Wednesday, March 02, 2016

From Atlanta To Vegas

NASCAR now heads to Las Vegas Motor Speedway with Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson the winners at the Cup level so far and Vegas native Kyle Busch the point leader. The Vegas race comes amid continuing discussion of the Atlanta 500 and the low downforce package NASCAR ran. Most pieces on that race and the rule package merely regurgitate driver praise of the package, with Matt Weaver of Autoweek claiming it harkens back to old school racing, or "It was NASCAR as it was meant to be."

It was? 

A more sober analysis comes from Jared Turner, as aero tightness was brought back by this retro-5&5 Rule, a fact Kurt Busch noted afterward. Indeed, Matt Weaver's idea of "NASCAR as it was meant to be" would seem to be disproved by Atlanta's competitive apex as a quad-oval, which has been throughout NASCAR's downforce era, in races such as the 2002 Atlanta 500, the finish of the 2001 Atlanta 500, the 2000 Atlanta 500, or the 1999 Dixie 500, the most competitive Atlanta race (38 official lead changes) since 1982. All of these races (averaging 32 lead changes per race) came with high downforce, and the 2001-2 period was contested with a much harder tire, not to mention much fresher asphalt, making nonsense of Carl Edwards' statement "don't ever pave this place because it's the perfect racetrack."  Keep in mind NASCAR restarted its campaign to cut downforce at the start of 2004; Matt Weaver is quite wrong when he writes, "It starts with the sanctioning body for its willingness to reverse course and remove downforce from the cars after years of piling it on in the first place." 

Busch and others also noted the lousy condition of Atlanta's pavement, and the notion you can't race on fresh asphalt has never been believable (best shown last year at Charlotte with a high downforce race). This is where Vegas, with better asphalt, will give some answers about this downforce package we may not have gotten at Atlanta. 

We may also get some answers to whether car counts have been hurt by NASCAR's charter system, for it remains striking (and encouraging) that the NASCAR media took the sanctioning body to task for the low car count at Atlanta. The unofficial entry list updated March 1 shows 39 entries, another short field and thus a discouraging sign for this charter system.

Another discouraging sign for NASCAR - Atlanta's TV ratings were "its lowest overnight since FOX acquired rights" with a 27% drop, this according to the JAYSKI NASCAR page.  

Such trends don't beckon well as NASCAR looks for a new title sponsor for the Winston Cup series.   They also don't beckon well for the remainder of the 2016 season, a season that was supposed to be better.

As for the Vegas 400 the Hendrick and JGR juggernauts are the obvious early favorites, with Penske Racing curiously quiet so far.   Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch are the torch-carriers for the lameduck Chevy fleet of Stewart-Haas but curiously haven't shown enough to outright win the race even as they lead more than enough to take them seriuously as contenders for wins.   That appears to be it as far as favorites right now.  

UPDATE, MARCH 14:  With the Vegas and Phoenix races NASCAR has had three races with low downforce and the result has been the same - no improvement in the racing. At Phoenix the MRN call featured commentary supporting the low downforce package by Rusty Wallace and drag racer Ron Capps and Kevin Harvick said his photo-finish win over Carl Edwards at Phoenix - set up after a late yellow in a race where the last lap was the only time he was challenged - was a product of the low downforce package. That such lobbying has intensified for an established rule is curious, but also an indication of defensiveness within NASCAR - this as crew chief Robert Barker offers a lengthy analysis of why Goodyear can't bring a soft tire to the races, an analysis that helps illustrate that NASCAR's war against downforce is self-defeating.

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