Why Change In The Short Track/Road Course Rules Package The Right Way To Go

NASCAR has shaken up the new rules package already. While the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series season saw some much closer racing for much of the year, the one draw back was the how the packaged raced on short tracks.

See, short tracks are what drives this fan base. NASCAR fans have been begging for more of them. But, with how tracks like Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond, Dover, New Hampshire, etc raced a year ago, instead of adding more, fans were on the verge of wanting less.

NASCAR listened and adapted. They hinted at potential changes for the 2020 season on these tracks. On Tuesday, those changes became official.

Kyle Busch leads Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. around the Martinsville Speedway

The changes include significantly smaller spoilers, splitters and other aerodynamic devices in an effort to place a greater emphasis on handling and driver input with less stabilizing downforce on those tracks. The package draws inspiration from similar rules used in the 2017-18 seasons.

“Our first and foremost core goal is to deliver great racing, and I think that we constantly evaluate the things that we do on the race track, however and wherever we need to, to improve that situation for them,” said John Probst, NASCAR Senior Vice President, Innovation and Racing Development. “And as part of our normal ongoing critique of ourselves and how we’re doing, we just felt like this was a good opportunity for us to improve the on-track product at the short tracks and road courses.”

Among the changes for those specific tracks:

  • A significantly smaller rear spoiler, which shrinks from an 8-inch height to 2.75 inches.
  • The front splitter’s overhang will now measure a quarter-inch (down from 2 inches), with approximately 2-inch wings (reduced from 10.5 inches).
  • Alterations to the radiator pan, removing its vertical fencing in an effort to reduce front-end downforce. The dimensions of the pan remain the same.

The changes will be in effect for nine of the 24 layouts — three road courses and six ovals — that the NASCAR Cup Series will visit in 2020.

The six oval tracks that will use the new rules this season:

  • Bristol Motor Speedway (.533 miles)
  • Dover International Speedway (1 mile)
  • Martinsville Speedway (.526 miles)
  • New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1.058 miles)
  • Phoenix Raceway (1 mile)
  • Richmond Raceway (.75 miles)

All three road courses on the Cup Series schedule will have the new rules in place:

  • Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2.28 miles)
  • Sonoma Raceway (2.52 miles)
  • Watkins Glen International (2.45 miles)

“When we consider changes to the aero package, we often can look back on our playbook, if you will, from seasons past,” 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.”

This was absolutely the right move. I mean, just look at the final round races in the playoffs next season — Bristol, Charlotte (ROVAL), Martinsville and Phoenix (championship). This move affects all those tracks.

peaking of fireworks, will it even happen this weekend? See, these cars are much harder to get to the bumpers of one another now. They’re still very aero dependent and it’s amplified more on short tracks.

As an example, the Dover playoff race last year had 14 lead changes, most of those occurring during green flag pit sequences. We only saw three cautions on the entire day, two of which being for stage breaks and the other on the seventh lap for debris. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson combined to lead 372 of the 400 laps run.

In the May race at Dover, Truex and Chase Elliott combined to lead 277 of the 400 that day. Furthermore, the top five finishers in the spring race led 290 of the 400 laps. The same top four finishers in May were the ones taking the top four spots in October.

The Spring race read – Truex-Bowman-Larson-Harvick as the top four.

The opening race the second round at Dover read – Larson-Truex-Bowman-Harvick as the top four.

“Tough to pass” was the comment theme out of the drivers’ mouths after the race ended.

“It’s just really hard to pass and it took a while for the track to widen out,” said third place finisher that day Alex Bowman.

“Once we lost control – lost the clean air – it was so difficult to pass,” said fifth place finisher Denny Hamlin who led a race high 218 laps that Sunday. “I needed to be up front with as tight as my car was.”

“The car was really fast,” said seventh place finisher Matt DiBenedetto. “Even faster than seventh-place, but you get in situations with the dirty air and with the high downforce it was a lot harder to pass. The fastest drivers had to be a lot more disciplined. You had to stay behind them and not abuse your stuff and wait for traffic or situations to pounce.”

“When we were in clean air, our lap times were great,” Jimmie Johnson said, who also finished eighth. “Just as everyone experienced, it was really tough to pass. We had a few things that set us back and lost track position throughout the day. But we had a really fast race car. We were able to pass some, which I don’t think many could pass at all.”

“We started 17th and finished 10th, I don’t know,” said 10th place Clint Bowyer. “It was hard to pass. Extremely hard to pass. Almost impossible. You had to have a really, really good car. It was just kind of a struggle out there all day long for us.”

“It was very hard to pass today at Dover,” said Daniel Suarez.

“I had a difficult time passing cars, especially in traffic,” said Austin Dillon.

They’re right. The eye test showed a lot of single file running with the difficulty to pass at an all time high. It happened in both Phoenix races, another one-mile track. Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney combined to lead 291 of 312 laps in the March race. Furthermore, four of the top five finishers that day led 304 of the 312 laps run. Stats show 17 lead changes but again, most were on green flag pit sequences.

New Hampshire, a one-mile track, had 14 lead changes but between Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, they led all but 29 laps that July day.

One mile tracks aren’t producing on track lead changes, they’re producing some dominating runs instead.

Richmond and Martinsville, tracks shorter than one mile in length did too. In the spring race at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway, Brad Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps. Second place finisher Chase Elliott led 49 of 500 laps himself. Between them, that’s 495 of 500 laps led. Joey Logano led the other five laps in a four lead change race.

Richmond’s spring race saw eight lead changes. The top eight finishers led all 400 laps with Truex Jr. and Busch leading 287 of the 400 laps.

The playoff Richmond race saw Truex, Busch and Keselowski lead all 400 laps in a six lead change race.

So, why was passing on these tracks so hard under the old package?

Well, with a high downforce package, the cornering speeds are higher. There’s less time off the throttle. Drivers are nearly flat out through the turns which means it’s hard to pass when you’re going the same speed.

Also, factor in the dirty air in wake with the large spoiler throwing dirty air on the front end of the cars behind and you get follow the leader racing.

How can you pass when the front end is either too tight or too loose? How can you close in when you and the car in front are going the same speed anyways?

That’s why the on track product with that package was hurting racing. Now, it’s back in the right direction.

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