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.

News Analysis: NASCAR ditches All-Star aero package for 2018

What happened: In a story released on its website, NASCAR revealed it will not use the All-Star aero package for the remainder of the 2018 Cup Series schedule, halting momentum that seemed to be building among series officials and racetracks who hoped to see more pack racing.’s story cited a lack of time to prepare for the package in more races this season, saying it “would have been a Herculean undertaking and one that could have resulted in a rushed output.”

What it means: A major development in the ongoing battle for NASCAR’s soul, which had sparked a debate over what was more important — pure competition or the quality of the show (you can find a timeline of this story here). While the All-Star package undoubtedly was entertaining, it raised questions about NASCAR becoming a drafting series if those rules were used in points races going forward. Drivers like Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch had begun to speak out against the idea of using the package in more races, but NASCAR and the tracks — particularly the Speedway Motorsports Inc. venues headed by Marcus Smith — seemed intent on giving it a shot. Earlier this month, NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell said the package could be used in three more Cup races this season before the playoffs began, and races like Kentucky, Pocono and Michigan seemed like potential candidates. But something must have happened behind the scenes with the various councils NASCAR consults with, because the All-Star package was suddenly snuffed just when its prospects started to burn brighter.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven, due to the surprise value. No one outside of NASCAR cares about rule packages or even knows what that means, but this had become a pretty important story inside the garage. The fact NASCAR won’t even try the package again in Cup until at least 2019 is a significant and puzzling development (albeit a good one for those who rejected the idea of seeing a restrictor-plate type race every week).

Three questions: What changed? Whose voice or voices in this conversation were able to overrule the other side? Will fans applaud this move to hold off on a major change and keep the racing relatively pure or complain that NASCAR isn’t doing enough to entertain them?

Young drivers express concerns over future of All-Star aero package

Four of NASCAR’s top young drivers expressed reservations Friday about moving forward with the high-drag/downforce aero package in future races.

While Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman and Christopher Bell all agreed on the entertainment value of the aero package — which was highly popular with fans in the recent All-Star Race — they said it wouldn’t be fitting for the Cup Series unless tweaks were made.

“As a race car driver, it’s pretty easy to drive,” Bowman said. “We’re the premier stock car series in the world, so obviously you would like it to be a little more difficult to drive. You don’t just want to go everywhere and be wide open.”

The aero package was first used at the Indianapolis Xfinity race last season and most recently at Charlotte for the All-Star Race, which drew widespread praise from fans. It will also be used in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Pocono and next week’s Xfinity race at Michigan.

Drivers also expressed confidence NASCAR will try it again in the Cup Series this season, perhaps even at multiple races later this summer.

But while it might make for a better show, it also brings up a major dilemma: The level of difficulty is decreased.

“We’re all race car drivers; we want to show we’re the best,” said Bell, who has won the last two Chili Bowls and last year’s Truck Series title. “You can’t (show) that when you’re not pushing the issue of the tire and you’re not grip-limited. Whenever you’re not getting the most out of your race car, it’s just a different style of racing. It almost becomes more of chess racing, so to speak.”

Wallace said he saw a post on social media that said the dream of reaching the Cup Series meant being at a superior level, and the All-Star Race felt more like jumping into a local Saturday night race. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver agreed with that assessment.

“If you had the need for speed and decent car control, anybody could have driven that,” Wallace said. “And it shouldn’t be like that when you get up to the big leagues. You know: ‘I can play with LeBron; I can match him.’”

Blaney said the cars were “a little easy to drive” in the All-Star Race and preferred it to be more challenging. Like the others, he praised NASCAR for trying to improve the racing but said changes would be needed  — whether it’s more horsepower or less downforce — to keep more of an emphasis on handling.

That’s the balance that will be hotly debated in racing circles over the coming months as NASCAR tries to figure out which direction it should go. What matters more: The show or the purity of the racing?

“(The All-Star Race) was a great race, and the fans are why we’re here and why we’re allowed to be paid to be race car drivers,” Bowman said. “From that side of things, I loved it. … You have to look at what’s best for the sport, and making the race fans happy is what’s best for not only me, but everybody in this room.”

Kaz Grala, listening to Bell and fellow Xfinity driver Matt Tifft talk about their expectations for Saturday’s race with a similar package, said he was confident the racing would be entertaining.

“I’m sure it’s going to be very exciting to watch,” Grala said. “We’re all just biased because we like to have more control in our hands.”

MORE: Analysis on whether adding more downforce is the right direction in racing