Alex Bowman won the most recent Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway.
Once a discipline in the entertaining sport business, NASCAR now seems intent to shift ever closer towards something best described as sports entertainment.
When asked by Autoweek on Friday if full-throttle racing was becoming of the highest level of a motorsport, NASCAR president Steve Phelps doubled-down on his support of the 2019 Cup Series rules package and said he would embrace whatever made the show more entertaining.
“We are looking for the most entertaining racing that we can put out there,” Phelps said. “That is what we are trying to do. And if that means full-throttle racing, that’s the package we are going to put out there.”
But at what point does the pursuit of entertainment come at the expense of sporting integrity? How can NASCAR claim that its drivers are the best in the world when they are flat-footing it around over half of the tracks at the highest level of the sport?
Due to the 2019 rules package that has decreased horsepower to 550 with a tremendous amount of downforce, the cars are wide-open around the race track, slower and easier to drive than the second-tier Xfinity Series.
It has left a majority of drivers feeling as though their talents have been neutered, throttle control separating the elite from the ordinary. Kyle Busch, who leads the Cup Series with four victories this season has said the package sucks, lamenting the dirty air created by an 8×61’ spoiler.
Last year’s low downforce package generated roughly 1,500 pounds of downforce. The new package doubles that, punching a much larger hole in the air as a result. If last year’s car lost 25 percent of its downforce behind another car, that’s 375 pounds. This season, with a much larger wake, a trailing car is losing what teams estimate as 30 percent of its overall downforce and 900 pounds.
It has created additional passing opportunities, albeit with a caveat. Clean air is so important that the top-five largely locks in place shortly after a restart, until the leaders get into lapped traffic. But deeper into the field, drivers are unable to drive away from a rival he just passed, because he then develops a push due to the dirty air that just sabotaged the car he just passed.
It certainly generates the appearance of more action, three-and-four-wide racing off a restart, but not as nerve-racking when cars are planted, stuck to the race track — without the risk of sliding into another competitor.
Clint Bowyer said he didn’t view the product as real racing last month at Michigan International Speedway.
“I mean, it is not racing,” Bowyer said. “I am sorry, I am biting my tongue. I have never been penalized for trying to make a pass in my whole life since I was 4 years old. You get a run on somebody and you can make a complete pass and by the time you get to the next corner you have been passed by four people. It is really, really frustrating.”
That’s the word used by Busch on Friday evening during his media availability at Daytona as well.
“It’s almost like electric car racing,” Busch said. “You’re just trying to keep the gas down as much as you can keep the gas down rather than having the finesse of what it takes to be able to lift out of the gas and throw the car in the corner and feel it slide a little bit and then feed it throttle and get back to it a little bit. It’s under-powered and you’re just momentum racing…
“We are under the limit of the tire at some of these places we go to, like last week at Chicago, especially when it turned into a night race, the race was around the bottom all night long. The top never really came in as much as we all would have wanted it to and you couldn’t move around as much as you wanted to… It takes 20 or 30 laps for tires to wear out before you start moving around where before it was like eight laps. It’s a different form of racing and yes, it’s frustrating.”
Cup Series rookie of the year contender Ryan Preece compared it to go-kart racing.
“It’s not what we grew up doing,” Preece said. “Throwing a car into the corner harder; not driving it in as hard; using the brake; letting it roll and pick up the throttle sooner.
“Everything is 100 percent like go-kart racing. It’s where we’re at right now. We’re wide-open, scrubbing as much speed as we can without touching the brake pedal. That’s what you do in go-kart racing. It’s not easy because you still have to find the balance of your car but that’s what it is.”
So, at what point, in the slowing the cars down and providing maximum stability to prevent cars from separating on the track, does a sport become a performance? A show?
Bowyer deferred to NASCAR when asked on Saturday prior to the Coke Zero Sugar 400.
“It’s not up to me to decide,” he said. “Unfortunately, I am the show and I’m not watching the show. I can tell you that when I’m watching the show and I go to watch Super Late Models at my local tracks with 900 horsepower engines, I’m more entertained than watching a crate (engine) race. That’s my perspective and my background.
“Have we moved the needle (closer to entertainment) on some of our race tracks? Hell yeah, we have. I think we can all agree on that. Is it frustrating as a race car driver? Yes it is. You asked me about the balance between sport and entertainment and I don’t know. That’s not my needle to move one way or the other.”
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