Finding continued success in NASCAR these days is like being a field goal kicker against a continually moving goal post.Toyota won 19 times in 36 races last season, but Ford and Chevrolet appear to have closed the gap during the offseason.
And that figurative moving goal post is best illustrated by the ever-changing rules package.
From 2016-2018, NASCAR utilized the low downforce rules with 750 hp. In 2019, NASCAR utilized the high downforce rules package with 750 hp on short tracks and road courses, with 550 hp on tracks larger than a mile.
In 2019, road courses and short tracks have both 750 hp and low downforce with every other track having the high downforce 550-hp configuration.
With such drastic change, it’s easy to see why success from one season doesn’t always carry over.
Hendrick Motorsports had struggled mightily over the past two seasons with the Camaro ZL1 body that made its debut in 2018. It wasn’t particularly effective with low downforce in 2018 and wasn’t much better with high downforce in 2019, either.
Jimmie Johnson, still mired in a three-year winless drought but enjoying a renaissance this spring, has a theory on what has made the difference.
“The Chevrolets were creating downforce in an inefficient manner, but it didn’t matter because we had the horsepower to pull us through it,” Johnson said of the 2018 season. “Last year it was pretty obvious when we raced the 550 package we had trouble.
“We couldn’t trim the car out to the lengths of the other manufacturers. NASCAR studied it hard and they realized they needed to do something. … Between that and I think a new engine block that they approved for the year, the engine block is a lot lighter and helps on days like today. It’s their job to keep the quality and they allowed us to make those changes and bring us up to par with the other two makes.”
Denny Hamlin says Toyota and Ford teams have to work harder this season to compete with Chevrolet because they have bodies that were not designed for high downforce—unlike Hendrick Motorsports and the Richard Childress Racing Alliance organizations.
“They’re fast, and they’re really the only manufacturer that got to build a car directly for the package that we run,” Hamlin said earlier this week after the Alsco 500 at Charlotte. “These other cars, the Toyotas and Fords, were built on the low-downforce package and then we added a bunch of spoiler and splitter to them.
“Certainly, there was an advantage knowing that, OK, this is the real package, ‘How can we optimize downforce and drag?’ and I think Chevys have done that.”
Ryan Blaney was first made aware of the irony after they raced at Phoenix Raceway in March.
“It’s pretty funny that they built the Mustang nose for the low-downforce package, and by the time the Mustang nose came out last year we were running the high downforce,” Blaney said. “So, we never really got to test it like that until Phoenix, and it showed. All the Fords were really fast.”
And a Ford won in Brad Keselowski’s No. 2, but not without a Chevrolet in Chase Elliott having the fastest car and Toyota drivers like Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin also looking capable of winning on Sunday.
Ultimate parity, indeed.
MISTAKES MAKE FOR BETTER RACING
Perhaps it was the low-downforce rules package run in the heat of the final day of May, but this was an absolutely chaotic race.
Ryan Blaney led 60 laps but was eliminated when he spun out and was drilled seconds afterward by Ty Dillon, only after several cars had successfully navigated around the wounded No. 12.
Then there was the Big One, triggered when Jimmie Johnson misjudged the space behind Ricky Stenhouse, sending the JTG-Daugherty Racing No. 47 into the inside retaining wall and back onto the track. The melee ultimately included Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer, Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch.
But the racing overall was really good, too, culminating in the battle for the win that saw Keselowski take advantage of the Elliott, Hamlin incident.
“So much beating and banging,” Keselowski said. “Oh, my goodness. We have all been cooped up in our houses too long, came to Bristol and took out some aggression, I guess.”
But Keselowski, who also called the no practice, inversion format from Darlington and Charlotte a “home run,” believes the lack of track time made Sunday a better race, too.
He says mistakes make for better racing.
“For whatever reason, whether it’s not having a chance to work on the cars, practice, the drivers not getting those experiences, we’re seeing more mistakes with this format, this style of racing, the no-practice type stuff,” Keselowski said. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that makes for better racing in a lot of different ways. So, I hope we keep it up.
“I said earlier this week that I feel like NASCAR struck gold with these formats. I stand by that. These are great formats. We’ve seen some of the best racing we’ve ever seen in NASCAR accordingly.”