Monday, March 21, 2016

Fontana and The Neverending Politics Of Competition Rule Packages

California Speedway's reputation for NASCAR racing was considered low for a long time due to undercompetitive races there from its beginning, but the 2013 California 400 changed all that with a stunning final ten lap battle for the lead ending in a hard Denny Hamlin crash, a spectacular highside three wide pass by Kyle Busch, and the thwarting of Joey Logano in his debut season with Penske Racing.  

2013's 400 was amazing, and 2014's running also saw spirited racing for the lead, which made 2016's running with NASCAR's neo-5&5 Rule and a softer tire from Goodyear among the more anticipated events of the racing calendar.   But as Jimmie Johnson enters the Easter weekend with a late restart win over Kevin Harvick, the sport has to reexamine quite a bit after this weekend.

The weekend began with the Cal 300 for the Xfinity Series and the most bizarre finish in decades as Kyle Busch blew a tire, but several contenders ran out of gas, except Austin Dillon as he sqeezed through a hole around a Busch blocking attempt for the win.   The Cal 300 also saw something Fontana and other tracks have long needed - push-drafting, as the JGR Toyotas and Kyle Larson engaged in at least two efforts at push-drafting down Fontana's sweeping trioval, Larson even getting the lead for a moment thanks to a strong push-draft.

Come the 400 the racing up front in spots was good as well, but the issue that plagued the race, having also popped up in the Saturday event, was a very high incidence of tire failure throughout the field;  Kyle Busch's late tire failure set up the GWC-restart that won the race for Johnson when it appeared Kevin Harvick would waltz away while Kyle Larson blasted the inside SAFR barrier after a tire failure.

The incidence of tire failures - coming a week after numerous tire failures at Phoenix - was such that Goodyear actually had to address it during the race in the media; we got the usual "aggressive setup" cliché from varied analysts, but it begged the question that is seemingly never asked - why cannot Goodyear engineer these tires to where the teams don't have to put in "aggressive" setups?

Not that Goodyear hasn't gotten it right as far as forgiving, raceable tires go - in the radial era spirited battles such as the World 600s of 1993, 1995, and 1998, and the National 500 of 2000 that saw 47 official lead changes despite Goodyear incompetence that led to a tire shortage that weekend, not to mention memorable Pocono races in 1993, '95, '96, 2001, and 2009-10, Atlanta in the 1999-2002 period where four of its races combined to average 32 official lead changes a race, and the 1999 Yankee 400 at Michigan contested with a higher-stagger tire and thus witnessing a spirited fight for the lead in the final twenty-two laps, have all indicated a tire that racers were able to race hard on - and shown more recently with the Truck Series and several memorable races on intermediate speedways the last five years.

But the radial era has seen much incidence of "aggressive setups" and trouble as a result; the first famous such incident was the 1992 Virginia 500 at Martinsville where broken axles knocked out numerous contenders - the result of rearend cambering to get a bigger tire footprint onto the surface; NASCAR had banned parts to make the cambered rearend work, citing costs, to where team owner Larry McClure commented "If NASCAR keeps trying to save money we'll be out of business." 

The incident has been repeated, albeit in different form, at numerous races ever since, and it has been especially pointed during NASCAR's frequent campaigns to cut downforce, the 2004-7 period most notably seeing multiple spoiler reductions, tire changes, and swaybar changes, and no improvement in passing, to go with several bouts of "aggressive setup" fiascos.   It of course continued with the ill-fated Car Of Tomorrow.  

So we ask again -  can not Goodyear engineer a tire that is forgiving and raceable enough where teams do not need to run "aggressive" setups?   The Erik Jones-Kasey Kahne sidedraft epic at Charlotte in the Trucks in 2015 - that tire clearly allowed them to fight for the lead; can not Goodyear engineer a tire so the Xfinity and Cup drivers can race likewise, and do so with some significant frequency?


That seemingly no NASCAR journalist asks such questions speaks of the decline of journalism that is covering the sport.   Veteran NASCAR scribe Mike Mulhern addresses the tire issue recently in advocating that teams be given three or four different compounds - soft, hard, intermediate, etc.   Not only that, give teams different staggers - as longtime crewman Scott Cluka recently noted, the art of staggering tires was taken out with the switch to radials.


But the issue goes a lot further.   Part of the issue for Fontana is the worn-out surface, worn to the point it seems to be getting less safe to race on.   Drivers have long liked this worn out surface because of the surge in multiple grooves, but Fontana racing in the past on much fresher asphalt has seen some spirited competition, and a better tire would certainly open up more grooves on fresh asphalt.  Having to pit every 35 or so laps for fresh tires becomes expensive and frankly overkill, plus the idea of tire management really is not competitively appealing  - competition never means managing anything.

The weekend, like seemingly the entire season, was treated in media coverage almost as a referendum on NASCAR's low downforce package and as usual one looked in vain for any dissent from the view that low downforce has opened up passing and produced better racing.   High incidence of tire problems was a feature of NASCAR's past wars against downforce and we're seeing it again in 2016, meaning the same mistakes made by NASCAR in the past are producing the same results. 

The blunt truth remains NASCAR has seen close finishes in 2016 not because of low downforce, but in spite of it - a late yellow was needed for the photo finish at Phoenix and another late yellow allowed Johnson to storm past Kevin Harvick for the win.   Robert Barker's piece a few weeks back showed the futility of cutting downforce and also of soft tires, yet one would think NASCAR would figure out not to repeat the same mistakes.  


The bottom line remains NASCAR should not need worn-out asphalt et al to see better competition; everyone involved need to reexamine things because the racing has been decent, but it has seen a lot of trouble, trouble racing shouldn't have.

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