The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway…

1. It was better…but why?

Recent races at Texas Motor Speedway, to put it kindly, have not been the most interesting on the circuit. Like you, NASCAR officials watched those events — along with other races on many 1.5-mile tracks — and thought, “UGH. Surely this can be better.”

So they came up with the 2019 rules package, which by now you’ve heard is the most dramatic change to the cars in years.

Until Sunday, the package hadn’t really worked as intended yet. And it was somewhat of a head-scratcher to those who saw glimpses of it in action before the season began.

But as it turns out, perhaps all the package needed was some chilly weather, sprinkled with a little love — in the form of VHT/PJ1/traction compound/whatever you want to call it.

“I feel like it was good racing,” Daniel Suarez said. “We were able to make runs and move around, get a little crazy on restarts — which is what people like and what we like. Hopefully we can learn from this and repeat it.”

Of course, that’s the tricky part. The rules package clearly isn’t going to work on every track — and it requires the right combination to be successful. As it turned out, Sunday was much closer to the ideal conditions of the Las Vegas test (which was misleading at the time).

On the first day of that test, the temperatures were cooler and the simulated racing looked great. The next day, it didn’t seem to be quite the same.

“We all drafted well and we were putting on a hell of a show — hell, it was fun in the car,” Clint Bowyer said Sunday of the Vegas test. “Then the next day at that test, the sun was out, it was 20 degrees hotter, we were single file and it wasn’t very much fun.”

Texas was more like Vegas in that temperatures were in the 50s, and it unlocked the key elements of the package when drivers could run around the track mostly wide open (except for Turns 1 and 2).

Since its controversial repave — where Texas built those turns to be flat compared to the more traditionally banked Turns 3 and 4 — the racing had struggled. So officials put a heavy amount of traction compound on the upper groove and it led to the track widening out.

That’s the first time the sticky stuff has been used successfully on a 1.5-mile track, following other trials at shorter tracks Bristol and New Hampshire.

“I was pretty bummed when I landed and saw the VHT on the track,” Bowyer said. “I was like, ‘Damn it, what are they doing?’ Because I haven’t had the best experience with it. But I felt like it helped this place.”

Erik Jones said the better Texas racing was caused 70 percent by the VHT and 30 percent by the temperatures.

“I actually thought the racing was better than what it was in the last few years with the low downforce package, and it’s probably the first week I would have said that,” Jones said. “… Cooler weather helping us be wide open was benefitting our package of racing. The other part, being able to move up in both ends and get completely clean air, was letting you get big runs.”

If those circumstances could be replicated more often, NASCAR might really have something to work with. Unfortunately, the weather is about to get a lot warmer.

2. Hockey pucks

If Sunday was a good race, it was in spite of the tires — not because of them.

Races are best when drivers have to manage their tires, choosing to push hard for short term gain or take care of the rubber in hopes of making passes during a long run. Tire wear creates passing and comers and goers, regardless of whatever cars or rules package might be on track.

Clearly, Goodyear could provide a little more in this area. The tires at Martinsville last week were said to have 3,000 laps in them and Texas didn’t seem much different.

“We’re basically running on brick walls, so they’re pretty durable,” Chase Elliott said.

“I don’t build tires,” Kevin Harvick said. “The tires suck every week.”

Aric Almirola said he was running as fast on 70-lap-old tires as he was on a restart with new tires. And Kyle Busch said the pace “didn’t fall off one bit.”

“We ran 28.80s to 29-flats the entire run,” Busch said of his lap times.

That’s two-tenths of a second for many, many laps at a time! Yikes.

It’s no surprise, then, that a pair of fuel-only calls ended up winning the race for Denny Hamlin. Crew chief Chris Gabehart said the object was to spend “minimum time on pit road” instead of worrying about tires and thus opt for track position. That helped his driver overcome two pit road penalties and another time when Hamlin missed pit road and lost six spots on the track.

Bowyer, who finished second thanks to another no-tires call, said he started to realize the strategy would work when he looked in his mirror on the straightaway and noticed no one was gaining on him.

“When you’re that far ahead you start to wonder ‘Can we get in and just do a splash-and-go and prevail?’” he said. “It’s a different kind of racing, there’s no question about that.”

Hopefully, as Goodyear adjusts to the slower speeds and increased downforce — and sees how these first races have played out — it can start introducing a softer tire into the mix.

3. Survive and…adapt?

On Sunday morning, Gabehart told Hamlin the No. 11 team had a winning race car.

Hamlin said he thought to himself: “He’s full of shit.”

After all, the team had struggled with the balance of the car all weekend and gave Hamlin little reason to believe the race would be any different.

