Say what you will about NASCAR’s 2018 Monster Energy All-Star Race but there’s no arguing it’s over. Or is it? If nothing else, we’ve gotten a glimpse of their new aero and restrictor plate package. It’s developed with an eye towards making racing on the intermediate tracks more palatable than the typically sedate parades we see on mile-and-a-half tracks lately.
Some folks who have written me have gone so far as to suggest that the news rules package used in the All-Star Race be adopted immediately in time for next week’s 600 miler at the same track. Sorry, folks; that won’t and simply can’t happen. NASCAR has a deal with the Race Team Alliance (to whit, the team owners) that they will not make such radical changes too quickly during the season. For when they do make that sort of rule change, invariably it costs the team owners money… not NASCAR. But could they be looking at the same or similar rules package for 2019?
I certainly hope not, at least not without some major changes.
I was actually caught quite off guard with the fervor that some folks had for Saturday night’s race. It always makes me a little suspicious, like when you go online to read reviews of a new restaurant, they’re 100% positive and all the “different” posters misspell the same word. It would seem that increasingly NASCAR is trying to sway fans’ opinions by getting the racing media to put a Pollyanna-esque spin on things.
That won’t work. Trust me, I’ve been doing this a long time and race fans have deeply held convictions about what is and isn’t good racing. They don’t care to be chided like a small child told to shut up and behave at the corner Dairy Queen.
If you did, in fact, enjoy Saturday night’s race, more power to you. I’m glad you had an enjoyable evening either at the track or watching from your home. I guess is you’ve been fed a steady diet of lukewarm gruel. Having warmed up gruel with a dusting of cinnamon added tastes great. (And presumably is less filling.) I think I watched the same race the rest of you did, although since I have Verizon Fios, there’s always a possibility I didn’t.
I came away less than impressed.
Let’s see if I’m recalling things correctly. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. led the first five laps after starting on the front row. (All-Star Stenhouse has won two races in his career, both of them oddly enough at plate tracks. He may just be the next reincarnation of Michael Waltrip, as frightening as that notion might be.) Next, Kevin Harvick passed him. Wow, I’ve seen this Loony-Tune before this season, thought I to myself, grabbing a 12 ounce Red Bull out the Frigidaire.
Harvick continued to lead for the rest of that stage. But his team had a substandard pit stop at stage end, just confirming what many already feel about this season: the only team that can beat the No. 4 team this year is, in fact, the No. 4 team.
Martin Truex Jr. then took a single lap in the top spot before being passed by Kyle Busch. Yep, I’ve heard that name before this year. Frantic racing and an occasional pass directly after a restart? Yep, seen that before this year and, in fact, over the last decade. Busch led the rest of stage two. After that, Brad Keselowski gambled on two tires which put him to the front for the restart. He led a single lap before being passed by Truex. However, Keselowski repassed the No. 78 car. And the crowd went wild! That’s before Truex retook the lead and led the next 15 laps of a 93-lap race.
Pandemonium ensued when Alex Bowman (and what is a fellow who has never won a Cup race doing in an All-Star Race, by the way?) wrecked on what would have been the last lap of the third stage. Some teams decided to pit. Some did not. Pretty much the status quo as I see it from my house.
Denny Hamlin emerged as the leader. And shortly after the restart (Lap 76) eight of the 21 cars running the race got into a big smoking pig pile of a wreck. And the crowd did, in fact, go wild. I’m not sure whether that’s because Kyle Busch was involved (easy there KyBu fans; face it, on his best day your boy is polarizing. As an aside I loved Busch’s comments on how he got back to the front after two pit road penalties during Friday’s Truck race on “pure talent.” Yeah, well that and having about quadruple the cubic dollars of a budget for your teams as compared to most anyone else.)
Or maybe it was because I’ve been wrong all along and fans do, in fact, watch or attend races hoping to see big field-decimating wrecks. If that is, in fact, the case perhaps I need to find a new line of work.
