Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy writes about reasons to like the rules changes NASCAR announced for 2015…and also why not to.
NASCAR announced its new 2015 rules Tuesday, and as expected, there are reductions in downforce and horsepower. Also covered are preparations for running on a road course in the rain, options for digital dashboards and adjustments drivers can make in the cars, as well as changes to qualifying and testing procedures. For a full rundown, check out our full story.
Are all of the changes great news for the sport and its fans? Maybe, maybe not. There’s a lot to like for sure, but there are also a few that could have a negative impact on the sport. Here are some of each.
1. Like: Reduction in downforce and horsepower has potential to put races more in drivers’ hands.
Anything that can put the racing more in the hands of the drivers and less in the shop is a good thing. In theory, at least, these changes should help reduce the aerodynamic dependence that has been a big – and unfortunate – factor in races. It can’t be eliminated completely, of course, but slowing the cars down and making them harder to handle should make a difference. This change should make it easier to pass if a driver can manhandle his car and would lessen the advantage that comes from clean air, allowing drivers to be more competitive on green-flag runs and not in need of a restart to gain ground.
It may also bring about some power shifts as this year’s rules have; these rules look to play right into the hands of the drivers who have competed regularly in the Nationwide Series as the 2015 cars will be lighter and less powerful. For drivers like Kyle Busch, who handles the Nationwide cars better than the Cup models, it could mean a big advantage, while putting those, who, like Jimmie Johnson, prefer the heavier, more powerful Cup cars, behind the curve.
2. Like: Rain equipment.
There are reasons – good ones – not to race in the rain on road courses. One of those is that racing in the rain forces fans in attendance to watch in the rain. However, many fans seem to be in favor of using rain tires in the Cup Series despite that discomfort to those in attendance, so NASCAR changed their long-time stance on it and will attempt to run in the rain at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. It will certainly produce a different type of competition, setting up a variety of strategies and adding an element of the unknown.
If the fans in attendance don’t mind sticking it out in bad weather, it gives those watching in person and at home more of a chance to see the entire race rather than risking missing it if it’s postponed to Monday. That’s good for NASCAR and sponsors as well, because there will likely be more eyes on the race on a weekend.
The downside here is that tires and windshield wipers aren’t the only thing for teams to worry about. Even with the wiper, visibility is poor and that’s multiplied if the windows fog up. That could lead to either a very slow parade of cars for many laps or to a lot of crashing. It’s still worth trying, because many fans have asked for it, but it won’t make for perfect racing.
3. Or Not: Tapered Spacers.
There had to be a way to reduce horsepower without using a spacer, whether that meant tweaking the fuel injection programming or using engines with a different compression ratio. The spacers, which act similar to a restrictor plate, will limit power and slow the cars down, but they rob throttle response and slow them artificially. Lack of response, even miniscule, can make for some messy consequences. It might help some of the smaller teams keep up, but it might not if handling is affected. Many times, teams that appear to be underpowered are not, but rather can’t run at 100 percent due to handling deficits. That’s not a terrible thing as it separates the competition, but it could mean racing that’s not as much better as it could be. With all the technology in NASCAR today, there is really no reason to use the spacers rather than developing an actual solution to reduce horsepower.
4. Or Not: No January Daytona testing
For a diehard race fan, the winter can be a very long, bleak time. Daytona testing was good for the sport for a few reasons, but chiefly because it put NASCAR on the map in the midst of NBA season and the height of the NFL playoffs. Keeping the sport relevant is never a bad thing, especially when other sports are taking center stage on a regular basis. Testing was also a time for teams to try things out and for drivers to shake off a winter’s worth of rust and to spend a little time with their teams getting ready for a new season. Still, the people missing out the most are the fans who look forward all winter to hearing the engines roar to life. It used to be a special time.
The 2015 testing ban, in general, also hurts the small teams more than the bigger ones. Testing was a chance for the little teams to find something in the cars that the big ones probably already have figured out thanks to high-tech equipment and wind tunnel time that many can’t afford. A better solution would have been to limit testing, while giving a few additional dates to teams with rookie drivers and those outside the top 20 in points.
5. Or Not: Even fewer areas for teams to work.
I’ve said it before, but NASCAR needs more grey areas, not fewer. There needs to be more gear choice, because it brings more risk: too much gear and you blow the engine, not enough, and you’re slower than a dog. The sport needs that aspect brought back. There’s little attrition any more, and that aspect of the sport is necessary. The element of the unknown keeps fans engaged.
Letting teams work on the cars is what the sport should be about. Sure, you need rules and parameters, but keeping them a little broader and open to innovation only makes the sport more exciting, makes winning that much more difficult and impressive. Teams should have more choice in everything from gears to suspensions; even tires should be an area where teams can choose from different compounds for a weekend. The more variations there are, the more teams and drivers will find ways to shine… or to fall on their behinds. The sport needs variation badly, and it’s not there.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.