Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Can Math Save Next Gen Superspeedway Racing?

1. Please Don’t Ever Quote Number of Lead Changes as Proof of Good Racing Ever Again

“Your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them.”

Those wise words weren’t given to us by any real life philosopher, but by Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars. The context was pretty simple: He’s trying to convince Luke Skywalker that connecting to the Force requires relying on instinct and setting preconceived notions aside, even things as basic as what your eyes can see.

Alas, here on earth we have to rely on our eyes to sort things out for us that might otherwise lead us to believe something that isn’t true. For example, looking at the stats from the NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday (April 21) without actually seeing it could lead you to believe it was the greatest superspeedway race of all time.

I mean, 72 lead changes! Anthony Alfredo led four laps! Sounds like an absolute blast.

See also
Stock Car Scoop: The Best Talladega Race of NASCAR's Next Gen Era?

In truth, it was a tale of two races, neither of which passed the eye test.

In the first two stages, everyone played nice (there were no cautions for cause). In the final stage, one group of cars hatched an almost foolproof plan (we’ll come back to that), botched it, then saw one member of the group win anyway because no one could pass and a big chunk of the field wrecked coming back to the checkered flag.

For anyone who asked for more parity in the sport, this Talladega race was the ultimate example. All those lead changes? They came because no cars were able to make any moves without help, so anyone could lead if they ended up at the front of the fastest line at the start/finish line — and almost everyone did at some point.

This is not a new phenomenon in Cup superspeedway races, but it felt like it reached its logical extreme in this particular Talladega race. To make matters worse, it didn’t even shake the stranglehold the big teams have on the sport this year; yes, it wasn’t a Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing driver that won, but 23XI Racing is essentially a spinoff of JGR, not exactly a guppy in an ocean of sharks.

All of this is a somewhat long-winded way of saying the eye-popping number of lead changes was misleading, and your eyes were the best way of telling you the truth in this case. Sorry, Obi-Wan.

2. Things That Wouldn’t Make Sense to Casual Racing Fans, Pt. I

To hardcore racing fans, the strategic side of NASCAR is often intriguing. Things like tire conservation, pit stop strategy or even gambling on when the weather might hit are all part of the sport at its highest level.

It’s not clear that these intricacies are as fascinating to people who aren’t immersed in stock car racing and the current issue with fuel-saving at superspeedways almost definitely wouldn’t. These are huge, high-banked tracks where the cars can go as fast as they want without lifting and the best thing to do is … intentionally drive slower for big chunks of the race?

It might not be as bad if we were talking about fractions of a second, but that’s not the case. The one silver lining, that wrecks might not be as violent with the cars going slower, didn’t matter at Talladega because there were hardly any incidents during the portion of the race where drivers weren’t going all out.

Drivers and teams don’t like superspeedway racing because of the danger, the likelihood that they’re going to tear up equipment and the inherent randomness they can produce. Those factors are all still present, but now on top of that, they now incentivize not trying your hardest all the time, which is as counterintuitive as running laps around places like Daytona and Talladega can possibly be.

Fixing short track racing with the Next Gen car should be a top priority for NASCAR, but in terms of not befuddling potential new fans, doing something about superspeedway trends should be a close second.

3. Maybe Math Can Help

First, some bad news.

As Jeff Gluck explains so eloquently in his post-Talladega column, there probably isn’t any help coming for superspeedway racing in terms of changes to the car. The Next Gen car was the product of years of development and is actually succeeding in its primary goal, which was to further standardize Cup Series vehicles and halt the R&D arms race between the teams

(Read: saving everyone from spending themselves silly.)

The next place that people look is obviously at Goodyear to do something about the tires. If tires wore faster at Daytona and Talladega, teams would actually have to, you know, change them a couple of times a race, cutting down on the splash and go pit stops for track position.

As we’ve already discussed, though, Goodyear already has a tall task in fixing things at short tracks, and it really isn’t fair to put the onus on NASCAR’s tire supplier to heal everything ailing the sport.

So what else is left? Maybe tinkering with the stage lengths at Daytona and Talladega would help.

Here’s the idea: If the first two stages at the superspeedways were just the right length to go hard without needing to stop for fuel, there would be less reason to slow the pace of the main drafting pack. Theoretically, everyone would go hard to the end of stage one, refuel, then repeat for stage two.

It’s not perfect, because an extra long third stage might just shift the tactics we’ve been seeing the last few years to later in the race. It’s still worth a shot because nothing should be off the table right now, and changing stage lengths is an easier fix than any other tool at NASCAR’s disposal.

What are the proper stage lengths? That’s where the math comes in. Too long and everyone stops before the end of the stage, too short and perhaps some teams try not to fill up at the end of stage one.

It’s certainly an idea to consider, and the best part is that it costs NASCAR and the teams nothing.

