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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)

4 Burning Questions: Refusal to Be Wrong

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:

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:

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.

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About Michael Finley

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Michael has watched NASCAR for 15 years and began covering the sport five years ago. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and a proud member of the National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA).

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19 comments

  1. Avatar

    Michael Daly,

    Did you ever think that maybe other people’s definition of what is “good racing” in their minds, differs from what you consider “good racing”? It is possible. ”
    “We don’t want drivers to race like Gurney Ernie or like Earnhardt.” I don’t personally want that but some might.

    And “There is simply NO credibility to driver complaints …”.
    Really. We are to dismiss the drivers’ appraisal because you say so? Surely there must be a little credibility. You decide what good racing is and who is credible.
    All this wisdom and you live amongst the common people.

    BTW, Exactly which hypocrisy are you pointing to? There are so many that I’m not sure which one you are talking about.

  2. Avatar

    nothing changes GM runs the show if you don’t like what i said look at how many GM retires work for nascar or the ruling factors in a cheating deal look at #48 & the 50 points they gave the 48 in one yr by an GM retired person & the 20 points that was involved another champ ;yr it’s in black & white

  3. Avatar

    Pretty bold statements on a car that only exists as a prototype. There is so much different with the Gen-7 that to make any pronouncements now on how it will race is laughable. The next car will be lighter, have bigger wheels, independent rear-suspension, and composite bodies among other changes. It will be more relevant to what is sold on showroom floors, especially when the new engine package comes in. For years, fan have ranted that they wanted a more “stock” car. They appear to be getting it. However, I think they really just wanted NASCAR to be come an overglorified vintage series racing cars from the 70s, 80s, or 90s. NASCAR needs OEM involvement and they aren’t going to stay involved unless the cars are relevant to what they sell.

    • Avatar

      My job is to write opinions on the news. When NASCAR is far enough into development that they roll a prototype of what they say they are aiming to have on the track in less than two years, it might be time for me to write an opinion on that subject.

      I’ve never cared about a more stock car, just give me good racing.

  4. Avatar

    Michael Finley, you are clueless.

    2016-18 was just another Dead Lane Era for NASCAR. THIS draft duct package can only be considered a success. Passing has increased and competitive depth has begun increasing, a necessity given the thinness of the fields in recent years. There is simply NO credibility to driver complaints – instead their complaints expose their complete hypocrisy and thus why we should not listen to them.

    That this package isn’t a finished product is true enough. What I’d like added is the wicker for all the tracks. When it was reintroduced at Talladega by all accounts it vastly improved ability to suck up in dirty air. Thus is what the racing needs – the cars doing nothing but sucking up and passing in dirty air.

    Indycar is wrong to go to lower downforce and its lack of passing compared to 2012-17 proves it. NASCAR’s weakest competitive period was 2004-18 BECAUSE of low downforce.

    Everyone needs to get behind NASCAR and make the draft great again. That is what great racing is about.

    • Avatar

      Hey Brian! As much as I’ve disliked every move you’ve made since taking over, I definitely have compassion for people with health issues. Really hope the recovery is going well, and that you’ve found a new vocation.
      Best of Luck!

    • Avatar

      This is hilarious.

      My short answer to you is three lead changes at Martinsville this season.

      My longer answer is, there is no credibility to driver complaints when the most successful driver under this rules package (Kyle Busch) is also the most critical of it? Is it really in Kyle Busch’s best interest for NASCAR to change the package on him?

      You can’t claim that “competitive depth is increasing” when six organizations have won 30 of the 30 Cup races this year- five in 29 if we count out the ultimate fluke of Spire winning at Daytona. In 2011, 11 organizations won Cup races. Get serious.

      Finally, don’t be a troll and put a MAGA reference in your comment. It’s just a bad look

  5. Avatar

    Maybe NASCAR fans need to petition the manufacturers to apply pressure on NASCAR? I’m sure Ford, GM, and Toyota spend a TON of money in the series and what do they get in return? Stickers on a car that only vaguely resembles their product in the shape of the nose? A car that fans can’t really relate to since there is nothing in common with what they drive home from the track.

