Krupa: NASCAR’s new rules stall passing game

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Brooklyn — Imagine that you are in school and a math teacher unexpectedly announces a quiz for the next day, just before the end of the semester and the final test.

But the teacher does not say what kind of math. So you go home that night not knowing whether to study multiplication, geometry, algebra, trigonometry or calculus.

For drivers and crews, the Pure Michigan 400 is a bit like that.

When NASCAR developed a new aerodynamic package for two-mile tracks run without restrictor plates, it hoped to improve racing at tracks like the Michigan International Speedway.

Instead, as of Saturday, after four hours and 20 minutes of practice over two days and a round of qualifying, many drivers and crews seem utterly befuddled.

In a sport made famous by the affability and availability of its stars, the drivers were not talking much about any of it, either.

They just do not know how the cars will run Sunday.

Beyond considerations of winning and competition, four races before The Chase, there were concerns about safety.

At the start of the race, when 43 cars will bunch together down the straightaway and into Turn 1, each driver and crew chief will know two things: The cars are especially unstable in two circumstances, running in a pack and in the corners.

As of Saturday, the high-drag package that was supposed to allow for drafting and better passing has instead made the cars more squirrelly.

“One of the challenges is getting the balance somewhat similar when you are out in front, or alone, as when you are in traffic,” said Dave Rogers, the crew chief for Denny Hamlin, who will start next to Matt Kenseth in the first row, and who ran well in practice.

“The team that can do that the best is going to have the best opportunity to win out. In other words, the cars tend to be a little tight by themselves, and they tend to be a lot-a-bit free in traffic. And you’re just trying to get that balance between aero and mechanical just right.”

No passing grade

NASCAR had hoped to stabilize trailing cars to provide more passing.

The high-drag package was supposed to accomplish that, and the resulting 10 mph decline was perceived, by some, as a serendipitous boost for safety.

Instead, the opposite seems to have resulted — perhaps on both counts.

Some radio transmissions between drivers and crew chiefs Saturday were brutal. Drivers seemed especially concerned that stability in the corners increased only when they remained on the throttle late, which risks the loss of control.

“I just can’t believe how hard you’re going to have to drive,” Jamie McMurray said. “There’s no way you’re going to get that much throttle in race traffic.”

MIS and NASCAR distributed a bit of a cheat sheet to media Saturday. Entitled “The Science of Drafting at MIS,” the four-color handout displayed the design changes in the new high-drag package. It is designed to stabilize a trailing car, to enable passing, by having a lead car punch a much bigger hole in the air. The bigger hole is supposed to leave more clean air behind the cars, so drivers attempting to pass are not suddenly slowed down.

“These changes could allow for more passing and slingshot moves,” the handout reads.

Well, not yet, anyway.

In practice, Kyle Busch wrecked his prime car, getting loose and bouncing off the wall in Turn 4, and ending up on the infield.

“I was just running along, everything was fine and I was actually feeling pretty good about it,” Busch said. “Just started to get a little free up off of (turn) four. It started stepping out…

“At first, I thought it was not big deal. But it just kept sliding out and there was nothing I could do to control it.”

Busch will now start at the back of the field, in a backup car.

Kevin Harvick is doing better than most. Qualifying seventh, he ran first in the second practice, but fell to 10th in the third.

Harvick told NBCSN he was able to run on the back bumper of Tony Stewart. But when he pulled left to pass, the car lost pace.

“There’s no air and then you just go dead sideways,” Harvick said. “It’s ridiculous.

“I’m sure that will be different when there will be a lot of cars around, but the draft is not really that effective.”

Unknown factor

Unfortunately, when the drivers got together a bit in practice, things did not improve.

When nine drivers assembled — after a considerable organizing effort on the radios and in the pits — in the third practice session — at least some of the cars got more unstable, rather than less.

It all underlines a trend across motor sports that fans increasingly criticize: There is more action off the track, especially with how new technology has transformed design and engineering, than during the racing on the track.

Part of what is going on in NASCAR is a general effort to control costs and maintain horsepower, the cars have become so aerodynamically supple and carry so much downforce, passing declined sharply in Sprint Cup.

In the Camping World Truck Series, the boxy trucks punch a huge hole in the air, and create such a significant stream of clean air in their wake that drafting and passing come easily, as the 16th annual Careers for Veterans 200 demonstrated on Saturday.

Trying to bring that sort of racing back to Sprint Cup, NASCAR is experiencing some growing pains.

It announced Friday the aerodynamic package employed at MIS will not be used in The Chase, while NASCAR continues to evaluate, and perhaps tweak it, for 2016.

The complications were evident in the garages Saturday. Usually after qualifying, the afternoon before the race a few garages are busy.

They all were busy Saturday, even after the third practice. Many of the stalls were absolutely hectic, amid theorizing, even curiosity, about how the cars will run on Sunday.

“Well, I think we got a race to race, to find out,” Rogers said. “Practice is one thing, the race is another. We’re all going to take some educated guesses as to what it’s going to do tomorrow, but none of us really know.

“I think in the end, there’s some people in the garage area that really like this package and some don’t. I’m always of the opinion that as long as we have the same rules they still hand a trophy out at the end of the day. So our job is to make the FedEx Toyota Camry the best car here, and give our driver a big shot at winning.

“So, how is the race going to play out? I don’t know. We’ll have to tune in and see.”