The Top Five: Breaking down the Fontana race

I normally post five thoughts in this space after each race. However, this week I only have one thought…

Never Trust A Test.

If there’s one thing this letdown of an opening month has taught us, it’s that just because you see drivers and cars act a certain way during a test session — or practice or qualifying, for that matter — doesn’t mean the race will actually look the same way.

Some of you are reading this right now going, “DUH! Racing is always different once a trophy and money are on the line.”

OK, well…I knew that on some level. I just didn’t expect it to be this far off.

But yeah. Never. Trust. A. Test.

This false sense of optimism started with a tire test — at Fontana, no less! — where three cars in early January hit the track with a variety of different tire combinations and ran laps together.

Remarkably, they mostly stayed together. The leader couldn’t get away. A normally-boring test session was suddenly intriguing enough to stand on the roof of the infield suites and watch the trio turn 10 or 15 laps at a time.

When I asked Martin Truex Jr., one of the drivers at the test, whether they were running hard enough to simulate race conditions, he said, “Absolutely.” And I’m pretty sure that was the truth.

Then came the organizational test at Las Vegas, where NASCAR had a dozen teams simulate 25-lap races. The mini races were quite interesting, with the field mostly staying together and drivers trying three- and four-wide moves in the pack. 

WHOA! Maybe this new package was going to work. Perhaps all of its promise to race like a combination of the Truck Series and the All-Star Race would be fulfilled. There seemed to be enough evidence to believe it would. (Here’s a recap, but it’s a bit cringe-worthy to read now.)

If only I’d known what I know now: Never. Trust. A. Test.

As it turned out, the partial debut of the new package at Atlanta looked like a typical Atlanta race. Then Vegas looked like Vegas (except without any cautions). Then Phoenix was plagued by a lack of passing. And Sunday, Fontana was below average by its own standards of the last five years or so.

Whatever NASCAR thought or hoped was going to happen with the new package, there’s no question it has not achieved the goals so far.

On the plus side, restarts have been more exciting. There are a few laps at a time during the race which are noticeably better than before.

But then that’s about it. Drivers fall into their positions and can’t really do much, hamstrung by dirty air and a lack of horsepower to overcome it.

No one wrecks (the cars are more stable now) and the racing largely looks like it always did. Just…slower.

That can’t possibly be what NASCAR had in mind when it implemented this. And although many people are still preaching patience, it seems at this point — after two 1.5-mile tracks, a 1-mile track and a 2-mile track with different degrees of pavement wear — that the package isn’t going to be some magic fix.

No, this package was NEVER going to produce pack racing. And NASCAR never said it would.

But it was definitely expected to keep the racing tighter and make it more entertaining, which hasn’t happened.

So what gives? Why didn’t Fontana, for example, look like it did in the test?

“We never ran that long (at the test),” said Joey Logano, who was one of the drivers who attended. “Nothing surprising there. I knew (Sunday) was going to be 10 laps of really aggressive, tight racing — and then handling was going to come into play.”

But wait. What about the hopes of creating a race where the cars mostly ran as a group?

“You’re never going to keep us all together,” Truex said. “There are going to be good cars; there are going to be bad cars. The equalizer is the slow speeds and new tires at the beginning of a run. Once the tires get worn out, we get separated. It’s just the way it is.

“Unless we go 60 miles an hour, that’s what’s going to happen.”

Well…damn. In other words, my personal preseason optimism appears to have been overplayed, false hope.

Maybe the package isn’t a failure yet — it’s far too early to call it a total loss — but it certainly has not achieved what a lot of us expected it would. And the immense expectations have played a massive role in making the package feel like a disappointment.

After all, this was a Faustian bargain on the soul of NASCAR racing — a theoretical sacrifice of all-out speed and elite driver skill in exchange for increased excitement that would lead to better TV ratings and attendance.

But that hasn’t happened to this point. If the package is going to deliver, it must be stuck in transit.

And honestly, here’s where I feel for NASCAR. Yell at officials all you want for going down this road in the first place, but at least they had good intentions at heart — making the product more entertaining for fans.

The early returns, though, aren’t good. We’re assured NASCAR will keep working on it, so let’s hope that’s the case sooner than later if this trend continues.

It seems all the testing or simulation or iRacing in the world can’t reproduce true race conditions, so the only way to find out if a package works is to try it in an actual event.

Two or three months from now, if the package still hasn’t done what was expected? Let’s hope those in power are willing to try some science experiments in real races this summer, lest this turn into a lost season at a critical juncture in the sport’s history.

After all, we might not be able to trust a test. But there’s a decent chance we can trust a race.

