The extremely dull race known as the 2015 Pure Michigan 400 was a dumpster fire at best. Please send firefighters, and let us never speak of this particular high-downforce rules package again. Thanks in advance.
Those of you paying extra attention to NASCAR this season have likely noticed that they’ve been tinkering with the aerodynamics on the cars. Why? NASCAR noticed that the lower downforce, lower horsepower 2015 cars had higher cornering speeds and fewer green-flag passes than previous years’ cars. So, instead of jumping right into the planned changes for 2016 after this season was over, they opted to test other changes during the 2015 season first.
All of the changes being tested in 2015 and planned for 2016 aim to improve the racing on intermediate speedways — typically those between one and two miles in length.
Low Downforce Was Fun
Kentucky ran a new low-downforce rules package (pictured above) that produced some really great racing. It was a fairly significant aerodynamic change, as NASCAR confirmed that the package was good for a full 1,000 pounds less of downforce.
Drivers who were better at driving the more difficult-handling cars stayed at the front of the pack, and since it took more skill to keep the cars under control, huge packs didn’t form. There were clear chunks in the field. It took skill to be at the front.
Many passes also happen in the corners, which is why lowering cornering speeds is something NASCAR wanted to see. Cornering at speed took a certain amount of finesse, and those who did it well naturally ended up in front.
Lower downforce also meant that passing wasn’t a big deal. Faster than the guy in front of you? Cool. There’s not as big of an aerodynamic issue standing in your way should you decide to fight for it.
It seems to have worked, according to the drivers who heaped near-universal feelings of praise on the Kentucky rules package.
“I had more fun in that race at Kentucky than I’ve had at any mile and a half (track) in years,” driver Carl Edwards told SB Nation. “To me, if some is good then more is better. We should continue down that path in my opinion.”
The harder to control cars were a blast! Edwards praised how he was forced to steer, control slides and take a more active role as a driver, and he wasn’t the only one. Kyle Busch also told SB Nation how he loved making a pass for the win around Joey Logano that wasn’t affected by dirty air coming off of Logano’s car.
“This is what race car driving’s all about,” Hamlin said to SB Nation. “I feel like now it’s back in the driver and crew chief’s hands to get their car handling like it’s supposed to. Not just an arms race of who build the fastest cars in the shop.”
Most of the critical comments about the racing at Kentucky were about the tire, which wasn’t made to work with the low downforce package. NASCAR hopes that this issue will be solved the next time they test the low downforce concept at Darlington Raceway next month. A slightly different low-downforce aero package is set to debut at Darlington with a grippier tire to go along with it. I welcome our new less-aero-reliant overlords.
New tires (and tires only) will also be tested out at Richmond International Raceway later this year, albeit with no changes to aerodynamics from the usual 2015 spec.
High Downforce Was The Opposite In Every Conceivable Way
Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, on the other hand, were test beds for increased downforce (as pictured at Michigan, above). The theory here, according to SB Nation, was that the higher downforce would encourage drafting and packs to form on those intermediate tracks, similar to how it does on superspeedway tracks like Daytona and Talladega.
Quite frankly, it was a flop. Both high downforce races were rather dull.
The drivers weren’t even sure if the style of racing on superspeedways was worth emulating in the first place. Carl Edwards told SB Nation:
As far as the physics of being able to have stock car racing like that and to have pack race or drafting, I don’t think that’s possible. I think they’re two completely different things. I think we have plenty of pack racing in my opinion in this sport with the four race that we have that are like that. I think we should stay as far away from that at the other tracks as possible.
Superspeedway-style pack racing came under increased scrutiny after an incident at Daytona, where a large wreck sent one car flying towards the stands, injuring fans in the process. Close, chaotic racing is good, but the huge packs that form during restrictor plate races are not.
Besides, Kentucky’s low downforce test showed that you can get cars battling for position without having huge packs form, which is not only safer, but more fun to watch when the racing relies more on driver skill than anything that artificially clumps the cars together on track (such as a restrictor plate). The goal should be a car that’s harder to drive, not one that’s easier.
SB Nation reported that most of the track was spent flat out at Indianapolis with the higher downforce kit there — which is another feature of superspeedway races that many fans and drivers hate. If the cars are restricted to the point to where nearly everyone can drive them as fast as they’re able to go, it’s hard to say that the race is the display of top-level stock car talent that it should be.
