Thursday , September 18 2014
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Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s Battle With Attrition And Aerodynamics

Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s Battle With Attrition And Aerodynamics

Did You Notice?… How lack of attrition can sometimes lead to a lack of excitement? When I think Pocono and Dover, in the old days their unpredictability was built, in part, on whether or not cars would finish the race. At Dover, it was the difficulty of the track that was the problem. At Pocono, it was the high RPMs heading into Turn 1, the longest frontstretch in motorsports, which would cook engines like hamburgers on a hot summer day. And then… there was shifting, with drivers treating the Triangle like a road course, jumping from third to fourth gear at various points. At Pocono, transmissions endured more stress than any other track where cars turned only left.

The results often proved just right for Pocono’s supposed level of difficulty. 500 miles races at the track in the 1990s would end with less than half the field finishing those events, lending tp some nervous anticipation during even the largest of routs. Is Jimmie Johnson out in front by ten seconds? Great, but who knows if the No. 48 engine will last. That kind of stuff kept people tuned in just to see what transpired.

It’s a “wild card” for these events, at two of the sport’s unique facilities, a playing card that now is like drawing a dud. Only three cars failed to finish at Pocono Sunday, with just one (Joey Logano) cooking their engine before 160 laps were complete. Further back, the 43rd-place finisher, Dave Blaney, was actually running at the end for the first time in the history of the racetrack. It’s part of a growing trend where the “survival” rate at Pocono has increased to the point where broken parts and pieces are rarely an issue. Check the table below:

Average Number Of Cars Still Running At The Finish Of Pocono Cup Races

1970s:22.8
1980s:24.3
1990s:30.4
2000s:34.9
2010s:33.1

As you can see, during the past two decades there’s been a giant uptick in the amount of cars around at the finish. Also, keep in mind a lot of the DNFs we’ve seen in the late 2000s and 2010s have been from start-and-parks, teams that typically take Pocono to bank some cash as sponsors don’t consider the remote Pennsylvania mountains a “major market.” Perhaps the biggest statistic, then lies in the number of engine failures we’ve had, showcasing how often equipment still gets tested. At times, Pocono would once swallow up eight, ten, even a dozen engines over the course of just one race. Now? Since the start of 2007, in the last 15 Cup races held at Pocono engines have failed a total of seven times. That’s an average of slightly less than 0.5 per race, hardly a number that moves the meter and keeps fans on the edge of their seat, wondering if a dominant leader might blow up.

Of course, I understand I’m writing this point after a race in which Brad Keselowski’s overheating concerns cost him down the stretch. But note Keselowski’s panic was unwarranted; the car did make it to the end, without a problem, and his Penske team was the only one to have a faulty motor throughout the course of the day. No one else was in serious trouble despite higher speeds, which in theory were driving up RPMs on engines during the course of the weekend.

Brad Keselowski didn't exactly paint a pretty picture of the sport's aero situation after Sunday's race.

Brad Keselowski didn’t exactly paint a pretty picture of the sport’s aero situation after Sunday’s race.

So what does that make Pocono now? In this age of aerodynamic hell,  it is now a chess game where fuel mileage, pit strategy, and a few laps of green-flag restarts determine your place on the board. That’s not exactly the three hours of competition some people are looking to spend their money or time on.

Did You Notice?… An increasing attitude for people to wave the “white flag” when it comes to the current problems with NASCAR and engineering? I’ve mentioned it before, mostly during the end of the sport’s Gen-5 car where the dreaded “aero push” had made passing virtually impossible, yet everyone seemed to be shrugging their shoulders and going, “we can only change so much.” 2014 had been better, in part due to better racing under NASCAR’s new rules, until this gem came from Brad Keselowski, uttered at the end of Sunday’s Pocono press conference.

“Yeah, it just was going to dictate who was going to win the race,” said Kes about the “aero push” that left so many running in place, not passing for most of Sprint Cup’s 400-miler. “That’s part of racing. That’s part of really all of racing, the aerodynamics taking over motorsports, and we’ve all kind of learned to live around it and it makes the restarts so critical. But it’s just kind of part of the deal.”

