The Top Five: Breaking down the Fontana race

Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. Today: Fontana.

Larson no loser

Holy crap, how impressive is Kyle Larson lately?

Sunday really felt like the first of many wins for Larson this season. He’s already the breakout driver of 2017, with finishes of second, second, second and first in the four non-plate races.

You can credit faster cars at Chip Ganassi Racing — and of course, that’s a major part of it — but Larson also isn’t making the type of mistakes that took him out of races earlier in his career. Remember when it seemed like he’d hit the wall at some point every time he had a good car?

Not anymore.

He also seems more willing to try different lines instead of being so committed to the running the wall. Larson made some awesome moves by hooking the bottom of the track during Sunday’s race, and that paid off in a big way at times.

So, about that new package…

I’m officially concerned about the effectiveness of the low-low downforce package.

NASCAR got lucky with late drama at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix that covered up ho-hum races. But Fontana — which got a 90% approval rating in the “Was it a good race?” Twitter poll last year — had expectations to break that trend and provide a great show from start to finish.

Unfortunately, much of the race was rather tame again until Gray Gaulding crashed with 20 laps to go. Then, much like the other non-plate races, a chaotic finish erased all thoughts of the earlier lack of action.

But that trend can’t continue all season. NASCAR wants the action to be compelling throughout the day, lest races turn into the NBA cliche, where only the last five minutes matters.

The new aero package test isn’t passing the eye test as far as compelling races. Why? I don’t know the answer, but I’d like to hear some theories.

Clint Bowyer’s extra effort

In a Saturday roundtable interview with reporters, Bowyer said he had a long phone call with crew chief Mike Bugarewicz on Friday night — something he didn’t typically do in the past.

Then, after finishing third on Sunday, Bowyer revealed he drove to Bugarewicz’s hotel room on Saturday night to pore over data and try to find ideas to fix the car, which didn’t look great in practice.

“I’ve never went to a crew chief’s hotel room,” Bowyer said. “Never done that before.”

It’s clear this opportunity really matters to Bowyer — as it should. At 37, this might be his last, best chance to resurrect his career and get back to the championship-contending driver he’s capable of being.

He’s on the right path. Sunday was his best finish at an intermediate track since July 2013 in Kentucky.  Bowyer now can head to Martinsville — one of his favorite venues — with confidence and momentum.

Weird stats after five races

Two Chevrolet drivers have won races this season — and neither are from Hendrick Motorsports.

The one Toyota winner so far isn’t from Joe Gibbs Racing. And the winner from Stewart-Haas Racing isn’t Kevin Harvick.

So yeah, if you thought Richard Childress Racing would have more wins than Hendrick and Gibbs combined after five races? Well, you’re just lying.

It’s been an odd start to the year. There have been five different winners, but six of the eight active multi-race winners from last season have yet to reach victory lane. That’s a big zero for Jimmie Johnson, Harvick, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth.

Yes, it’s still early, but the regular season is also roughly one-fifth complete. So how much longer is this going to last?

Painful commercials

I was proud of myself for not getting too aggravated with the commercials during Sunday’s race — the first I’d watched from home this season.

They didn’t seem to be as bad as usual. But naturally, I couldn’t make it the whole time without getting irritated.

It remains absolutely maddening to see tweets about a great battle for the lead while we at home are staring at a commercial listing the side effects for a drug named Symbicort.

By the way, some of those side effects include headaches, changes in your voice, mood changes and shaking — which coincidentally also describe the effects on me when there are too many commercials during green-flag racing.

Honestly, NOTHING about the current state of NASCAR makes me angrier or more frustrated than the commercials. It’s no wonder TV ratings are in the toilet.

No other major sport disrespects its fans like this. Even soccer figures out a way to show games — including World Cup games! — without commercial interruption (except for halftime). Most sports fans wouldn’t tolerate a broadcaster cutting away from live game action, but for some reason, NASCAR fans are just expected to shut up and deal with it.

