Wednesday, July 27, 2016

NASCAR Questions Entering Pocono

Forty years ago Pocono International Raceway hosted one of the most exciting races in NASCAR's pivotal 1976 season. Barney Hall, Marvin Panch, Chris Economaki, Jack Arute, Tom Kecke, and Bill Connell are the announcers. Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, Benny Parsons, Lennie Pond, and Darrell Waltrip are the primary competitors in this race.

NASCAR enters Pocono amid one of the most discouraging weekends in recent memory, as Kyle Busch's annihilation of the Brickyard 400 weekend - involving both the 250 and 400, for a combined four-race sweep spanning 2015 and 2016 - was as one-sided as the World 600 slaughter by Martin Truex, and it served as starting point of widespread musings about the mediocre crowd, the poor quality of the racing, and the state of NASCAR in general. It's worth asking some questions -

The universal loss of confidence in NASCAR at Indianapolis stems from NASCAR's inability to see fighting for the lead as seen in the very first Brickyard 400

Is the Brickyard 400 no longer worth having?
- No, it absolutely is worth having.  NASCAR is a superspeedway league; even in its earliest years NASCAR's premier events were its big track races and the superspeedways have been the most competitive races in stock car annals.   That the crowds have plummeted is undeniable; that this loss of popularity is sport-wide is also undeniable.  NASCAR has the problem of making the entire sport worth watching again.

Has NASCAR's downforce experiment failed? - Yes, an unqualified yes. And it's a result those who remember the 1998 5&5 Rule, its resuscitation under John Darby after the 2003 season, and the Car Of Tomorrow could all see coming. Inability to pass doesn't stem from downforce, it stems from lack of downforce, too much horsepower, and too little tire.

So what is the real problem with inability to pass?  -  It is the combination of too much horsepower, no generation of drafting effect (an issue that can solve itself by improving downforce), and too little grip - by this it is the mixture of downforce and tire.  NASCAR increased downforce for two races in 2015 - really the first time they've ever embraced high downforce - but did nothing to horsepower or the tire.  On this score Larry McReynolds, who has claimed "We've tried every combination of cars and aero packages under the stars" for the Brickyard and elsewhere, is quite mistaken, less on downforce than the combination involved.

NASCAR has attacked the downforce issue piecemeal, and from the completely wrong angle; it has consistently tried to quash downforce and has never addressed tire or horsepower, except in perfunctory manner via a minor reduction via tapered spacer from 850 to 725 in 2015 - and by now I'd be surprised if the teams hadn't long ago regained what little horsepower they lost.

A true cut in horsepower via narrower spacer would involve restricting power to 500 or slightly above; in such a true reduction one can see allowing elimination of NASCAR's gear rule (something McReynolds had advocated).  Cutting horsepower has never been a popular idea, yet the myth is still pushed that the cars should have more, not less.   We hear advocacy of eliminating the gear rule, with no one seeming to notice that horsepower has only been increasing for twenty-odd years, the cars have ample throttle response - the main argument against restrictor plate racing is that the cars lack throttle response - and yet no one can pass.

The tire remains an issue on which Goodyear never seems to be held accountable.  At Dover's Mason-Dixon 400 this season, and it seems quite by accident, Goodyear had a tire the leaders could fight for the lead on.   The Truck Series - high downforce and noticeably lower horsepower compared to the cars - has had a competitive renaissance the last five-plus years and it would seem they have tires that are more forgiving and thus raceable.   Having ample tire on the surface has been a staple of Indycars and the NASCAR Modifieds seemingly forever.

So it begs the question - why can't Goodyear engineer a tire that's truly forgiving like bias-plies are for local racing and were for the big leagues?

Occassionally Goodyear has made a change on the tire; the 1999 Yankee 400 at Michigan, with a higher stagger tire, is one of the most famous examples

Does advocacy of abandoning Indianapolis for NASCAR a sign the sport as a group has run out of answers? - Yes and no.   It's a sign a lot of cherished conceits about the rules packages have been permanently disproven, and it's also a sign of the lack of imagination in the sport's leadership and media to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.   It's also a disturbing sign that a lot of people seem to want to give up on dealing with the technology arms race, which is the ultimate mistake.   The notion of leaving racing at the mercy of technology is absurd.   There manifestly is need for different approaches to dealing with these issues.

Are there other angles besides the technology arms race that are the problem? -  Yes - the sport's overemphasis on points racing. The drivers long ago stopped treating race wins as anything except something counterproductive to winning, and they've done so because the points system refuses to reward winning and leading.   The Chase concept was a reaction to Matt Kenseth's 2003 title with just one race win, and it was the wrong reaction - the solution was to simply increase the bonus for each race win to over 100 points above second and to increase the bonus for most laps led to 100, to ensure the leader of most laps would outpoint almost everyone else but the race winner.   By putting all the emphasis on winning and leading - incentivizing going for the win - the sport would see a significant upsurge in the fight for the lead race after race.

So what is the balance sheet going into Pocono? -  Pocono is a track with a genuine history of quality racing that like all the others has suffered from poor application of the technology arms race.    Pocono in August is usually different from June.  Dale Junior's 2014 sweep was the first there since Jimmie Johnson in 2004 and those two plus Denny Hamlin spanning 2009-10 are the only drivers with a two-race win streak there since Tim Richmond's three-race rampage of 1986-87.

Kurt Busch's win in June was the eighth for Chevrolet in the last eleven Pocono races, but Chevrolet overall this year has been outclassed by Toyota, winners of 24 of the last 51 races.   The decline of the Hendrick fleet has been the surprise of the last two seasons, but a competitive correction has long been overdue there.

Curiously quiet has been Denny Hamlin, who at Indy rebounded from two mediocre finishes and ninth at NHMS to finish fourth and has led only 78 laps since winning the Daytona 500.

The JGR Toyotas have been the cars of the series all year.   The recent surge of the Fords has been the underrated story of the last month apart from the usual Penske muscle.  The Roush fleet began storming close to the front again for three races before hitting a wall (literally in Greg Biffle's case) at Indianapolis.  

The surge of Stewart-Haas Racing is the only other constant to feel confident about entering Pocono as they - outside of Danica Patrick, as usual - continue to surge, a good sign for Ford for 2017.   The only other Chevrolet outfit is RCR, which has begun to string together some good finishes the last five or so races but still looks hopelessly outpowered.

I don't expect a repeat winner at Pocono, but a first-time winner or any kind of darkhorse winner looks out of reach.   The sport's competitive decline has been long and ongoing and won't be corrected without radical changes.

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