When NASCAR opted for radically different technical parameters for its Monster Energy Cup Series cars this season, it created a sense of optimism for some and incredible doubt in others.
Throughout the first half of 2019, several drivers have panned the package, their frustration over what has worked in the past did not apply and the feeling NASCAR had put a tourniquet on the value of racing talent and ability.
NASCAR believes the numbers and the eye test â especially in the final laps of the battle between Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson a couple of weeks ago at Chicagoland Speedway â have proved that wrong.
âLook no further than Alex Bowman,â NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve OâDonnell said. âYou rarely, if ever, saw a driver pass someone from the lead and have the ability to come back and make that pass again. Thatâs what we wanted to see in the package.â
The eye test will continue at the next three races â Kentucky, New Hampshire and Pocono â all of which have had their share of recent events where passing has been a challenge.
NASCAR has divided its season into two racing packages. For ovals more than 1.2 miles in length, it restricts engine flow to produce 550 horsepower â the target it believes will eventually attract new manufacturers to the sport â and combines that with an aero duct that pushes air ouf of the front wheel wells. For the shorter tracks and road courses, NASCAR restricts air to 750 horsepower with no aero ducts. Both have a large spoiler at the rear.
The result: Green-flag passes for the lead rank the second highest among the last five years. At 36.1 per race, it is up 43% over the 25.2 from last year. Twelve of the 18 races have had more green-flag passes for the lead than a year ago, including all six 1.5-mile tracks.
âI donât know how the majority of the races weâve had this year are not passing the eyeball test,â NASCAR president Steve Phelps said. âThey pass it for me.
âThey pass it for the majority of fans who we are talking to. âŚ I would suggest that the data would prove that when someone says, âHey, itâs hard to pass,â well, theyâre passing more than they were, so they always say itâs hard to pass. The point is that there is more passing.â
OâDonnell said the biggest surprise was the difficulty drivers had at Pocono. In response, NASCAR will have the track put down PJ1, a brand of traction compound, in the upper racing lane of all three turns in hopes of increasing grip, which would allow cars to go faster. It also will be used at Kentucky and New Hampshire as previously planned.
Because teams spend money on computer simulation and wind tunnel testing on any change, NASCAR has opted not to tweak the package, instead focused on working with Goodyear on a better tire at short tracks, OâDonnell said. An upcoming tire test at Martinsville specifically will address driversâ frustration.
âWhen we have typically gone to a tire test, a lot of the data and feedback has come from the lead car,â OâDonnell said about the three-driver tire tests.
âNow with the rules package, I donât want to say we donât care about that car, but itâs almost how did the second place and third place feel, because drivers are saying the tires is so important now if you can give me a little bit of wear âŚ you can have a really big impact.â
When NASCAR goes to a new car body, likely in 2021 but possibly not until 2022, it hopes to address driver feedback to create more ability to use side forces to get another car loose.
OâDonnell also noted that prior to the season, drivers predicted blocking would be required to stop passes and create plenty of wrecks. That hasnât happened. The other prediction was that more drivers could win â so far only seven drivers have qualified for the playoffs with wins in the first 18 races.
One other criticism came at Chicagoland when the pole speed of the Cup car was slower than that of all other series (ARCA and the three NASCAR national touring series) that raced at the track that weekend. That isnât lost on OâDonnell.
âWe wanted to make improvements to the intermediate racing on the Cup level,â OâDonnell said. âWe knew we had to do that. We believe we have. So letâs get that right at the highest level and then look at how our feeder system falls into that.â