Part of the joy of watching NASCAR on ovals is the fact that passes come so often and the racing is quite close. They get in each others’ space. The cars are pretty evenly matched and there’s any number of great drivers who can win. There’s usually no way to tell who the winner will be until the very end. Watching cars make the same four turns in a spaced-out conga line with little passing is the exact opposite of what most fans tune in to see. It’s dull.
Yesterday, I saw cars go extra wide around other cars on track just to get enough clean, undisturbed air to make a pass. Aerodynamic bits need clean air to function properly, and Michigan’s package seemed particularly finicky about that. Slingshot passes that happen at other draft-happy tracks weren’t happening here. There weren’t even many passes at all. The upside was that there weren’t many crashes to speak of, but cars also didn’t get side by side as often as they do at other tracks. What was a spinning driver going to take with him, air?
The downside, of course, was that very little seemed to happen at all. Kenseth started on pole and led for an absurd 146 of 200 laps. His main competition was from Austin Dillon being on a slightly different strategy, and Kenseth could still power away into no-man’s land whenever the cars got bunched together for a restart. Restarts seemed like the only moments of excitement.
“The lead car has such a huge advantage with this [package],” driver Denny Hamlin told ESPN after the race. “They were able to run wide-open mostly. It’s going to be hard for a second-place car to pass the leader when the leader can run wide-open. They had clean air all day. They had the fastest car. Those two things combine for a dominant win.”
An inability to pass was a common complaint throughout the field.
“We could run anybody down and get to them,” Martin Truex Jr. told USA Today. “But it took a long time to pass cars. It was just so damn hard to pass. I could run a guy down from way back and get to him and about spin out. It’s no fun to race like that. We had a car that could have contended with the 20 [Kenseth] today and just couldn’t ever get there.”
Dillon made his highest ever finish at Michigan in a crazy run that took him from starting at the back of the field for swapping his engine all the way up to a fourth place finish. Kyle Busch, too, pushed on through from the back of the starting grid to lead ten laps of the race, but was back in the middle of the pack after the final, deciding round of pit stops. Still, making it up to 11th at the end was impressive.
Yet there was no insane, high-drama fight for the finish. There really weren’t any insane...fights. Cars crossing the finish line were really, really spaced out for a NASCAR race.
Furthermore, the lack of airflow for much of the field also contributed to higher temperatures inside the cars themselves at the two races that ran the high downforce package, as Brad Keselowski pointed out in a tweet before the race. NBCSN’s commentary team said that in-car temperatures during the warm, humid Michigan race reached over 150º F.
A World Where No Opinion Can Be A Negative Opinion
You could tell how displeased everyone was after yesterday’s race by the non-answers given by drivers and crew about the new rules package. NASCAR is quite infamous for punishing those who dare speak an honest, critical opinion about the racing product. So, instead of looking for real talk on a real turd of a race, it’s best to look for kindly worded deflections and completely off-topic answers.
For example, “I’m really proud of my team and the things that they did to prepare for the race, and we had a good, strong day,” was second place finisher Kevin Harvick’s response when ESPN asked about the Michigan rules package.
Carl Edwards gave ESPN a very similar answer: “Man, just a great day for [Joe Gibbs Racing].” Edwards did, however, also admit, “I don’t think we’ll be running this one again.”
Brad Keselowski didn’t even want to give an answer on the Michigan rules package. “It’s not my deal. It’s not my right to say. It’s not my sport,” Keselowski told ESPN. “Whatever they want to do, I’ll race it. It’s my job. We saw almost exactly what everyone thought we’d see. I’d let you guys be the judge if it was good or bad.”
Keselowski later responded to a tweet posted by USA Today’s Jeff Gluck guessing that drivers would rather keep $50,000 in their pockets than opine on the rules package with, “Just had an idiocracy moment, ‘I like money.’”
Others were a bit more on point, but not directly critical of the race itself. Joey Logano admitted that passing was “really, really, really hard” in statements he made to NASCAR after yesterday’s race, and answered “No” when ESPN asked if he’d like to see this rules package again.