Moving on, Hamlin retook the lead for another seven laps as the field ran behind the pace car. The third stage ended two laps later setting up the scheduled 10-lap shootout.
Joey Logano and Kyle Larson were then kind enough to wreck. There was some post-accident extracurricular activity between the two with Logano delivering a few cheap shots. After the race, the two seemed more amused than angry about what had happened and were both ever so PC in their comments.
Meanwhile, Harvick led every lap of the last stage. Forever and ever, amen. Kevin Harvick winning an event in 2018? Nope, didn’t see that coming did we? At which point presumably everyone went home or switched off their TV.
That was a great race? Maybe I’m missing something. Now, when someone says that Saturday night’s All-Star Race was better than some of the other All-Star Races in the last decade I will heartily agree. But that’s hardly a stunning endorsement of the whole All-Star Race concept. Buy your tickets now. This race could possibly suck less than some you’ve sat through!
I usually stick to what I know (I’m not a very sticky person), but I’m told there’s been a similar debate in the great (and to my eye, grating) American sport of baseball. The hardcore fans can and do enjoy a pitching duel that ends with a 1-0 result. They go wild over watching a pitcher toss a no-hitter, humiliating the other team. And if the visiting team destroys your hometown squad 15-0, well, that happens sometimes in baseball. Especially if you live in Philadelphia.
Less pure baseball fans want to see a lot of hits and base running. They want to see balls hit out of the park and the lead see-sawing back and forth between the two teams. Or so I am told. But MLB hasn’t allowed players to cork their bats to send more home runs into the cheap seats. Not yet, anyway.
Restrictor plates in NASCAR racing are like corked bats. Call it the “Least Common Denominator Syndrome”. When even the pitcher routinely knocks one over the fence, the beauty of a well-hit ball landing in the front row is lost. You get one point whether that ball just clears the railing or leaves the park.
It may seem uncharacteristic but I’ll applaud NASCAR for recognizing there’s a problem with a majority of races run these days and trying to do something about it. I’m further encouraged they decided to run the experiment during a race that is not only non-points paying but pointless. But whatever the solution is, I’m confident it will not involve restrictor plates. Those pile-up plates are an anathema to real racing like those corked bats or a 75-yard long field in the NFL to increase scoring. Since they were reintroduced back in 1988 after Bobby Allison’s infamous Talladega wreck as a “temporary” measure the plates have been a pox on “real racing.” We need to find a way to get rid of them at Daytona and Talladega, not introduce them at other tracks.
There also seems to a widely-held misconception that the plates were responsible for the classic slingshot racing in days of yore. Firstly, races like the 1976 and 1979 Daytona 500s occurred before the use of plates. In the draft, which was the result of a lead car about as aerodynamic as a boxcar back then, that leading car punched a huge hole in the air. The trailing car rode along in the lead car’s wake.
If you’ve ever water-skied, you’ve felt the difference between being in and out of the towing boat’s wake. At some point, often on the last lap and sometimes out of the last corner, the second-place driver pulled out of line to make the pass and it appeared as if that car had suddenly found another 50 horsepower. In fact, drivers who were leading a race would often hit the brakes, forcing the trailing driver to take the lead because again, on that last lap it was more advantageous to be running second than first. (It was so blatant, Sir Jackie Stewart commenting on a race began screaming that Pearson was “out of petrol” when, in fact, he’d simply gotten on the brakes to take over second place. And no, I had no idea what petrol was back then either.)
My guess is the solution to making racing more exciting is going to found in the aerodynamics of the cars. A good start might be to take a mid-1970s stock car (one of Richard Petty’s old Chargers just sold for $490,000 so I’ll assume it’s in pretty good shape) to the wind tunnel to see what sort of numbers it posted. Just as importantly, a second race car of that vintage needs to be added to the test to study those aerodynamic numbers, both when it’s behind and beside the other car. That’s the target we’re shooting for. (As well as 550-600 horsepower engines, as were common back then. But no plates.)
