use a device called an oxygen sensor that examines the car’s exhaust to see if the mixture has gone too lean (too much air for the amount of fuel) or rich (too much fuel for the amount of air) It then radios the car’s computer brains and shouts “Hey, the moron is flooring it in a 35 MPH speed zone again. Add more gas!” At which point it then turns on the yellow “Check engine” light in your car and forces you to go visit some half-wit at Auto Zone to use a scanner to tell you what about the engine needs checking. It’ nearly always the oxygen sensor.
Happily enough NASCAR Cup cars (and I believe NXS and truck entries as well now) use fuel injection to. I am not sure if they have a ‘check engine” light on the dash. Presumably not because that would be silly.
But anyway, we’ve got our fuel-air mixture in a happy 14.7 to 1 homogenous fog and it is fed through the intake manifold to the individual cylinders. But what’s this? There is an obstruction between the fuel-air mixing devices (medieval or mechanical that it might be) It’s a restrictor plate, a flat piece of metal with four holes of a specified size in it. The bigger the holes the greater the horsepower. The smaller the holes the less the horsepower. No plate at all? Party on, Garth!
But ding-dong, the witch is dead. The plates are gone. Not so fast, my pretties. We’ve located another obstruction to our homogenous fuel-air fog that’s doing the same thing as a plate. This time it’s called a tapered-spacer. “Ut-oh, Toto.”
The tapered spacer is taller than the restrictor plate. As might be guessed from the name, the size of the holes in the device are wider at the top than at the bottom, thus the whole “tapered” part of the name, Think about the legs on an old pair of Levis “boot-fit” jeans.
NASCAR would like it very much if you and I didn’t call the tapered spacer a restrictor plate because they’ve come to find out that fans really hate the plates. But it’s a matter of semantics. A plate and a tapered spacer do the same job. They limit the amount of fuel-air fog that can be burned by the engine to make power. I didn’t like plates and I don’t like tapered spacers. As far as I’m concerned they’re the same thing. Says who? Well, Kyle Busch for one. And when you find a topic on which Busch and I agree my friend you’ve hit the motherlode of the truth. Oh, but the tapered spacer is thicker than a plate! The holes are bigger on the top than the bottom! Yada, yada, yada. What’s their function, Conjunction Junction?
At tracks less than 1.33 miles (think Darlington) the average size of the holes in the tapered spacer will be 1.17 inches. On tracks more than 1.33 mile the size of the holes will be .922 inches, Smaller holes, less horsepower.
Confused? That’s my job and I’m good at it. Imagine that we are going to stage a marathon foot race. Among our competitors we have some Olympic quality marathoners. Other runners are on their high school track teams, well-trained and well-practiced but not Olympic quality quite yet. We also have some middle-aged folks who regularly do some fast jogging on the trails of a local park. Then we have a few fat gray-haired guys smoking cigarettes whose sole exercise is 12 ounce curls. They look like those weird guys who sit outside the local bait and ammo store Saturday mornings with three fingers of one hand shoved down the waistband of their sweatpants apparently scratching their pubic mounds in search of lice.
Who’s going to win the race? Likely the Olympians. But we’re throwing in a twist. Runners from all categories have must breath through a soda straw that restricts the amount of oxygen the athlete can inhale. If the straw is of uniform diameter it is analogous to a restrictor plate. If it’s a tenth of an inch wider at one end than the other and 12 inches long rather than 6 that straw is analogous to a tapered spacer.
Likely the outcome will be our group of runners in disparate physical condition will run in a large pack. We’ve reduced our racers to the least common denominator.
With their tapered spacers NASCAR wants to do the same thing. They learned that fans don’t much care for races where one driver has a six second gap on the fellow in second following him, and there’s an additional three or four seconds back to the driver in third. They want to see the cars bunched up closer together and occasionally passing one another. NASCAR absolutely swears they are not trying to create pack racing like has been the norm at the plate tracks on the intermediate tracks as well But if that’s an unexpected consequence, well, so much the better, seems to be the attitude. Slower speeds, tighter racing is the hope.
But it’s not just what’s under the hood that has changed this year. NASCAR has a couple new aerodynamic packages they’ll be running up the flagpole in 2019 to see who salutes.
Aerodynamics is not a subject I am well versed in having picked up just enough knowledge on the topic to be glad I don’t have to do that for a living. Back in high school I never bragged at my Mustang’s coefficient of drag. I just knew the rear pedestal spoiler looked nasty and the rear window louvers made it tough to see if that Plymouth Fury at the light behind you had a roof-rack full of blinking lights.
Here’s some other stuff I know about aerodynamics. I really wish that I bought that Hemi Superbird I was offered for $3500 bucks back in 1980 because after I sold it I’d have been living in a grass shack Oceanside in the Caribbean laying in a hammock sipping boat drinks all day. Oh, and I had a 1993 Thunderbird because I liked the way Bill Elliott’s car looked. It was very aerodynamic for its day. If you got off 422 onto Route 29 and threw it in neutral you could glide straight down to the Amoco on Ridge in neutral. Try that in the Ford F series I had at the same time (as aerodynamic as a brick) and you were lucky to make it to the Agway at the halfway point.
