So this weekend, we witnessed an awesome NASCAR Sprint Cup race. It had consistent side-by-side racing, no conservative fuel mileage strategy, actual attrition and an epic finish with a last-lap duel for the win between no less than four drivers.
Wait, did we all just timewarp back to 2005?
What the 2014 Auto Club 400 proved is that the ideal formula to produce great racing in NASCAR is a tricky balance of many elements. It seems I was wrong to lay the blame solely at the door of the Gen-6. Perhaps it’s worth taking a look at external factors as to why the previously much-maligned Auto Club Speedway in Fontana has produced epic races for two years on the trot. What was once a race that fans demanded to be cut from the schedule is now a sellout and a highlight of the year for many; and that’s no coincidence.
Firstly, a lot of discussion was made about the racing surface. The media – mostly Darrell Waltrip – were quick to point out how poor the surface was and how it was in desperate need of resurfacing. The fans and drivers all disagreed. The fans enjoyed watching stock cars bucking around at 200mph, and the drivers enjoyed controlling these beasts at high speed over a rough surface. In fact it appears to be a common trend that the older the track surface, the better the racing. Notice how the quality of races has dropped off at tracks which had recently been resurfaced. Daytona became like watching a Scalextric race until this year, the same with Talladega. Darlington lost its old abrasive charm for a while. Kansas and Bristol both tried too hard to change the entire character of the tracks, with disastrous results. This then creates a conundrum – of course, when a surface starts to fall apart (see Daytona 2010), a new surface is required. But generally a shiny new surface creates fairly average racing – unless you take grinders to it, like Bristol. Proceed with caution, California Speedway trackworkers.
Speaking of tires, they were a major talking point on Sunday. Comparisons started flying around to Indianapolis 2008 – however, we should not blame Goodyear for the failures, and they could point to teething issues that we should tolerate, as it could end up being beneficial long-term. NASCAR has opened up the rulebook with regards to camber and tire pressures, allowing teams to take more risks. Goodyear recommended 22psi for the rear tires, but many teams went as low as 11. Combine this with the Gen-6 spoiler alterations generating more downforce meant that disaster was inevitable, and the teams have to take the heat for that. But despite the failures, I really hope NASCAR holds their nerve and doesn’t tighten the rules. Give the teams autonomy of setup and let them push the envelope and make mistakes; this adds not only an edge of unpredictability to proceedings (just ask Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon), but an equalizer. Notice how smaller teams and drivers were mixing it up the front more often than usual. And let’s not forget that the tire Goodyear brought was the exact same one they used last year.
The tire in question helped to prove that a softer tire which falls off during a run aids racing. As I’ve previously discussed, a big reason we have had so much fuel mileage racing in recent years has been due to harder compound tires being used which run a full fuel cycle with barely any grip being lost, which means gambling with tire strategy is worthless when four fresh tires makes a negligible difference. Obviously due to the numerous failures we saw plenty of tire stops and cautions, but crucially we also saw fresh tires making a massive difference versus worn tires. Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman both sank like stones when they didn’t take tires under caution, and on the final restart we had Cassill gambling for glory and staying out, whilst Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Paul Menard all took two. When was the last time we saw genuine tire gambles working out at the end of the race? Okay, Cassill sank like a stone and the four tires of Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson trumped Kurt and Smoke, but this variety helped make the final two laps the heart-pounding spectacle they were.
The Gen-6 is also starting to iron out the problems. The Auto Club track width was a factor – cars can run side-by-side with huge gaps between the cars, meaning that air is not taken off the car and handling isn’t compromised. Even so, the usual practice of the leader in clean air running away didn’t happen as much, and draft was a huge factor. This demonstrates that the taller rear spoiler is doing the intended job.
All of this lead to that most forgotten of commodities; unpredictable racing. Notice how there were very little, if any, debris cautions? The field didn’t spread out too far, and the race broke records for the amount of green-flag overtakes and lead changes. This in turn (along with the tire problems) lead to more attrition and cautions, and kept fans and drivers alike on the edge of their respective seats. Just like Bristol and Daytona, fans were engaged from green flag to chequered, and crucially shows that the lessons are being learnt.
And that bodes very well for the future of NASCAR, no matter what awful changes Brian France makes.
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Tags: 2014 Auto Club 400 Auto Club Speedway Beyond The Flag Brad Keselowski Clint Bowyer Dale Earnhardt Jr Jeff Gordon Jimmie Johnson Joe Gibbs Racing Kurt Busch Kyle Busch NASCAR NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ryan Newman Sprint Cup Series