Now, Keselowski is one of the smartest NASCAR drivers out there, whose opinions are needed in an era of political correctness. But this type of attitude, for those watching the sport’s decline over the past decade makes you want to pull your hair out. Imagine you have a grocery store that’s losing money, because your produce is bad and everyone is sitting there going, “I don’t like the store anymore. The fruit always goes stale so why shop here?” Would your response, as the store manager be, “Yeah, well our employees and our cooling system just isn’t what it used to be. That’s just part of it.”

If you answered “yes,” congratulations: you just accepted the easy way to run your company out of business. Here we are, with so many complaining about the aerodynamics ruining the product and people just sit there and say, “Aw shucks, that’s part of the deal.” After a race like Pocono, where engineering has figured out a sophisticated way to make the sport bland, it’s the type of answer that should drive decision-makers up the wall.

You know what accepting the status quo does? Explaining that this type of weakness should be “part of it?” It brings exactly zero fans to the table; instead, it only accelerates downhill trends. This problem isn’t about a team stinking up the show for a quarter, a half, even a game in the NFL. It’s about a three-hour product continuously defined by a weakness where everyone is willing to acquiesce to “wind tunnels” and seven-figure engineering rather than focus on practical solutions to evolve the sport in a way where its long-term survival is guaranteed.

Sure, I understand this criticism comes without a solution. But I also know money is never spent working towards solutions unless there are people actually clamoring for them. I didn’t see that Sunday, drivers were either afraid to get fined for speaking out on bad racing or simply stomaching what they knew was a poor product. That’s troubling.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…

- So much for young drivers causing a short field for the Camping World Truck Series at larger tracks. Here we are, at Gateway this weekend for a race in which 16 and 17-year-olds are eligible to drive and the field is still short, with just 30 entered (and a handful of those are start-and-parks). Friday night, in Texas, the 27-truck field was the smallest, in any race since the series’ inaugural season of 1995. That’s right; at no time, even during some lean years as of late, has the Truck count dipped that low. Other standalone races later this season, depending on the financial state of some mid-tier Truck teams, could be even worse. It’s a story that bears watching should the field dip to as low as 23, 24 for some races in late summer and early Fall. At what point do you start losing viability?

- Kudos to Dave Blaney and Randy Humphrey Racing, who is now trying to go the distance along with every other program on the Cup circuit this season. But the team, which withdrew from Michigan Tuesday, appears to be a major step behind. With just four races made, they’ve failed to qualify seven times and have simply withdrawn in the other three events of 2014, likely fearing an additional DNQ (and waste of money). Their best finish so far is 33rd, seventeen laps off the pace and Blaney’s car was so loose at Pocono he could barely drive it. That’s the problem with start-and-park owners as they transition into full-time competition; it’s like they’re a brand new team, with no notes or extensive practice to go on.

- Juan Pablo Montoya makes his much-anticipated return to the Cup Series this weekend at Michigan. Will he be a factor? I’d say there’s a chance, especially with the way his new Penske Racing team has been running as of late. Keep in mind Montoya had top-10 qualifying efforts at both Michigan races last year, driving for Ganassi and ran 11th in August. It’s not one of his better tracks, historically but with no points, only pride on the line he’s going to be a tough guy to get around on race day.

-  It’s a sad week in NASCAR as we mourn the loss of Junie Donlavey, passing away at age 90 after running the No. 90 in NASCAR competition for years. All those who root for the underdog loved that little single-car effort, which housed Dick Trickle in his later years while also helping develop the careers of Ricky Rudd, Ken Schrader, and even Ernie Irvan for a short while. The Virginian, a link to a different era where independents had their time to shine will be sorely missed.

Check out Tom Bowles' take on Pocono Sunday in his latest Athlon Sports column, Through The Gears.

Check out Tom Bowles’ take on Pocono Sunday in his latest Athlon Sports column, Through The Gears.

About Tom Bowles

Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

2 comments

  1. I think a big part of the problem now is that we are back at newly paved tracks, or tracks that don’t want to age (Charlotte). The new rules package is helping, but it doesn’t make enough difference at the tracks with new pavement. Hopefully, taking horsepower out of the engines will be another positive step.