Saturday, May 16, 2015

Charlotte And NASCAR's Never-Ending Rules Dilemma

Note: originially published May 16, this has been updated on June 13:

The NC 200 for the Trucks at Charlotte began as a thoroughly forgettable rout by Erik Jones, the latest young phenom out of Joe Gibbs Racing's orbit. Driving one of teammate Kyle Busch's Toyotas, Jones qualified second but started last (he missed the drivers meeting) with polesitter Kasey Kahne (sent back there for unapproved changes), in a Dale Junior Chevrolet. It took Jones all of 26 laps to make a mockery of the Truck Series' competitive depth and he led 79 laps, but a yellow in the final 30 laps set up the finest battle NASCAR has seen on a non-plate track in years, as Kahne sidedrafted to Jones and the two fought nose to nose for lap after lap, interrupted by two more yellows. The green-white-checker finish was the wildest finish in years as Jones and Kahne sidedrafted and both crossed up noticeably before Kahne got him by inches.

The best race in years comes amid the never-ending rules dilemma NASCAR faces as it prepares for 2016's rule package, a source of friction among drivers and seemingly everyone else as Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, and Tony Stewart have been vocally critical of NASCAR's 2015 package of reduced horsepower and reduced downforce, a package whose weaknesses were on display yet again in the subsequent All Star Race at Charlotte where there was almost nothing in the way of passing and Denny Hamlin stopped a rally by Kevin Harvick by making Harvick's Chevy run in his Toyota's dirty air, which in effect pushed back Harvick's car.

The Trucks make the discussion  more interesting because they also have less horsepower, more drag, and pretty much the same downforce, and the last few seasons they have seen some spirited battles for first on intermediate tracks, notably Kansas in 2013 and 2014 as well as recent years at Homestead and Atlanta.   "If you're wide open and not lifting, I don't know how you're going to get around that car in front of you," said Bowyer a few weeks ago, while NASCAR's Steve O'Donnell vowed not to "make change for the sake of change."

The whole idea that "Our sport is based on guys manhandling the cars" (Edwards) and "we've gone father and father away from that because of all the knowledge, engineering, and dependence on aero" would sound true except that people seem to continue ignoring that dependence on aero has never been a new concept - running wide open on intermediate tracks wasn't uncommon in the Petty-Pearson-Cale-Allison-Isaac era; there was controversy in 1976 when NASCAR went to smaller carbs six races into that season and drivers reported going flat out at Atlanta in the first race with them; as late as 1995-6 Charlotte famously saw racing in the All Star Race and the 600 where drivers were so surprised at how effective the draft had become again that it became a lengthy talking point on the telecasts (see see 10:05 of this clip as an example).  

The Truck 200 at Charlotte again illustrates how all the talk can obscure that solutions are simpler than one might think.

NASCAR will fast-track a further reduction in downforce later in 2015.

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