But once it started, Hamlin realized Gabehart was right — he had a car that could pass anyone.

Though the car was obviously fast, Hamlin himself had to adjust to what was required from this form of racing. He ended the day with his first 1.5-mile track win since 2015 and joined Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski as the season’s multi-race winners.

If you look at those names, along with Joey Logano (the season’s other race winner), you have to wonder what they have in common aside from driving for great teams.

Perhaps the answer is adaptability.

None of the drivers have raced a package like this before, so they all have to get up to speed on it. Whoever wins these races might just be the ones who aren’t committed to a certain style or feel and are able change on the fly.

“I’m still learning as a driver,” Hamlin said. “This is a complete different style of racing than what I used to do in the past (and that) just doesn’t work that well. I have to adapt. Seems like I’m adapting quickly.”

As noted by the excellent stats account @Talon64, Hamlin is off to the best start of his career as a result. He has two wins and hasn’t finished worse than 11th.

4. A brief word about attendance

I got a lot of tweets today from people ripping Texas for the sparse grandstands. But while it certainly wasn’t a NASCAR crowd from 10 years ago, it also wasn’t awful by today’s standards.

Yes, really.

Here’s the thing: It’s all about the optics. Texas still has 133,000 permanent seats, which is second only to Bristol. It hasn’t torn down large sections of grandstands like most other tracks.

I have no idea how many people were at Texas, but I’m going to say somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 if I had to take a guess. Tracks don’t release attendance numbers anymore, so that’s just a shot in the dark.

But the point is, if you take the Texas crowd and put it at Phoenix (capacity 42,000) or Martinsville (44,000) or even Homestead (48,000), people wouldn’t be as critical. In fact, I’d bet money some people would tweet, “Great crowd, Phoenix! Way to go!”

Sunday’s numbers would have been horrifying in the not-so-distant past. But the reality is in 2019, any NASCAR attendance of 50,000 or more for an average regular-season race would be a good crowd. Even 40,000 is OK.

I’m not saying any of this is ideal, but let’s just be real about it. We’ll likely never know, but I highly doubt Texas had the smallest crowd of the season so far.

5. What’s next

Intermediate tracks are going to take a month-long vacation now as two short tracks (Bristol and Richmond) and a superspeedway (Talladega) take the spotlight.

Some of the upcoming storylines to watch include the effect of the high downforce on Bristol — drivers have said it could take a physical toll on them — and whether the rules package will put a damper on passing. Then it’s off to Talladega, where there will be no more restrictor plates and we’ll see NASCAR use tapered spacers instead (how that will go is anyone’s guess).

It’s also worth keeping an eye on whether Stewart-Haas Racing can join Gibbs and Penske as the only teams to win a race since November, whether Martin Truex Jr. can win his first race of the year and whether the signs of a Hendrick Motorsports resurgence are real or glimmers of false hope.

18 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas race”

  1. Optics seems to be the keyword with this package, but it seems like Nascar’s optics are pretty rose colored. They will point to things like exciting restarts, field running closer together, and more lead changes to support the agenda they are trying to push with this package. Here’s a few things: 1. Sure, the restarts are exciting, but I dont watch a race for the restarts. After a few laps, its pretty much single file until another caution. 2. The field may also be running closer together, but that doesn’t mean a thing if you cant pass. When everyone runs the same speed for a whole fuel run with no tire falloff, this is exactly what you get. 3. It is long past time to give them back the horsepower. 2014 was the the last overall good season we have seen from start to finish IMO, which is right before they started taking away horsepower. Coincidence? I think not. We have to get these cars running faster in the straighaways to force them off the throttle and create braking/passing zones. More horsepower and even less downforce is the key, not what we currently have

    1. 2014 was not that good a season and NASCAR has not taken away horsepower until now. The battles up front are more sustained than just for a few laps. Passing is now less difficult than it was with low downforce and higher horsepower. And the longer teams work the bigger the draft packs will become. Which is doubly necessary as the most striking aspect of the season so far is the most unwelcome one – that 3/4 to 4/5 of the fields are falling farther and farther behind two teams

  2. What the duct package needed was for teams to keep working with it instead of trying to best it. True the consistency of the draft hasn’t been what was expected, but it’s clear the draft IS working and is opening up passing

    No Jeff, racing is not and never will be about managing tires. Racing is go for the lead and do it sooner instead of later. Tire management is just another for if stroking – a form of cowardice.

    Adaptability. So the remaining 3/4 of the field that’s only getting worse – and this now includes SHR after Kevin Harvick’s admission they’re falling behind – is incapable or unwilling to adapt? There’s no reason to buy that.