If the TV networks need money that badly, give us a pay-per-view option with an ad-free broadcast. Would you pay $10 for a race with no ads? Personally, I would.

43 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Fontana race”

  1. DVR!!!!!!!

    I start watching after almost two hours of the TV broadcast (about halfway during the race). I catch up to Live TV with a few laps remaining. I can watch races in 60-90 minutes and watch very little commercials. 🙂

    1. His point isn’t about “having to watch commercials,” it’s about missing exciting racing. DVR doesn’t fix that, there’s still a large chunk of the race that home viewers never get to see.

  2. The cars are still too aero-dependent on clean air, while being too slab-sided to spin out. Reducing the rear spoiler may make them harder and more fun to drive, but that ground effects-look sticking them to the track is still a big problem. 90% of this race was a snooze.

  3. I agree – DVR. Today I was at the race and fortunately there was some racing back in the field – which I feel certain TV didn’t show. The leader could be 6 mins ahead of the 2nd place car and TV would continue to show it riding alone.

    1. I had a glimmer of hope when Fox did a better job at Phoenix showing battling through the field. But today it was mostly the same old Fox BS… and then at the end of the race to cut away from 4 and 5 wide passes for position to show us the winning crew FULL SCREEN!!!!!! Fox did show some of the passing to the line, in replay, but also showed us the crew again in replay (& slow motion) later… I’d rather see the racing LIVE and then show us the crew/wife/etc in replay, or at most in a small (I mean TINY) box live while we watch the race finish in a large box.

  4. Great points. Very interested in feed back on the downforce package. Without raceview TV broadcast is almost unwatchable. Seems broadcast is geared more towards casual fan than those who watch every week and have more than a basic understanding of Nascar. What is the purpose of the two extra reporters not in both or pits?

  5. Lower downforce is a big positive, but no matter how much downforce they take away. Splitters and side skirts skimming the track make the cars too aero dependent. I don’t think the lower downforce made racing worse at Fontana, but gap between Fontana and the other monotonous intermediate tracks as far as entertainment has shrunk.

  6. They seriously need to discuss shortening the races or at least make the last “segment” a shorter dash to the finish segment. Too little action spread over way too long a program. Today’s F1 opening race was an exciting, good show in a tidy 2 hour package.

    1. Never thought I’d see an F1 race more exciting than a cup race but somehow they’ve done it. What will it take to breathe some life back into NASCAR?

      1. How many passes was there in the F1 race. Like 3 or 4. Ya, I watched it. Your only happy because a non Mercedes won it.

  7. Jeff, maybe your point about the racing package and why we are seeing odd results are actually related. Think about this- Gibbs chose not to test with the new aero package last year, instead, they focused on the championship run with their cars all making the chase. Ganassi and RCR both invested a lot in new upgrades at their programs over the winter. Hendrick, while showing some promise at the end of last year, maybe isn’t as good as we thought they were vs the rest when Johnson made his magical run to a seventh championship.

    So, the aero package, while not doing exactly what NASCAR wanted, may be to blame for the weird early season results. I think we will see a “righting of the ship” later on if NASCAR doesn’t change the rules though. Those Gibbs and Hendrick cars, especially, will not be riding around not winning races for long.

    The saving grace with the races- and I agree- they have been mostly snoozers except for the dramatics at the end- has been the stages. Without those, Fontana would have raced like the Fontana of old, and I would have been mad at myself for wasting three hours of my life I would never have gotten back.

    My thought- Get rid of the splitters and enforce a minimum ride height rule that keeps the skirts off the track so we can all see air under the cars again, like we used to be able to 30 years ago. Then I think you’ll see a different style of racing.

    1. For those who have forgotten, the Toyota’s have a new nose this year. The teams are still learning what they do in traffic. I am not convinced the other teams have caught up as much as Toyota has lost some ground. Truex remains strong on the Intermediate tracks.

