NASCAR’s policies can be seen as a double-edged sword, of sorts. It all has to do with the idea of “clean” air.
One aspect of this stems from the sanctioning body’s green initiative. Automobile racing in general has been pilloried by the environmental community for its wanton consumption of natural resources. This criticism dates back to the oil embargoes of the 1970s and NASCAR’s pledge to reduce fuel use by shortening events and being more resource responsible. Even Big Bill France himself led the charge to make the sport more environmentally friendly back then.
Fast forward to 2015, and today we hear how NASCAR plants 10 trees every time a green flag is thrown during a race. Reforestation is a most noble pursuit that not only provides our planet with increased filtration of our oxygen supply, but also serves as a very public example of NASCAR’s commitment to improving our environment.
Dare I suggest, however, that the sanctioning body ignores the thousands of vehicles that sit idling in what seem to be endless traffic snarls before and after events? For the sake of brevity, let’s just pretend that the only environmental harm comes from the 43 stock cars turning laps on race day.
But therein lies the next and most competitively-relevant chapter of the story: the dilemma teams face regarding the new rules package and the dependence on finding clean air of another sort in order to outrun 42 other cars any given weekend.
NASCAR can plant as many saplings as it wants whenever it wants, but the real “clean air” in question involves that which flows over the body of a stock car – especially a stock car running at the front. As we saw at Charlotte this past weekend, it’s clean air and the car upfront that often enjoys a distinct (and often insurmountable) advantage.
We saw it with Clint Bowyer’s Showdown win. We saw it again with Denny Hamlin’s All-Star Race victory. Kevin Harvick managed to run Hamlin down and challenge for the lead in the final laps of that event, but all it took for Denny to seal the deal was to change lines and upset the air surrounding Harvick’s Chevrolet. Harvick developed a wicked push and wound up second; Hamlin wound up with the oversized check.
We’ve seen it too many times in recent NASCAR history: the car that takes the lead with a handful of laps to go tends to hold said lead and win the race. Others may get fairly close, and some may take a shot or two at the leader as laps wind down, but the driver in clean air typically – more often than not – makes a post-race trip to victory lane.
And it all sounds so simple, doesn’t it? If you want to win, you get upfront and hang on until the end. That’s the cardinal rule of racing, is it not? On one hand, it is. But on the other hand, shouldn’t there be a realistic opportunity for the second- or third-place driver to have a shot at stealing the victory? Shouldn’t a win come from cars running close, capitalizing on horsepower and handling and the best taking the checkered flag first? That sounds right.
The problem is: the new Sprint Cup aero package is all about turbulence. If you’re not punching the primary hole through the air, you’re getting kicked around in the lead car’s wake. Dirty air has always been a factor in NASCAR. Being able to “read” the air was what supposedly made Dale Earnhardt such a force to reckon with on superspeedways during his career. Other drivers seem to possess such skills (Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip are two who come to mind), but it seems even more evident that the new rules package in use overshadows driver skill. Get the lead with 20 laps to go and you’ll likely go unchallenged.
Single-file racing might result from the new aerodynamics package, but it certainly does little to make Cup events exciting. Talk around the water cooler on Monday morning lent itself to the results of the Camping World truck race on Friday and the Xfinity race on Sunday afternoon.
Even the ARCA race at Toledo garnered more attention, but then Todd Gilliland set a new record as the youngest winner in stock car competition. Todd’s dad has a knack for reading the air on superspeedways, but maybe that skill doesn’t mean much now that the 2015 Cup rules are hindering on-track performance.
But, hey, even if the new aero rules turn races into single-file parades to the finish, at least we’ll all be able to breathe easier thanks to those newly-planted trees.
As we’ve learned from NASCAR’s policies: it’s all about clean air.
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