36 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Fontana race”

  1. You have to reduce speeds in the corners and rely on mechanical grip and not aero grip. I cannot believe NASCAR can’t figure that out. The more reliant on aero the worse. Look at F1. This is why the short tracks and road courses have become favorites. Slow in the corners, less reliance on aero and more based on mechanical grip. It’s really easy. The lower classes at the local tracks, street stocks and compacts always have the best racing. Not coincidentally, they are the slowest in the corners. Get rid of the splitter, side skirts put small spoiler and have wheel well openings that cannot overlap the tires. This way when you get the door banging everyone wants you don’t get tire rubs and flats. I need a job at NASCAR!

    1. Jim, you hit it on the nose. The more dependent on aerodynamics the cars are to generate speed, the harder it is for cars to follow each other closely. The less dependent on aerodynamics they are, the closer they can follow. Hopefully NASCAR now, finally, knows it and is able to design the Gen. 7 car with this in mind.

    2. It has been proven by the twenty years NASCAR wasted with low downforce and high horsepower that that model can’t work. The mechanical grip argument is a total fraud Citing short tracks is a garbage argument because there is LESS passing – especially lead changes – on the short tracks (and more aero raking; if you think not you’re kidding yourself). And road racing? It has the fewest lead changes in all of racing.

      You ignore that the lower classes of racing have even less horsepower than late models. You also ignore that the most competitive racing is with underpowered and overgripped racecars. So stop demanding getting rid of sideskirts etc. We want draft-pack slicing and dicing.

        1. You obviously don’t remember the 1990s is where draft-pack slicing and dicing in its modern form originated.

          You may also have forgotten that when downforce shot up in the middle of the decade the draft came back to prominence on the mile and halfs as well as Pocono.

    3. Yess! Ive been thinking this exactly Jim. I think that is a key ingredient for good racing. I hate that any minor contact ends in a tire rub resulting in a need to pit or a cut tire(if I wanted this I would watch open wheel). When you take the speed out of the corners it should be safer to bang doors

    4. Well stated, Jim. I was agast last year when they announced what they were doing. With Jim France at the helm I was expecting they would go in the opposite direction ie. dump downforce, rely on mechanical grip.

      It certainly shakes one’s confidence in what the next generation car will look like.

    5. Exactly everyone’s flat-out going the same speed of course you’re not going to be able to pass. If you remember the cars in the mid-2000s before they went to COT. The racing was awesome that last year before they changed them

    6. I’ve been saying exactly this now for the past few years. There’s way too much reliance on aerodynamic grip, not enough reliance on mechanical grip. Take the science and F1 style stuff back out of NASCAR and go back to it’s roots. That may end up reducing the cost to field a competitive car as well. I knew from the very start that the 2019 rules package wasn’t going to have the results NASCAR wanted. The teams with the most money to spend in the wind tunnel were going to have an even larger advantage with a package like this lol.

      Real NASCAR can’t ever look like what the PEAK guys in iRacing have because iRacing has everyone running the same car, same motor, just with setup/balance differences among the field. The real teams are building their cars differently, there motors differently, there’s far more disparity where as in iRacing, the only disparities are driver talent and setup. We don’t have any horsepower disparities.

      Take away the splitter, go back to mandating minimum ride height requirements and maybe even stricter min/max spring rate requirements but not sure on that..bottom line, let more air get underneath these cars instead of having them slammed down under max travel, increase horsepower back to 800+HP, reduce corner speeds via a downforce reduction but have goodyear give the teams a softer, more aggressive tire that’s going to run like hell on the short-run but fall off even harder.

      We want more throttle response and faster straightaway speeds(If we’re not cracking 200MPH going off into T1 at somewhere like Michigan, Indy or Auto Club, something is wrong), and more off-throttle time in the corners is desperately needed. It’s so frustrating watching a sport I love going down a direction that wasn’t even required in the slightest. They had a package that worked in 2014. They had a package that worked all throughout the GEN-4 era and a lot of the COT era. I would’ve been absolutely smitten if NASCAR just went back to the 2014 rules package for the start of 2019. I would’ve LOVED that.

  2. There are three lessons I hope NASCAR (and NASCAR media) takes from this mess:

    1. You can’t engineer drama. Drama develops naturally when you put a bunch of competitors with slightly different abilities in the same mix. If you equalize everybody (either by reducing the effect of a skilled driver or building cookie-cutter cars) and actively prevent people from seeking even some tiny advantage (like, say, by measuring all the cars with lasers), you eliminate drama. No complicated engineering solution will replace that drama artificially.

    2. Don’t oversell. Every time NASCAR comes up with some new idea (going back to the “Car of Tomorrow,” which seems so yesterday now), they hype the hell out of it as if they’ve discovered the cure for cancer, and a lot of media folks go along with it. They need to knock that off.

