Column: NASCAR’s 2019 rules package tough to swallow, but may be necessary to save sport

When word first leaked of NASCAR’s plan to use an All-Star-type package for next season, I immediately started thinking of other racing series I could cover instead.

The mere thought made me sick. Taking the best stock car drivers in the world and dumbing down the racing? Sorry, but I had no interest in watching some buy-a-ride rich kid have a chance to go out there, hold it wide open around a 1.5-mile track and suddenly be able to compete with the likes of Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson.

That’s not why I watch sports. I want to see the best do their thing and be able to see true talent shine through.

But a recent quote from IndyCar president of competition Jay Frye entered my mind. In talking about why IndyCar was going toward lower downforce and higher horsepower, he said: “Every motorsports series has its thing, and we’re going back to being fast and loud. These cars are hard to drive and cool to look at.”

So if that’s IndyCar’s “thing,” what is NASCAR’s thing?

Well, as you know from following NASCAR through the years, it’s entertainment. NASCAR is about putting on a good show and trying to please its fans — which often comes at the expense of concepts people consider “pure” racing.

NASCAR has playoffs — and not just playoffs, but eliminations and points resets! NASCAR has artificial cautions during the races (stages). NASCAR has overtime — unlimited attempts! — so fans can see a finish under green. NASCAR has double-file restarts and free passes and wavearounds. And NASCAR officiates in a way that allows contact and blocking, where other series frown upon it.

All those things add up to a search for entertainment. That’s what sets NASCAR apart when it comes to its decision-making. 

So the announcement NASCAR will implement a rules package that will force closer racing next season? That is completely, 100 percent on-brand for what NASCAR is.

But there’s something else at play with all this, and it’s much more of a factor for me at least taking a wait-and-see approach.

NASCAR isn’t doing this solely as some desperate, Hail Mary move to try and fix the racing. If that were the case, I’d be 100 percent against it.

There’s actually a long-term vision in the works that makes this digestible: Saving the sport from a financial standpoint.

Right now, the Cup Series engines use a tapered spacer (which restricts horsepower) that results in roughly 750 hp. NASCAR, in its search for new manufacturers to enter the sport, has traveled around the world only to be told such a high-powered engined with 1950s technology would be a non-starter for a potential new OEM. The cost of developing that type of engine would be astronomical and serves as a deterrent to a new entry.

So if NASCAR is going to have any real chance of attracting a new manufacturer, it needs to get the number down to 550 hp.

Why is that important? Because manufacturers have money. LOTS of money! And they’re willing to spend it in big ways. Just look at Formula E, which is going to have more than 10 manufacturers by its sixth season of existence — including the likes of Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes, Nissan and Porsche. They’re collectively pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a racing series that isn’t even that popular or established yet.

Chevy, Ford and Toyota are great for NASCAR and its teams, but NASCAR needs another couple manufacturers to come in and infuse the race teams with money. As seen with the recent sponsorship struggles, that factory support is more important than ever in modern-day NASCAR.

So that’s one factor. The other is this: The Gen 7 car IS coming, but it’s likely still a couple years away. NASCAR needs to find somewhat of a temporary stopgap until that car arrives and incorporates many of the concepts officials are now trying to reach with this package.

Now, do fans have to like this decision? Absolutely not, and I know some are going to be vehemently against this concept. Some drivers have also been outspoken in their dislike for it, with some privately saying this might make them consider a different direction in their careers.

But here’s the thing: Motorsports is a huge, diverse neighborhood. And so if a rules package makes you angry enough to bid farewell to NASCAR, then IndyCar is right down the street.

Of course, with IndyCar, you’re going to see races end under yellow and some events go completely caution-free. So maybe you won’t like that.

OK, well then how about Formula One? They have badass cars and cool technology, intriguing personalities and racing on a world stage. F1 might not be a bad option if you’re looking for the “pure” racing thing.

On the other hand, the car leading in the first turn often wins an F1 race — at least when the driver isn’t told to move aside for team orders. Ugh.

Hmm. Well then what about sprint cars? Man, sprint cars are AMAZING! The racing is like watching a combination of extreme sports and bullfighting, and the drivers are super accessible.

That said, none of the races are on TV, it’s hold-your-breath dangerous (which you might not be able to stomach) and you’re probably going to get hit in the face with clumps of mud when you go to the track. Not exactly the big-league NASCAR experience you may be used to.

Look, I’m not trying to stump for you to remain a NASCAR fan. That is up to you. As I said earlier, I’ve personally struggled with the concept of this new package and am still torn. Hell, so are the drivers!

