Has the current aero package been a failure?
This week, Austin Dillon took a special Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racecar to a closed test session at Richmond Raceway.
The car, generic as the car manufacturers are still early in development of their own spins on the rules package, represents the direction that NASCAR wishes to go toward in its 2021 Next Gen racecar.
The two best periods of NASCAR as far as from a pure racing standpoint was in early 2016, when NASCAR cut downforce/aero drag and the first six months of the year were a lot of fun. The engineers did their jobs and found ways to get their downforce back under that rules package.
Not much changed from 2017 to 2018. The latter half of 2018, after almost three years under that rules package, ended up featuring some fantastic races. Why? No idea, but there’s a case to be made that after a car/aero package has been around for a while, the racing enviably becomes good somehow. The best years for the Gen 4 came in 2002-2007, when parity was at its strongest in history, the Gen 5 enjoyed one of the best years in history (2011) in its fourth season on the track.
This year’s high-downforce, high-aero-drag rules package has ultimately been a failure. It has definitely made races better at most mile-and-a-half racetracks, along with the former restrictor-plate tracks Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway. But it’s not better at all mile-and-a-half tracks, such as Atlanta Motor Speedway. And outside of those tracks, and strangely Bristol Motor Speedway, it has been a bomb on track. NASCAR has cut its arm to save its nose by ruining 15-some tracks on the circuit.
As a journalist with Frontstretch, I attended/covered four Cup races at three different racetracks this season. All four races were noticeably bad races. The best of the bunch was Richmond Raceway a couple of weeks ago, and that was only due to late-race lapped traffic. Both Dover International Speedway races were awful, with the only positives coming from great stage two finishes in each.
Martinsville Speedway was an embarrassment. This rules package killed good racing at Martinsville. That’s supposed to be impossible. The winged Gen 5 had better Martinsville races. There were three lead changes on the day in March earlier this year. The Lambeau Field of NASCAR hasn’t had that few of lead chances since Richard Petty won there in 1967.
So, what does the Next Gen car look like?
Drivers have constantly complained about high downforce rule packages and the splitter. Fans have complained about high downforce rule packages and the splitter. And what has NASCAR done? It’s constantly stuck its fingers in its ears. It’s put out misleading fan polls, puffed its chest to talk about how many more green flag passes there have been this year (so then why go to a new rules package if this one is working so well?), and now it’s doubling down on everything with this:
— SPEED SPORT (@SPEEDSPORT) October 10, 2019
We all knew it was coming. This tweet just a couple of weeks ago really puts this whole situation in a better way than I could ever do so:
It's just puzzling to live in a world in which literally every other motorsports entity has reached a conclusion over the past half decade that reducing downforce is the solution for unlocking the best possible racing.
— and then there is NASCAR on an island.
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverAW) October 1, 2019
There’s no anger when I finally saw a picture of the Next Gen car. I’m just… resigned. Disappointed for sure, but resigned more than anything. If they want to keep making drivers mad while their pay continues to decline, then they shouldn’t start crying in five years when all of their young talent have left for greener pastures.
Ego and the refusal to admit fault by reversing course is a powerful thing, and is something the new Jim France/Steve Phelps era of NASCAR has been praised for largely eliminating. NASCAR going back to single car qualifying after just a couple of months rather than waiting until the end of the year is a good example of this. Or the new disqualification rules that have been near universally praised by much of the industry.
At the end of the day, however, it’s becoming crystal clear that as many positive steps forward that the organization as a whole is making, the competition department is the exact same as it was in the previous regime. And if NASCAR wants to continue to recover, the current competition/R&D department is going to be a thorn in their side.
Who will survive the Talladega Cup race?
This weekend is none other than Talladega for both the Cup Series and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
For Cup, this is the ultimate wild card race in the playoffs. It will be interesting to see, in particular, how Martin Truex Jr. approaches this race. He could hang back and bet on locking his position into the next round by finishing well in the race, out of trouble. Or he could push for the stage points in the first half of the race to get himself locked in.
Everything else is on the table. The win will probably once again come down to the uneasy Chevrolet-Toyota alliance against the Fords, and there’s a chance a surprise non-playoff driver such as Jimmie Johnson or Ryan Preece might still a victory this weekend.
This is a discipline of racing in which Justin Haley is the most recent winner. Landon Cassill was a major player near what ended up being the end of said race. Anything can happen in this race, and if we’re comparing the current 12 driver playoff field versus the field, I’m going to go with the field every time.
What will happen in the Truck race?
If anything can happen in the Cup race, well, anything can happen in the Truck race. Nothing is out of the realm of possibility for this race.
Unlike with Cup, where there are good plate drivers and bad plate drivers that can be easily defined, the Truck Series is much more murky. Part of it is that most of the field is still inexperienced at these types of tracks, and the other part of it is that this a series that has just two of these type of races each year. So it’s not like series veterans such as Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter have a huge leg up on their competition. And with the advent of simulators today, the experience gap isn’t really as big as it used to be.
There are three drivers to watch out for this weekend. Austin Hill’s Hattori Racing Enterprises Tundra has been very successful at bigger, draft-happy racetracks over the years. Defending race winner Timothy Peters found a ride late this week with NEMCO’s No. 87 team, and Ross Chastain should be given a mention as the July NASCAR Xfinity Series Daytona winner. Outside of those three probably having a say before the race is over, anything can happen on Saturday.