Race Weekend Central

No “I” in “Team”

Things just keep getting better.

At least that’s how things looked following Sunday’s running of the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

I understand how NASCAR Nation is putting all of its competitive eggs in the low downforce basket, but there’s no denying we’re seeing marked improvement in the quality of Sprint Cup racing thus far in 2016.

But is the improvement all because of the new rules package?

Granted, the STP 500 was anything but a true demonstration of the low downforce configuration. Racing on the .526-mile “paperclip” requires more attention to brute force than downforce since contact is both anticipated and required. Achieving grip is more about tire management and balanced brakes than it is about airflow over the car (just ask Denny Hamlin about the importance of the tire/brake combo).

Sunday afternoon at Martinsville reaffirmed an adage that’s so often been at the center of racing success: the road to Victory Lane is paved with smart pit strategy.

And isn’t that precisely how racing should be?

Here we are just six races into the 2016 season, and already – multiple times – we’ve seen the importance of smart pit strategy. Sure, the new package, combined with new tires from Goodyear, has been a factor, but it’s how teams decide to work within the limits of both the package and the tires that’s been an essential element in how races have unfolded.

Without smart tire management and savvy pit strategy, would Kevin Harvick have had enough car on the final lap at Daytona to rocket down the backstretch and ultimately push Denny Hamlin to the win? What about Harvick’s late-race scramble at Phoenix to catch and pass Carl Edwards? How about Jimmie Johnson’s run off turn 2 to take the win in California? And what about Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth staying out with less than 15 laps to go at Martinsville? While other teams took fresh tires, the Joe Gibbs Racing stablemates gambled on maintaining track position.

And the results of all these decisions were soundly celebrated come Monday morning as fans, competitors, and pundits alike processed and evaluated what they had seen. It marked a turning-of-the-tide in NASCAR, even though races early in 2016 were still being dominated by individual drivers.

Kevin Harvick has led over 25% of the total laps raced in Cup competition thus far in 2016, yet he’s only scored a single victory. His average finish of 6.2 speaks more about the current depth of competition than it does the advantages of domination.

And it’s about more than just embracing the new low downforce rules package. It’s a return to the basic tenets of motorsports. It’s about making quick and accurate diagnoses of your car’s faults and transferring proposed changes to the car to find improvement. Call it high speed critical thinking and problem-solving – an aspect of racing that harkens back to everyone’s earliest days running short tracks in a regional series. To me, this is what makes racing – and NASCAR, in particular – so interesting.

The argument in support of the low downforce package has been that reducing grip means a truer test of a driver’s abilities. Making racers think twice before hammering through a corner is good for keeping racing pure; it reinforces the challenge of drivers facing off wheel-to-wheel in a game of “who brakes/lifts first?”

To me, the new rules are more about drawing an entire race team into the challenge.

Decisions about performance now go above-and-beyond the driver’s right foot. Crew chiefs consult with their drivers AND multiple other team members in order to make the best calls about what’s going wrong and what needs changing. Maybe it’s old tires. Maybe it’s a spring rubber. Maybe it’s the engine losing a plug wire or starting to fail. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe it’s a piece of sheet metal that needs flexing. Whatever the case, removing downforce has added a new layer of teamwork, and that – to me – seems like a very positive addition to the sport. Race teams have always been essential to success, but even more so given the multiplicities of the new rules package.

So now we’re off to Texas: yet another intermediate-sized track that plays a large role in how the championship unfolds. Not only is Texas going to test the low downforce package, but guaranteed it’s going to also test teams’ problem-solving abilities. Finding Victory Lane will come from finding answers for finding speed.

And maybe we’ll find that things just keep getting better….

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Share via