Monday, July 13, 2015
NASCAR's Rules Debates Go On At Kentucky And Beyond
The Quaker State 400 at Kentucky saw NASCAR's renewal of the 5 And 5 Rule make its 2015 debut, and this low downforce package will return at the Southern 500 at Darlington. Several drivers were waxing enthusiastic about the racing at Kentucky and NASCAR was pleased as well. Some of the racing at Kentucky was indeed good.
The epic Erik Jones-Kasey Kahne sidedraft battle in May 2015 at Charlotte posted here is meant to illustrate the continuing rules exploration that the sport is undergoing as NASCAR will debut a high downforce package later this season, with the Pure Michigan 400 seeing a 9-inch spoiler with wicker, a two-inch airdam clearance, and 43-inch radiator pan, changes expected to increase drag on the cars and which appear influenced not only by racing as shown in the above-posted Truck race - where the Trucks make more downforce than the cars and have put on numerous spirited battles for first on intermediate tracks - but also by the high-downforce package Indycar used at Fontana which made for more drag and with the resultant draft exploded to an Indycar-record 80 lead changes among 14 drivers.
The dynamic of low downforce vs. high downforce has been a running one forever, and the 5 And 5 Rule's return at Kentucky is worth exploring given the history of NASCAR's war against downforce - it has not been a positive history. The 5 And 5 Rule debuted in October 1993 at Charlotte and Atlanta and was intended to cut speeds by making drivers lift for the corners more; it didn't happen, instead the leaders became all but unpassable, and the rule was dropped after 1993.
It was brought back for the entirety of 1998 for the same reason, and also on the theory that reducing downforce would neutralize aeropush that was becoming a burgeoning problem for racing. Again, it didn't happen - the 1998 season saw a very competitive race at the 600 at Charlotte but overall passing was made harder. John Darby took over the NASCAR garage and in 2004 the 5&5 Rule was brought back again; during Darby's reign NASCAR saw downforce cuts, numerous sway bar changes, and in the end the racing never became that good outside of the plate tracks.
Kentucky certainly saw some good racing, but given the history of the 5 And 5 Rule I can't be that optimistic that it will work. For Darlington a softer tire is slated to be used, but we've seen that before as well, and it misses the larger point about tires - the best races we've seen away from the plate tracks have been where the drivers seemed better able to lean on the tires the way they could on bias-ply tires - and we continue to see examples of such with bias-shod racecars in the K&N Series and the Modifieds; in the last few seasons we've seen four-abreast for the front at Iowa Speedway with the K&N cars that looked like old-school Michigan International Speedway.
Softer tires sound like a good idea but it's not necessarily better to need to get four tires on stops; we've certainly seen good racing where some drivers did not get fresh tires, and economically it is better to see what the late Bob Newton said during 1989 Speedweeks - "Someday teams will see they don't need ten sets of tires to win the Daytona 500."
The continuing rules exploration campaign is not new to NASCAR, but what it shows of late is that NASCAR actually seems to be better understanding of the minutae of what the racing is doing compared to the recent past, and we certainly want better racing - not every race can reach 80 lead changes or even 40, but it isn't unreasonable to want 40-plus lead change races on tracks that history has shown are more than suited to see it.