But I keep coming back to the entertainment factor. Are the boring 1.5-mile tracks going to look better next season? Probably, yeah. It’s the way they’re getting there that is bothersome.

So what if someone zapped my minds with the memory device from Men in Black and I didn’t know the details of what made NASCAR racing seem more competitive?

That’s wishful thinking for those of us who follow every detail of the sport, but it will be reality for many NASCAR fans next season. That’s because a lot of casual fans (who aren’t on Twitter, probably) will flip on some of the races next year and go, “Dang, the racing looks closer!” without having any idea how it got that way.

If that’s the case, maybe it will be a good thing. And if this direction results in additional manufacturers joining NASCAR, it will definitely be a good thing.

On the other hand, this move threatens to run off some of NASCAR’s remaining passionate fans, not help the racing like NASCAR thinks it will and result in no new OEMs signing up.

That’s the gamble. And it’s a massive one, because now it involves the credibility of the racing itself.

But for those of us who have called on NASCAR officials to “DO SOMETHING,” now they are. Next year will reveal whether it was the right something — or one of the biggest mistakes yet.

27 Replies to “Column: NASCAR’s 2019 rules package tough to swallow, but may be necessary to save sport”

  1. NASCAR needs new people at the top. Phelps and O’Donnell don’t have racing backgrounds and it shows. So many of their decisions are clueless as to fixing the sport.

    We have already tried high downforce. 8 inch spoilers. It didn’t work. Fans left in droves. Seats were ripped out. Going back again to something that didn’t work is just plain stupid.

  2. Hello……. Michael Annett, Nascar just set you up for cup, not much talent needed for 2019, hold it wide open and you can run top 15 in the 32 car or the 47…………………Dillon may have a chance to win in the #13 next year on 1.5 track….
    Nascar needs to hire some of the retired drivers like Martin, Wallace, Gordon & Edwards to run this sport before it is totally driven into the ground!

      1. Jamie McMurray 4/7
        Michael Waltrip 4/4
        Jimmy Spencer 2/2
        Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 2/2
        David Ragan 2/2
        Austin Dillon 1/2
        Phil Parsons 1/1
        Derrike Cope 1/2
        John Andretti 1/2
        Brian Vickers 1/3
        Trevor Bayne 1/1
        Aric Almirola 1/1
        Bobby Hamilton 1/4
        Ken Schrader 1/4
        Ward Burton 1/5

        1. Meaning what?

          Rusty Wallace
          Geoff Bodine
          Ricky Rudd
          Martin Truex
          Alan Kulwicki
          Carl Edwards
          Kasey Kahne
          Jeremy Mayfield
          Joe Nemechek
          Juan Montoya
          Marcus Ambrose
          Kyle Petty
          Ricky Craven
          Johnny Benson
          Kyle Larson

          All winless in draft-pack racing.

          It takes more talent to win there than you want to pretend. The ones who didn’t win make the list of those who did irrelevant as a straw man.

  3. The argument against this package has never made sense. Far from dumbing down racing, it makes it more competitive. The one genuine gripe drivers have against this package (all the other arguments are just high-sounding rhetoric) is they have to work a lot harder as drivers – they have to race harder, they have to set up the cars looser to get off the turns, and they have to actually dice with the others far more.

    It ostensibly makes the cars easier to drive – yet the reality is if being easy to drive is the issue, then the cars should be run without power steering – make the physical act of racing the car harder.

    And furthering the nonsense about “any rich kid and now race open throttle against Kyle Busch” – consider great drivers who NEVER won a draft-pack race, which is what the racing with this package is –

    Rusty Wallace
    Ricky Rudd
    Geoff Bodine
    Martin Truex
    Alan Kulwicki
    Carl Edwards
    Kasey Kahne
    Jeremy Mayfield
    Joe Nemechek
    Kyle Petty
    Ricky Craven
    Juan Montoya
    Marcus Ambrose
    Johnny Benson
    Jerry Nadeau

    If “anyone can race with this package” then those drivers and others who’ve never won a draft-pack race would have won in them by now. The “anyone” argument is a sham, a straw-man. Real talent involves RACING the other cars, not just throttle control. Open throttle is actually tougher on a driver – “We could never get them to stop lifting for the corners” is how Indycar team owners ten to fifteen years ago explained when they tested sprint car guys and found they could not drive Indycars.

    So in fact there IS real talent involved in this kind of racing. And the upsurge in lead changes with this package as evidenced by the four Xfinity races and the All Star Race that ran this package showcases greater, not lesser, competition.