    3. Quit the Groupthink. Show a little skepticism. If some fans are a little more immune to the hype machine, don’t just dismiss them as Debbie Downers. NASCAR obviously has a big problem right now, but too many insiders are branding anybody who doesn’t buy into the program as Twitter Trolls or whatever. Don’t automatically dismiss a complaint or a skeptical take. Accept that there’s a reason we’re here in the first place.

    1. I’ve actually really enjoyed the season thus far and I’ve been watching for 20 years. I’m glad the races haven’t been a shit show with a lot of torn up race cars.

  3. I haven’t watched since Daytona, and I won’t until NASCAR ends this poorly thought out science experiment.

    NASCAR is a show – a show to showcase the best drivers in the world doing things with a car that teeters on the edge of control, driving an overweight pig on skinny tires at high speeds.

    This isn’t NASCAR. This is a farce, and I hope the fans are willing to send a message to end this nightmare – stop watching, force them to make the right changes. Maybe they need to go back and watch some of those early 2000’s races and see what made NASCAR so amazing.

  4. Watching this race clearly shows Nascar creating an Aero package for Toyota who has invested a lot of money with show for it these past few years. Nascar needs to get back to basics and treat all car manufacturers the same. Toyota outclassed the field today and it was blantly obvious if you were at the track this also happened in Phoenix last week. You can have all the testing done that you want but if things are designed more for one auto manufacturer than another thats like fixing the race.

    1. Little to show for toyota? One driver won 8 races and another won the title last year come on…..

  5. I’m glad they are trying something to make the racing better but yeah it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t the fix they were looking for. It was supposed to be the great equalizer and some of the lesser teams would have a chance to run up front. Instead it’s been just the opposite. One of 5 drivers is going to win every week. Yes a Chevy might get to run up front for a few laps but don’t trust that they can stay there.
    So now we’re at a point where both the fans and the drivers don’t like the rule package… and for you in the media, you’re forced to write about why the package isn’t working instead of the great race we just saw.
    I agree with Jeff. I know it’s really hard to make quick changes because of everything that goes into it and the teams having to prepare but I hope that something can be done and this doesn’t become a lost season.

  6. Engineering, aerodynamics, and a multitude of years of knowledge on building better engines, have all come to the forefront over the past couple of decades. These cars are built to well. I’m not advocating building shotty race cars, the drivers lives are far too important for that. What I’m saying is….

    Once teams get their hands on anything NASCAR hands down, its only a matter of time before they figure out how to manipulate it withing the rules and within the grey areas of the rules to nullify the intended effect.

    I’m my opinion this is why local racing on dirt has become so popular lately. We aren’t watching multimillion dollar teams field cars. We are watching our neighbor, our barber, our local mechanic, put a car on the track. They only spend what they can afford. No big budgets, no fancy engineering degree, and no need to worry to much about aerodynamics.

    NASCAR will never be like it was “back in the day”, you can’t unlearn or unengineer progress. 1, 1.5, and 2 mile race tracks excluding Daytona and Talladega will become dinosaurs of our racing history. Even Richmond may even become extinct. Short tracks are the future to keep the cars close and competitive. No new aero package needed to slow cars down; only a few short laps before the leader is being held up by lap traffic.

    These are my opinions, to which you may or may not disagree with.

    1. Short tracks are irrelevant. They are the obsolete men of racing, inferior in competitive depth. People need to give up the short tracks. Major national series are superspeedways. Period. The superspeedway is more competitive racing and short tracks will never approach that. Wanting gratuitous beat and bang crap isn’t good competition it’s what dissuaded people from wanting to be involved in racing. Local racing on dirt is not as popular as the bitterness of its advocates wants it to be.

  7. Seems like you want man made racing and that will never happen. Exciting moments in racing happen organically and can’t be forced. Sometimes one guy is just better than everyone and no one can catch him and that’s okay. It’s been happening since the beginning of time. Forcing the leader to slow down making them unable to get away is manufactured drama not racing. There are 100 things you could write about you just have to dig beneath the surface.
    Austin Dillon gutted out a top ten after almost needing a backup driver AND blowing a tire early.
    Matt D finished top 20 and beat a Gibbs car and a Hendrick car.
    You’re doing a major disservice to the sport by ignoring stories like that in favor of “this is boring I want everyone to be close to each other”.

    It’s not always going to be a 7 wide battle at the line with 6 passes on the last lap ending in a GWC and a crash with a fist fight afterword.
    My point is drama and action just happens every now and then. Some races have it and some don’t. The beauty in is that it happens organically and is not forced.

