NASCAR’s new race format is the most discussed. Current Champion, Jimmie Johnson, said, “The championship piece, we still get to Homestead and it’s very similar for that event itself. How you get there is a bit different. The big takeaway I have is when you put all the smart people in the room and let everybody decide what it could and should look like, from TV owners, NASCAR, and driver representation, I think that’s a smart move. And, I feel that knowing our environment and knowing how to take the best from each of those folks in the room, all the major stakeholders, and come up with this system, I have a lot of faith in that.” Johnson added, “There’s incentive to go out there and perform. As a competitor, it’s tough to say that’s going to change much of what I do. But I know there will be opportunities where that (bonus) point (for winning one of the first two stages) matters for someone. It might take people from being at the 100-percent mark to being even more desperate and creating those storylines.”
Jamie McMurray likes the opportunities, “But, I like the strategy that’s going to come from the format. And the best way to describe that is if we go to a track that it rains a lot and they have to have a competition caution, it’s great when the caution happens to fall 10 laps before that because you get some strategy. You get people that put tires on. Sometimes the leaders don’t. If it’s a track where the tires are really important, it creates a little bit of excitement, right? You have a lot of passing going on. Then the caution comes out 10 laps later and you get to see if those guys all pit. Did they make up enough ground? So, I like the fact that we’re going to have that every week.”
Ryan Newman also digs the strategy aspect, “I think that the strategy of the races, the mixture of importance of a bonus point for a stage win in reference to how you race each stage and the last stage, which ultimately is still the most important points-wise, is unique and going to be fun to follow. It is going to be a challenge to learn the system, but I don’t think it’s a complex system. With the right technology, it can be easily adaptable to the fans, which to me is extremely important. And I think the thing we’ll talk about with this new structure will be the one point that goes into the Chase per stage and the still bonus structure that still goes into the Chase and is now cumulative throughout the Chase because we’re all racing for wins but the big trophy is always going to be that championship.”
Clint Bowyer remarked how he’s always been a fan of “breaking these races up.” Bowyer has his own racing operation for running a busy short track schedule where the action is usually nonstop.
Michael McDowell noted that as his team is one of the smaller ones, the Stages will, “give us a chance to be aggressive.”
Kyle Busch was on the Drivers Council that worked on the new format and said, “The Drivers Council had a little bit of say in all of that. Obviously it was a huge industry-wide (decision). All the stakeholders were involved … I think late-December and January was when the decisions were finally being made but some of the ideas that were shared earlier on were last year’s Council’s (ideas) as well.”
Landon Cassill spoke of the challenges, “I think you still have to be determined. To me, that’s the beauty in it. I think this is a big change. I think that the way our crew chiefs and race engineers strategize a 500-mile race is gonna change as we know it, and I think you’re gonna see the field flip multiple times in these races over the course of the year. I would be willing to bet that our first impression of this new format in Daytona you’re gonna see a huge group of cars taking a risk and pitting on their own on lap 43, and getting off-sequence. And I think you’re gonna see the field off-sequence a lot this season, and it’s gonna be really interesting. I think you’re gonna see teams like myself, where we’re constantly trying to fight our way inside that top 20, I think you’re gonna see us caught in the middle of some of that action over the course of the year. The teams that have to fight, we’re always gonna have to fight. We’re not magically gonna be top 10 teams. We have to work to get there. We have to work very hard to get to the top 10, but I think you’re gonna see us in the crossfire of this strategy a lot.”
We wondered if the Stage format would alter chassis setups to help with long race to short stages. Noted chassis-savvy drivers, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman gave us exclusive answers and said chassis setups would remain for long race as anything less would be counter productive to the rest of the race. Plus, some of the chassis changes needed for a short run are not possible pt stop changes. Like the old days of qualifying setups versus race setups, things like camber and gearing are not typical pit stop changes.
Newman also talked about the new rule lowering the height of the rear spoiler. The move is designed to reduce downforce, thereby giving more control back to the driver. He indicated about as quick as NASCAR reduces it, the teams find ways to restore it. The current change of only the rear spoiler might upset the delicate balance of the car. Newman explained how teams seek the ideal amount of front to rear balance. Another factor is the rubber – not only of the tires but how much a track surface retains. That can affect downforce.
One thing all drivers agreed upon was the Carl Edwards mystery. They were all taken by surprise by Edward’s departure.
In our Nuts and Bolts department, Kurt Busch talked about the Stewart Haas team changing from Chevy to Ford and how even the chassis had to be modified to accept the Yates engines. Normally, it’s just a matter of brackets and mounts but other factors of weight and the location of that weight need to be addressed as they can affect chassis setups. Running oil, water and fuel lines also may factor in.
We are also hearing how, after NASCAR reduced testing, more time and money are spent on ever advancing simulators. The machines are filled with huge amounts of data and both drivers and team engineers benefit from it. And if you are keeping track, a typical headcount for engineers per team is now 70 to 80, according to one driver.
