Las Vegas NASCAR test: What we know — and what we don’t — about new rules package

NASCAR preseason testing is a giant tease in that it provides tantalizing hints of what’s to come, but the information is often incomplete.

Take this two-day organizational test in Las Vegas, for example. There were 13 cars on track, draft-racing for 25 laps at a time with temperatures in the low 60s. Will those sessions look the same when there are 40 cars driving a full race in warmer weather next month? Of course not.

So let’s focus on what we know for sure after this test at Las Vegas and the three-car Goodyear tire test at Fontana last month. When it comes to the new rules package, what can we write with pen and what remains in pencil?

Here’s the first, most obvious, most indisputable fact about the 2019 package: It signifies a mentality shift in NASCAR that had been in the works for years.

This isn’t a small tweak to the racing, like the addition of the free pass. This isn’t even on the level of breaking up the races with stages or implementing double-file restarts.

This package — which brings drafting to the Cup Series on a widespread level — is a fundamental change in the way NASCAR races will look and feel.

By placing a priority on entertainment, officials have crafted the racing to produce a show they hope will thrill and excite the fan base. Ten-second leads are dead, raw speed has diminished importance and the outcome of races will more often be in doubt.

“We want cars close together, we don’t want people falling off and going laps down, we don’t want people checking out,” NASCAR vice president of development and innovation John Probst said. “We don’t want that ‘wall of noise’ (where the cars are spread out and just going by the stands continuously).”

By keeping the cars from escaping one another, the demand on the drivers will change. This won’t be about the bravery of driving into the corner deeper than another competitor, but rather about understanding the draft and making moves to find pockets of clean air — and thus gain position.

Many of the drivers, as you can guess, hate this. They’re trying to be restrained in public, biting their tongues or talking around their real opinions of the package. They save their griping for private, believing it does no one any good to blast it within earshot of fans.

Well, for the most part.

We’ve taken the driver skill away from the drivers in this package,” Kyle Busch said. “Anybody can go out and run around there and go wide open. You (media) can probably do it. It’s going to be a lot more mental game, a lot more chess match, thinking how you make moves, how daring you’ll be.”

Many of those who view themselves as “racers” in the garage feel the same way, grumbling the new rules go against the traditional spirit of motorsports.

NASCAR is well aware of the opinions, of course. Probst acknowledged the majority of drivers dislike the package (and wondered aloud why they would openly say it doesn’t take skill if drivers are paid for those very talents). But officials pushed forward with this approach in hopes it would make for a better on-track product.

In short, if Cup cars race like the Truck Series, it will be deemed a success in the halls of NASCAR. After all, fans have long claimed Truck racing was the best NASCAR had to offer. NASCAR took that as a hint.

So will it work? That’s where the pencil comes in and the pen disappears.

The short answer: I don’t know. You don’t know. The drivers don’t know. NASCAR doesn’t know. No one knows for sure, and anyone saying otherwise is just guessing.

However, there were some hints at the Vegas test. And the results were mixed:

— Could the cars stay closer together than before? No doubt. However, Vegas is a relatively smooth, fast and low-wear track. During the drafting sessions, the leader could hold the gas wide open all the way around the track — but the cars in the pack had their hands full and often had to lift, depending how their cars were set up. That won’t be the case at a place like Fontana, where the tires were making a considerable difference at the three-car test and even the leader had to lift after six or seven laps.

— Could the leader get passed? Through the five draft sessions in Vegas, it looked quite difficult to achieve. If a driver had even a half-decent car, it appeared clean air would leave them untouchable as the second- and third-place cars scrambled to try and get by. The action in the field was good, but for the lead? Not so much. But again, that’s at a specific test with specific circumstances that might not apply everywhere — so we just don’t know yet.

— Did this package take some engineering out of the cars? Maybe in some ways, but now crew chiefs and engineers will just have a different challenge. They can trim their cars out to be fast but perhaps not handle well or set up to have a good long-run car but sacrifice some of the drafting speed.

— Will this change the strategy? Big time, and moreso than we can even grasp. With track position looking like it could mean more than ever, crew chiefs might have to take huge gambles on tires late in a race. Pit stops will be absolutely vital; a pit-road penalty might doom someone’s race. And there might even be some wrinkles we can’t yet anticipate, such as drivers teaming up to bump-draft in order to pass the leader.

