Heading into the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series season, the series was in a transitional period. Big changes laid ahead, with new series sponsorship (since canceled due to lack of interest), the new Next Gen cars, the new hybrid engine packages, a heavily revamped schedule, and the new lower profile tire package all due in 2021 or certainly no later than 2022; they are now hedging their bets among the NASCAR brain trust, which is an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one.
With all the changes ahead, NASCAR didn’t want the team owners to have to lay out major cash for another new fleet of cars that would be obsolete in a year or so. The new NASCAR says they want to help race team owners cut down on expenses. (Which to me is like hearing Jeffery Epstein was very concerned about his “little friends” improving their SAT scores. But perhaps I’m being cynical.)
But while the transition to the all-new, all-singing, all-dancing, all live, all-beautiful future was occurring there were some pressing concerns that had to be addressed. Attendance at Cup races was in free fall, leaving some sections of grandstands looking like Chernobyl day two. TV ratings were cratering. And in general former fans were less engaged with and less enthusiastic about the sport.
For NASCAR and a lot of track owners (and NASCAR owns a lot of tracks now that the old ISC/NASCAR separate entity fairytale has ended), the solution seemed obvious. They needed to open up the infield at the tracks to fans and provide them with places they could buy massive quantities of alcohol, particularly cheap domestic beer. The message, though cleverly disguised, seemed to be, “You don’t have to be drunk to enjoy our racing, but it don’t hurt any.”
Other influencers and power brokers felt what might help is to improve the quality of the racing. Over every season in the sport’s history there have been some great races and some that have been about as fun to watch as staring at paint drying on a fire hydrant. Back in the day, the ratio of classics to clunkers just seemed a bit better. But again, the new cars were just on the horizon; how to improve the racecars without costing the team owners a fortune? NASCAR decided to introduce two new packages intended to work on different sorts of tracks. It had some special names for them, but they are generally referred to as the 550-horsepower package and the 750-horsepower package. The 750-horsepower package was intended for oval tracks 1.2 miles or less in length and the road courses. The 550-horsepower package was intended to be for what had traditionally been called the superspeedways.
In addition to the engine horsepower difference, the two packages used different aero packages as well. With the high-horsepower package, air taken in through the nose of the car was ducted to cool the brakes. On the 750 package, the air was released under the hood and intended to escape through the wheel wells and down the sides of the racecars. Side drafting has become an essential strategy in modern Cup racing. A driver trying to make a pass gets as close as possible to the car he’s trying to pass to disrupt the air flow along the sides of the intended passee. That slows the other car down and makes it a little looser. In theory. How did it work? Easy campers. Would you really want to find out the entire town would chip in what they could to save the Baily’s bank in the end during the scene when George is contemplating jumping off the bridge? I thought not.
Let my inspiration flow, in token rhyme suggesting rhythm
That will not forsake me, till my tale is told and done.
There were other differences in the packages but they were hard to discern with the naked eye. While one was supposedly smaller and the radiator pans width varied, both packages featured huge front splitters sufficient to have a casual observer drop to his knees to check and see if the kid who had been riding a hoverboard was still wedged under there as well. And both packages featured cartoonishly large rear spoilers that fans have cruelly mocked all year.
So how did NASCAR choke a 750-horsepower engine down to 550? For years it had been threatening to use restrictor plates. (They had, in fact, tried that technique at Michigan International Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway previously and at many tracks during the transition from big blocks to small block engines during the ’70s.) The issue was fans had been bellyaching for years they didn’t care for restrictor plate racing, no sir-ee Bob, not one little bit. Pile-up plates, they called the things.
But NASCAR decided to use what they call tapered spacers. So what’s the difference between a restrictor plate and a tapered spacer? Both do the same job restricting the amount of fuel air mixture allowed to flow from the carburetor or throttle body into the intake manifold. A handy fellow could probably fashion a perfectly serviceable restrictor plate out of a beer can with a pair of tin snips and the correctly sized hole saws. A tapered spacer is somewhat thicker, and as its name implies, the size of the opening is tapered from the top to the bottom. Other than that is a difference of “toe-mA-to” “toe-Mah-to. “
You know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. It turns out the 550 package wasn’t a good fit for some tracks. Thus the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Darlington Speedway and both Pocono Raceway events were run with a hybrid of the lower-horsepower package coupled with the brake cooling aerodynamic package.
And how did it work out? As is to be expected there were a few good races and even a couple very good races. There were some downright awful races as well. The high-horsepower package ruined the races at Martinsville Speedway and Richmond Raceway. Oddly enough, both Bristol Motor Speedway short track races were quite good. Speeds on the high banks at Bristol are notably higher than at the other two traditional short tracks left on the schedule. Take note of that, Sherman. So noted, Mr. Peabody.
The road courses weren’t good at all either, a decided bummer this summer. The season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway might have crowned a champion but taken strictly as a standalone event it was a decidedly poor race. You hate to have the season finale stink going into the off-season, but people who responded to Jeff Gluck’s “Was it a good race?” poll voted it the fourth-worst race of the 2019 Cup season (trailing only the Clash, the first Pocono race, and the penultimate race of the year at ISM Raceway. On a brighter note, next year’s season finale, which will likely crown a champion, won’t be run at Homestead. Unfortunately, it will be run at ISM. Oh, dear).
So was the experiment a success? As the saying goes, “The proof is in the tasting.” Note it is in “the tasting,” not “the pudding.” The pudding is what is being tasted to judge its quality. Meanwhile you’ve got a merry but boisterous band banging on your door demanding figgy pudding and threatening not to leave until they get some. And you’re having trouble getting the clip to slide into the glock. A little hot lead with your figgy pudding, fatso? Hey, you kids get off my lawn. But I digress.
The drivers are the ones that had to ply their craft in the cars with the new packages. Their opinions were less than overwhelming. Some were more tactful that other. To the great surprise of absolutely nobody, Kyle Busch was the most vocal and profane when it came to how much he hated the new packages, how they were ruining racing (as evidenced by the fact he was no longer winning) and were an abomination in the eyes of God. (Well, he never said that, but he clearly implied it.) And at one point at Richmond, he told team owner Joe Gibbs the new cars were so bad that he was quitting the team and retiring. As it turns out, he was joking.
Other drivers were more tactful but still spoke in negative terms of the new packages. The most conciliatory of them said simply that it was the rules package NASCAR said they had to run under so they’d make the best of it because their options were few and far between. That’s the route Chase Elliott took in one notable interview, during which it looked like he wanted to punch the reporter right in the mouth. But of course he did not. Which is why he remains popular. The packages do not.
No significant updates to the packages have been announced during the off-season to date Nor have they announced any changes to which package will be run where, though I’d say it’s a good bet they will run the hybrid package again at Darlington, Atlanta and the Pocono double-header weekend. Wouldn’t it be fun to try to run one package on Saturday at Pocono and the other on Sunday to see how the races differ? “No, Matt, it surely would not be fun,” I hear weary crew chiefs and team mechanics muttering.
And of course in 2021 it’s NASCAR valhalla with all the new stuff. I’m sure the rollout will be flawless.
The story teller makes no choice, soon you will not hear his voice
His job is to shed light, and not to master
Since the end is never told we pay the teller off in gold
In hopes he will come back, but he cannot be bought or sold
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.
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