    I’m all for going backwards here – at least on the body design. Make the racecars match the body template of the production car. The cage and chassis can still be custom for safety reasons, but as many stock pieces as possible should be used in the suspension and drivetrain. No wings, no side skirts, no splitters. I’d even be OK making them run factory blocks, and allow turbos if they’re offered on the production model (since that’s the way the winds are blowing these days). It can only make the production versions better if they break stuff on the track in search of performance.

    Perhaps the split could be XFinity runs Turbo 4’s and V6’s, and Cup gets the V8 cars. Toyota would be odd man out in Cup unless they come up with a production V8 car (or bring the Lexus LFA), but the Supra could still run in Xfinity. Mustang and Camaro can compete in both. Perhaps Dodge could bring the Challenger back? It could also run in both series.

    My point is, give “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” back to the manufacturers! And bring GOOD, ENTERTAINING racing back to NASCAR! It’s clear NASCAR refuses to listen to the fans it has left – the only chance is if they’ll listen to money (manufacturers, sponsors), and it’s clear fans have a better chance at influencing manufacturers and sponsors than they do of influencing NASCAR.

    • Avatar

      Why do you think the manufacturers prefer this present package? Win On Sunday is what Toyota is doing abd without these stupid changes you recommend

  6. Avatar

    You should send this column right to Nascar. Better racing would be to take out as much downforce as possible, raise the cars higher , let them have as much power as they can handle, and make the tires wear out quickly. Make them have to lift and be hard to drive. That would put excitement back in it. You see how boring F1 and Indy cars are to watch, Nascar is close to that now. And yes we need more cautions and accidents to make things more exciting. Please Nascar, don’t kill the racing anymore than you have now.

    • Avatar

      F1 IS boring, I give you that. Have you watched Indycar the last couple of years? They listened and went backwards with car aero (removing downforce). I forget which driver said it after initial tests and the first race, but he noted it felt and drove more like a car from the 80’s. It wasn’t as glued down, it slid around more, and required more attention to get the most out of it. As a result, I’ve found Indycar racing to be MUCH more entertaining than NASCAR for 2 seasons now. I started with NASCAR a quarter century ago and have recently switched to preferring Indycar – they’re simply putting on a better show now. It’s funny, there’s more aggressive moves and more contact racing for the lead in Indycar than the fendered cup cars.

      • Avatar

        Indycar is woefully inferior now than when they ran ultra downforce 2012-17. Passing is way down and we’re not supposed to want the cars to slide around. The cars are supposed to stick so well that no driver has any excuse not to go for the lead.

        • Avatar

          Actually, no one likes watching stock cars that are stuck to the track. You are wrong.

          On the contrary, watching these stock cars slide around the race track like they did throughout the 80s and 90s is exactly what fans enjoy.

          It’s simple. You just need to change your view of what good racing is. You’ll come around.

        • Avatar

          Good racing is racing where you don’t know what’s going to happen next. It is not necessarily more passing.

  7. Avatar

    The past is gone and no matter how much we want it to return, it will not. No matter what they do to the cars, these drivers will not drive like Waltrip, Earnhardt, Wallace, Irvin, Davey Allison, etc. did in their heydays. There are too many teammates and the drivers don’t know how and/or don’t have it in them to race like that. Also, if anyone remotely acts like a jerk, everyone (fans, media, etc.) complain about it incessantly which will cause sponsors to step in to tamp it down. I doubt that there are any Wranglers, GM Goodwrenches, or Havolines around today that will let their drivers behave the way that those drivers did in the 80s & 90s.

    • Avatar

      We don’t want drivers to race like Gurney Ernie or like Earnhardt. We want them to race like Richard, David, Cale, Tim Richmond, and Jeff Burton.

      • Avatar

        Incorrect. We want drivers to race like Earnhardt. Fans complaining about “aggressive driving” on message boards and social media should be laughed out of the sport.

  8. Avatar

    I have absolutely no hope that the new car will make the racing better. Personally, I wish they would stop talking about it and just do what they are going to do because I am tired of their telling me how great it’s going to be only to be let down. One of these years I will have had enough and stop watching altogether.
    “…the competition department is the exact same as it was in the previous regime.” – well said.

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