Saturday night’s All-Star Race was certainly different.
That’s what NASCAR was hoping for with the changes it implemented on the participants’ cars. With choked-back engines and more air displacement behind the cars, NASCAR wanted to keep the field closer together throughout the entirety of the 70-lap race. For the most part, it worked. Drivers weren’t able to get much separation from each other throughout the race, likely because they were flat-out around the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“A lot of pushing and shoving,” race winner Kevin Harvick said after the race. “It reminded me a lot of IROC racing back in the day.”
The departed International Race of Champions Series has become a sentimental cult internet favorite. The series, which had its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, pitted drivers from racing disciplines across North America in equally prepared cars. At its peak, the series featured drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Rick Mears and Al Unser Jr. against each other with the ultimate, if not farfetched, goal of seeing who was the best driver.
As Harvick noted, it was hard not to see some IROC similarities Saturday night. The cars looked very equal as no one with a healthy car lost touch with the main pack.
“We put on a hell of a show at least while it lasted, that’s all I can say,” Martin Truex Jr. said after he crashed out of the race.
Yes, it was a hell of a show. At least compared to previous All-Star Races. While Harvick became the eighth driver in the last 10 years to lead the last eight (or more) laps on the way to victory in an All-Star Race, the racing was far more entertaining in 2018. Drivers searched to find the limits of what the rules allowed and got drafting runs on each other that they hadn’t experienced before.
“You definitely seem to draft more which has its highs and lows,” Brad Keselowski said. “Track position, power and drag is super important. Give us a few weeks to work on the race cars with a package like this and I am sure we can mess it up.”
NASCAR and the teams could definitely mess it up. That potential for disaster — or monotony, if you prefer to look on the bright side — is a big reason why it’s far too early to consider the racing Saturday night a rousing success and demand that it be implemented for points races at Charlotte or similar 1.5-mile tracks.
The changes NASCAR made to the cars were simply a bandage on a host of aerodynamic and engineering problems that have been growing incrementally over the years. While they may have worked for one race, it’s easy to see how advancements in engineering could quickly change the product on display Saturday night.
The far more tenable solution would be to cut the splitters off the front of the cars and reduce rear and side downforce on the cars while potentially experimenting with adding power. More power and less downforce means less time off the throttle in the corners. And potentially more opportunities for passing.
The draft helped compensate for the lack of throttle off time on Saturday night, but there’s serious potential for that to be a temporary solution too. Races at Daytona and Talladega are fun because they compose just a ninth of the current Cup Series schedule. If those two tracks made up 20 of the 36 Cup Series races in a season there would be far less anticipation.
The All-Star Race was fun because it was so different. Never had NASCAR tried such radical aerodynamic changes coupled with restrictor plates at a 1.5-mile track. No matter if you were optimistic or pessimistic about the changes, the event held a level of intrigue far beyond the $1 million prize for the winning car driven by a millionaire driver.
All-Star events like the NBA All-Star Game, NHL All-Star Game, the MLB All-Star Game or even the NFL’s Pro Bowl are fun because they’re different. No matter how hard NASCAR has tried lately, the All-Star Race hasn’t really been different. Drivers have been driving the same cars they do in normal races and competing against the same competitors they do for nearly 75 percent of a calendar year. The decreased horsepower and increased drag gave everyone a needed changeup from the standard.
“I don’t want to race it every week, but every now and then is okay,” Kyle Larson said of the rules.
Larson’s on the right track. It’s imperative that fans, teams and NASCAR are aware of the use of a changeup. No pitcher can survive on fastballs alone. A changeup is good every once in a while. But if you use the changeup too much hitters get used to it.
NASCAR vice president Steve O’Donnell was pragmatic and patient late Saturday night when asked about the future applicability of the rules package. It’s indisputable there’s a potential place for this type of intermediate-track racing in the Cup Series.
But it’s far too early to start believing that what NASCAR fans and officials saw Saturday night can and should become the norm as soon as possible. It was an experiment and nothing more. More verification and testing needs to be done before any real-world points racing implementation is done. NASCAR is in far too tenuous of a position to get something else wrong.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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