The bigger real spoiler used Saturday was probably a good aerodynamic start. Those spoilers did cause some forward vision problems numerous drivers complained about but I can’t see why at least a portion of the spoiler can’t be made of clear Lexan if they already make some of that stuff bulletproof. A taxi-cab strip on the roof and a radical splitter-ectomy on the front end would also likely be part of the solution. Once again (I should get this tattooed on my forehead) “Slower speeds, better racing.”
Since we’re blue-skying here and NASCAR is showing themselves open to radical solutions let’s look at some other key differences between a Petty Era Charger and a modern NASCAR racer. One thing that jumps out at me is back then the tires were bias-ply, not radials. Bias-ply tires have lower limits of adhesion than radials but when they do start losing grip, they do so more predictably than radials. (If you ever watched Tim Richmond drive a stock car you know what that looks like from the master.) Tire fall-off over a period of time is a good thing and it leads to an interesting mix of strategies.
But hold on thar, Bubba-louie, someone is shouting. Radial tires are a thing of the past. Goodyear only makes radials. And based on Goodyear’s success (in a series where they are the single supplier) it’s supposed to translate to consumer sales? Well, how many consumers want a set of tires that wear out in about 50 miles and can’t be driven in the rain or during the winter like the Goodyear slicks in NASCAR racing? To be honest, I’ve never understood Goodyear’s strategy in today’s NASCAR. If a Goodyear-equipped car wins a race, it draws little notice. All the cars, including the one that finished dead last, ran the same tire. If Goodyear tires start failing during the race it just makes them look bad.
While the topic of tires is open, Formula One and American open-wheel racing have enjoyed great success with multiple compound tires. Teams and drivers can choose between the softer (typically “red”) tires that offer more grip but wear out more quickly or the “hard” tires which won’t grip as well but remain consistent longer. Towards the end of a race, when a caution flies, teams and drivers have to decide if it’s worth surrendering track position on a set of worn standard tires to grab a set of new reds for the final fifteen-lap run to the checkers. There are few races that are as universally lauded as those where a driver who wasn’t a factor all day emerges in the last five laps to pull off an upset. Predictability is the essence of what’s wrong with racing these days.
The open-wheel boys have also had great success with what they call the “push to pass” option. All teams start the race with an amount of push to pass they can use to overtake an opponent or hold him at bay. If a driver has to make an unscheduled pit stop, he might use his push to pass to get back up to the leaders. But once he uses it all up, he’s a sitting duck to the others who have held some of that push to pass for the final laps of the race.
NASCAR is practically phobic about electronic engine control of any sort. The pushrod engines that still run in NASCAR racing are relatively primordial compared to the stuff run in INDYCAR. But there’s still a way to introduce an option similar to push to pass in stock car racing. If you street raced back in the 1980s and 1990s (guilty as charged, Your Honor) you are familiar with using nitrous oxide to allow for short bursts of an extra 150, 200 or more horsepower. Nitrous oxide, the same stuff your dentist uses to sedate you, adds more air to the intake charge and when coupled with more fuel the power boost is dramatic but decidedly finite, perfect for drag racing but of limited use in oval track racings approaching 500 miles.
A driver would have to carefully ration his use of nitrous during the race in hopes of having some left to use on the final lap going for a win. I’d like to see each car start with about three minutes worth of nitrous at their disposal, which I’d guess would be about a ten to 20 pound bottle. Whatever it takes. And to add a little visual drama to the racing, when a driver was hitting the nitrous button red lights at the front and rear of his race car would flash.
Too radical an idea? I’m not married to it. But something has to be done to improve the quality and unpredictability of stock car races. NASCAR pretty much admitted as much Saturday and while I wasn’t impressed with their package, some of you were. We’re all working towards a common goal here, better racing to the betterment of the sport. But any solution that involves restrictor plates earns you a bright red, circled F on your spring semester science project.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.