Let’s go back to writing in pen for a moment, because we know this much for sure: As it stands now, this will be one of the most unpredictable seasons NASCAR has ever had. Between the new package and the playoff format, trying to come up with a field of 16 playoff drivers — let alone a championship pick — will be more like wild guesses.

There will likely be drivers who make the playoffs based on a Hail Mary call to stay out at the right time, while others who benefit from races filled with attrition from the additional crashes that will take place this season. There will be spectacular wrecks on restarts and highlight reels filled with daring, aggressive moves for the lead.

Will the new package save the sport? No, because no one thing will. Will it increase interest and attendance, or at least stop the slide? That’s the potential payoff for this gamble, and officials have decided betting with the sport’s integrity itself is worth the risk in order to entertain its fan base.

Good or bad, the verdict won’t come anytime soon. Only two of the first six races — Vegas (March 3) and Fontana (March 17) — use the full version of the new package, and it will take much longer than that to measure the impact.

In the meantime, drivers, fans and media alike will look for signs, wondering if this new Entertainment Era will lift the sport or only drag it down further, as some have seemed to predict via social media.

For NASCAR’s part, officials are just hoping fans give it a chance.

“I would encourage them to give it a chance and see it and watch it,” NASCAR’s Probst said. “I think they’re going to find it will be very entertaining.”

John Probst said NASCAR officials were pleased with what they saw in the Vegas test, but said they aren’t ready to celebrate yet.

Watch: Periscope broadcasts of the 2019 rules package test at Las Vegas


16 Replies to “Las Vegas NASCAR test: What we know — and what we don’t — about new rules package”

  1. From what I was able to see and talking to some crew guys that was at the test looks like the leader will be very hard to pass. And looks like drivers skills will not be as much of an advantage and also looked to be a little short on HP. Looks like the teams and series directors have their hands full and like I have heard several times this change will be very costly to the owners.

  2. Nothing I saw or heard at Vegas has made me think this is the solution. As Kyle said, anyone can sit with their foot mashed to floor and some brave pills. This could destroy NASCAR completely.

    I have tickets for Texas and really really worried about how bad it will be. I hope I am wrong and driver skill will actually mean something, but nothing so far suggests that’s the case.

    1. I loved the two car tango, can’t wait for it’s return! (I know I am in the 5% of fans who say that)

  3. We will not really know how this will work long term until the second time as some of these tracks and the engineers have worked their magic. I will be at AMS and CMS (Allstar), so I will get to see the partial and full packages live…..then form a real opinion.

  4. “By playing a priority on entertainment, officials have crafted the racing to produce a show they hope will thrill and excite the fan base.”

    It would seem as if most of the changes NASCAR has implemented over the years is intended to convert people who aren’t racefans into racefans. This looks like more of the same.

    I don’t find aero-racing exciting. I don’t like watching guys with a faster car get up behind the guy upfront and then lose the front end because the guy ahead of them has clean air and they don’t. Last year, at a track I don’t recall, Harvick was by far the dominent car and a bad pit stop. It put him back 12th or so and he could barely advance a few positions. The air was just too turbulent.

    A few years ago, NASCAR experimented with a low downforce package and the first race at Kentucky was great. Subsequent races weren’t as good as crew chiefs/engineers found ways to claw back much of it. Instead of continuing to dump downforce NASCAR sat on their hands.

    Even though Brian doesn’t seem to be around for now, this has his fingerprints all over it. He isn’t a racefan and should be the last person directing changes.

    I expect this will not stem the downward TV ratings. People aren’t stupid. They can tell if a car can pass or not. NASCAR began to lose it’s way in the 80’s when they were putting valences on the front of the car and letting them grow ever downward. That gives the guy in front a large aero advantage. Why this isn’t obvious I don’t know. Maybe NASCAR thought people liked the increased speeds it brought. But, the faster they go, the more the aero problems are exacerbated.

    Anyway, this isn’t supposed to be a book. I hope the racing is better than the tests looked. I’m doubtful. I think it will just alienate the real race fans and speed NASCAR’s demise.