Downforce and less spoiler height – After a reduction of one inch from 2015 to 2016, another cut this year will drop the spoiler height from 2-1/2 inches tall to 2.35 inches tall. Not a big jump, but this is NASCAR where every tenth of an inch matters. Why does NASCAR seem to do this so often? Because teams usually get back pretty quick. David Ragan explained it very well, “They’re working in the windtunnel every single day. These teams have shifts at the two windtunnels here in North Carolina 24 hours a day, probably six or seven days a week. A lot of times you hear of a team that their shift is midnight to 7 a.m. These windtunnels are just running all day long. You’ve got all the manufacturers, all the race teams that are in there going through different scenarios. They’ve even got good simulation from a computer standpoint where they can change measurements and body builds very little, so they can work through a lot of changes before they even get to the windtunnel and have a lot more efficient time at the windtunnel. So throughout the year they end up gaining back what is lost at a rule change, so I think that’s why NASCAR continues to make some small minor adjustments because by October-November we’re already back to the downforce and sideforce numbers that were taken away in January or December of the previous year. They’re just working hard. They’re so smart today and they’re working within the rules and the tolerances and they’re very, very smart to get back. NASCAR has got a tough job on their hand to keep trimming that downforce number and I think they’ve done a good job, but the teams it’s there job to find it back and they’ll find it back. Whoever finds it back the quickest will have a competitive edge for a while.”
So where on those ultra sophisticated bodies do they get it back? Not on the body you see. NASCAR uses lasers to measure all the body parts. So that leaves the underside of the car to reduce drag and create downforce. Imagine all the components that make up a chassis. We’re taking lower control arms, tailpipes, frame sections, the box around the gas tank and even the underside of the transmission. Smoothing the underside reduces drag underneath and downforce as the drag lessons. If you’ve ever seen the tube front control arms of an Indy car, they are wing shaped instead of just round. Not only are they more aerodynamic cutting through the air, they help create downforce. Just changing the shape can do that.
But not all drivers think more is better. Paul Menard said, “Since 2014, when we debut this new car, we’ve taken downforce away every year. This is a big change for us for aero this year, and I think NASCAR is going to continue to tweak it. We want to put more downforce on next year if we see this isn’t the way to go. NASCAR isn’t afraid of making changes as we’ve all seen with the format and we’ve seen with the cars the past few years, and you have to stay up with current events and what makes for a good package on the racetrack. Personally, I’m a proponent for less downforce, maybe stickier tires that fall off. I think every driver is pretty much on board with that. The key is the tire combination with this low-downforce package is still have those big numbers on pole day and still see 190 mph qualifying speeds, but race at 160 to 170 mph. That would slow things down, make aero a little less important, and make for better racing.”
Have a laugh on Ryan Blaney. – When Blaney made one his Rookie meetings with the Penske team, he learned a lesson. Unfortunately, it was the hard way. Says Blaney, “The one thing you don’t want to be is late to a Penske breakfast. You’ve got everybody there. Mr. Penske is there and all the brass and I walk in late. I don’t know what happened. I don’t think I overslept. I might have overslept, but I got there and there was a standing ovation. That was like in 2012 or 2013, right when I got there, and you talk about wanting to walk out of the room. I started sweating bullets and was just as nervous as can be, and then you’ve got to go up and give a speech right after that. That was a rough day for sure, so I make sure I’m one of the earliest to the Penske breakfast.”
More on NASCAR’s Stages – No drivers voiced any kind of negative comments about the new format. In fact, they sound like they’ve already figured out their plan of attack. Joey Logano explained, “It plays to the person’s advantage who takes the opportunity to get ahead. There is a lot of opportunity when there is change. Brad says that is the best. When there is change like this the first person who figures it out is going to have a huge advantage. Right now, the way the new format is, if you can get some bonus points at the beginning of the year it will help you get all the way to Homestead and the Championship 4. Figuring it out early is key. For me, I have one gear and it is wide-open. It doesn’t really change the way I race as a driver but as a team and how Todd will call these races is obviously going to be different. That is going to be interesting to see how that evolves throughout all the races and the season and what everyone is trying to do. That will be very interesting. It will affect some drivers as well where they will be racing with more intensity and taking more risks and I think that all makes a better race, in my opinion.”
Brad Keselowski was part of the driver’s council that helped create the package. He said, “What stood out to me is when people don’t like something it’s like 100 percent negative feedback, but when the majority likes it, and the minority dislikes it, it’s about 50 percent, so what stood out to me is the feedback has been about 50 percent, which tells me the majority likes it and is gonna give it a shot. That’s extremely encouraging to me. Of course, there is always a resistance to change. I think a lot of people want to see it in action, and that’s great. The people that want to see it in action, I am 100 percent convinced they’re gonna like what they see and it’s gonna work out well. The people that are willing to give it a shot, I think are gonna fall back in love with NASCAR.”
Ryan Newman sees a learning curve but more action down the road. Says Newman, “I think that the strategy of the races, the mixture of importance of a bonus point for a stage win in reference to how you race each stage and the last stage, which ultimately is still the most important points-wise, is unique and going to be fun to follow. It is going to be a challenge to learn the system, but I don’t think it’s a complex system. With the right technology, it can be easily adaptable to the fans, which to me is extremely important. And I think the thing we’ll talk about with this new structure will be the one point that goes into the Chase per stage and the still bonus structure that still goes into the Chase and is now cumulative throughout the Chase because we’re all racing for wins but the big trophy is always going to be that championship.”