    1. Finally someone gets it. I don’t understand where this “every race needs to be a photo finish” mentality has come from. Nascar is a sport. In basketball its not always a tight, close knit quadruple overtime extravaganza. In football not every game is a fast pace high scoring game. (the Super Bowl for example) I’m not comparing traditional sports to motorsport but when you are in a competitive atmosphere you are going to have people who are better. Even in Nascar’s glory day you had races that had flag to flag green flag racing. You have a car that dominated. That’s part of racing and part of motorsport and by trying to create man made drama you are:
      1.) Pushing away the real racing fans.
      2.) Not attracting a new fan base.
      Hopefully Nascar can stop trying to be a showman and get back to the racing, TRUE racing.

  8. It amazes me that Nascar puts all the cars into the same template, puts restrictions on what parts and pieces they can use, then can’t figure out why they all run the same and can’t pass or ‘put on a show’? They need to put less aero in the cars (as has been pointed out before), and loosen things up. Allowing teams to get ‘creative’ is where the drama and excitement come from. Shoving everyone into the same box and expecting different results is insanity.

  9. So far the best “race” of the year was Vegas test. Guess that test is the Go To NASCAR event for next year. LVMS needs to start selling tickets and camping for it now.

  10. Jeff, the first problem is Atlanta and Fontana are now useless as racing surfaces. They need to be repaved and the drivers need to shut the hell up and stop trying to push back against it. Fontana hasn’t been competitive since 2013 because all they’re doing is chasing the racetrack instead of drafting into the lead.

    The second problem is they’re running the tapered spacer now where before they ran restrictor plates and it’s obvious the higher power is affecting the package.

    The third problem isn’t an actual problem but an area NASCAR has also needed to look at – the tire footprint. It is proven by decades of history that underpowered overgripped racecars open up the most passing. The footprint of the tire has to be part of the equation.

    Screaming for a small spoiler and reliance on mechanical grip shows fans keep fooling themselves with a phony premise. Racing relies on downforce. It’s making the draft more effective and increasing – NEVER reducing – grip that opens up passing. Keep very high downforce. Keep the draft more important than handling. Now increase the tire footprint.

  11. I’m not sure what I watched yesterday, but I know it wasn’t good. IMO, the racing this year has been even worse than the COT years. I think we can finally say with absolute certainty that this package is a dud. I keep saying it, but it just baffles me that NASCAR can’t figure this out. We need to go back to go forward. Take some of the engineering out of the cars, and simplify them as much as possible. And no, the argument that you can’t reverse engineer the cars is not valid. You make the rules so that certain areas of engineering are irrelevant. Ride height is a perfect example. To unseal the cars from the track, you set a minimum ride height and include something in inspection to test and ensure that the suspension also has a maximum travel that won’t allow the team to seal the car to the track. Mechanical grip should matter far more than aero grip, but unfortunately that is not currently the case

    1. The reason is simple – you’re wrong. And no you can never take away engineering. You can’t take away downforce because the whole premise for it doesn’t work. Mechanical grip is this myth people push out of a phony revisionist history of the sport

      Run the bigger spoiler, the draft ducts, and a smaller tapered spacer (500 hp rather than 500). Now widen the tire footprint and make the tire sturdier.

  12. I don’t know enough to suggest what they should do but I know that I don’t like the reduced horsepower. I don’t like that when a driver has to lift that they can’t get back to speed as quickly. The lack of throttle response is killing the race. What would happen if they kept everything the same and just removed the stupid tapered spacer (aka restrictor plates)?

  13. Why they ever thought making MORE dirty air was going to solve the passing issues is beyond me. Reduce the drag, have them going FASTER down the straights and then let the drivers hustle it in the corners.

  14. Yesterday’s race was as disappointing as qualifying was Friday last round. The reminded me of when I was s kid and had s slot car track with pins in rear of car so wouldn’t slide off track in the corners. Very disappointed so far seams like are going back in time to the gen 5 car. Only first 10 laps any good.

  15. This package is racing exactly how I thought it would be. If they are going to go high drag, they need the horsepower and mechanical grip as well to help make up for dirty air.

    The only thing this package has accomplished is to ruin qualifying.

  16. It seems like all we can remember from back in the day are the exciting finishes and the close racing that happened once in a while. There were a lot of races where the leader checked out and everyone else was spread right out as well. I’ve never seen a 400 or 500 mile race on anything but a Superspeedway where there were constant battles for the lead and position throughout the field. To me what makes a race exciting or lackluster is the run from the last fuel stop to the checkers. Yesterday there was a good battle for the lead late in the race and with 10 to go Kyle checked out because he had the fastest car and I doubt that we will ever get to the point where no car will be better than another.

  17. High downforce has never worked. Stupid of NASCAR to try it again. They need to fire the guy that thought this would work because he obviously doesn’t know racing.

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