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.
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.