No passing fad
This past Sunday's race at Dover applied a layer of neon highlighter to NASCAR's biggest problem; the inability to make passes over the course of a race. Teams and cars are so close technically that a loss of track position early in the race can doom a team's finish well over a hundred laps later. Surely NASCAR is aware of the problem, press releases to the contrary. But unlike any other problem facing the sport, this is one that has the potential to cause long-term damage to auto racing in America. The time is fast approaching where NASCAR and the teams need to consider not only opening the tool box but grabbing a few new tools off the rack. If they don't the series faces the potential of becoming a closed-wheel version of Formula 1, where the excitement on qualifying day far outstrips that on race day.
Mark Twain is credited with the famous quote on stats, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” NASCAR's defenders will quote those stats chapter and verse on how there's never been more passing than there is in the sport today. Yet all it takes is one race like the one that took place at Dover to put a slug between the eyes of that argument. Dale Earnhardt Jr had a car that was the class of the field for nearly 100 laps; yet after a pit road miscue dropped him to eighth place, the #88 never seemed quite as good. Two tires or four, adjustment or no, he just didn't have enough muscle to get past Jimmie Johnson. The fact that he even managed to get up to him was a marvel in and of itself as passing was hard to come by.
A look at the driver tracks for the race show a similar pattern for many of the cars at Dover. Kyle Busch, a driver who normally is able to pass at will, passed more cars on pit road (or during pit cycles) than he did on the concrete. Of the top ten finishing cars, only one started outside the top 20 (Clint Bowyer finished tenth after a 23rd place start). Sure, having a fast car in qualifying can mean you've also got a hot rod for the race. But the inability to pass played its part too.
Dover race recap from NASCAR Garage
Restarts played out the same way every time. The leader started on the outside and rocketed ahead of the pack. The fourth place car on restart would follow in the leader's footsteps and take second place, two to three seconds behind. The remaining cars would file into line like highway traffic going into a single lane construction zone and everyone would turn laps until the next spring rubber appeared. Whereupon the crew chiefs and pit crews would make their money by earning spots on pit road that couldn't be taken on the track.
This isn't the first race NASCAR has had like this. Nor will it be the last. And yes, track loop data will show plenty of passes made at Dover. But not all passes are created equal. Casey Mears getting around David Ragan for 26th place is important to those two drivers. But it's somewhat less important to the race audience as a whole. Their focus is to see passing for the lead. Aside from an early race move by Earnhardt past Kenseth, the race's remaining leader passes all involved pit road. That's hard to sell from the broadcast booth and hard to watch from Joe Sixpack's couch.
So what is NASCAR to do? They don't want to get into the business of stimulating passing through artificial means. The sanctioning body already takes plenty of heat for cautions like the one thrown late in the Dover race for an errant spring rubber. They cannot afford the credibility questions that would come with changes that artificially bring the field closer together. The changes to promote passing need to come from a long-term effort that makes racing more competitive without alienating the current fan base. By that standard, it may be nearly impossible.
Yet the ideas are certainly out there. Whether it's a crew guy working for a mid pack team or an engineer working for one of the superteams, it's almost a certainty that the change NASCAR needs is somewhere within the sport right now. The teams spend tens of millions of dollars every year looking for ways to shave milliseconds off their lap times. Some of those efforts are within NASCAR's rules and result in wins; others skirt or violate the rulebook entirely and result in penalties from the sanctioning body.
What NASCAR should do this off-season is bring the teams together for a series of three day conferences. Virtually all of those employees are in the Charlotte area already so the logistics wouldn't be particularly difficult. Bring in a good mix of people from all levels of the sport and from all positions in the field. It might be worthwhile to throw in a few media types as well; they hear from fans every day on Facebook and Twitter and can provide perspective on how proposed changes might be received by NASCAR Nation at large.
The point of these conferences would not be simply a search for speed. The teams do that enough on a daily basis. Instead, the idea would be to bring out those ideas that might work but have never before had a true hearing. They'd be the ideas crew guys kick around when they retire to a local bar at the end of the night. They'd be the kinds of ideas an individual team engineer might hesitate to bring up at the shop simply because it's “out of your area of responsibility”. If NASCAR can foster the right environment, the people there can truly explore areas that before never received serious consideration.
There are a world of different ideas to examine. What would be the impact of using restrictor plates at every track? What about no restrictor plates anywhere and a switch to a six cylinder engine? How about a push-to-pass feature as found in IndyCar or F1? Or perhaps an overhaul in NASCAR's tire strategies with different rubber compounds for teams to choose from? The point is to consider the possibilities. NASCAR has always been almost proud of being technologically behind passenger cars (much less other racing series)- is there something out there that can bring stock car racing into the 21st century?
A few years ago NASCAR met with the drivers and teams to brainstorm ways to improve the on track product. Those meetings led directly to double-file restarts and the Green-White-Checkered finish being added to the race. Not everyone is a fan of those changes but both have provided an increase in drama and fan excitement, particularly at the end of a race. It's time to bring everyone together again and see what other ideas are out there- and maybe just bring an end to the no passing fad.