Nine races down in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and already fans have voiced their displeasure with the on-track racing. After the 2011 season produced some of the best racing in the “Car of Tomorrow” era, this 2012 season has left many fans wanting more after the checkered flag—and not in the good way.
What I’m hinting at here? Cautions—or lack there of.
Every NASCAR fan knows that there are just certain tracks where cautions are few and far between. They don’t always like it, but they at least know that it’s a possibility that certain races will be rarely be halted by caution flags.
But this year those races have seemingly been a weekly occurrence, an unpleasant sight to many fans.
Over the past three races (Texas, Kansas and Richmond), there have been no multi-car incidents on the track. The closest thing to the sort we got was this past weekend at Richmond when Jeff Burton cut a tire and pounded the wall with 90 laps to-go.
During the Texas and Kansas races, long green flag runs were a common sight. With the race at Texas finishing under a 234 lap green flag run. The race at Kansas started with a 53 lap green flag run, and finished with a 75 lap run to end the race.
This past Saturday night at Richmond, fans expected to see the bumping and banging commonly associated with short-track racing to be in full force as a welcome sign of change. But, when the race was stopped first for a competition caution at lap 50, and then ensued to be under a long green flag run during the middle stages of the night, fans began to voice their displeasure.
Which poses the question whether the lack of caution flags—or action as some of the fans like to say—is taking away from the quality of racing being put on the track.
Either way you slice it, the lack of caution flags and aggressive driving on the track this year in the Sprint Cup Series hasn’t been at the same level is years past.
But what’s the issue here? Is it the cars, tires, point system? Or, is it something totally different that no onlooker can point out.
The answer? It’s a combination of everything presented above.
Take a look at the modern day Sprint Cup Series car. The overall appearance of the car itself isn’t the issue. It’s the amount of aerodynamics and down force placed on the cars in which the problem lies.
When the first generation of the COT was introduced in 2007, the overall complaint about it was how poor the car’s aerodynamics package was. NASCAR and the teams worked to morph the car into something the drivers and teams could race without having to step over the line and break the template rules for the new car.
Slowly but surely, the car and the racing began to improve. Now that the COT’s were racing at all 36 points paying races in Cup, teams began to find their own little personal tweaks within the rule book to make the cars drive better for the people behind the wheel.
In 2010, the re-introduction of the rear spoiler to the cars threw the teams yet another curve ball. So, in order to help the teams, NASCAR implemented pieces on the cars to give the cars more down force—an issue teams were still trying to solve with the car.
Also added to the car was a bigger “shark-fin” on the left rear portion of the car, right above the rear-side window.
For the 2011 season, NASCAR all but reconstructed the cars, placing new nose pieces and rear bumper covers on their new models. Not to mention, an increase in size of the “shark-fin”.
And now, the cars have more sophisticated aerodynamics than ever before. So sophisticated that on-track competition is closer than it’s ever been before, but also so close that there’s almost no difference between the car running first to the car back in 30th one lap down.
But, how does that affect the racing we see on the track?
Driver’s have been suffering from a thing known as “aero push”, a condition that makes it nearly impossible to pass when they get within a certain distance of a car in front of them—regardless how much faster the chasing car is.
And not to mention, it’s nearly impossible to pass a car on tires that seemingly never give up over a course of a long green flag run.
How many times have we seen over the past couple seasons where a driver that either stays out on the track or pits for only two tires is able to outrun a driver who changed four tires?
Take this years Food City 500 at Bristol for example. Brian Vickers, who used pit strategy to his advantage to get out front after an early caution flag, was able to stay in the lead for over 100 laps against guys wish much fresher tires than he had. Vickers was then able to use the early pit strategy to his advantage and finish the race inside the top-five.
And it wasn’t just Bristol where tires haven’t had the fall-off they’ve seemed to have in years fast. Each track so far this season just hasn’t seen lap times slow down the longer drivers race under the green flag.
What doesn’t that allow for the drivers? It’s doesn’t allow them to be able to have much of a chance to run down the car ahead of them to create battles for position on the track. And without battles on the track, there isn’t as much aggressive driving.
The lack of aggressive driving can be associated with two things in my book.
1: the tires and car combination. How do you expect drivers to be aggressive with one another when their cars are so aerodynamically driven that one small bit of contact with the wall or another driver could take them out of contention to win the race.
With this sport being so sponsor and result driven, drivers simply aren’t in a position to take chances all the time that they used to.
2: The points system.
For years, fans and drivers begged NASCAR for a simplier points system, one that allows a greater reward for winning and a big consequence for a poor result.
But now, with each point being so crucial over the course of the 26-race “regular season”, drivers find themselves in a box trying to get those points to put themselves just in position to have a shot at making the Chase.
While yes winning is awarded better than it ever has been, the fact that one poor result at the wrong time could take you out of contention to make the Chase is something that frankly no driver or team could really risk.
Sponsors want to be with the top teams in the sport. The top teams in the sport make the Chase and contend for race wins and championships. They don’t care how aggressive they are on the track or how many great passes they can make, they care about where they finish, how much TV time they can get, and if they have chance to have their logo on the hood of the championship winning car.
So how could all these things be fixed?
My proposal is to take away some of the down force away from the cars and bring a softer tire to most tracks so faster cars can make their way up through the pack.
The points will work itself out in due time once driver’s and teams get accustom the to new style of racing that my proposal would create.
Will it all work? That I don’t know for sure. But if we want to continue to see drivers race like their stepping on a minefield, something has to be done.