Winner Matt Kenseth did a clever job of dodging the question, telling NASCAR, “I gotta be honest, I didn’t see much of the race, which was totally fine with me. We were up front.”
However, Kenseth did credit the difficulty in passing with giving him the win. “I would say Friday was a huge part of our weekend, getting that No. 1 pit stall,” Kenseth told NASCAR. “Starting on the front row and keeping that track position obviously was key.”
Drivers did complain about the heat at Michigan, though. During the race, Jeff Gordon radioed in, “I need ice water, ice bags whatever you got. It’s hot as [expletive] in here.”
Austin Dillion didn’t blame the rules package for the high interior temperatures, nor did he feel as if it were particularly bad. However, he did credit the heat for allowing him to pass so many cars to get to the front of the field.
“I seemed to be able to make passes and make moves and pass people. It wasn’t that awful,” Dillon told NASCAR. “I’m glad the heat was out today. I think if it was cooler, it would have been a tougher day to pass because everybody would have been a little better.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. took another angle in a pair of tweets posted after the race. “This sport survived over 50 years of trail [sic] & error. It’ll survive long after 2day. Happy @nascar makes such efforts 2 try & improve racing.” He continued, “.@nascar will learn from Kentucky, Indy, Michigan, Darlington. The future of the sport will be better for it.”
Of course, many drivers had previously expressed their feelings on the high-downforce package after the Indianapolis race, as SB Nation reported. Indianapolis winner Kyle Busch told SB Nation his car was hard to handle in traffic, and Kasey Kahne confirmed that it was hard to be behind another car when the car in front gets the benefit of running in clean air and you don’t.
What Does A Boring Race Mean For The Future?
When NASCAR folk started talking about this high downforce package likely making it very hard to pass today, I immediately thought of another series with passing problems: Formula One. F1’s cars are so difficult to pass that the series installed a stupid, gimmicky drag reduction system system just to facilitate passing: a button that opens a flap. You know, instead of perhaps revising the aerodynamics to allow more passing based on pure driver skill.
While we’re glad that F1 at least has passing, I’m not sure I know anyone who’s 100% happy with the DRS system as the means to get there. They’ve fixed a problem with another problem.
Listen to us road course nerds, NASCAR. Don’t pull an F1 and fix the problem with your races by creating more problems.
All things considered, Dale Jr. is right: experimentation is good! It’s good that they’re trying these different rules packages out in a few races before foisting them upon a whole season. No one’s going to run balls-out in a test, so there’s no real way to know if something works from a competition standpoint until it’s implemented in an actual race.
Perhaps it’s not ideal to test these new packages out when drivers are all scrambling to make it into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but aside from that, I’m totally fine with the idea of switching it up to see what works. None of the test races are during the Chase itself, and extra practice time was given for teams to acclimate to the changes before the test races. (Kentucky’s practice sessions were ultimately shortened because of rain, but I’ll give them credit for trying.)
Just don’t do this high-downforce package again. Please. The idea of higher downforce and increased drag has had a solid two-race run to prove itself, and it proved to be a yawner. In the eloquent language of NASCAR’s own Twitter presence, it was 💩💩💩.
Fortunately, NASCAR’s emphasis on entertainment means that I don’t think they’ll stick with a rules package that was this much of a flop. I know “the WWE of motorsport” is usually meant as an insult, but you know what? Dudes bashing each other Jerry Springer-style with folding chairs was entertaining, even if it was ridiculously staged. Sure, staged-feeling gimmicks still suck in racing, but entertainment? I’m all for that. I feel like the powers-that-be over NASCAR care enough about putting on big, drama-filled spectacles not to stick with a dud of a rules package that doesn’t deliver what they want.
NASCAR Vice President of Integrated Marketing Communications David Higdon told USA Today that the series plans to look at data from all four rules package tests as well as input from drivers to determine if any of the changes will make it into the 2016 rulebook.
Hamlin was optimistic about NASCAR’s impending decision as well, telling USA Today, “I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I think we’ve seen what’s best. Hopefully, these NASCAR fans get what they want in the future.”
Could NASCAR nail it with Darlington, then? I hope so. One “why am I not doing anything else instead?” race is not a good enough reason to give up on the entire season.
Photo credits: Andy Dickason via YouTube (dumpster fire), Getty Images (others)
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