    And the process is not manipulative at all – it’s the long-overdue correction by the sanctioning body to what teams and engineering did to the cars in killing the drafting ability of them; whether they meant to kill off the draft or not, that is the result. The sanctioning body is only getting the cars back to what they’re supposed to do.

    Making the draft great again has always needed to be one of the priorities of ALL racing. Indycar’s present package needs correction to make the draft more important again, and NASCAR is now – twenty years belatedly – doing the right thing.

    1. Calling the following drivers ‘great’ isn’t going to convince many people that your argument makes sense.

      Ricky Rudd – 0 championships, 23 wins in 906 starts (2.5%)
      Geoff Bodine – 0 championships, 18 wins in 575 starts (3.1%)
      Kasey Kahne – 0 championships, 18 wins in 529 starts (3.4%)
      Jeremy Mayfield – 0 championships, 5 wins in 433 starts (1.2%)
      Joe Nemechek – 0 championships, 4 wins in 667 starts (0.6%)
      Kyle Petty – 0 championships, 8 wins in 829 starts (1.0%)
      Ricky Craven – 0 championships, 2 wins in 278 starts (0.7%)
      Juan Montoya – 0 championships, 2 wins in 255 starts (0.8%)
      Marcos Ambrose – 0 championships, 2 wins in 227 starts (0.9%)
      Johnny Benson – 0 championships, 1 win in 274 starts (0.4%)
      Jerry Nadeau – 0 championships, 1 wins in 177 starts (0.6%)

  4. I was at a party on Sunday afternoon and there was a football game on a really big screen. I wasn’t really watching, but someone was changing channels and ended up on the Roval race just before Keselowski ran out of brains and caused the red flag. Well everyone stopped talking and watched the 25 or so replays. All of a sudden everyone was asking me what was up with “twelve cars moving on deal” that was the focus of the announcer’s attention. I don’t really know or care about the particulars, but tried to explain it best I could. Most said, “You mean there will only be 12 cars at next weeks race?” I told them no, there will still be 40 cars. Most of them asked, “Why if only the 12 have a chance at winning the championship?” The best I could come up with it would be a pretty boring race with only 12 cars. To compound the problem, there was a lot of confusion about who the 12 would be. I was upset because it looked like Larson was going to be eliminated and through an incredible stroke of luck, he got in.

    My point is, NASCAR has evolved into a series that is a terribly poor reality show. Identical cars with different decals and engines that depends on luck to make the playoffs. And, in the process, they have made it impossible for the average sports fan to get interested. Great crowd for the Roval, but how many fans in the stands had any clue as to what was going on in the final seven laps? Even the TV announcers weren’t sure.

    1. While your overall point is true, you miss the boat on “identical cars.” The claim implies NASCAR made them that way – they didn’t. Form Following Function did that.

      1. I’ve was involved with NASCAR from the mid 80’s til the year 2000. By involved, I was in the diecast business and had a NASCAR garage pass. In the 80’s and 90’s, there were about 50 templates that were used to check the various makes of cars. Today there is one. Let me repeat that… There is a giant fixture that is used to check the bodies of all three makes of cars. The only variance allowed is the front grill which is a piece which is issued by NASCAR. The 4-door Fusion, Camaro, and 4-door Camry in NASCAR all have the same bodies.

    2. Rain out of brains…

      I guess you ran out of the will to listen to several drivers explain what happened on that restart?

      How can anyone listen to you ramble on about what’s wrong with NASCAR when you don’t even know what happened in the race you’re referring to?

  5. Not sure why Atlanta doesn’t have the full 2019 packag.. Jeff can you ask? I was at Allstar race and lived it….but the cars looked like they were moving in slow motion. That slower speed will take some getting used to. I am happy they made the changes but my final judgment will come after watching a few races live at the track and on TV.
    If I like what I see live at AMS & CMS, I renew my tickets, if not I won’t. So BIG GAMBLE for NASCAR but one they had to make.

  6. Severely disappointed in this package. Really duds me out. I watch every race. I have since I was a kid. This might shake me finally. So sad, I try to convert people all the time, tell them its the best series in the best sport. This will make it hard to continue this. It will even screw up my iracing as they mirror these changes. I’m not even a typical race fan complainer, just sad. The racing has been great this year. Less downforce is the ley to better races and we went the opposite direction. Well looks like I may get the NFL ticket again and go 100% Broncos next year.

    1. How is more lead changes going to hurt popularity? The racing this year has been okay; the best races by far have been the draft-pack races.

      Less downforce has been a universal failure as a concept.

      1. We’ve got a real NASCAR burner account going on here. Are you really Steve O’Donnell or Phelps?

  7. I think this column is very fair. I don’t want to rush to judgment, I’d rather just see how it plays out. Fingers crossed!