  5. To me, this rules package is, at least in part, the result of the incredibly vocal segment of NASCAR fandom who has done nothing since the inception of social media but bitch about the racing. No matter what rules package is used, no matter who wins, no matter what anyone does, for this segment of the fanbase, nothing is ever good enough. These “fans” want three-wide for 400 laps, a photo finish, and 15 cars flipping across the finish line and on fire. It’s unrealistic.

    That said? I enjoyed the All-Star Race. I saw glimpses of what this package can give us over the course of the test. It really did resemble a Truck race at times, and Truck races are, more often than not, pretty great. I’m not really willing to judge either way without a full 400- or 500-mile race with this package, but I am willing to give it a chance.

    Also remember: more often than not, things that are not great for the drivers are great for the fans. High speeds do not necessarily equate to great racing (remember after Michigan got repaved — and how everyone was pushing 220 into the corners but no one could pass?). And honestly, when the cars were all out there together, I couldn’t tell a difference in speed (it’s only noticeable to me in single-car runs). Honestly, if I hadn’t been told ahead of time the cars were slower, I might not have known.

    Also, about clean air: you’re not getting rid of it. Not ever. You can’t unlearn the engineering and the physics surrounding it. You can’t put that toothpaste back in the tube. Clean air will *always* be an advantage. You can mitigate it, and I expect tweaks as the season goes along, but you’re never getting rid of it. Not unless you’ve got one of those Men In Black wands and you’re gonna use it on every engineer and mechanic in the sport.

    I applaud NASCAR for trying. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, they’ve already proven they’ll go back to the drawing board. I worry less about the on-track product, regardless of the rules, than I do the segment of the NASCAR fanbase that will always — ALWAYS — find something to complain about. I think they turn more people away than any 9-second lead.

  6. I’ll stick with NASCAR regardless as I know they will do their best to right any problem that may arise.

  7. I am so sad at this direction. The racing last year was pretty good. I thought the Xfinity and especially the trucks were getting almost impossible to watch because no one had enough power and the lead vehicle couldn’t be passed. Sucks because I actually like changing things up and trying new stuff. I was really interested in seeing the Allstar race. I hated it even though as a Ford fan a Ford won. I don’t like restrictor plate races and are the ones I generally blow off because it is half luck fest on not being taken out. Just going to cost the owners more money with more crashes and increased engine expense as Doug Yates already noted. NASCAR has been my favorite sport my entire life. This year is going to test that. I probably won’t watch every race like I always do. I started watching less trucks and Xfinity this year because they were snoozers and I used to watch them everywhere on Hulu. Which leads me to why everyone seems to be obsessed with road racing now. I like 2-3 road races a year. Everyone likes them now because the aero doesn’t matter as much and the racing is better than ever at road courses. Back when less aero was around the ovals were more exciting and the road courses were the snoozers.

  8. I hate plate racing, where there are big wrecks and the team with the best engineering or the team with the most skilled driver are less likely to win. If this makes the rest of the races more like that, then NASCAR has lost a fan.

  9. I’m very worried that this direction is going to be a nail in the coffin type thing. I consider myself a hard core fan with more than a basic understanding of the way the cars are built and how they work. The racing IMO is great. This move however is a move based on trying to attract casual observers who know nothing about what good racing is and what strategy is and turning each 1.5 mile race into a Daytona pass fest with more crashing and more pack type racing. IMO NASCAR needs more short tracks and less gimmick racing. But I guess a hardcore NASCAR fan is now the minority.

  10. Great comment by the Jeff guy on this comment board. I too will give it a chance as I’ve barely missed a race on tv since 08 and go to the August Michigan race but my patience with my favourite sport creating things like stage racing and the elimination Chase has already made it thin. I love attending MIS in the summer but before long I can see myself saying “ like hell im gonna throw away 600 bucks at a sport that seems intent on destroying itself”.

  11. As usual NASCAR has forgot what cars were really about stock cars not producing cars that are not true stock cars NASCAR needs to get over themselves and get racing back to what it was, not destroy racing with stages and ineptitude towards driver skills enough said stop screwing up the cars and the races

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