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?

Recent developments at Charlotte and Indy could boost downforce argument

Carl Edwards is gone from NASCAR, and one of his core philosophies may soon be following him out the door: Less downforce makes for better racing.

There was no topic on which Edwards was more outspoken than when it came to extolling the virtues of a lower downforce package. Take downforce away, Edwards reasoned, and drivers would have to lift more in the corners because the cars would be more difficult to handle. As a result, passing would increase.

“Some people want to see guys race spoilers and splitters and wings and downforce and side force, but they aren’t stock car racing fans,” Edwards said in 2015. “(High downforce) is just not stock car racing.”

At the time Edwards said that, NASCAR was starting to listen. Officials ultimately scrapped their plans for a high drag package and went the direction the drivers wanted after it showed potential in an experimental Kentucky race.

Here’s the thing, though: Once that became the package, it didn’t work how everyone expected.

The racing, particularly at intermediate tracks, still isn’t where NASCAR wants it to be. That’s why officials have been looking at other options, such as package NASCAR tried at the All-Star Race (which was popular with fans).

While the merits of turning Cup into a restrictor-plate series are up for debate, NASCAR might have the right idea in trying to add more downforce instead of take it away.

Look no further than Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 for evidence. In the last six years, the Indy 500 had averaged 43.6 lead changes. This year, there were 30.

While that’s not bad at all compared to the previous decades (when the race mostly had lead changes numbered in the teens), it’s still a step back for what had become the best racing on the biggest stage.

And the drivers knew it. After the race, they made comments about “track position” and “dirty air.” That probably sounds familiar to NASCAR fans.

So what happened? Well, IndyCar has a new car this year — one that has been universally praised on the road courses and street circuits. It looks sharp, races well and is cost effective.

But the car has less downforce than the previous version, and drivers struggled with handling as a result.

“More downforce,” Alexander Rossi said afterward. “We need more, man. This car looks great. The road course car is fantastic, but it’s pretty hard to pass around here.”

It was still possible to pass at times — Rossi himself proved that — but it took heroic, ballsy moves that could only be accomplished on restarts when the cars got bunched together. Otherwise, they were too far strung out for the slingshot passes that became a signature of the recent Indy 500 races.

“The old car, you couldn’t really get rewarded by getting away or getting separation,” Indy 500 runner-up Ed Carpenter said. “I think if you have a good enough car (in the new package), you’re rewarded by being able to get away a little bit.”

Carpenter was saying that in a positive manner, because he thought it was better that way. When it’s challenging for the drivers, the top talents prefer it because they feel like they have an advantage. The harder it is, the better for them.

But for the rest of us, here’s what it comes down to: Would you prefer to see the elite drivers and teams be able to use their skill and speed to outrun everyone at the expense of a good show? Or are you hoping to see passing and side-by-side battles and exciting racing, even if that makes it harder to separate the best from the average?

When it comes to the Indy 500, I would personally rather see a crazy passing fest with drafting and all sorts of wild moves. Those cars are dangerous enough that it feels like the drivers are daredevils on four wheels, so it’s fine with me if making moves becomes easier again.

But in NASCAR, I’m still torn. Even though NASCAR has gimmicked-up other parts of the racing (stages) and season (elimination playoffs), watching an unrestricted race still feels pure enough to be a true competition of the best. That feeling doesn’t extend to Daytona and Talladega — even the drivers don’t view it as “real racing” — so what would everyone think about an entire series with a bunched-up field and the possibility of more random results?

On the other hand, these are desperate times. Perhaps something that extreme is needed. If it doesn’t work, NASCAR can’t shed fans and viewers any faster than it already is…right?

Perhaps focusing purely on entertainment is for the best. Feed the masses what they seem to want and throw a Hail Mary at rejuvenating the sport in the process.

I wasn’t convinced after the All-Star Race’s high drag and downforce package, despite the entertainment value. After seeing the Indy 500 take a step backward after the cars were harder to handle, maybe it’s an indication more downforce is the way to go in racing.