  8. This is what happens when an organization is run by a committee, and not by a single strong leader. You get a compromise that pleases no one, and that does more harm than good to the organization. In other words….same old NASCAR.

    Why did this happen? Simple. Greed. Who will be the most harmed? The remaining fan base.

    NASCAR: They are in a self inflicted hell. After more than 15 years of inept so-called leadership, Brian France finally did the right thing and step down. Granted it took a DUI and drug possession charge for it to happen, but nevertheless it finally happened. Uncle Jim is taking the reigns, but has only been around for a few months. Rather than take the lead and cancel this compromise, he is standing by and allowing The Steve’s et.. al. to demonstrate their worth. I have my doubts.

    Obviously NASCAR knows they need to do something to justify the TV contracts. Without TV the whole sport will collapse. NASCAR is like the WWE. They are an entertainment, made for TV, company, and no longer a sport. They gave up the right to all themselves a sport with the introduction of the Chase/ Playoffs. It would not surprise me to see Comcast buy ISC/NASCAR and run the “sport” as a TV franchise.

    Steve O’Donnell was a disgrace today. He is just as bad as Brian France was during his press conferences. He continually made comments that were in defiance of logic and physics. Adding downforce and reducing HP makes the driver have to run wide open to maintain optimum speed. With a standardized gear and spoiler rule, all the cars are largely running the same speed. How again are you going to pass? Oh…that is right. O’Donnell is a marketing guy, and like most of the people at ISC & NASCAR are not racers. He doesn’t understand how cars work, the physics behind it, and how to make rules to improve the on track product.

    This announcement is just a band-aid until the Charter agreement and the track agreements expire. Once free of these agreements, I foresee Jim France leading NASCAR more like his brother, and ultimately make decision on what’s best for NASCAR, and less collaboration with “stakeholders”.

    Teams: Since the inception of the Charter program, teams have the ability to have a say in how NASCAR rules are created, and enforced. This ability to have a spot in negotiating is how we ended up here today. The owners are only looking out for themselves, and will vote for things that benefit them. With a huge inventory of engines, it makes sense to use a tapered spacer to achieve the goal of slowing the cars down, at a cost that is not exorbitant, such as changing the engine size from 358ci to 289ci, which would obsolete millions of dollars of inventory. Changing the splitter, and radiator pan is just bolt on….not much cost change there. The real cost will be the R&D to engineer suspension packages, and especially engine packages that can achieve a few more HP as well as achieve a flat torque curve. 10HP at 550HP goal is much more valuable than 10HP at 900 unrestricted engine.

    All these changes will mean is the engineers will be getting paid more and more for overtime as they will have to recalibrate what these changes will do, and how it will affect them in ’19. Look for one or two teams to hit on the package early and dominate, while the rest of the field plays catch-up.

    The teams will not vote for the necessary change to remove the splitter, side skirts, and 1″ sway bar rule, as they have spent too much money going down the rabbit hole with coil binding setups.

    Fans: Well the fans were told today this is the greatest thing ever….just like every year. The traditionalists are declining each year. Other than returning to 2003 points, eliminating the Chase, and getting the cars to look like real cars, I don’t see anything changing the downward trend. Next year will see another 10% drop in interest, and I don’t see an end in sight.

    Nothing from NASCAR has given me hope that they have a clear vision of what they are, who their customer is, and what their product is.

    My Suggestion: Drain the swamp that is Daytona. VERY few people at ISC and NASCAR have ever had to promote an event, raced a car, or worked on one. The employees are largely there since the influx of TV revenue, and have no idea on what it takes to fix this mess.

    1. IT IS THE CARS STUPID. The on-track product needs to be fixed first. This includes the ridiculous cost to field one of these cars. Single source “official” suppliers have to be eliminated. NASCAR needs to go WAY back to their roots and look at SLM racing. The GEN7 car needs to be a perimeter chassis frame, use a SLM style engine, open gear rule, 1″ max sway bar (eliminates coil binding setups, and the excessive cost to engineer and run them), use bias ply, not radial tires, and have flange fit, molded bodies. There will be no side skirts or splitters. Just a simple valance in front.

    The cost of a CUP/Truck or Busch car needs to be not much more than a K&N/ARCA car. Illmor engine is NOT an option, as it is too expensive, and is a proprietary design. NASCAR needs to go with a simple SLM style 9:1 head/LS 6.0/ Ford SLM/ crate engine formula. The more the better. These engines are already putting out 500HP and allow for full throttle response. Buy or build a chassis, build an engine and go race.

    My hope is NASCAR makes the changes to start a rebound……..I have severe doubts.

