Wanna be a great race car driver? You better be adaptable.
Drivers’ ability to adapt will be tested more than usual throughout the 2019 NASCAR season as the series introduces significant rules changes. The first big change to Cup Series cars comes at Atlanta this weekend when drivers get into cars that have 200 fewer horsepower and a lot more downforce than the ones they drove at Atlanta in 2018.
“I think if you look at most sports – football or baseball or whatever – you’re doing the same thing each week,” 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr. said. “Whether you go to a different state or whatever, you’re playing on the same field, you’re playing the same game, you’re doing the same things.
“We go to a different race track every weekend. The track changes throughout the race. The track changes throughout the year. Different styles of race track … The tires are changing. The rules are changing. You can never sit still as a driver.”
Atlanta will feature 550 HP engines, 8-inch spoilers
Atlanta was always going to race slightly differently in 2019 than it did in 2018 if NASCAR didn’t change car specifications at all. The adaptations that drivers would be making as they take to the track on Friday would be slight.
With the rules changes now, however, the adaptations are going to be anything but slight. With less top speed and acceleration and potentially more corner speed, braking and acceleration points will be substantially different than they were a year ago. The fastest lines around the track may be different.
“Really, the first half of the season is going to be 100 percent a learning curve of trying to figure out what you need and where you need to go with it,” 2014 champion Kevin Harvick said.
In the days before the Daytona 500, race winner Denny Hamlin said his father told him as a kid that he’ll always have to adapt as a driver, especially as he went up the racing ladder and moved to different types of cars and series.
“I was very skeptical of that when I jumped from the four-cylinder class in short track to the late models, is that this is a lot different,” Hamlin said. “He said, well you’re still going in a circle. You’ve still got to get off the corner well and you’ve got to figure out how to make it happen. It’s no different than the rule changes. High downforce, low downforce, whatever. You still have to get around the race track as fast as possible. I think the great drivers figure out how to do it quicker than others.”
It’s no coincidence that the greatest race car drivers are the ones that are the most adaptable. To be a great driver you have to excel in every form of motorsport you participate in and on every type of track. Just look at Tony Stewart, a driver considered one of the greatest in the modern era of American racing. He’s the only driver to win titles in the IndyCar Series and at NASCAR’s top level. And he did so just six years apart.
Brad Keselowski said he believed adaptability was the most important skill a driver could have. The greatest drivers are the ones who are inherently the most adaptable.
“Adaptability kind of coincides with other great characteristics but adaptability is what gives you power to sustain in this sport,” said Keselowski, the 2012 champion. “The rules are always changing. It seems like every year there is a rules change we talk about and how it will really change the game and then you look back at the press quotes from the last dozen years and we have said the same thing.
“Some drivers are able to keep up with it and some aren’t. I look at a guy like Jeff Gordon who adapted so well to multiple rules packages and it was really impressive and was a testament to his staying power and success throughout his career. I look at that and think that is probably what made him a Hall of Fame driver.”
Aero ducts introduced at Las Vegas
The drivers and teams that struggle to adjust at Atlanta are going to have those struggles reflected in the race results. And will face an uphill battle at Las Vegas on March 3. The Vegas race will feature the same horsepower and downforce combination that’s featured at Atlanta but will also be the first Cup points race with aero ducts on the cars. The ducts, located in the front bumper ahead of the wheels, are designed to further displace air cars to enhance the draft effect for the cars behind.
The combination of slower speeds, more corner grip and increased aerodynamic turbulence is designed for drivers to be able to use the draft to pass each other on the straightaways. The draft hasn’t been a marginal factor at intermediate tracks in recent years.
Oh, NASCAR has also eliminated drivers’ ability to adjust the track bar from inside the car in 2019 as well. Drivers had previously been able to tune their track bars for better handling over the course of a run.
“You’re gonna have to be able to adapt to and, really, that’s one of the greatest strengths a driver can have is to be able to adapt to what the car is doing,” 2018 champion Joey Logano said. “We don’t have track bar adjusters anymore and now we’re going to a rules package that is gonna be more different than it’s ever been from clean air to dirty air and we don’t have the ability to adjust it anymore, so now the driver and race team has to adapt to that. It should be like that. It should be hard. It shouldn’t be easy. It shouldn’t be something that we can just move our thumb and be able to fix our car.”
Whoever finds the most speed the quickest will be significantly ahead of the field over the next two weeks and for the foreseeable future. Odds are it’ll be the drivers and teams that have already established themselves as NASCAR’s best, even if NASCAR’s rules are designed to produce more parity and closer racing.
“I’d like to think that the good drivers and the good teams and the good cars will still be able to excel eventually,” 2015 champion Kyle Busch said. “We’ll be able to figure it out and kind of get to the point where you can be the best because you are the best.”
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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