I’ve been told that in trying to understand aerodynamics I should think of air as being a fluid rather than a gas.
Now, if you get a chance and it’s not too cold out try an experiment rolling down a fast level piece of highway. (In the passenger seat. I don’t want you wrecking.) Put your hands out the window with the palm parallel with the highway and fingers extended straight ahead. Now angle your hand at the wrist with your fingers still extended. The wind will attempt to push your hand downward. That’s a crude simulation of downforce. Now tilt your hand upright like a traffic cop signaling someone to stop. Your hand will be pushed hard backwards. That’s a crude simulation of drag.
Given the same amount of horsepower a car with less drag will go faster. But drivers need some degree, it depends on the speeds and layout of the track, of downforce for the car to handle. Some drivers are able to race a car comfortably with less downforce than others. They may describe the car as being nervous or twitchy but they’re willing to run the car like that while others want the car to feel more firmly planted. They want more downforce.
A problem that has plagued stock car racing for over a decade, if not since its inception, is “the dreaded aero push”. Because of the aerodynamics of the cars a driver closing in on the car ahead of him may actually seem to have an advantage. The lead car is breaking the air ahead of the fellow challenging him. If you waterski imagine being in that smooth V of water behind the boat outlined by the boat’s wake.
But when the trailing car gets up near the leading cars front bumper he develops a problem. There’s limited air creating downforce on the nose of his car and it begins “pushing.” Pushing is when a driver is steering a car and the front tires aren’t responding. “Loose” is when a driver is turning the wheel and the rear tires aren’t responding. Like the old saying goes, when your race car is pushing you see what you’re going to hit. When it’s loose you back it into the wall. Meanwhile the lead driver has all the air he could ask for pushing down on the nose of his car and can easily maintain the lead.
So NASCAR has come out with a couple new aero-packages this year. The one change most fans will be able to easily see at a glance is the rear spoiler. The new rear spoiler is a full 8 inches in height and 61 inches wide, up from 2.375 inches last year. The new spoilers are so huge that someone could be forgiven for assuming someone went ahead and lashed a railroad tie to the decklid of the race cars. That’s surely going to add a lot of drag to the cars slowing them down.
Up front the length of the front splitter will increase to 2 inches from .25 inches which should increase front downforce. It will also make it even more common to have that entire front splitter shorn completely off when a driver loses control and his the infield grass during a race. The radiator pans on the 2019 cars will increase to 37 inches wide in the front tapering down to 31 inches wide in the rear. They too will likely get knocked all catawampus during off track infield excursions. Or perhaps like Kurt Busch’s radiator pan at Martinsville last year they’ll be left sticking out of the wall after a hard wreck.
Here’s where things get even more complicated. They will be new air ducts on either side of the noses of the 2019 Cup cars. At some tracks, including Atlanta this weekend, those ducts will channel air to cool the front brakes. Those ducts will also be used for brake cooling at both Pocono races, Darlington and Homestead. But on other tracks, including Las Vegas in two weeks, those same ducts will channel air into the engine compartment around the front tires which ought to be like having the cars dragging a parachute. Teams will not be able to tape off those ducts at those tracks to make the cars more aerodynamic. Presumably teams will still be able to tape off portions of the front grille opening to seek speed at the risk of overheating. So if I’m counting correctly there will actually be four packages this year, Large spacers with brake cooling ducts, large spacers with standard air ducts, small spacers with brake cooling ducts and large spacers with standard ducts. Let’s get all our ducts in a row here.
The driver-adjustable track bars which seemed problem plagued anyway have been done away with. Now that we’re done with Daytona’s unique use of single-car qualifying and the Duels to set the field, normal three round qualifying will resume. The first qualifying session has been shortened from 15 minutes to 10 meaning that FS1 will only be able to work in four commercial breaks not five. Rounds 2 and 3 will remain 10 minutes and 5 minutes respectively.
Overall the concensus seems to be the lower horsepower cars with the new aero package will be easier to drive. Some folks including drivers are concerned that that will diminish the role of driver skill in deciding wins and good finishes. Again Kyle Busch was more outspoken than others predicting that will be the case. NASCAR felt the need to remind him by saying that driver skill was less important he was actually lowering his worth as far as salary when it came to driving a top tier car. Busch, it should be noted, is in the final year of his contract with JGR in 2019 though I’d think his signing an extension with the team is a mere formality that will be taken care of in due time.
The Daytona 500 was not a good predictor of what stock car racing is going to look like in 2019 with all the new rules. We’ll have to watch as things play out over the next couple months just as we always have. Some fans may like the new package while others will likely loathe it. There might be some outstanding races and likely there will be some real clinkers too. It’s like that old beer commercial debate “Tastes great or less filling?” Either way, just don’t me make it through a straw, tapered or otherwise.