Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway was the latest chapter in a story that has unfolded all season long. The 500-mile, day-into-night event was the last big test of NASCAR’s new aero package for stock car racing’s premier series.
While there is still one intermediate track race left at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the south Florida track’s configuration is unique among NASCAR venues. The championship race and all the hoopla surrounding it also gives that weekend a different feel than all the rest.
TMS hosted the last race of the season at similarly-configured 1.5 mile tracks, the speedways where this package was supposed to make the biggest improvement in the quality of racing. So, did the 2019 aero package do its job effectively?
Recall that the original intent of this aero package was to improve racing at intermediate tracks by keeping the field bunched closer together. By limiting horsepower and configuring the cars to produce maximum downforce, NASCAR hoped to increase the effects of the draft at 1.5-mile tracks.
Theoretically, this would make passing easier and produce a style of racing in the Cup Series similar to the Gander Outdoors Truck Series races on this length of track.
But with most of the 2019 Cup season in the books, the aero package has led to mixed results. The quality of racing did noticeably improve at some tracks. However, the package was not a consistently effective solution for creating better racing at intermediates. Worse yet, the high-horsepower aero package often created worse racing at short tracks and flat tracks, dragging down some of the series’ best competition. With few changes in store for next year, the story of the 2019 aero package reveals a growing disconnect between the type of racing that NASCAR’s leadership and fans want to see on a weekly basis.
In fairness to NASCAR, the package was not a complete bust, even if it did not work the way it was intended. The one area where this aero package really shined was in cool, nighttime conditions on higher-banked tracks. The spring race at Kansas Speedway, for instance, was one of the best races of the season and a huge improvement over the 2018 running. This year’s Coca-Cola 600 was another race that was much better than its counterpart from one year ago. Even Kentucky Speedway, a track frequently maligned for producing poor racing, featured one of the best finishes of the season. In the right conditions, this package produced some fun racing.
The problem is that those optimal conditions were too few and far between. In most intermediate track races, the field would stay closer together for several laps following a restart, only to get strung out as the run went on. Perhaps more problematic was that the drivers’ ability to make passes did not dramatically improve compared to the 2018 package. Last year, drivers often complained they could not catch and pass the cars in front of them due to dirty air. This season, passing is still a problem, even for faster cars. While it seems drivers can close up on their competition a bit better, completing passes remains tough, especially with more limited horsepower to do so compared to last year.
Even at larger tracks, like Michigan International Speedway and Pocono Raceway, the quality of racing did not improve. You would think that a high-downforce setup with increased draft effects would be perfect at places like Michigan and Pocono, where drivers are going to experience high, sustained speeds no matter what aero package they use.
But the racing at Michigan was not any better than last year, and the racing at Pocono was worse. Clearly, drafting did not have the major impact for which NASCAR had hoped.
Additionally, this package had an unintended negative effect on short track races. At small bullrings like Martinsville Speedway and Richmond Raceway, passing proved to be particularly difficult. In both Martinsville races, the eventual winners led 446 and 464 laps on their way to their respective victories. Richmond’s two events featured more variance among the leaders, but both were frustrating to watch because of how difficult it was to make passes.
Dominating performances are nothing new to short track racing, nor are track position races. What is new is drivers struggling to make passes because of how aero sensitive their cars are. If this package is creating aero-sensitive conditions at Martinsville, of all places, that’s a problem.
Yet among all the concerns about passing from the sport’s competitors, NASCAR has a philosophical problem on its hands as long as it continues to use this aero package. Increasing downforce and decreasing horsepower has led to situations like Brad Keselowski observed in qualifying this weekend.
Brad @keselowski on his qualifying lap, via Ford transcript: “Just like rookie mode on a video game. You just hold it wide open and see what it will run. That is it.” P8.
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) November 3, 2019
Keselowski’s comments reflect a point of concern for a segment of NASCAR’s fanbase. Even if this aero package did produce consistently tighter racing, there are fans who would reject it on the grounds that it makes the cars too easy to drive. The argument is that if drivers are holding the throttle wide open through the corners during race conditions, the race that unfolds will not be an accurate reflection of the individual drivers’ talents.
To be fair, racing in NASCAR is not and has never been easy. Even with limited horsepower compared to the last few years, Cup Series cars are not easy to control. Racing with the current aero package may require a different skill set than some drivers are used to, but it does not eliminate talent from the equation. Note that the top four drivers in the Cup Series standings leaving Texas are the same four drivers who competed for the title in last year’s season finale. The cream is still rising to the top.
But it is not wrong to suggest that cutting horsepower was a mistake. If NASCAR really wants talent to be the biggest factor in determining who wins a race, why give the drivers fewer options?
One of the greatest aspects of professional stock car racing is watching wheelmen wrestle with machines that are constantly on the edge of control. By cutting horsepower and adding downforce, NASCAR has brought the cars further under the drivers’ control, decreasing the likelihood they will push the limits of themselves and their cars to the brink of their abilities.
This package has created closer racing at times, but has it created better racing? That is the question that all of NASCAR’s stakeholders will have to face in 2020 and beyond.
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