As NASCAR debates and looks to team owners for approval to potentially use a restrictor-plate package with front-end air ducts at a points race this year, it knows it won’t please everyone.
After the May 19 All-Star Race — which used restrictor plates, a bigger spoiler and air ducts that tunneled air through the front wheel wells before hitting the front tires — that created more action than the 600-mile affair on May 27 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, there is a push to try the package at other tracks where drivers tend to get strung out and have a difficult time passing.
The most often mentioned races are at Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway later this summer and possibly Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the track where it might help the most but also is the site of the final regular-season race.
NASCAR needs team-owner approval to make a significant aerodynamic change or engine change without several months’ notice for a points-paying race. And it very well might get it.
“I thought it was terrific [for the All-Star Race] — nobody could get away,” team owner Roger Penske said. “The short runs made it a little bit different. The tension of running [segments of] 10 or 20 or 30 laps is different than when you’re running a 500-mile race. You wouldn’t quite have seen maybe stuff so close.
“I think it’s in the right direction.”
The Xfinity Series cars used the package at Indianapolis last year, and it was a better race. Going into this year, NASCAR told the teams they would use it in Xfinity at Pocono, Michigan and Indianapolis. The race at Pocono did not produce much drafting or slingshot passing (the second stage provided an exciting finish), with drivers saying their time off the throttle meant that the cars wouldn’t draft like NASCAR had hoped.
Drivers are skeptical about the package because restrictor-plate racing is not their typical form of racing and is one in which they don’t feel they and their team have as much of an impact.
“This is a competition,” Kyle Busch said after winning the Xfinity race at Pocono. “Even though it’s a show, we’re supposed to put on a great race. I don’t know if all races and all tracks promote great racing.
“I thought that [this Xfinity race] was a resemblance of what we would have saw, maybe even a little different than what we would have saw with the normal package here. With runs and such, and guys getting drafts and being out with the guys who would have been out of the throttle a little more. It just seemed like guys got rewarded for being able to take care of their tires and take care of their car.”
Even NASCAR’s head aerodynamicist was frustrated after the Xfinity race as he tweeted:
Disappointing day today. Not enough cornering ability to make the package work through 1 and 3. Was worth a shot. We’ll make it up to you at Michigan next week.
— Eric Jacuzzi (@ejacuzzi) June 2, 2018
Lap speeds have seemed to be about 15 miles per hour slower with the package.
“What I like about it is we’re trying something,” Penske said. “Talking to our folks, a little tweaking — I’m not sure what that means in those guys’ wording — but for me I’d like to see us maybe run it [at Indy], some talk about it running at Michigan.
“I think we have to do it as an industry. Once we get into the [playoffs], let’s make sure that we run something to what we know. … It’s a little bit of a wake-up call on what we can do and how the whole group will work with them.”
Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles said prior to the Indianapolis 500 that he wouldn’t mind NASCAR experimenting with the package at Indy, but he wished NASCAR would do a test first.
“My guess is it probably doesn’t come into play for this year’s Brickyard 400, but we’d be willing to participate if they wanted to. … That’s a NASCAR decision,” Boles said.
“One thing that I think is important for this place is that if they’re going to do that, we have an opportunity to test it somehow so they know how it’s going to work here.”
Boles likely said that because NASCAR tested a high-drag package (but no restrictor plates) with Cup cars in 2015 at Indianapolis, and it was not a good race. Michigan, too, has been a place where NASCAR has implemented a “test” package for a race with mediocre results.
“Have we seen that better racing increases ratings? I don’t know that there is a true yes to that answer,” driver Denny Hamlin said after the All-Star weekend. “[In the past four years], we had three straight finishes of side-by-side, and it didn’t really make any difference in that sense.
“You’ve got to get with the teams, figure out what they want to do, what NASCAR wants to do. Drivers, at this point, we’re going to drive whatever machine they put under us.”
Fans certainly wouldn’t mind better racing, but there could be some perception that they are paying to watch a test as much as a race, something that won’t go over well with all fans.
And while more entertaining, it might not prove to fans that they are watching drivers with exceptional racing skills.
“If you had the need for speed and had decent car control, anybody could have driven it,” Cup rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. said. “And it shouldn’t be like that. … It just felt like you were at like a carnival ride and everybody was along for the ride.”
But Wallace and other drivers know they are also in the entertainment business, and it was more exciting.
“It was cool how we were at Charlotte driving like a speedway and controlling both lanes,” Wallace said. “We were out front there for that last stage in the Open, and it’s like, ‘OK, top has got the momentum, bottom’s got the momentum,’ kind of blocking and pulling off those moves, so that aspect was cool.
“So we’ve got to figure out how to give us more motor and get the aero platform to where we could still race like that and not have to worry so much about the dirty air.”
The issue for teams is how much time and money do they spend working on the package. Before the All-Star Race, teams didn’t know the exact dimensions of the air ducts, which were handed to them. Many teams and engine builders indicated the cost was well into six figures for teams.
“Everyone sets their budgets up at the beginning of the year and know where they’re going to be for the season,” Hamlin crew chief Mike Wheeler said. “The moment you take away from that — it’s not an easy answer.”
Wheeler said if it is used in three races, that’s 180 points, which makes a bigger difference than if it is used at just one race.
“If this was a two- or a three-race program, I bet you there would be a couple of organizations that would put a lot more resources into this package versus their intermediate or short-track program because that is where they could get into the playoffs,” Wheeler said.
“If they did it for one race? No big deal. If they do it for two or three races and you can get 180 points out of that? [You] chase it a little bit more.”
Martin Truex Jr. crew chief Cole Pearn, whose driver won the Cup race at Michigan, noted that the racing Sunday with the current low downforce package appeared to work better than the package used in the Xfinity race.
His general manager, Joe Garone, is prepared to work on a change for some races.
“You have to be willing to go that direction,” he said. “Cost is a consideration because everything we do, no matter how it’s presented, costs significant money to get into development. … These guys will take the cars and try and optimize them, and we end up pouring a lot of dollars into those kinds of moves.
“However, if it can produce a better product on the track? That product is really good right now, quite honestly. [But] I think it’s good that we research that stuff if we can, given enough runway, enough time.”
There also will be costs in engine development, because the significantly reduced horsepower could mean different parts and pieces, as well as different mapping for the fuel injection to determine fuel-air mixture.
“The 600 people at Joe Gibbs Racing try to build fast race cars,” Busch said. “And when the fastest car can win the race, we’re thrilled with that being our car. And when it’s not our car, we know we’ve got to go to work and work harder.
“If the other package is what we … race anywhere else with, trust me, our engineers will science it out and, I hate to say, make it boring, but they’ll probably make it a bit more single file than what we saw.”