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.
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.