    1. You act as if drivers don’t want to run wide open – the fact is NO driver in his right mind ever wants to lift for any reason. “How are you going to pass” this way? The way they’ve been passing and repassing from the time restrictor plates debuted in 1970 and returned in 1988. The whole myth of restriction stifling passing needs to die.

      The splitter is NOT the problem, Removing sideforce is the 5&5 Failure again. The cars can NEVER go back to “low downforce” (itself a myth; the cars of the 1970s generated downforce, just not in the same way as today). You also oversell the R&D argument, as teams by now realize it’s futile and doesn’t help them anyway; not that they won’t try, just that they won’t succeed, and with spendaholism in the sport in need of reigning in the incentive to spend is shrinking, not growing.

      “Getting the cars to look like real cars” is yet another fan myth, pushing the larger myth that blames NASCAR instead of Form Following Function for why the cars look alike (as if they didn’t look alike in the 1970s onward).

      IT’S THE WEAKNESS OF THE DRAFT, LACK OF DOWNFORCE, AND EXCESSIVE POWER that are the problem. The Generation 7 car needs the draft ducts, big spoiler, etc. because RACING needs the draft to be more important than handling, needs the cars to be COMPLETELY secure to the track both for safety (so the cars can’t get off the ground) and to eliminate ALL excuse by drivers not to go for the lead, and needs to keep the power within reason. The old model of aero-clean bodies without downforce and more power DOES NOT WORK (if it ever in fact did).

  9. For all those commenting “Driver never won draft pack race”, keep in mind draft PACK racing didn’t develop until the very late 90s. Plate racing from 88 thru then would occasionally have packs here and there, but was mostly single file, or very short, broken up groups of 2×2, especially late in the race. Remember it used to be a huge thing in the mid 90s of whether you were in the “lead draft”, which was maybe 6-12 cars. That basically went away in the late 90s as you got 30+ car drafts and the only danger of losing the draft was if you were intentionally riding around in the back to miss the big one. The 3-wide for 500 miles stuff didn’t emerge until 99-00, with some exceptions (2000 daytona 500 being a notable one)

    1. Yes and no. 1991 was when the fields caught up to the top three or four and Talladega that year was astonishingly competitive and deep. The packs were not consistently there until 1996-97, and that has more to do with teams getting better than because the restrictors did anything “artificial.”

      The “artificial” argument I keep hearing is just another straw man farce concocted by people as an excuse, not a credible argument.

      The fact remains the plethora of talented drivers who did NOT win a draft-pack race refutes the “anyone can win these races” lie people tell themselves. Rusty Wallace’s inability to win a draft-pack race legitimizes Michael Waltrip’s four wins at those places – people should accept that.

  10. I applaud NASCAR for doing something. The sport has to evolve, if you continue doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, well then you are insane. People want to see door to door, fender banging racing. The current package has made the cars hard to drive, but they are still too aero sensitive. The most talented drivers have risen to the top Harvick, Busch, and Truex Jr and fans got bored quickly from their domination. Now they are essentially making 1.5 mile tracks restrictor plate races where we’ve seen the best Racing the sport has ever produced! It if NASCAR sits back and does nothing it’s fans are leaving the sport in droves. I for one wouldn’t mind seeing a new face in Victory lane every week. F1 and Indy can’t do that.

  11. The suits at NASCAR better be right because if the
    rules changes yield worst results the paying public
    will speak with tightening of wallets and turning off

  12. A lot of good comments on this thread.
    After all is said and done we are going to see the same cast of characters up front next year. These rule are not going to change a mule to a thoroughbred.
    As far as making it inviting to another OEM forget it. Ain’t going to happen. In reality I don’t see why the three they have are in the sport. Win in Sunday sell on Monday is passé. Died years ago. Push rod engines for the most part are dinosaurs. GM is the last hold out on them. For a new OEM to come in they would have to get one of the big teams to come on board. RCR maybe or Ganassi. You know damn right well Hendrick and Gibbs will never change. SHR and Ford have an obvious great relationship. Roush has been a Ford man going all the way back to his drag racing and Trans-Am days. He appears to be done anyway. Besides what was once great exposure has now disappeared.

    Like everyone agrees it is no longer racing it’s entertainment. You want real racing go to your local short track. Sprint cars, super late models, modifieds you name it. There you’ll find real racers. Not drivers who have careers with guaranteed salaries.

    1. Al Torney – pushrod engines clearly work. Toyota’s NASCAR program is proving that motorsports is still a viable test bed within reason. A new manufacturer can take some of the smaller teams of present and build them up.

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