  8. Two things….the tv coverage is maddening. Sometimes you can see something going on the track (today 4 vs 24 for second, for example) and they are showing Truex alone in the lead and his crew chief. There isn’t much happening, show it when it is.

    And Jeff….RE: aero package. I wouldn’t even pretend to understand the first thing about fixing this, but I have a question. When I watch the Indy 500, those guys are drafting, slingshotting and passing each other like crazy. It’s hard to take my eyes off the screen. These are freaking INDY cars, which I thought were completely dependent on air to race. Then I watch NASCAR and its all aero push. I wish somebody could explain that to me.

    1. Indy cars are very reliant on air pushing the car down into the track, with very little side force generated on the car from it being so low. Stock cars rely on the air pushing down on them as well as the air pressure on the side of the car to help it turn. Do anything to disrupt the downfore, especially the side force, car will not corner nearly as well. Running in traffic disturbs the side force making the car turn worse. With the way the cars are currently set, air does not move under it because they are basically glued to track. If you remove the splitter and get air moving under the car, it takes away more of the areo dependance the cars currently have. Look at picture from early 2000s and you see cars that are 6 inches off the track during the race. Cars were less areo dependant then.

  9. I understand why commercials exist. I understand they make NASCAR and TV networks money. I understand that money makes the world go ’round, and the race cars for that matter, but I don’t see why they can’t have a set time between segments, red flag, that gives time for commercials. Heck, I’m not even against in race commercials, as long as they don’t interfere with the racing. If other sports can find a way to make it happen, what is NASCAR’s problem. Hell, all the cars are a constant advertisement. Work in a “through the field” option and do it that way.

  10. The geniuses at NASCAR have not listened for over a decade. The splitter, the bodies, and the ride height rule are to blame.

    The current rules allow tied down suspensions that have the splitter flat against the track. The current cars are go-karts. The LF, RF, and RR locked down and LR having some play. Add in the sealed off front ends and you have what we hav now…..single file aero dependent racing.

    Simple fixes that would eliminate the aero problem and make racing great again:

    1. Remove the splitter
    2. Remove the side skirts
    3. Require a maximum of 1″ diameter front sway bar. (This will do away with coil binding setups and resort to traditional springs/shocks setups)
    4. Minimum 4″ front valance clearance
    5. Straighten out the bodies. No offset.
    6. Remove part of rear 1/4 panel to reduce side force.
    7. Open up gear rule

  11. I’m glad someone in the media is talking about the poor racing. Segments are not causing the poor racing but I too think Nascar went too far with the package.
    As for commercials, welcome to our world. Being one of the 2 nascar fans on the west coast (at least it seems that way), i DVR the races so I can go to church added benefit I get to skip thru the commercials. Downside I have to stay off social media.

  12. I’m with you Jeff, I have no idea how to fix the racing but it sounds like some of these people should go to work for NASCAR.

    Had to laugh out loud about your commercial side effects. There are more fans than not that experience the same symptoms.

    P.S. Do you ever respond to any of the commentators questions/ideas?

  13. I just can’t stand DW. I keep yelling for him to “shut up, stupid”! He tries to sound like a “good ol’ boy” but, he sounds like an idiot that mis-speaks.
    GIVE IT UP. I sick of him. #bemorelikeBenny

    1. No Waltrips and no Hollywood Hotel – a good start. Old ESPN was the best yet, and they did go to racing in the pack, and went through the pack. Fox makes their broadcasters project being excited in an artificial way. Can’t watch it!

  14. Have you ever dug deep into how teams have countered the low downforce package? Most people have picked up on the a pillar trick most teams have been running but is it effective?

    I’ve more been curious about changes to the quarter panel the last few years. Since they extended the bottom edge with the COT they’ve grown into this huge, flat pieces of the car. I imagine the act similarly to a rudder in keep the cars stable in the corners, which allows drivers to more readily catch the car when it’s sliding and such.