    The larger spoiler made the drivers drive deeper at Martinsville and that was good, not bad. Bristol I suspect will see better competition as a result. Talladega will see a larger spoiler which I think will further open up passing.

    1. Michael Daly, I disagree. There has always been an endurance aspect to NASCAR, managing your equipment and what not. Otherwise, why would the races be 400-500 miles long? If it’s just about sprinting to the front, there is no need to run for 4+ hours.

      1. They are 500 miles because that is the optimum distance to be a true test of competition – go for the lead and try and stay there for 500 miles; go get the lead back before 500 miles is up. Fighting for the lead for four hours is itself the best endurance test

    2. I also disagree Michael. I like for tires to wear out before fuel. It sounds like you are more likely to enjoy drag racing where speed is king and it’s just about going fast. While I can’t speak for the early days of NASCAR, it doesn’t seem like NASCAR was ever just about speed.

      1. What I enjoy is combat. Go for the lead and stay there, or get the lead back. NASCAR was never about just speed. It was and is about combat. Tires that wear get in the way of passing and having to manage tires means you’re NOT going for the lead. It’s also needlessly expensive for teams that don’t get tire-monopoly favoritism because they have to purchase tires

    3. I am amazed that you read this column up there and drew these conclusions from your perception of his intentions. Your responses are so far fetched, that I have to question my own ability to read and draw reasonable conclusions. Perhaps it’s me that suffers from poor reading comprehension.

  3. I find it interesting that we’re talking about item #2. I’m 99.9% sure that one of the purposes of this lame package was to make sure Goodyear could build a durable tire that would fall off a ton during a run. In fairness, I wasn’t able to watch the race today and it sounds like the package worked but if the whole point was so Goodyear could create a softer tire. Hopefully, they do that but it’s disappointing they haven’t yet.

  4. Good point on the stands – Jeff, it would be interesting for you to do an article going through each track and reporting how their capacity has changed in the past 10 years. I know my local track, Kansas Speedway, has gone from 82,000 seats to less than 50,000, which is crazy and all the logic you need to take away one of their two races. Can’t wait for the 2021 schedule…

  5. Hi Jeff , Judy Smith I’m not your normal 70 year old fan I like NASCAR , Golf , Football my family also we’re fans infact 11 people. All big NASCAR fans since Dale Sr. Now I don’t even have anyone in family that watches enough to even talk racing with. So yes something is wrong in NASCAR what the problem is I don’t know. There have been good racing in some but very few keep you watching the whole race. Would love to talk to you about some things that make my husband and I change channels if you would call me would love to talk to you. Thank you , Will send you my cell number thru E’mail to receive a call if ask for

  6. I was at the race yesterday. It was so much fun! As a season ticket holder, it was the most side-by-side racing I have seen at Texas in a very long time. It was “edge-of-you-seat” intense for a large amount of time. Was reading some brief comments regarding the tv coverage and I cannot comment on that coverage. All I know is I thoroughly enjoyed that race and it has been a long time since I have had that much fun as a spectator, especially since I hated the outcome as my least favorite driver won. It was fun to watch the 41, 20, 9 and 14 run up front and my team finally showed up. (HMS) Great racing all throughout the pack all day. Glad I was there.

  7. I was there. The racing was good the first half of the race but you had to look a little closer. You still couldn’t pass the leader as was evidenced by the 9 and 22 being clearly faster than the 48 but unable to get around. The only way you passed somebody in front was if they had to get out of the throttle for some reason. Then the second half of the race was a completely different race. Not sure if the traction compound wore off or what but it was like watching two completely different races. Don’t be fooled, the package still sucks.

  8. The Super Bowl tickets are cheap compare to their resell value. $1000 seats sell for $4000 or more. At the 500 the biggest nascar race to sit in the Rolex lounge is $2300 plus fees. You can buy it for less on stubhub or on the street for under $1000. I get them for free but when I don’t I just buy them. For the coke 400 I paid $425 for 2 day Rolex lounge. If I bought at the track it would have cost over $2417. People don’t think nascar is worth it anymore. In the mid 2000’s suites for the 500 were going for over $2500 each ticket.

  9. Better than was at other tracks but as was said was cold. Qualifying still sucked. T is not suppose to be fastest drafter is suppose to be fastest car!! Single car space out next car so cannot catch a draft. Do away with down force and splitter put control back in drivers hand. Wake up nascar ask drivers what they want not pencil pushers!

  10. I miss seeing the packed stadiumes of yester-year and yet that’s a very astute observation about the reality of attendance; by today’s standards not bad. Of course, if you live somewhat near a track one of the best things you can do is to show your support by attending a race and take someone with you to intro the sport to.

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