See also
Thinkin’ Out Loud at Talladega: Everything Is Going Well … Until It Isn’t

4. Things That Wouldn’t Make Sense to Casual Racing Fans, Pt. II

Had Tyler Reddick not prevailed on Sunday, the Toyota gambit would have been a much bigger talking point.

To recap, seven of the Toyotas (all except for Christopher Bell) stopped as a group in stage three, came out together and ran down the rest of the field. The idea is that it would force everyone else to stop running slower and save fuel, and the timing was such that it probably would have succeeded in doing exactly that.

Then this happened.

Driving a stock car is difficult, and the people who do it at the Cup Series level are the best. But there’s no question that trying to explain to a non-fan that these seven drivers were just trying to follow each other around in a single-file line and couldn’t do it would be difficult.

5. Why It Stinks to be Michael McDowell

As much as drivers and teams pay lip service to their organizations and manufacturers, at the end of the day, NASCAR is every car for itself. That ends up putting people in no-win situations, especially at tracks like Talladega, and the end of the race for Michael McDowell was the most obvious example of those kinds of dilemmas.

McDowell led the race down the stretch by nimbly floating between the top and bottom lanes, using the momentum of whichever had the speed at that moment to keep himself out front. Unfortunately, when it came time to race for the checkered flag, the help he had behind him was going to go for the win, as it should have.

Specifically, fellow Ford driver Brad Keselowski, attempting to end a lengthy streak of winless races, went high while looking for the lead. McDowell moved up to block, then followed Keselowski back down when the No. 6 dove low. There wasn’t enough time to do that and McDowell got turned, costing him a chance to win and setting off the big wreck that literally waited until the race’s final turn to erupt.

A number of observers have noted that if McDowell just held his line, Ford almost certainly comes away with a much-needed victory, as either he or Keselowski probably end up crossing the line first. But McDowell couldn’t take that chance, because his fate was much more important than doing something to benefit the whole Blue Oval camp.

It’s hard to blame McDowell.

Off to a pretty poor start in terms of points, he almost certainly needs a win to make the playoffs. On the other hand, this is exactly what the “win and in” nature of the current system is supposed to encourage. Should drivers be content with either a win or a second-place finish or should they be doing all they can to take the checkers?

McDowell chose the latter and it cost both him and Ford a victory. And at least for him, that stinks.

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Jeff H

I actually think the slowing down of the pace helped the race. With them running flat out there are zero chances of a run to the front if you get out of line. That is what we saw in the final stage. The third line was a rapid fall to the back. Still not an exciting race. I’m beginning to sour on the Next Gen car. Way too many dull races

Bill H

Back in the day of real racing at Talladega, which I watched live at the speedway more than a dozen times in the 1980s and 1990s, there was something called the “slingshot.” Look it up. Also, if you jumped out and a couple of cars went with you, your chances of taking the lead were quite good. Cautions were rare. I watched two races which went188 laps with no caution.

Bill B

I agree on that last point. The Next Gen car sucks IMO.
Mark down one “NO” for Corporal-Captain.

Bill H

What McDowell was doing is called “blocking.” It is illegal in every form of racing other than NASCAR, where it is not only legal but is encouraged and applauded. It is prohibited by other sanctioning bodies because it is extremely dangerous, as was clearly illustrated by McDowell coming to the finish line.

Talladega and Daytona are famous for “the big one,” putting life and limb at risk and causing millions of dollars in damage, and most “big ones” are caused by blocking. It is idiocy not to prohibit the practice.

janice

how many wrecks did stewart complain about blocking but then he also was a blocker. just like bumping when they’re in a turn. if you can’t hit them squarely on the back bumper, then don’t do it!!

DoninAjax

Stewart was another example of “Do as I say, not as I do!”

Tim

It all comes down to tires. The nature of plate racing means the cars are artificially kept at a pace WAY lower than available traction. Big, sticky tires are great for short track, but they have too much grip and not enough wear for the plate tracks. For plate races, they should consider something like narrower and/or treaded tires so that grip is reduced at the speeds they run to bring back an element of driver control. For short tracks, stickier tires that fall off faster will make for much better racing.

Charlie

When it comes to superspeedways, wouldn’t making the car harder to drive only lead to more crashes? It already takes so little to get them out of line and take out several other cars, I can imagine if many are fighting for traction it would only be worse.

gbvette62

It would be easy to fix the economy runs going on at the super speedways this year, smaller fuel tanks. With less fuel to start with it would be harder to conserve fuel, and having to make more pit stops might break up some of the big packs of cars. Everyone knows what needs to be done to improve the short track package, more horsepower, but for some reason NASCAR just won’t do this.

I don’t feel bad for McDowell, he made some extreme blocking moves, and paid the price for it. Bill H is right, no driver should be allowed to repeatedly block. Being allowed to cross four lanes of track, from the yellow line to the wall, and then instantly back down to the yellow line is nuts. Most racing series restrict blocking to one move and it works well. Even the Indy 500 only allows one blocking move and drivers abide by or get penalized.

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