    Always been interested in a more technical focus on packages, very akin to what F1 and IndyCar does.

  15. Between all the commercials and the lack of comprehensive coverage, it’s very difficult to get very invested in seeing the entire race these days. I keep hearing that there was close racing all through the field…but you can’t prove it by what I saw on the broadcast. Sporadic coverage of someone not leading the field just isn’t compelling TV. And DW constantly telling us how he knew all along that (place changing name here) would do whatever is extremely annoying.

  16. As far as more compelling racing goes I’m not sure there is any cure for what we currently see. There are so many team/driver combinations that are capable of running competitive lap times that it’s going to be hard to pass. Being in the lead is still a big advantage so that enters the picture, too. Then, when one team hits the setup a bit better than all the others you have a dominant car such as Harvick at Atlanta, Truex at Las Vegas, Kyle Busch at Phoenix (yes, I know he didn’t win) and pretty much Larson at Fontana. I just don’t think there’s any way to change things.

  17. Simple fixes is all it will take really. The cars still produce too much side force, due to the right rear being larger than the left rear. In all honesty, it doesn’t just hurt the racing, it looks stupid. I keep saying it, but the side skirts and the splitter especially need to go, and the cars need to come up off the ground like they used to be. I heard an interesting take from Dale Jr. saying that its hard to get rid of them and raise the cars because you cant un-learn all of the engineering of the last few years. I like Jr., but I happen to disagree with him here. It’s not about un-learning the technology, it’s about making it irrelevant. Outlaw the side skirts and splitters, and bring back the ride height rule. Hell, even give them back some spoiler if those changes would take away too much downforce. We need to make the cars drive like they did in the late 90’s-mid 2000’s era, pre-COT. Anyone who says the races weren’t as exciting back then, you are partially right. But there is a reason for that, that no longer exists. Then, there were a handful of drivers that could win each week, and the difference in speed from the front to the back was tenths of seconds a lap, even sometimes full seconds. Now, the difference can be just a few tenths from 1st to 40th. The solution isn’t that difficult, it will just take someone higher up with some balls to actually do it.

    1. Great thoughts. Jeff any way you could have real discussion with someone like say Larry Mac about these ideas. I think there are a lot of serious fans that would enjoy that.

  18. I would pay to watch races commercial free… NASCAR is one of the only reasons I have a cable package right now.

  19. I blame Nascar for the commercials. They need to specify a lower commercial load during green flag racing. Allow commercials during pitstops and give the network 90 seconds or so to show pitstop highlights when they return if there are any. If this lowers revenue so be it but higher viewership may make commercials that are there more valuable.

  20. Thanks for having the guts to speak the truth.

    Why is the truck series more exciting? Even xfinity when Cup stars aren’t running away from the field.

    We stopped watching in 2001 when it seemed the races were fixed. Came back for the COT and stayed but we can leave again. Biggest reason we pay for cable TV is sports.

  21. Nascar won’t mess withThe splitters, side skirts and them being low to the ground because that all keeps them down in the ground when they spin. That won’t go unless speeds go down and that won’t happen without an engine size reduction.

  22. I don’t know how much longer I can watch these SUVs not pass each other for 3+ hours. They need less aero, less practice, and run in shorter races. Waiting all day for the top 5 in qualifying to predictably battle each other for 10 laps is kind of silly, and I was hoping we were finally done with it this year. Nope.

  23. $10 a race is way too expensive. Make a NASCAR network, like WWE Network, where we get the races each week, like we get PPV shows on WWE Network. $10 – $15 a month is more than fair and share revenues with networks.

  24. Clean air won the race even though Larson dominated. As far as the commercials, my god, when it hit 25 to go I honestly have never seen that many commercials in a row. 5 commercials then 2 laps then the same thing 3 times. This sport makes it difficult to love sometimes. Next week will probably have us loving it because of some beautiful battle for the win at Martinsville.

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