NASCAR is tacitly admitting that the changes it made to Cup Series cars in 2019 did not work effectively at short tracks and road courses.
The sanctioning body announced Tuesday that it was cutting downforce on the cars on tracks less than 1-mile in length in addition to Watkins Glen, Sonoma and the Charlotte road course. The downforce reductions come a year after NASCAR added downforce to Cup cars ahead of the 2019 season in an attempt to improve its racing product.
“When we consider changes to the aero package, we often can look back on our playbook, if you will, from seasons past,” NASCAR vice president John Probst said. “And there’s obviously some trade-offs that you make between introducing something completely new that the industry has never seen versus something that we have run before where we have a playbook from our side and [teams] have setup books from their end. We felt like we were going to look at aero packages that we have run in the past, and looking back at a lot of competitive metrics that we track, we feel like the 2017 levels of downforce on those types of tracks had pretty good side-by-side racing that our fans enjoyed.
“So instead of just coming out and creating a completely new aero spec that’s unknown to possibly us and more importantly the industry, we felt like we’d go back to something that’s tried and true for us and go back to a package that we had run recently. At the same time, we did make some small adjustments to that package so that it would fit with our current intermediate speedway package so that we’d minimize further the necessity of the teams to have to develop this package.”
NASCAR made the spoilers on the back of Cup Series cars eight inches tall at all tracks in 2019. Spoilers on the cars at Bristol, Martinsville, Phoenix, Dover, New Hampshire and Richmond will now be less than three inches tall. That’s over a 50 percent reduction in addition to changes to the front splitters on the cars to also help reduce aerodynamic downforce.
The eight-inch spoilers and other added downforce changes for 2019 will still be in effect at all oval tracks larger than a mile.
Short-track racing suffered mightily in 2019
NASCAR went through the 2019 season telling anyone and everyone that the changes it made ahead of the season were a rousing success and that it saw the path forward as one that involved lots of aerodynamic downforce.
The sanctioning body added downforce everywhere and cut horsepower at larger tracks in the hopes of bringing cars closer together. And while that might have happened, it also had a ton of unintended consequences. Especially at short tracks and road courses.
Drivers immediately remarked about the increased effects of “dirty air” from that added downforce. The cars were more aerodynamically sensitive because of the changes NASCAR made. And the changes — especially the large spoilers — made the air that trailed off cars especially turbulent.
Aerodynamic sensitivity and turbulent air is not a good combination. Cars that drove well with no one ahead suddenly turned to junk when behind other cars. Passing became difficult and decreased dramatically.
That difficulty was obvious at short tracks and road courses as the types of tracks typically most entertaining in NASCAR suddenly became boring. The two races at Martinsville featured a combined six lead changes over 1,000 laps.
Believe what NASCAR tells you at your own risk
NASCAR’s changes are absolutely necessary. Especially given that Phoenix is now the site of the winner-take-all season finale. The one-mile oval has never been a thriller but even it was especially impacted by the negative effects of the added downforce in 2019.
So yes, NASCAR does deserve some credit for being flexible and willing to make obvious changes. The worst thing it could have done was stand pat heading into 2020.
But standing pat would have also been the most consistent thing. NASCAR and its leadership spent much of the 2019 season lauding the changes it made and how those changes produced such great racing. Just look at what Probst said in an October statement when NASCAR announced that it was making no rules changes ahead of the 2020 season.
“The 2019 season has produced great racing and we anticipate the level of competition to continue to rise as teams build off this rules package in 2020,” Probst said. “Collectively, we continue to work closely as an industry to put on the best racing possible for our fans, while working diligently on the Next Gen car, scheduled to make its debut in 2021.”
And while the racing might have improved at longer tracks, NASCAR looked especially like the emperor with no clothes during short track races. It wanted you to trust their words over your own eyes and intuitions.
That’s a dangerous ask in any circumstance from politics to sports to even our day-to-day relationships. NASCAR is in the midst of a bunch of changes to remain a viable player on the sporting landscape and stave off its yearly audience declines. It needs the trust of its remaining fans as it makes those changes.
Earning trust is never easy. It can be a time-consuming process. And the easiest way to quickly erode trust is to blindly refuse to acknowledge the truth. NASCAR finally acknowledged the truth on Tuesday after spending way too much time telling people that it didn’t exist. That’s a step in the right direction. But it only comes after a wholly unnecessary few steps backward.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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