The Chase. Playoff eliminations. Stage racing.
Through the years, NASCAR has done quite a bit to spice things up on the track as they try to combat a decline in TV ratings and attendance. But 2019 may serve as their biggest swing yet.
NASCAR announced a plan late last year to revamp their intermediate tracks by reducing horsepower and adding aero ducts in an attempt to make the racing closer and more competitive. The new package has been met with optimism by those in the media, but Kyle Busch — perhaps NASCAR’s greatest talent behind the wheel right now — has a different opinion.
“We’ve taken the driver skill away from the drivers in this package,” Busch said during a test at Las Vegas. “Anybody can go out and run around there and go wide open. It’s going to be a lot more mental game, a lot more chess match, thinking how you make moves and how daring you’ll be.”
Brad Keselowski shared a similar concern last year. Ask any top driver behind closed doors and they’ll probably give you similar answers.
How we got here
NASCAR has put themselves in a box. It all started in the late ’90s when they decided to head west and build multiple intermediate speedways, getting away from their southeastern, short-track roots. The sport was booming back then and they rightfully attempted to capitalize by expanding their product nationally. Their only mistake was building too many racetracks that look and race exactly the same.
Las Vegas, Kansas, Chicago, Kentucky and Texas all popped up around the same time, each popping up with similar layouts to that of Charlotte and Atlanta. These handful of tracks now made up the bulk of the NASCAR schedule by the early 2000s.
Fast-forward a decade.
NASCAR has a mile-and-a-half problem. Fans are tired of seeing a lack of passing and a spread out field. As the sport moved into the 2010s, NASCAR allowed teams to ‘seal-off’ their bodies to the track, ramping up aero sensitivity and amplifying dirty air. Without a ride-height rule, drivers were setting new track records weekly. But the racing suffered because of it.
Clean air was everything and all too often the leader was able to walk away. This brought fans’ frustrations to a boiling point as NASCAR’s TV ratings hit all time lows.
Locked into contracts (through 2019) with racetracks around the country, NASCAR had no choice but to try and change the cars, instead of addressing their clear schedule issue.
That’s where the 2019 rules package comes into play. Research for this package happened in the Xfinity Series at Indianapolis, Michigan and Pocono — three of NASCAR’s dullest racetracks on the schedule. NASCAR then tested a similar package in the Cup Series in 2018 at the All-Star race.
The result? Charlotte Motor Speedway raced like a condensed Daytona. Cars ran in a pack without much horsepower. Underdogs like AJ Allmendinger ran inside of the top five. Daniel Suarez challenged for the lead.
But in the end, it was still Kevin Harvick walking away with a million bucks.
The package as a whole delivered, however. NASCAR responded to driver criticism by adding additional horsepower for the 2019 version. That final product was tested for the first time last week at Las Vegas, just weeks before it’s set to become the norm at Atlanta.
Get used to it
Instead of dipping their toe in the water, NASCAR has gone full cannonball with this move. The package will be used in 21 of NASCAR’s 36 cup events in 2019. To be frank — it better work.
NASCAR announced earlier this week that their Gen-7 car will be based around the rules package you’ll see on the track this year. The sanctioning body is all in with this idea, perhaps a bit recklessly. NASCAR has stated that lowering the horsepower could attack new manufactures to the sport, which obviously would be a good thing. But they’re running the risk of fracturing their diehards in the process.
They’ve run the risk of running off the purists many times before with the new points system and stage racing. For the section of the fanbase that wants to see these drivers manhandling 900 horsepower machines, this package isn’t going to deliver for them — no matter what.
This package caters to the more casual viewer. It’s build to attract new fans. NASCAR doesn’t want any downtime during races, but this feels a bit too manufactured to me. The best moments come organically, like Larson vs. Busch at Chicago. Or Craven vs. Busch at Darlington. Or Elliott vs. Larson in the open at Charlotte. Two guys squeezing every ounce out of their racecar on the verge of losing control is what the diehards want to see. NASCAR is supposed to be the place where the best drivers in the world come to showcase their talents.
In testing this package so far, drivers didn’t even have to lift off of the throttle. As Kyle Busch said, the talent element is gone — at least on the intermediates.
Will this package generate exciting moments? Probably. But it’s not going to be organic. For people like me, short tracks and road course will take on a new level of importance. Everything else… kind of feels like playing the lottery.